Now You Can See Me: Student-centered Learning, the University and the Quality Assurance

A student-centred approach is seen as a precondition for quality in learning and teaching.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on education globally. Like elsewhere, in Armenia, due to the lockdowns, educational institutions were urged to transition their teaching and learning online. This transition could at best be described as rapid response to the current situation, rather than a systemic approach to delivering digitally-enhanced education, despite the existence of legislative mechanisms for distance education since 2010.
While no single university was completely prepared for the (new) virtual reality, the design and delivery of education in accordance with the new learning context, its features and participants have become more than topical in the higher education debates in Armenia. Discernable in these debates is the importance of student-centred learning as a key driver for innovation in teaching and learning.

What do we mean by student-centered learning (SCL)?

There are a number of definitions for the SCL. Most of them share a central point: SCL is an approach to teaching and learning where students are central to education. Here is a reference to the recent report by Klemencic (2020, p.33), where SCL is defined as:

“capability of students to participate in, influence and take responsibility for their learning pathways and environments, in order to achieve the expected learning outcomes”.

In SCL, students construct knowledge through discovery and inquiry, engage in authentic tasks, use their prior experiences and knowledge – which all are core components for meaningful learning. To get here, SCL implies a different way of organizing the learning process and the curricula, as driven by the students’ needs. This does not only get confined with the structural changes but primarily with the shifts in the classroom practices themselves.

Where is Armenia in SCL?

Armenia’s commitment to promoting student-centred learning came as a political promise since its joining the European Higher Education Area in 2005. SCL was put on the European political agenda officially in 2009 through the Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Ministerial Communiqué, where the teaching and learning mission of higher education universities was brought into the arena. SCL was strongly tied to the curricular reforms recognizing the need for the approaches to teaching and learning and empowering individual learners (EHEA, 2009). Later, in 2012, the importance was reemphasized in the Bucharest Communique, whereby the ministers responsible for education reiterated their commitment “to promote student-centred learning in higher education, characterized by innovative methods of teaching that involve students as active participants in their own learning” (EHEA, 2012, p. 2). The political promise for SCL was further underscored in the Yerevan Communique (2015) and later in the Paris Communique (2018), whereby the political leaders expressed their commitment to “encourage and support higher education institutions and staff in promoting pedagogical innovation in student-centred learning environments”(EHEA, 2015, p. 2). The Paris Communiqué further specified that “study programmes should provide diverse learning methods and flexible learning which can foster social mobility and continuous professional development whilst enabling learners to access and complete higher education at any stage of their lives”(EHEA, 2018, p. 3).
At the national level, two documents can be mentioned. One is the 2019 Government Program, which states that education is an integral part of every citizen’s dignity and happiness. Education quality and its modernization, access and equity, education for active citizenship are placed among the central values for the government. The program is confined with acknowledging the importance of the student-centred nature of universities. Another one is the Draft Law on Higher Education (accessed 2020) where the need for the SCL is mentioned in relation to the internal quality assurance for the universities and is defined as central for the development of academic programs, teaching and learning, and assessment.

How are the universities doing in terms of the quality assurance of their teaching and learning processes?

The official institutional accreditation process for the Armenian public (and private) universities started in 2015. The accreditation is done based on the standards adapted by the National Accreditation Agency (ANQA) based on the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ESG). The ESGs are a set of standards for internal and external quality assurance that guideline quality provision in higher education. The revised version of the ESGs in 2015 reiterated the “focus on quality assurance related to learning and teaching in higher education, including the learning environment and relevant links to research and innovation” (European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in European Higher Education Area, 2015, p. 7).
The universities are evaluated against 10 standards[1].
Let’s take the standards under Academic Programs. The national standard 3.2. suggests that in order for the universities to meet the quality of their academic programs, they should have:

“a policy that ensures alignment between teaching and learning approaches and the intended learning outcomes of academic programs promoting student-centred learning

To understand whether the universities meet this standard, let’s look at the reports of the expert reviews and the decision of the accreditation committee.
The most recent accreditation decision was done for the Armenian State Pedagogical University in February 2020, whereby the university was granted a 4-year accreditation by the Accreditation Committee.
According to the ANQA conclusion, out of 10 standards, the universities failed to meet the requirements for 4 (!) (on Governance and Administration, Academic Programs, Research and Development, Internal QA System). Despite considerable weaknesses for the most important standards, the university was re-accredited for another 4 years.
Under the Academic Programs, the conclusions mention one reference to the SCL, which is: “ASPU realizes the necessity of creating a student-centered learning environment, however, currently applied teacher-centred teaching methods are predominant”.

In the expert review report, a reference is made to the availability of Google Classroom platform, which, however, is concluded as “not adapted to the application of interactive, collaborative and student-centred methods”. In fact, it is extremely concerning for the major pedagogical institution in the country to pronounce that “60% of classrooms are equipped with projectors and Smart TVs which the University considers as an important condition for the application of interactive method”.

It is interesting to compare the strategic aspirations of the university with the comments under the review of the accreditation committee. Looking at the strategy of the ASPU for 2016-2020, one sees a rather ambitious aim – “to provide technologically-enriched and methodologically-enhanced academic programs according to students’ needs and labour market demands”. Another aim is to “introduce innovative educational process utilizing the online resources and ensuring the use of ICT in classrooms”. These aims are surely significant for the revamp of the university academic programs, still, notably, the university failed to implement exactly these aims against the standard of its quality academic programs.

Let’s take the case of Yerevan State University, which was accredited in 2015 and will be undergoing its re-accreditation by 2021.

In terms of the strategic aspirations of the YSU, the 2016-2020 strategic plan envisions the institution as a quality educational hub, aiming to provide innovative student-centred education. Student-centredness is placed as one of the priorities of the institution. The objective states that SCL requires support to the students, their academic and labour market needs. This includes the design of new approaches to teaching and learning and modernization of the curricula. The learning outcomes are clearly stated as the mechanisms for the measurement of such practices.
In 2015, YSU was reported to meet the standard for academic programs, although, according to the ANQA conclusions, the university “has adopted student-centred learning approach, however, the transition to it is not fully completed yet”. The conclusion further notes that the academic programs “are rather traditional in the sense that they are discipline-based and teacher-centred”.

This seems to be supported by the results of the baseline survey that was conducted within an Erasmus + European project, of which YSU is a participating member (TOPAS). The project aims to “facilitate the transition from a teacher-centred knowledge-based form of education to student-centred practice-based education in Agriculture studies” and runs from 2017 to 2020. Through one of the available outcomes of the project, a baseline survey among the students, teachers and employers of the partner universities was conducted to reveal the stakeholders’ views on their educational experiences. In a survey conducted among 140 students at Yerevan State University (mainly those engaged in agrarian studies), the lowest mean scores were received in the categories where students were asked to evaluate their academic relationship with the teacher (for instance, for the statement, such as, ‘teachers showing genuine interest in students’). Students also seemed unhappy about the teaching content of their classes, and the majority noted the ‘frontal’ nature of teaching (TOPAS, 2018).

These findings are not unique to YSU only. A student survey run in a 2015 within the Bologna System in Armenia. A Student Perspective study shows a prevalence of the lectures as the most common way of ‘teaching’ (in almost 45% of the reviewed cases), the limited use of the innovative and experiential mechanisms for engaging students in the learning process. As little as 30% of the students reported being engaged in the preparation of the educational programs.  

At its origin, the student-centred learning necessitates a shift from the conventional input-based content design to a more outcome-based curricular design and pedagogical practice. This means changing approach to defining learning outcomes and developing students’ competencies in their study areas. While in the last decade the Bologna-driven curricular reforms reflecting the importance of student-centred learning have been taking place in Armenia, their implementation in practice still remains a challenge. We can see that institutionally almost all of the universities in Armenia stress the provision of the SCL as their strategic commitment, yet practically this is not really happening.

We certainly need to go a long way to ensure that the political and strategic aspirations for the student-centred teaching turn into practice. In fact, the overall picture may not be as gloomy as it was laid out above. Individual and case-by-case explorations do provide us with high-impact pedagogical practices. But we need to ensure we have the right ecosystem in place to ensure the quality in higher education in the country. Quality assurance mechanisms are but one of them. The adherence to them and the integrity behind their evaluation are another.

[1]Mission and purpose
Governance and administration
Academic programs
Faculty and staff
Research and development
Infrastructure and resources
Societal responsibility
External relations and internationalization
Internal quality assurance

Image retrieved