Quality in Digital Higher Education

The European Network of Quality Assurance Agencies (ENQA) has taken the lead in developing the common Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG, 2015), adopted by the EHEA Ministerial Conference. These are applied by internal quality assurance bodies in the universities and by national external quality assurance agencies. In addition to quality assurance, most agencies also play a role in the accreditation of universities.

The ESG sees quality as “primarily a result of the interaction between teachers, students, and the institutional learning environment.” Quality assurance ensures that “programme content, learning opportunities and facilities are fit for purpose” and focuses on “all activities within the continuous improvement cycle of higher education institutions” (ESG, p. 7).

Digital education does strengthen the interaction between teachers and students, learning processes, and the learning environment. This happens in the field of degree education, continuing education, and MOOCs but also in the field of international education and virtual mobility. This has consequences for quality assurance.

Quality Assurance: Multi-Stakeholder Perspectives

From the point of view of quality assurance and quality improvement, it is important to take into account the perspectives of the different stakeholders. Stakeholders include all internal actors within an institution such as institutional leaders, students, and staff, as well as external stakeholders such as enterprises, professional organizations, regions, and governments. Examples of such perspectives are as follows:

  • The learner’s perspective, related to dimensions such as the learner’s readiness for online learning, the digital learning environment and learning resources, flexibility, and student support

  • The perspective of the teaching staff and program board, related to organizational conditions for digital course and curriculum design, the suitability of the learning environment for various digital pedagogies, the availability of media and tools, frameworks for international course collaboration and virtual mobility, and tools for e-assessment

  • The perspective of teaching and learning support services, related to digital course and curriculum design, team support, ICT support, and mobility support

  • The leadership perspective, related to institutional strategies and frameworks for the digitization of education, international education and virtual mobility (e.g., in European Universities Initiatives alliances or EUIs), quality assurance frameworks, institutional budgeting, the continuous professional development of staff, and continuous institutional evaluation

  • The external stakeholder perspective, related to the response to needs for flexible online education in enterprises, professions, and society, possibly the co-creation of content, flexible workplace learning, and the recognition of qualifications for digital learning

  • The government perspective related to the legal framework for digital education, institutional funding, quality assurance and accreditation, the ICT infrastructure for universities, and international cooperation and mobility

Stakeholders’ perspectives may differ in mainstream education, continuing education and professional development, and open education through MOOCs. It is therefore important to create specific internal quality frameworks and support services for these areas, although in practice they may interact with each other.

Multilevel Approach

At the same time, a multilevel approach is important because change processes affect stakeholders at their own level. To make change processes effective, these levels need to be in continuous dialog (Williams, Ubachs, & Bacsich, 2015):

  • The microlevel constitutes the course and curriculum with students and academic staff as key players.

  • The meso-level refers to the institutional organization, with institutional leaders, support staff, and representatives of external stakeholders as key actors.

  • The macro-level includes national and regional decision-makers related to the organization of higher education, including national support services such as quality assurance agencies and ICT infrastructure providers, councils, and stakeholder groups.

Although processes at these levels are different, an integrated approach to quality and innovation must involve stakeholders at all levels with their own perspectives and responsibilities.

Learning Outcomes and Processes

Ultimately, external quality assurance agencies assess quality by measuring the learning outcomes achieved. Many ways of teaching and learning can lead to quality learning outcomes, which is recognized by the ESG.

The quality assessment of digital education is typically process-oriented, e.g., related to course and curriculum design, including learning materials and learning activities; facilities in the learning environment for developing and delivering digital education; the support of teaching and learning and ICT services to course and teams; and institutional strategies for digital education and innovation.

Quality Criteria and Benchmarking

Quality criteria are based on agreed principles or frames of reference for course and curriculum design, institutional drivers and enablers related to digital education, and national policies for digital education and innovation. These criteria are used for benchmarking, identifying internal improvement opportunities. Current practices in digital education can therefore be compared with “best in class” practices.

By benchmarking, universities learn from each other. For use in quality assurance assessment, benchmarking should be performed in a systematic manner to make strategic choices for improvement.

Quality and Maturity

The concept of maturity refers to the degree of deliberate and evidence-based decision-making on digital learning courses and programs, leading to the continuous optimization of the design, development, and implementation or specific institutional conditions and strategies concerning digital practices (Van Valkenburg, Dijkstra, & De Los Arcos, 2020).

Maturity is reached when the university (or a faculty) reaches the level of a “learning organization,” which bases informed decisions on evidence. Leadership is shared, and all processes and workflows are integrated and continuously evaluated to better serve stakeholders. Technology is fully exploited to create better education.

The difference with quality is that maturity refers to a deliberate and sustained process of decision-making for the improvement of digital education. This includes the use of the results of quality assurance. Maturity can vary from initiated to piloted, deployed, institutionalized, and optimized steps in the implementation of digital education.

Quality Assurance Systems in Distance Teaching Universities in Europe

Quality assurance in online and distance learning is gaining interest as the growth of online and distance learning offerings fuels the need for appropriate quality assurance systems. Two major investigations have already taken place in the past decade: first, a publication by the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE) on quality models in online and open education around the world (Ossiannilsson, Williams, Camilleri, & Brown, 2015) and, second, a study by the Working Group on Quality Assurance and e-Learning of the European Network of Quality Assurance Agencies (ENQA) on quality assurance of e-learning provisions (Huertas et al., 2018).

The European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) as a representative body for online, open, and flexible education in Europe has been active on this topic since 2005 by launching the E-xcellence manual and tool for quality assurance in online and blended education.

E-xcellence: Quality Benchmarking for Blended and Online Education

A Manual

The first of three editions of the E-xcellence manual on benchmarking quality assurance in online education was published in 2006. The later versions also contain blended models and emerging developments such as open education and MOOCs (Williams, Kear, & Rosewell, 2016).

The primary purpose of the manual is to provide a reference framework of benchmarks, quality criteria, and guidance notes against which e-learning programs and their support systems can be assessed. However, the manual has also proved useful for designing, developing, and implementing e-learning courses and programs.

Course developers and teachers see the manual as a useful development and/or improvement tool to integrate into institutional systems of quality assurance and enhancement. To date, more than 50 universities across Europe have used the E-xcellence tool to benchmark their e-learning performance with peer review. The instrument is available in open license and translated in several languages worldwide.

A Benchmarking Instrument

E-xcellence would initially become a tool to set standards across Europe for the delivery of quality online education. It would not only offer guidelines for universities but also prove the quality that leading universities in online education in Europe represent. However, already in the initiation phase, experts within E-xcellence from open universities, conventional universities, QA agencies, EUA, and UNESCO decided to work with benchmarks. This was necessary because the context of universities and digital learning practices across Europe differs too much to set standards. The system of benchmarking has several advantages:

  • It respects the institution’s own responsibility for QA and the level of ambition and pace of implementation and lays the foundation for an improvement roadmap.

  • It includes self-assessment benchmarking as a basis for self-improvement, comparing university performance with best practices in e-learning in Europe.

  • It uses peer reviewers as reference and input for improvement, installing collaborative processes of internal dialog.

In the many exercises with E-xcellence benchmarking at European universities, the most important feature mentioned is the guided discussion by using the tool. Not only does it ensure that all necessary aspects of delivering high-quality online education are covered, but it encourages university staff to reflect and discuss processes they take for granted or have not thought about before.

Addressing all aspects of delivering high-quality online education, the E-xcellence tool clearly represents a multilevel approach, targeting both staff and management levels under the manual’s six chapters on strategic management, curriculum design, course design, course delivery, staff support, and student support.

  • Strategic management: the institution should have defined policies and management processes that are used to establish strategic institutional objectives for the development of e-learning.

  • Curriculum design: program boards should integrate knowledge and skills development and address challenges of active and personalized learning to meet different learning needs and aspirations.

  • Course design: course teams should outline the relationship between learning objectives/outcomes, teaching and learning activities, and assessment methods elements (constructive alignment). A course can contain a mix of e-learning and face-to-face learning.

  • Course delivery: includes the virtual learning environment, personal learning environments, and/or other channels, such as social media, through which students receive their course materials or communicate with fellow students and staff.

  • Staff support: various staff support services enable all members of the academic, administrative, and technical staff to contribute fully to the development and service of digital learning, including specific professional development activities.

  • Student support: student support services are an essential component of e-learning provision. Students’ retention, success, and satisfaction are their main objectives. Institutions should develop policies and strategies for the design and provision of student support services.

Internal Quality Assurance Leading to the E-xcellence Associate in Quality Label

The E-xcellence instrument consists of three steps toward the E-xcellence label, which recognizes a continuous cycle of e-learning improvement by the university.

The assessment allows the university to determine the performance of its current digital programs and to identify the requirements for further improvement. After having first performed the quick-scan as a quick self-assessment, the university can opt for a more extensive review assessment by experts. This can be done through either an online or a full on-site assessment, with locally focused recommendations for improvement by the review team.

The reviewers of E-xcellence base their review on the complete reference material from the university and the evaluation of its self-assessment on 35 quick-scan benchmarks. Building on the self-assessment, the university will develop an adequate roadmap with further improvements to digital learning for the next 3 years. This roadmap is also assessed by the reviewers in consultation with university staff.

In order to guarantee a continuous cycle of self-evaluation of its e-learning performance as a university, the procedure includes the integration of the E-xcellence benchmarks into the internal quality assurance system. This is a requirement for obtaining the E-xcellence Associate in Quality Label from EADTU (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

E-xcellence, toward an E-xcellence associate label

The E-xcellence label was extended with the OpenupEd label as a response to the need for a quality label for MOOCs (Rosewell & Jansen, 2014).

The SEQUENT Handbook for Quality in E-Learning Procedures

Building on E-xcellence, EADTU, in collaboration with ENQA, has expanded its partnership with leading QA agencies, connecting universities and QA agencies on their shared challenge to address quality assurance issues in online education. QA agencies were aware of the need to anticipate developments in online learning and were willing to develop appropriate quality measures.

The SEQUENT project (2013–2015) funded by the European Commission aimed to promote excellence and innovation in higher education through the use of ICT and to prepare universities to take advantage of new teaching methods. In a concerted effort to convince governments, universities, and QA agencies of the need for a QA approach to online education, EADTU has joined forces with ENQA for introducing a variety of quality models.

The SEQUENT handbook was the main outcome of this project (Williams et al., 2015). The core of the handbook used the ENQA European Standards and Guidelines (ESG) for internal quality assurance, determining the broad context for institutional approaches to quality assurance for e-learning. The handbook was based on the project partners’ experiences with the tools E-xcellence, UniQue, and ECB Check. It illustrates how quality assurance dimensions of online education can operationalize the ESG standards and how the quality of European higher education can be made more future-proof through the use of technology enhanced learning.

The handbook was further illustrated by numerous showcases of universities using QA in online education instruments of E-xcellence and UniQue (Bacsich, 2015). Interesting about these showcases was the integration of the QA tools into the QA systems. All cases explain, among other things:

  • How they implemented the self-assessments as part of the QA in e-learning approach

  • How their institution’s QA system addressed blended or online distance learning

  • What impact the QA system had for the use of e-learning and how it improved the overall educational offer of the institution

ENQA Considerations for QA of E-Learning Provision

Next to EADTU, ENQA has started early in addressing the challenges for universities when adopting new teaching methods. In October 2009, ENQA held a workshop on quality assurance in e-learning, which showed that the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) – if correctly interpreted – can be used as a backbone for quality assurance processes, including those for e-learning (Grifoll et al., 2010). The ESG has since been revised (ESG, 2015), not specifically aimed at e-learning but certainly equally applicable to all forms of teaching and learning. However, the need for an appropriate interpretation for its use remained.

EUA’s 2014 e-learning survey already indicated that 91% of 249 surveyed institutions have integrated e-learning into their education (Gaebel, Kupriyaova, Morais, & Colucci, 2014). Eighty-two percent reported to offer online learning courses. In contrast, much less attention has been paid to the quality assurance of such provisions. The authors suggested there was a clear shortcoming, citing the fact that only 23% of national QA agencies paid special attention to e- learning.

To further investigate whether QA agencies needed more support and expertise to keep up with new developments and innovations in education, ENQA launched the ENQA Working Group on Quality Assurance and E-learning in 2016. The main aim was to address the challenges associated with the alternative learning and teaching methods that ICT has created.

Recognizing that recommendations for quality assurance and e-learning had already been written, the Working Group decided to create a new focus, systematically examining both the applicability and relevance of the standards as defined in the ESG 2015 and using existing papers and publications. While each standard appeared to be fully applicable to e-learning, some seemed to require special guidelines on how to apply them. As a result of an intensive discussion process both in the Working Group and with relevant e-learning stakeholders in Europe, the Working Group came up with guidelines to use the ESG for e-learning offers, published in the “Considerations for Quality Assurance of E-learning Provisions” report (Huertas et al., 2018).

Peer Learning Activity on Quality Assurance in Online Education

EADTU further conducted a survey on quality assurance and accreditation of online education. The study compared national frameworks and regulations, institutional developments at universities, and current practices of external quality assurance for online and distance learning in 15 countries. The results of this research were presented in a collaborative peer learning activity between EADTU and ENQA with the aim of identifying the next steps in the development of a quality blended degree and online continuing education in a dialog with universities, governments, QA agencies, and students (Grifoll et al., 2010). This resulted in stakeholder-specific recommendations for QA agencies, national governments, the European Commission, and universities.

In summary, the recommendations proposed a dialog on innovation and quality assurance between higher education institutions, quality assurance agencies, and governments to support innovations in higher education and promote appropriate quality assurance policies:

  • Institutions that develop and implement policies and strategies for digital education, taking into account an internal quality framework and a maturity model for blended and online degree, continuing, and open education.

  • Quality assurance agencies that adapt and refine criteria/indicators and guidelines for digital modes of teaching and learning and share good practices of internal and external quality assurance.

  • Governments developing drivers and reviewing regulatory frameworks for quality assurance and accreditation in higher education, encouraging and accelerating innovation. A vision of change must be expressed through national strategies.

This dialog should lead to concerted actions to support innovation in higher education and to apply appropriate quality assurance measures.

The European Maturity Model for Blended Education (EMBED)

Very closely linked to quality in open, distance, and digital education is the European Maturity Model for Blended Education or the EMBED approach (2017–2020) with the aim of empowering European higher education to achieve high-quality blended education programs and courses (Goeman & Dijkstra, 2019a).

The degree to which these decision-making processes are embedded in a course or program or in institutional conditions and strategies determines the maturity level of blended education. This allows teaching staff and course designers to continuously improve blended practices in an iterative manner. Maturity therefore does not equate to quality, but on the other hand it can contribute to quality improvement and a continuous delivery of quality.

The EMBED maturity dimensions are based on most recent literature research (Goeman, Poelmans, & Van Rompaey, 2018), on the evaluation of best blended course development practices and institutional strategies, and on a Delphi research on the results of these investigations (Goeman, Dijkstra, Poelmans, Vemuri, & Van Valkenburg, 2021). Criteria and instruments are developed to assess and map the degree of maturity of blended education for each of these maturity dimensions. For each dimension, a high, medium, or low maturity level can be represented in a spider diagram.

The EMBED model uses a multilevel and multi-stakeholder approach:

  • At the course level, the maturity is assessed for course and curriculum design according to six dimensions: the selection and sequencing of learning activities, the selection of blended learning tools, course flexibility, course interaction, the student learning experience, and study load and inclusiveness.

  • At the program level, the maturity level is assessed according to six dimensions: program coherence, alignment and coherence of blended learning tools, program flexibility, the student learning experience, study load, and inclusiveness.

  • At the institutional level, the maturity level is assessed according to eight dimensions: institutional strategy, institutional support, sharing and openness, institutional development, quality assurance, governance, finance, and facilities.

  • At the policy level, recommendations are developed for policy makers.

For each dimension, guidelines are developed to optimize processes leading to systemic decision-making (Goeman & Dijkstra, 2019b).

ICDE Quality Models in Online and Open Education Around the Globe: State of the Art and Recommendations (2015)

Main player at the global level is the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE). In 2015, under coordination of EADTU, ICDE delivered a report on “Quality Models in Online and Open Education Around the Globe” (Ossiannilsson et al., 2015).

This report provides the first global overview of quality models in online and open education. It illustrates that quality in online learning is a complex matter and addresses new needs such as quality in MOOCs and Open Educational Resources. The diversity of instruments used globally at that time was developed independently.

The report delivers insight into the quality concept and the quality dimensions and describes a selected number of models in relation to certification, benchmarking, accreditation, and advisory frameworks. An important message from this global report is that while its findings on the one hand show there is no need for new quality schemes as such, it reveals a huge gap and need for knowledge sharing and capacity building and for coordination among stakeholders.

ICDE has given follow-up on this message by establishing QA focal points under the ICDE Quality Network. In November 2016, regional Focal Points on Quality were established by the ICDE Executive Board, in which EADTU represents Europe. The quality network gives advice and collects knowledge on the latest developments on quality related to open, flexible, and distance education within the institutions and regions (Mathes, 2018).

Challenges and Directions for the Future

The corona crisis seems to give rise to a new phase of developing a digital education. Universities are now consolidating digital pedagogies for mainstream degree education while rethinking and expanding continuing education and professional development and open education provisions.

These developments are substantially supported by the EU and national governments.

University-Level Developments

Post-corona Pedagogies in Degree Education

With the corona crisis, universities had to move quickly to digital education and completely reorganize their campus. Emergency decisions were taken at all levels. European Commission surveys of May 2020 found that 95.1% of universities organized online distance learning during the lockdown period and even 82.7% organized online examinations. All had to create massive institutional support for organizing digital education.

Three main approaches were observed and appear to be continuing (Pieters, Oudehand, & Sangra, 2021):

  • Synchronous hybrid learning: based on course design that has in common that both on-site or “here” students and remote or “there” students are included simultaneously (synchronous hybrid learning (Raes et al., 2020a, b)

  • Blended learning: based on a course design with a conscious combination of online and offline learning activities (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004; Garrison & Vaughan, 2013; Goeman et al., 2018; Laurillard, 2012, 2015)

  • Online distance learning: based on a course design with a continuous physical separation between teacher and student, synchronous and asynchronous (Martin, Ting & Westin, 2019)

These emergency practices have led to a better understanding of digital education opportunities by university leaders, teaching staff, and learners. Higher education institutions in all countries are becoming aware that this unprecedented situation will lead to a paradigm shift in the coming years.

New paradigms will change teaching and learning processes and require continuous professional development of staff, team teaching, and educational and ICT support of staff. In all three approaches, specific benchmarks are to be developed, for example, related to course design, teacher and student interaction, the learning experience, and e-assessment (TESLA, 2019). Also, universities will be challenged by new educational technologies with applications of artificial intelligence.

This will need change management at all levels of an institution and at the governmental level.

Rethinking and Upscaling Continuing Education and Professional Development

Due to the needs in the economy and society, universities will rethink continuing education and professional development (CEPD) offerings and develop appropriate organizational models for this area. The permanent interaction with economy and society adds a dimension to the design, delivery, and organization of CEPD (the quadruple helix).

To make CEPD scalable, accessible, and inclusive, universities have to use the full potential of digital education. To adapt offerings to the needs of learners, shorter types of programs and qualifications will be developed such as microcredentials and microdegrees. Extension schools or similar structures will coordinate and support the CEPD activities of an institution and function as an educational interface with public and private enterprises.

However, at most European universities, continuing education and professional development is still in an exploratory phase. Institutional developments are not yet adapted to the scale of the needs in the labor market and in society.

Quality benchmarks of digital continuing education are related to dimensions such as the level of flexibility for adult learners, the integration of academic and professional competency development, the learning experience of mature learners in a professional context, and the design of courses in co-creation with enterprises and sectors.

MOOCs and MOOC-Based Microcredentials

Since 2013, MOOC platforms have been offering massive open online courses in collaboration with universities. Recently, MOOC platforms and universities have started developing MOOC pathways for CEPD, consisting of a coherent set of MOOCs. These pathways are often developed in co-creation with sectors and companies.

To valorize these trajectories, the European MOOC Consortium, consisting of main European platforms (Futurelearn, FUN MOOC, EduOpen, Miriadax, iMooX, EduOpen), has developed the Common Microcredential Framework (CMF) (EMC, 2018), which rewards MOOC trajectories with a microcredential qualification after assessment. The microcredential awarded by CMF is an academic qualification with a professional orientation. Microcredentials possibly can be stacked into a broader certified program or academic degree (bachelor, master).

To better serve the labor market, MOOC platforms have established partnerships with professional organizations and companies in both the private and public sectors, for example, in food, IT, teacher education, healthcare, and the environment.

Herewith, MOOC platforms increasingly function as an interface between universities and labor market organizations (Henderikx, Ubachs, Ferguson, Hodges, & Antonaci, 2020; Habib & Sanzgiri, 2020). Collaborations have different organizational forms: specific business spaces, corporate platforms where universities show courses for the labor market, and white label platforms for sectors and public or private enterprises. They work together to investigate needs, organize workplace learning, or even co-create content. In other cases, university courses are endorsed by industry or professional partners who have previously assessed and recognized the course for professional development or professional accreditation.

Internal quality assurance by institutions looks into the educational design of the MOOCs and MOOC pathways, the qualifications awarded, the interaction with enterprises and sectors for combining an academic and professional orientation, and the stackability of courses.

Policy Developments

The European Commission and national governments develop actions to support the development of digital higher education in a lifelong learning perspective.

The Digital Education Action Plan (DEAP)

Already in 2018, the revised European Commission’s Digital Education Action Plan (2021–2027) (European Commission, 2018b) sets out measures for high-quality and inclusive digital education and training in Europe at all levels. Digital technology should “facilitate the provision of flexible, accessible learning opportunities, including for adult learners and professionals, helping them to re-skill, upskill, or change careers,” which can be supported “through microcredentials which capture the learning outcomes of short-term learning.”

The European Education Area

In 2020, the Commission launched its communication “Towards the European Education Area by 2025” (European Commission, 2020a), in which the development of a European approach to microcredentials in higher education is a key priority. It announced a proposal to the Ministers of Education Recommendation by 2021 and a plan at having all the necessary steps in place by 2025 for the wider use, portability, and recognition of microcredentials. With these steps, the European Commission frames national microcredential offers to make them comparable and responding to the same standards.

To prepare this, the European Commission established the “Microcredentials in Higher Education Consultation Group” (European Commission, 2021). This defined a microcredential as “a proof of the learning outcomes that a learner has acquired following a short learning experience”. They are “underpinned by quality assurance following agreed standards.” In terms of volume for a microcredential, the group left flexibility for innovation and experimentation: from one ECTS to less than a full degree (European Commission, 2020b).

Almost simultaneously, a European project with national ministries of education and European networks launched a complementary definition of microcredentials (Cirlan & Loukkola, 2020): “a microcredential is a certified short learning experience designed to provide the learner with specific knowledge/skills/competences that respond to societal, personal, cultural, or employability needs. Microcredentials are subjected to a quality assurance assessment in line with the ESG.”

In order to develop a microcredential policy, higher education institutions will work as central actors among external stakeholders to realize the “knowledge square”: education, research, innovation, and service to society. This is a new concept for higher education institutions, and quality assurance guidelines should take into account new organizational models and types of course design for CEPD, involving external stakeholders at all levels.

The European Universities Initiatives (EUIs)

Since 2021, 279 universities have been involved in 41 European Universities Initiatives or EUIs (European Commission, 2018a). The European Commission considers these alliances as a priority and a spearhead for innovation to be supported by digital education. They organize an integrated European campus, e.g., through joint courses and programs and embedded mobility for students and staff. In line with the delivery mode of programs, mobility can be physical, virtual, or blended (Henderikx & Ubachs, 2019). The target is 50% short-term or long-term mobility, depending on the curriculum goals and personal preferences of the students.

The corona crisis was an emergency test for the alliances for organizing this as planned. Digital teaching and learning methods enabled them to realize the goals they are committed to. To this end, they brought together the best expertise in the field of digital education at their partner institutions. Now, they see the need for changing emergency approaches in sustainable pedagogies for international education.

This is an important challenge for quality assurance. To some extent, the alliances can fall back on the already existing European approach to quality assurance of joint programs (EQAR, 2015). However, EUIs have a broader mission as their activities span multiple campuses and therefore many national quality assurance bodies would need to be addressed. The ongoing EUniQ project focuses on the special features of multicampus quality assurance and expanded missions of the new alliances, “allowing to replace multiple national QA procedures that are not appropriate to assess the quality of these European alliances” (EUniQ, 2021).


More Complexity in Digital Higher Education

After the corona crisis, digital higher education practices are growing in quantity and permeating mainstream degree education. They have also become more complex as various pedagogies are used in courses and programs, such as synchronous hybrid, blended, and online education and distance learning.

Universities also organize a broader range of education. In addition to degree education, they offer online programs for continuing education, microcredential courses, and open education through MOOCs, all based on their mission.

The international dimension has also become important in all these areas. Universities organize joint curricula and mobility schemes. This development has even been bolstered by the European Commission’s European Universities Initiatives (EUIs), creating alliances across Europe.

Digital education plays an essential role in creating a new pedagogical landscape.

Quality Assurance in Digital Education

The quality assessment of digital education is typically process-oriented, e.g., related to course and curriculum design, including digital resources; interactive facilities in the learning environment for developing and delivering digital education; the support of course teams by teaching and learning and ICT services; and wider institutional strategies for digital education and innovation. At the macro-level, governments are pushing digitalization to succeed in the Commission’s Transformation Agenda of the European University for 2030.

Universities and quality assurance agencies are aware that quality assurance should take into account the perspectives of the various internal and external stakeholders at different levels in the university ecosystem. Change processes affect stakeholders at micro-, meso-, and macro-levels who all need to engage in dialog with each other.

Quality Instruments

Quality criteria for digital higher education are based on agreed principles or frames of reference. These criteria are used for benchmarking, identifying internal improvement opportunities. The widely used E-xcellence instrument refers to benchmarks related to curriculum and course design, course delivery, student support, staff support, and strategic management for digital education. The E-xcellence label recognizes a continuous cycle of e-learning improvement by the university.

For internal and external quality assurance, it is estimated that the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG, 2015) apply to digital education as it is to traditional forms of education. However, when applying the ESG guidelines, specific extensions have been developed for digital education.

Recently, a maturity model has been developed to assess institutional decision-making about digital education at all levels, based on dimensions in the most recent research (van Valkenburg et al., 2020 ipv EMBED).

A global report on quality assurance in digital higher education shows that there is no need for new quality schemes as such but that there was a huge gap and need for global knowledge sharing, capacity building, and coordination.


Specific challenges for the future relate to the areas of degree, continuing education, and professional development (CEPD) and international education and virtual mobility.

Degree Education

After of the corona crisis, universities are now consolidating digital pedagogies for on campus degree education, in particular synchronous hybrid, blended, and online distance education. While upscaling these approaches, specific benchmarks are to be developed. Also, universities will be challenged by new educational technologies with applications of artificial intelligence.

Continuing Education

Due to the needs in the economy and society, universities will rethink CEPD offerings and develop appropriate organizational models for this area. The European Commission is promoting microcredentials for continuing education. Governments and universities have already started with this new development. The permanent interaction with economy and society adds a dimension to the design, delivery, and organization of CEPD.

Quality benchmarks in this area are related to dimensions such as the level of flexibility for adult learners, the integration of academic and professional competency development, the design of courses in interaction with enterprises and sectors, the recognition of qualifications for microcredentials, and the stackability of courses.

Collaborations and Mobility that Transcend the Individual University

International collaboration and digital mobility within EUI alliances are an important issue for quality assurance. EUIs span multiple campuses, and therefore many national quality assurance bodies would need to be addressed. Ways forward have to be developed for multicampus quality assurance and expanded missions of the new alliances, replacing multiple national quality assurance procedures that are not appropriate to assess the quality of these European alliances.

National Governments and Universities: Bottom-Up and Top-Down Processes

The European policy agenda is shared by national governments through the Council of Ministers, where bottom-up and top-down processes meet. In the coming years, these will include the full range of quality assurance issues such as the digitization of higher education practices in university alliances, microcredentials, joint programs, and various forms of virtual mobility. National governments and institutions are already anticipating these developments. It will impact on internal and external quality assurance processes (Raes, 2020a, Raes 2020b, Detienne, Windey, & Depaepe, 2020)