Sitting within a system of education it is easy to limit the definition of quality in ways that are influenced by the historical experience of education within that system, the social and political expectations that are made of education, even the language that dominates discourse. Many of the terms in common use in English discussions of quality (standards, norms, quality) do not clearly translate into other languages and systems of tertiary education suggesting a wider complexity that is not normally acknowledged.
Educational quality could be framed as falling into one of five different conceptions:
• Quality as exceptional.
• Quality as perfection.
• Quality as fitness for purpose.
• Quality as value for money.
• Quality as transformation.
Defining and measuring the qualities of education can be seen as providing a lens for re-evaluating and exploring the activities of students, organisations and the sector as a whole, potentially suggesting new ideas or possibilities that build on the intrinsic qualities of the existing system and enabling a diversity of voices to be valued and incorporated within the quality sense-making activities.
For an individual student this conception of quality is embodied in the pedagogical processes driven by feedback and the scaffolding of assessment. Organisationally, quality as sense-making is evident in the processes used by teachers in the constructive alignment of courses and programmes and in the way that effective quality systems inform strategy and operational decision-making.
Sense-making is complemented by the concept of sense-giving: the intentional attempt to change how other people think. We can define sense-giving as a sense-making variant undertaken to create meanings for a target audience. Framing and influencing of other people’s ideas is essential to leadership and underpins the concept of sense-giving particularly when expressed through organisational planning and strategizing. Sense-giving may be the attempt to share a very clear meaning held by a leader or it may involve the introduction of ambiguity, the creation of cues, or the enacting of specific activities intended to stimulate sense-making in particular ways.
Framing Quality as Sense-making
A conception of quality defined by these properties is potentially far more inclusive, agile and future-oriented than other conceptions of quality. Recognising the conception of quality as sense-making emphasises the possibility that we may not know all there is to discover about quality in education and the organisational forms and systems needed in the future. Models that are too rigidly defined around historical models of provision or too focused on measuring narrowly defined outcomes run the risk of failing to notice substantial changes inconsistent with that world view.
Quality improvement needs to be seen as a collection of actions undertaken by or on behalf of the key stakeholders in education. Aligning the information to specific stakeholders and recognising the ways by which they can act to improve the qualities they value helps ensure that the issues described above are at the very least mitigated.
Students need a quality improvement framework that sustains their engagement with learning throughout their life, assisting them in identifying opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge, motivating and engaging them in education with a level of intensity designed to maximise the benefits and helping them represent their personal qualities in a way that enables their success.
Education organisations need a quality improvement framework that helps the organisation engage in collective sense-making and reflection so that change can be undertaken continuously in manner that respects the core values and role of the organisation. Elements of the framework need to ensure that the organisation has the information needed to manage its resources and activities effectively but the focus needs to be on the qualities of the outcomes being achieved and far less on the change mechanisms being used, as in the transformation notion of quality.
A key feature of a future focused quality system is its ability to provide guidance and support in real time to the stakeholders of educational systems formatively allowing agility, choice and responsiveness in the face of changes in the educational environment.
The pace of change means that the skills needed by organisations are those that enable agility and responsiveness to new opportunities. Success in this space is a consequence of strong leadership working with a sense-making approach to quality that builds commitment and motivation from people throughout their organisations.
Quality as sense-making flows from a recognition that education is too complex and too important to be defined by a small number of qualities relevant to a privileged group of stakeholders, or by limited performance indicators, such as financial efficiency or direct employment outcomes, instead it is experienced through an on-going conversation challenging complacency and the status quo.