Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Compliance cultures and transforming the quality of e-learning

In putting the finishing touches on this ASCILITE paper I discovered that Tuesday will be the 2 year anniversary of when I first put together much of the following on attempts by universities to improve/transform the quality of e-learning through checklists and other “quality assurance” methods. Given that I still see this tendency from central L&T folk in Universities – especially those in management – and that the original checklist the sparked the following has been largely gotten rid of, I thought I’d share this.

The anecdotal spark will be briefly touched upon in the ASCILITE paper, the quick summary of some literature won’t be due to space constraints. But I do find it increasingly interesting/frightening/sad that these approaches are still being adopted, even with the widespread knowledge of what actually happens.

The anecdotal spark

The spark for this was a chat with a friend who was and is a Senior Lecturer within a Faculty at an Australian University. I was in a central L&T support role. My friend ins one of the few academics who was widely respected and made significant contributions to the institution. He/she, however, was being increasingly frustrated by the “quality assurance” of L&T, especially the recent introduction of a checklist for the minimum service standard for course websites. The nature of the checklist and the technology used to implement and manage it was so pointless that the widespread academic way of dealing with the checklist was captured by this quote

I go in and tick all the boxes, the moderator goes in and ticks all the boxes and the school secretary does the same thing. It’s just like the exam check list.

This was always a bit sad because the intent – at least the published, espoused intent – of the minimum service standards was to act as a starting point for “integrating learning and teaching strategies that could influence students study habits” and to “encourage academic staff to look beyond existing practices and consider the useful features of the new LMS” (Tickle et al., 2009, p. 1042). But the outcome was no great surprise given what is said in the literature.

Some of the literature

Knight and Trowler (2000)

Likewise, attempts to improve teaching by coercion run the risk of producing compliance cultures, in which there is ‘change without change’ , while simultaneously compounding negative feelings about academic work

Harvey and Newton (2004, p. 149)

These studies reinforce the view that quality is about compliance and accountability and has, in itself, contributed little to any effective transformation of the student learning experience.

Radloff (2008, n.p.)

Staff may question the institutional approach to quality which they perceive as
compliance driven creating ‘busy work’ (Anderson 2006; Harvey & Newton 2004; Laughton 2003) with little positive impact on teaching practice and student learning experiences (Harvey 2006). They may therefore try to avoid, subvert or actively reject attempts to implement quality systems and processes. As Jones and de Saram
(2005, p. 48) note, “It is relatively easy to develop a system and sets of procedures for quality assurance and improvement on paper. To produce a situation where staff on campus ‘buy into’ this in an authentic and energetic manner is much more difficult”.

What’s really surprising is that the last author quoted here was the Pro-Vice Chancellor responsible for learning and teaching just before the checklist approach was introduced.


Knight, P., & Trowler, P. (2000). Department-level Cultures and the Improvement of Learning and Teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 25(1), 69–83.

Harvey, L., & Newton, J. (2004). Transforming quality evaluation. Quality in Higher Education, 10(2), 149–165.

Radloff, A. (2008). Engaging staff in quality learning and teaching: What’s a Pro Vice Chancellor to do? In Engaging Communities, Proceedings of the 31st HERDSA Annual Conference (pp. 285–296). Rotorua.

Tickle, K., Muldoon, N., & Tennent, B. (2009). Moodle and the institutional repositioning of learning and teaching at CQUniversity. Proceedings ascilite Auckland 2009 (pp. 1038–1047). Auckland, NZ.


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