Select Committee on Education and Skills Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 4

Memorandum from the Open and Distance Learning Quality Council (ODL QC) (ILA 21)

  The Open and Distance Learning Quality Council (ODL QC) is the principal body for the assessment, recognition and accreditation of quality in open and distance learning (ODL) in the UK.

  This document provides evidence to the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee enquiry into Individual Learning Accounts from ODL QC. It consists of a single page summary, a section amplifying that summary, and a number of supporting documents as appendices.

SUMMARY (EACH POINT IS AMPLIFIED IN THE FOLLOWING PAPER)

  1.  No government scheme to support learning can sidestep quality issues.

  2.  The administration of any new scheme should:

    (a)  reserve the right to limit access to the scheme by providers;

    (b)  specify the attributes to providers seeking registration;

    (c)  encourage registered providers to seek further accreditation by the appropriate body;

    (d)  provide information to help learners differentiate good quality providers from bad;

    (e)  develop a policy on complaints against providers;

    (f)  put in place a mechanism for handling complaints.

  3.  To promote quality, all providers with access to any new scheme should be:

    (a)  asked to make a commitment to quality;

    (b)  required to explore and encouraged to seek accreditation;

    (c)  required to enter into a contract with learners which include a learning agreement;

    (d)  required to have their own complaints procedures in place.

  4.  Qualty in open and distance learning can be assessed, but requires special techniques.

  5.  There should be more consultation with appropriate bodies in Open and Distance Learning.

  6.  ODL QC is the appropriate body to assess and accredit providers of open and distance learning.

  Documents attached:

  A: Main Paper

  B: ODL QC Buyer's Guide to Distance Learning

  C: Learning Agreements

  D: Standards in Open and Distance Learning

  E: Accreditation Process

1.  NO GOVERNMENT SCHEME TO SUPPORT LEARNING CAN SIDESTEP QUALITY ISSUES

  Learners will inevitably interpret information about providers or courses from government, or grants towards learning from a particular provider from governmental or public sources, as an endorsement of that provider by government. This was true of the old ILA scheme, and continues to be true of the learndirect helpline.

  The original scheme seemed to be designed on the assumption that learners could judge the quality of provisions and that market forces would ensure that only better quality provisions flourished. This did not happen in practice. Alas, it is often the most vulnerable potential learners who are least able to assess the suitability and quality of courses. And the market will prove effective only after the event, just as the market has not proved an effective control of the provision of 24 hour plumbing, where it has failed to exclude the inept or the cowboy.

  Any scheme must make it clear the extent to which inclusion in the scheme is a judgement on the quality of the provider in question. If a scheme expects learners to make informed judgements about quality, it must indicate how they can find the relevant information they would need to make such quality judgements themselves.

2.  THE ADMINISTRATION OF ANY NEW SCHEME SHOULD:

    (a)  reserve the right to limit access to the scheme by providers. For example, providers with no demonstrable quality credentials, might be given only limited access until the quality of their provision has been established beyond reasonable doubt.

    (b)  specify the attributes of providers seeking registration. A minimum set of criteria must be laid down for all providers seeking access to the scheme; a charter or code of conduct they would be asked to sign, and the types of evidence of quality which would be required (which might include inspection within the public system by ALI or OFSTED, or independent accreditation by bodies such as ODL QC).

    (c)  encourage registered providers to seek further accreditation by the appropriate body. Any scheme which relies on self-assessment and self-declaration, without independent assessment or verification of the provider's claims, offers at best only rhetorical re-assurance. If the registration requirements introduced fall short of full accreditation, registered providers should be encouraged, and in some cases required, to go further. For example, those who were new to the marketplace might be required to join the ODL QC new Providers Scheme, currently under development and due for launch in March. No system can guarantee the exclusion of fraudulent or poor-quality providers. But accreditation would be the best approximation to this.

    (d)  provide information to help learners differentiate good quality providers from bad. Any government initiative to encourage learning must make individuals aware of quality issues. The ODL QC Buyers' Guide (Document B)[4] helps learners to do this, and to find the right questions to ask before choosing a course. Providers could be required to issue it to all learners applying for new-style ILAs for ODL courses.

    (e)  develop a policy on complaints against providers. If significant complaints against a provider, made to or brought to the attention of the ILA administrators, rose above an agreed threshold or caused concern, then that provider might be asked to submit themselves (and pay for) inspection by the appropriate body, or to seek accreditation within a given timeframe.

    (f)  put in place a mechanism for handling complaints.

3.  TO PROMOTE QUALITY, ALL PROVIDERS WITH ACCESS TO ANY NEW SCHEME SHOULD BE:

    (a)  asked to make a commitment to quality. This will not necessarily exclude the worst, but should enhance the provision offered by the majority, and should therefore be a minimum requirement. Such a commitment might take the form of signing a code of conduct or customer charter (see 2b above).

    (b)  required to explore and encouraged to seek accreditation. Information (and encouragement) on how to do this should be available through the scheme (see 3b above).

    (c)  required to enter into a contract with learners which includes a learning agreement. These will provide a clear outline of responsibilities if any dispute arises. Current guidelines on such agreements from ODL QC are attached (Document C)[5].

    (d)  required to have their own complaints procedures in place. This should include details of how to complain to an effective third party if the provider was unable to resolve the dispute, and be required to give details of it to the ILA administrators.

4.  QUALITY IN OPEN AND DISTANCE LEARNING CAN BE ASSESSED, BUT REQUIRES SPECIAL TECHNIQUES

  ODL QC Standards (Document D)[6] set out criteria by which the quality of any provision can be assessed. The techniques used differ from those used in conventional education, but are sophisticated and, if properly implemented, are at least as reliable and robust as other methods.

  The ODL QC assessment process (Document E)[7] provides a rigorous and reliable method through which that quality can be assessed, recognised and monitored.

5.  THERE SHOULD BE MORE CONSULTATION WITH APPROPRIATE BODIES IN OPEN AND DISTANCE LEARNING

  Some of the difficulties of the old ILA scheme could have been avoided by involving the appropriate representative bodies in the ODL sector. ODL QC first approached DfEE in November 2000 to voice its concerns about the way the ILA scheme was being implemented. But despite this and further attempts to engage those officials responsible for the Scheme, no apparent action was taken until much later. Dialogue and involvement at an earlier stage could have helped avoid some of the difficulties which later occurred.

6.  ODL QC IS THE APPROPRIATE BODY TO ASSESS AND ACCREDIT PROVIDERS OF OPEN AND DISTANCE LEARNING

  ODL QC was set up at the request of government in 1969. For 20 years, the Secretary of State appointed the majority of Council members, and we have continued to receive the informal support of government through Ministerial endorsements and contact with the Department. We are, however, and always have been, financially self-sufficient.

  Unfortunately, the Department has, until recently, seen open, distance or flexible learning as outwith the mainstream of education and hence not given it, or the bodies like ODL QC who represent its interests, the considerations it deserves.

  Providers accredited by ODL QC come from both the public and private sectors, including a number of further education colleges and professional institutes. Although several major providers are accredited, such as the National Extension College and UNISON (two of the original members), many are small. This is particularly relevant if part of government policy is to encourage new providers to enter the market. A strength of the ODL QC process is the support it can offer to small, inexperienced or newly-established providers to help them develop a quality service.

Open and Distance Learning Quality Council

January 2002




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