The COVID-19 pandemic is having an impact on the entire higher education sector and related quality assurance processes. As you face unprecedented disruption to your normal activities, we encourage you to focus on maintaining teaching and quality standards, enabling exams and assessments as possible and ensuring financial sustainability. In the upcoming Summer 2020 Annual Progress Report accredited schools will be asked to report on their strategies through this unique crisis. In particular, you should be prepared to report on 1) how you have protected student interests, 2) how you have made good judgments, 3) how you have recorded the reasons for your decisions and 4) how you have provided effective pastoral support.
As an ECTE Council, we wish to reassure our schools that their accreditation status will not be jeopardised by the current situation and that maximum flexibility will be used in the ECTE review processes as we adapt our current activities in order to support you. We also realise that we can play an important role in offering guidance and support on matters such as the transfer to online learning and teaching, alternative assessment methods and maintaining academic standards and student support services, so feel free to contact us in regards.
Specific questions will also arise, and on this page we will keep an updated list of guidelines for good practice regarding different areas. We trust that these will help you as you seek to maintain quality standards during this challenging time. To submit a query, please use the COVID-19 ECTE Queries form. You may also write to Dr Jurgensen, Quality Assurance Coordinator, who has prepared these helpful guidelines:
1. Transitional/temporary changes
During the crisis period of Covid-19, ECTE accredited schools which initiate “substantive changes” need to report these to ECTE so as to inform the accreditation commission. The Quality Assurance Coordinator may require additional information in order to properly inform the Council, who might decide that additional quality assurance processes and a site visit are necessary. This does not apply for transitional measures taken to closing residential schools due to governmental decisions.
2. Online site visits
ECTE site visits, in accordance with ESG regulations, ‘normally’ take place as physical visits to the geographical location of the institution and entail face-to-face engagement of the VET, institutional staff, students, stakeholders, etc. There are however unusual cases and contexts where such physical visits are not possible, or not the first choice of the ECTE. In these cases, it is not uncommon practice to conduct a ‘site’ visit that is either entirely online or that uses a hybrid approach. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the ENQA, the EQAR and many European QA agencies have agreed that online site visits were acceptable.
At the moment the ECTE is offering institutions two possibilities: a) an online site visit or b) the deferral of visitations by 1 year (with the hope that travel will be reinstated and a ’normal’ site visit can take place).
Procedures and guidelines for online site visits can be found in section 1.6 of the Guidelines for Site Visits.
3. Community and Students
As schools have ceased their campus operations, students have moved out and residential classes have been cancelled. Special attention needs to be given to students when closing a campus. Some students who cannot go home and have lived on campus need help for a new place of living. Food provision being no longer available due to the closing of the school cafeteria a feasible replacement solution needs to be found. Often public transportation has been curtailed and food stores may be restricted in their supply. Schools have an opportunity to show in creative ways their care for those students.
Particularly, international students are most vulnerable as they are far from their families, isolated and anxiety stricken about their beloved ones living far away. They are in need of special care and attention. Creative ways of catering for their needs may be found, while remaining respectful of the health authority’s recommendations. Students who, with the approval of the school leadership have stayed on the precincts of the school, may become sick. Practical help and care would need to be organized in particular when quarantine has been prescribed to avoid contamination. Once again, this must be done under the advice of health authorities.
Students may experience particular financial difficulties or may need administrative help for extension of governmental scholarships or various types of grants. A special help fund to alleviate financial hardships may be set up by the school. Academic advising will need to be offered, especially when schools resume their ‘normal’ teaching activities. In the meantime, online mentoring and advising will be most welcome. Many student services can be at least partially offered online.
In what are undoubtedly exceptional circumstances, institutions are advised to make policies and procedures clear for students who may not be able to complete coursework, meet deadlines, etc. For example, a student may become ill, need to care for family members or be a nurse or a policeman who is called to do many hours of overtime during the emergency. In these cases it is important to have clearly published procedures whereby students can ask for extensions, alternative deadlines, temporary suspension of studies, etc.
4. Community and Staff
School personnel should be allowed to work (as far as possible) from home. The health protection of the staff will depend strongly on this measure. Most schools are fairly well set up with a working and up to date computer system to allow for working from home.
Provision also needs to be made in form of leave for employees who need to stay home for taking care of children, when schools and nurseries are closed, or other family members in need of care.
There are also those on sick leave or perhaps even struggling in a clinic because of having been infected with the Corona virus. Despite social distancing they need our expression of care. In theses times of severe crisis, schools need to find creative ways of communicating with one another and overcoming social isolation in keeping with the directives of health officials. Prayer and care are strong markers of a Christian theological school community.
Families of students and staff also need to experience the extended hand of a school community. Caring and support should be normal, while keeping the boundaries of social distancing required by health officials. Creative ways may be found. In particular, care and help for the sick is of vital importance. When quarantining is ordered for contamination reasons, creative ways of caring for the needs of single ones or families may be found. Christian love and care should become most evident in these difficult situations.
5. Resourcing Remote Education
The challenge for an educational institution to replace on site instruction or church/or parachurch based internships (in a time when churches have been closed) by meaningful equivalent learning experiences is tremendous. Most schools have closed their residential campuses, and a number have opted for remote student instruction. Others have simply suspended campus operations and shifted their academic year in the hope of reopening in not too long of a time. In such a dramatically changed educational context, matters of Quality Assurance (QA) come to the forefront and the academic leadership of a school needs also to pay careful attention in the current crisis to fundamental concerns of Quality Assurance.
The ECTE has been in the business of encouraging and evaluating Quality Assurance and enhancement for forty years and distance learning has been encouraged alongside traditional face-to-face delivery since the days of TEE (Theological Education by Extension). The current crisis is likely to speed up the processes of innovation in technology enhanced delivery of theological education. Ideally, as the European Student Union (ESU) suggests, in the current crisis schools should be able to “offer free, remote study conditions for students and [to] be creative and flexible in the provision of education.” (COVID-19: ESU’s reaction about the implications for students).
Virtual learning communities: The fostering of virtual learning communities increases the chances of successful learning and completion of the credits required in a study programme. The average student needs some form of prodding in order to reach the learning objectives set for a given instructional module and some students have a very hard time to discipline themselves to self-study due to the social isolation. The support from a virtual learning community can make the difference.
Careful didactic organization of learning units: In order to help students complete individual study units, it is useful to break these down into smaller units with clearly defined goals. Faculty should be given clear guidelines on how to handle this new situation. If available, specialists may help to rewrite pedagogical materials for online learning. Some schools will be far ahead as they have been providing online instruction for a longer period of time and have gathered experience. Their faculty may want to share it with other schools and encourage them.
Libraries and reading lists. Care needs to be taken with course work and assessment that relies on the availability of library resources. Either alternative sources need to be made available or course work and assessments need to be modified.
6. Teaching and Learning Innovation
Innovative learning: One key in responding to the current crisis of residential studies is to find creative solutions which can substitute to the traditional modes of delivery of school curricula. New ways of assessment of learning also need to be devised.
Innovative pedagogy: The use of digital learning supports supplemented by individual online tutoring or mentoring (e.g. through emails, chat rooms, social media, etc.) have become widespread. It is strongly advised to consult best practice models and guidance in order to assure quality learning. When moving instruction online we need to make sure that the same quality standards for online studies as for residential are maintained. Appendix F of the ICETE Standards and Guidelines for Global Evangelical Theological Education provides a helpful set of QA standards for online education.
Training for innovative learning: Students and faculty need to be given good advice on how to optimize teaching and learning in a virtual environment. Too often teachers provide online teaching materials that are not written for self-study, but for classical lecturing. The teaching staff must work on providing additional study questions and other forms of guidance so as to facilitate self-study. The lecturer’s availability in chat rooms or other forms of feedback will tremendously increase the guidance offered to students.
7. Credit Allocation and Learning Outcomes
Quality concerns still need to be at the forefront in academic institutions. This is why a reminder concerning the allocation of academic credit is necessary especially in the midst of a crisis that deeply affects schools. Quality Assurance needs to remain a major concern as students engage in online guided study. How are credits awarded?
Academic credit is awarded on the basis of achieved learning. The ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) regulation, to which ECTE subscribes, states the following: “Credits are awarded when appropriate assessment shows that the defined learning outcomes have been achieved at the relevant level. If the student has not achieved the learning outcomes, no credits will be awarded.” (ECTS Users’ guide 2015, p. 27). Thus, credit allocation centers on learning achieved according to preset conditions.
Learning outcomes. Learning is defined with reference to stated learning objectives. The level at which this has been achieved determines the grade points attributed for a learning unit. Thus credit allocation and grade (mark) is determined by the achievements of a student and not as it is sometimes in a simplified way stated by the amount of learning time. Learning time is often considered wrongly as the sole criterion for credit allocation. Learning achievement has always been the primary focus when it comes to an assessment of learning. Quantifying learning time has been in the ECTS system a help in assessing the amount of learning, a framework of reference. This principle becomes especially important in conditions such as those determined by the COVID-19 outbreak that severely impact the amount of contact time in a study programme.
It is important to remember that learning can be assessed in different ways: “Assessment methods include the whole range of written, oral and practical tests/examinations, projects and portfolios that are used to evaluate the student’s progress and ascertain the achievement of the learning outcomes of a course unit or module, whereas assessment criteria are descriptions of what the student is expected to do, in order to demonstrate that a learning outcome has been achieved.” (ECTS Users’ Guide 2015, p. 27).
In a time where usual assessment methods cannot be used, the teacher may use other equivalent methods to assess the amount and quality of learning. At the same time, although the breadth of student engagement with a topic may be reduced because of more limited resources, depth in engagement is still expected. In all cases, assessment must be designed to enable students to demonstrate fulfilment of module learning outcomes.
It is also important to keep in mind however that no academic credit may be allocated, even in a crisis situation, for learning that has not taken place or was not properly assessed. This would be a fraudulent practice. The most dramatic circumstances would not justify such an action. Flexibility and willingness to go new ways within the boundaries of current academic policies will greatly help schools in solving issues of assessment, progression and graduation while maintaining quality standards. The QAA has phrased it well: “to ensure that quality, standards and student outcomes can be maintained through this challenging period”. (see https://www.qaa.ac.uk/coronavirus-advice).
9. Progression and Graduation
Progression. School curricula prescribe ways of progression of students towards fulfilling the requirements of programmes of studies. The special current situation may require more flexibility in the sequence in which study units will be completed. The amount of learning required for progression to the next level should independently from the chosen form not be curtailed. However flexible ways, e.g. applying additional optional modules (electives), may be allowed by programme directors. The leading criterion should always be that of an equivalency or comparability with the initial requirement.
Graduation. As a rule, no major graduation requirement may be waived due to the current crisis and shut down of schools. However, different ways of completing the requirements with proper pedagogical guidance may be allowed for: e.g. complete a module with an “independent study” under the guidance/mentoring of a faculty member, apply another type of internship in place of an internship initially contracted and interrupted due to the current crisis, or allow for the writing of an internship related practical/project paper, etc. Innovative solutions with appropriate, comparable learning outcomes can provide for a meaningful learning experience and help fill up the missing gap for graduation.
There is room therefore for innovative solutions in order to help with assessment, progression, and graduation of students. It must however be carried out in a spirit of fairness, with the usual objectivity expected from an assessment of academic studies and under proper guidance by the teaching staff. Schedules and programme adjustments may be needed, however with keeping within the boundaries of set curricula.
10. Internships and Practicums
What should a school do if it has a planned internship or practicum that can no longer take place given to restrictions on movement and situations of home-isolation? What can be done about missed credits that are necessary to complete a programme? Here are some possibilities:
- A good starting point is for the internship/practicum director of the school to assess previously completed elements of a practicum, including reports from the on-site practicum supervisor, and then to identify missing learning elements on the basis of the school’s module descriptor for the internship/practicum. This will provide the basis to identify possible meaningful substitutionary learning experiences that match the learning outcomes.
- Define a corresponding meaningful learning experience substitute in line with your Module descriptor (course syllabus). These could include a reflective practical paper, a written out/recorded sermon or Sunday school lesson or youth activity or an evangelistic broadcast through social media, detailed planning of a missions outreach, etc. Ideally Pratical Theology lecturers/tutors need to be involved in helping redesign new learning activities that match the learning outcomes.
- Students can be asked to do further research, reporting and assessment of internships or practicums that have already taken place at other points in the programme (in the past). These would include inclusive reports from the on-site practicum leader and the internship/practicum director of the school. Other ideas might include a reflective practical paper, a written out/recorded sermon or Sunday school lesson or youth activity or an evangelistic broadcast, a detailed planning of a missions outreach, etc. or several of these combined. As many churches are ‘meeting’ digitally, the practicum may also involve online ministry and service activities.
- In the case of internships that were already taking place and were interrupted, it would be ideal to ask the internship leaders to continue to conduct some sort of mentoring online. The internship can be implemented virtually. This will depend entirely on the capacity and experience of the internship leader to do so. If this is not possible, the school’s internship director might find alternative solutions.
- Students might have exceptional circumstaces that will allow to complete internship requirements only after the emergency situation has passed, but this should not normally be the case. If possible, students should be allowed to continue to work toward completion, as a deferral may make completion difficult in the future.
- It must be clear that, even in exceptional circumstances, certification must not be issued if students have not achieved the declared learning outcomes of a programme.