Ephraim Mhlanga with the NOUN Quality Assurance Committee

Quality Enhancement at the National Open University of Nigeria

The National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), the only dedicated public provider of distance education in the country, recently asked Saide to facilitate a quality assurance workshop for institutional management and their Quality Assurance Committee staff. Ephraim Mhlanga was the facilitator.

There is increasing awareness by ODL institutions to improve the quality of educational provision in order to maximise academic benefits on the part of learners. This is partly due to increasing competition for students as more providers come into play and partly due to pressure from both parents and students who demand value for their money. Governments are also putting in place stringent measures to force providers to produce graduates that are capable of making meaningful contributions in society, especially in terms of economic development. Thus, whilst the main focus has been on access over the past years, there is an apparent shift towards enhancing the quality of provision. Providers are now held accountable for the quality of their graduates. In response to these pressures, many ODL institutions in sub-Saharan Africa are investing in the development of more explicit quality systems.

Whilst the workshop for management was aimed at sensitising participants on the importance of quality assurance and on their roles and responsibilities in supporting the building of a culture of quality at NOUN, the one for the Quality Assurance Committee was aimed at building capacity amongst participants to enhance implementation of the new quality assurance system in the institution.

The majority of the participants in the first workshop were in senior management positions at NOUN, like the Deputy Vice Chancellor – Academic Affairs, Deans of Schools and Directors of key university departments.  Being the institutional decision-makers, the key message to them was that they are responsible for playing a key facilitative role by providing strategic direction on quality assurance matters of the institution. NOUN is a mega-institution with an enrolment of over a hundred thousand students scattered throughout the vast country. Leadership is therefore one of the most important factors necessary for the new quality assurance system to take root at a systemic level.

The Quality Assurance Committee consists of representatives from the various Schools in the university and is driven by the Quality Assurance Unit which is responsible for planning and coordinating all the quality assurance activities of the institution. The Unit works directly with representatives from Schools, including staff located at provincial centres throughout the country. Since the Committee is responsible for developing necessary quality assurance documents like policies, manuals and templates, they need to be familiar with the day-to-day quality assurance processes that should happen in the institution and how to develop necessary support documents and guidelines, which was therefore the workshop focus. Over and above knowing the “how”, the workshop also tried to get participants to appreciate the “why” of the quality assurance processes.

Recommendations made
Based on the experiences gained through the workshop and informal interactions with participants, recommendations were made at the end of the workshop.

First, the amount of work to be done by the Quality Assurance Unit, especially in the initial stages of putting in place a new quality assurance system in the institution, it should be supported with sufficient resources and time to devote to quality assurance. The Head of the Quality Assurance Unit should be absolved of teaching responsibilities in order to allow her time to focus on quality assurance matters until such time that the new quality assurance system has taken root in the whole institution.

The second recommendation relates to use of educational technology in teaching and learning in the University. Internationally, the general trend is that higher education institutions, ODL included, are taking advantage of the affordances of educational technologies in enhancing the quality and efficiency of delivery of education.  NOUN is commended for moving in the same direction. In order to gain traction from the investment made in developing a learning management system (LMS), the University should also invest in inducting academics in online course design and online delivery. These are critical quality aspects that always ensure that technology is used to support pedagogies that maximise learning gains on the part of students. Where academics are not properly inducted in designing online courses and in supporting learners online, the benefits of investing in technological infrastructure are usually very minimal.
Post workshop activities
The facilitator also worked with the participants to identify follow-up activities that should happen after the workshop in order to enhance the implementation of a robust quality assurance system at NOUN.

These activities include but are not limited to:
  • Finalising the drafting of the institutional quality assurance policy that should be tabled at the next Senate meeting in August 2015.
  • Finalising the drafting of a quality assurance manual in order to provide guidelines to all actors in the University.
  • The Quality Assurance Unit should develop a programme of action for the next two years and communicate information to the various Schools/Departments about quality assurance sensitisation workshops planned.
  • The Quality Assurance Unit will develop a proposal for more comprehensive support by Saide in the development of support documents and implementation of the new quality assurance system.
At the end of the workshop, many delegates expressed appreciation and indicated that they had learnt a lot about quality assurance.  Although they showed some enthusiasm for implementing quality improvement activities recommended at the workshop, they underscored the importance of getting sustained support on an ongoing basis if they are to implement quality assurance effectively.

Another important aspect that transpired is the need to change the perceptions of staff and students at the institution, including regional study centres so they can own the quality assurance system and not regard it as a managerialistic instrument coming from the Quality Assurance Unit. They need to perceive quality assurance as a self-improvement and not just an accountability process.