ENQA case example: what NVAO (Flanders) has learned from a pandemic crisis01/07/2020

Although restrictions are being gradually relaxed in Belgium and we restarted our review processes in Flanders on 8 June 2020, higher education will probably never quite be the same again. As we emerge from this crisis, reflection is still needed. Therefore, we deliberately continue to redesign our way of working and make it future-proof. This case example that we wrote for ENQA describes our actions in Flanders to maintain quality assurance during challenging times: from online dialogues and hybrid site visits as an additional tool in our toolkit to accelerating the development of an online training platform.

In response to the lockdown in Belgium, the Flemish Department of NVAO suspended its assessment procedures for an indefinite period. From then on, all meetings were cancelled and staff began to work from home. 

And although we had no specific plan ready to deal with such a crisis, we were prepared to face the challenges in consultation with the sector. Our agency staff have not been sitting idle. 


First experience with Flemish online assessments 

Previously, we had no extensive experience with online site visits, apart from some online experiences in assessment procedures abroad. In a number of exceptional cases, (parts of) the dialogue between assessment panels and programmes (institution) were nevertheless organised online during the lockdown period. From these pilot procedures we have learned the following lessons:

  • The dialogue went very smoothly for everyone. 
  • Online conversations require a more thorough preparation in terms of content and should be more directed than regular site visits. 
  • The people the panel talks to online also used the chat function to provide further additions to questions and responses. This is something to coordinate well in advance. 
  • The participants evaluated the online dialogue as equally efficient in terms of content as a regular site visit, and much more efficient in terms of global time use and travelling. 
  • The recording option (sound and / or image) is an additional advantage for reporting. Although, with GDPR in mind, this requires explicit permission beforehand and clear communication about when the recording will be deleted.

Never waste a crisis

This pandemic crisis gave us time to reflect, together with other European QA agencies, on how we can design our procedures future-proof, responding to the challenges we are facing. 

Today, therefore, we are updating our assessment frameworks. We want frameworks to focus rather on the main goal of a site visit, namely organising a dialogue between the external panel of experts and the programme/institution, rather than focussing mainly on the form.

If an assessment panel can rely on findings from a site visit that was carried out in the context of another assessment procedure or if they are of the opinion that a physical site visit offers no added value, they can decide not to carry out a (new) site visit. Instead, the panel can organise a dialogue with the programme (institution) via a (series of) online conversation(s). The combination of a site visit and online conversations is also possible, for example to speak to certain stakeholders for whom physical presence is difficult. 


Hybrid assessments: online and on site

Although restrictions are being gradually relaxed in Belgium and we restarted our review processes in Flanders on 8 June 2020, higher education will probably never quite be the same again. As we emerge from this crisis, reflection is still needed. Therefore, we deliberately continue to redesign our way of working. Prior to the lockdown we were already developing a new training programme for panel members with two distinct parts: an online, content-focused part and a real-life roleplaying and skills part. In response to the crisis, we swiftly pivoted and developed a complete online training platform. 

Furthermore, we now see online dialogues as an additional tool in our toolkit for assessment procedures. And though site visits remain a requirement for most procedures; we do have other procedures that can be organised online (e.g. change in study load). Between these extremes we mainly see possibilities for hybrid assessments: a combination of online and on site. In doing so, we first of all assume that parts of the procedure can go online where it has an added value (e.g. first introductory meeting of the panel of experts and the dialogues with alumni, representatives of professional field). This allows the actual site visit to have a clearer focus. And secondly, we acknowledge that even in actual site visit meetings, some of the participants may take part online. 

This case example was published in a online publication, together with case examples from other ENQA member agencies. Learning from each other is beneficial at any time. But even more so in times of crisis. ENQA members and affiliates give insight and share experience on how external quality assurance agencies are adapting to the circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jasper Delanoy Communicatieadviseur

+32(0)495 60 24 95 Bel