Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Quality Assurance

One of the best things about being a professor is encompassed in the phrase “academic freedom.” For anyone reading this who isn’t a professor or graduate student, academic freedom means that academics are permitted to research and teach without any significant limitations. As long as the professor teaches the objectives in the course he can use whatever methods (ethically and within reason of course) to do so. That’s why if four different professors teach the same course, they can get away with using completely different assignments, tests and grading methods.

Due to the academic freedom mantra, this means many professors often have little if any idea as to what their colleagues are teaching or how they are doing it. Since I am the Associate Department Chair I see the syllabi from my faculty and may sit in on classes from time to time, but if I wasn’t an administrator I wouldn’t be given that kind of access.

Here at the University of Botswana academic freedom exists and is readily championed, but there is a second belief system which is just as prevalent, if not more so: “quality assurance.” When I first learned about quality assurance back in July I was really excited by the prospect. I was told that all the faculty in the department would get together several times before and during the semester to give input on one another’s classes. Hearing this, I was jealous as I wish I had this kind of input back home. I’ve tried at other times in several institutions to encourage professors to include particular concepts in their classes to better prepare students for future coursework (i.e my classes). However, each time I’ve requested someone to include an extra topic I’ve been met with pushback: “I don’t have time.” “That’s not in my syllabus.” “I don’t know anything about that topic.” I’ve even offered to go into someone else’s class and teach a certain module and still haven’t received a welcoming response. So when I heard about quality assurance here I was gung-ho, until of course I entered my first quality assurance meeting.

My first quality assurance meeting was back in July. The six professors and lecturers in the Tourism & Hospitality Management department met to examine one another’s course syllabi. I quickly realized my idea of quality assurance was worlds apart from the accepted standard. Rather than providing suggestions for topics to include in the course or feedback on assessment rubrics, it was a communal proofreading session. The better part of an hour was spent on one particular syllabus debating whether the comma went before or after the word "and." I cannot tell you whether a consensus was ever reached as I eventually became so disenchanted with the whole situation I tuned out and when asked for an opinion I conceded, “Sounds good to me.” At that point I was so worn down they could have been asking me if I was in favor of drowning puppies for fun and I would have agreed.

Recently we had another quality assurance meeting. Apparently I did not learn my lesson the first time, and entered this meeting bright eyed and bushy tailed only to have the wind quickly sucked out of my sails yet again. The agenda called for everyone to have their final exams written so that they could be reviewed by the group. Expecting to receive recommendations about the rigor or wording of questions I immediately realized this was another exercise in editing. My graduate students readily brag/commiserate/dread my love of the English language and resulting tendency towards Nazi-esque editing. As such, the only issue with my final exam was the fact I wrote November 2013 Examination Period on the exam cover sheet instead of November/December 2013 Examination Period. Sadly, not everyone’s final was as straightforward. Ms. Comma from the July quality assurance meeting had several dozen grammatical errors which took a good chunk of time during the meeting. But the real impasse came when the group could not decide whether Ms. Comma’s exam should utilize bullet points or alphabetic sub-questions.

While I think quality assurance is a great idea and I wish universities would utilize this practice to actually improve their courses, I’m disappointed the concept isn’t better applied here. While I am here at UB I will gladly contribute what I can to assuring quality by providing my editorial expertise, but since I likely won’t be able to institute a quality assurance component back home I will be satisfied with my academic freedom.

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