Doug Lederman

The call last week for a new system of quality assurance for alternative providers of higher education got us here at Inside Digital Learning thinking (again) about how to define “quality” in higher education generally.

Quality is an amorphous concept in higher education. It is thrown around with abandon by college leaders, politicians and others — and yet it isn’t clear what most people mean when they say it. The colleges and universities in the United States commonly thought to be of the highest quality are among the oldest and the most selective (think Harvard, Princeton and Williams). College and university rankings impose their own analysis, in some cases weighting institutions’ research excellence over other outcomes, and in most cases heavily influenced by peer opinions about their “reputations.”

Conversations about the “quality” of new forms of higher education (particularly those delivered with the help of technology) are particularly contentious, because they almost inevitably start with comparisons to more traditional forms of learning. But the emergence of new forms and new providers of postsecondary learning offers a logical occasion to renew the discussion about how to define (and ultimately measure?) quality and to see if it’s possible to develop a common understanding.

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