Pursuing the Holy Grail: The Problem of Quality (Continued)

Jun 28, 2016 8:30:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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Last month, I described the pursuit of quality as both essential and problematic. We recognize it when we see it, of course, but it eludes simple definition. To some degree, we measure quality by the degree to which the endeavor in question fulfils objectives. This is fine unless the objectives are complex, variable and by no means obvious. Benchmarking is one of the strategies though which we pursue the holy grail of quality improvement but it too raises its own set of contradictions and complications.

Education abroad creates significant potential for innovation; situational learning generates teaching techniques  aimed at expanding learning environments beyond the classroom; courses that integrate and transcend the boundaries of traditional disciplines are constructed, and so on. That potential exists, however, in tension with the need to conform with the largely conservative requirements and expectations of US higher education. Those conflicting dynamics define the somewhat paradoxical environment in which education abroad functions.

Pursuit of Quality in International Education - Benchmarking

Negotiating between these contrasting requirements involves seeking to develop procedures that cohere with standards of good practice: benchmarks broadly accepted as meeting standards in the field as these are understood in domestic US higher education. These reference points define the constructed space within which, in study abroad, we have academic and intellectual responsibilities: to maintain valid learning objectives; to review and develop those appropriately; to create an ethos in which creative and innovative teaching is the norm; to challenge students to explore and analyze learning environments with commitment and curiosity; to disrupt and disturb students’ assumptions through interaction with new ideas in new places. Students are temporary residents in a world elsewhere that is both geographical and intellectual space: separated from the parochial comforts of home literally and metaphorically, and dislocated from the security of the familiar. The unfamiliar is a fertile learning environment. It challenges them to go beyond borders that are simultaneously intellectual and geographical.

The values of US higher education and the imperatives of study abroad are, if not in direct collision, in an uneasy state of unresolved tension. Higher education is general not renowned for innovation or radical reform. It is a conservative environment which values continuity and tradition. US higher education is no exception. By way of simple illustration, at the undergraduate level, academic weight in credit terms is measured through the mechanistic, if convenient, measure of the number of hours a student spends in the classroom. Other, more sophisticated, systems exist and are periodically debated: work load, student outputs and competencies are common enough variants in other parts of the world. In the US, contact hours are, for the time being, sacrosanct.

The legitimacy of education abroad depends substantially on the extent to which it meets the standards of US higher education. US institutions may accept, with some reluctance, the perceived eccentricities of foreign universities though they will almost always create mechanisms to mitigate the impact of deviance from their norms. When they operate their own programs or work with international educational organizations abroad (sometimes oddly called “providers”), the standards they anticipate and demand are, broadly, those that align with domestic practice: benchmarks against which “quality” is measured. Proven but conservative standards are, as far as possible, exported.

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A common factor in benchmarking is that we measure what we do against standards defined elsewhere. Hans de Wit describes the practice as follows: “Benchmarking is …a way of finding and adopting good practices which go beyond the mere comparison of data, since it focuses on processes by which results are achieved. (De Wit, 2009, p. 124). The notion of benchmarking derives from best-practice models drawn from the business world. The definition by   Brad Wood in “Business Finance” (May 7, 2009) is representative: “Benchmarking is a systematic and continuous process that enables organizations to identify world-class performance and measure themselves against that.”

 A benchmark is, then, a standard set by precedent: a conservative strategy in that excellence is measured against practice validated by usage. Benchmarking reveals bad practice and inefficient administration and, thus, offers a relatively simple mechanism for internal review and improvement. It exposes deviance which is, after all, the godfather of ineptitude. However, deviance from convention is simultaneously, and paradoxically, the godfather of innovation. If benchmarks are inflexible, or if they are based upon problematic assumptions, innovation and reform are likely to be stifled. Such an environment does not have much fertile soil in which new ideas might bloom.

Curriculum integration creates benchmarks that enforce the norm and offer easily comprehended and unchallenging ways of acting and thinking. It is the mechanism by which universities create or select courses abroad that most resemble those that they already teach. This is an entirely reasonable policy for US universities. It ensures the seamless transfer of credit and, therefore, that progress toward graduation is not delayed. The University of Minnesota pioneered important work in this area and a key intention is “to match major coursework, internships, or research requirements to appropriate education abroad programs. Education abroad is not time away from degree progress—an ‘extra’ or an ‘enhancement.’ It is integral.” In short, while education abroad is not exactly the same as study at home, it is not all that different either. It is a mode of learning that integrates with domestic norms.

Pursuit of Quality in International Education - Benchmarking

Curriculum integration undoubtedly makes a valuable contribution towards moving education abroad from the periphery to the center of the mainstream academic agenda. However, it achieves that admirable aspiration, at least implicitly, by domesticating the disturbing disruptions and dislocations that may lurk in foreign lands and on alien shores. The unfamiliar is contained and reconstructed within the comforting boundaries of hearth and home.

Whatever anodyne implications are embedded in the concept, the benefits are very clear and, in most cases, the principles of curriculum integration are applied with intelligent and nuanced discrimination. The initiative also engages academic departments in the education abroad process and this too is a clear, demonstrable improvement. Nevertheless, curriculum integration as a form of benchmarking is not without some unintended consequences. Courses taught abroad are conducive to inter- and multi-disciplinary approaches. Fields of knowledge and investigation, and situational modifiers, coexist to enrich learning potential in ways not commonly associated with study at home. Engagement with the host environment creates an expanded learning space requiring distinctive pedagogies rooted in theories and practice of experiential education.

While education abroad encourages creative innovation, curriculum integration might, if crudely applied, restrict radical curriculum development. Traditional disciplines and conventional ways of defining areas of knowledge are, also, potentially subverted in education abroad. However, a realignment of learning boundaries may conflict with the interests of academic departments who have an investment in protecting the discreet nature of their disciplines. The need “to match” the foreign with the domestic limits the parameters within which innovation is possible.

Pursuit of Quality in International Education - Benchmarking

Education abroad needs to function as an independent, academically viable endeavor rather than as a mechanism for reproducing the conventions of mainstream higher education in another location. We need to liberate education abroad from a reliance on the notion of benchmarking. Otherwise, education abroad is constricted within a tradition of academic conservatism: unfamiliar, but not so unfamiliar as to be a source of unease. In contrast, it could be argued that education abroad ought to unpack the baggage of convention, disturb and disrupt not only the students, but also their teachers.

The case for education abroad needs to be made on the basis that it offers learning environments that are potentially creative, innovative and particularly relevant to student experience in a world where: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air” (Marx, Engels, 1888, p.16). Embedded in the structure of education abroad is a responsiveness to the dynamics of change: non-traditional approaches to curriculum and teaching strategies are the norm.

The case for education abroad should not, therefore, be made on the basis of the degree to which it replicates domestic higher education. We need to interrogate critically the notion of benchmarking as a measure of quality. Traditional ways of defining knowledge are increasingly static and artificial. Benchmarking is an inappropriately conservative strategy when applied to an intrinsically innovative educational model.

Pursuit of Quality in International Education - Benchmarking

References 

Thanks Mike! 

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Topics: International Education