Stop Saying “High Quality”

Recently the phrase “high quality” has come up several times in discussions of educational materials, and I’ve been surprised what a strong, negative reaction I’ve been having each time I heard the word.

After some reflection I think the reason the phrase gets my goat is that “high quality” sounds like it’s dealing with a core issue, while actually dodging the core issue. The phrase is sneaky and deceptive. (Now I don’t mean that the people who were using it were trying to be deceptive; they weren’t. But the phrase itself tends to blind people.) And by “core issue” I mean this – the core issue in determining the quality of any educational resource is the degree to which it supports learning. But confusingly, that’s not what people mean when they say that a textbook or other educational resource is “high quality.”

It’s very easy to demonstrate that “the degree to which it supports learning” is the only characteristic of an educational resource that matters. If an educational resource is written by experts, copyedited by professionals, reviewed by peers, laid out by graphic designers, contains beautiful imagery, and is provided in multiple formats, but fails to support learning, is it appropriate for us to call it “high quality”? No. No, no, no. A thousand times no. Despite this fact, which is intuitively obvious, when people say “high quality” they actually mean all these things (author credentials, review by faculty, copyediting, etc.) except effectiveness. In the world of textbooks and other educational materials, “high quality” describes the authoring and editorial process, and is literally unrelated to whether or not the educational resource supports learning.

In this way, saying “high quality” obscures the issue we should care about most. Instead of letting people and companies off the hook by checking boxes during the pre-publication process, we should care about whether or not a particular resource supports learning for each of our particular students. Seen this way, the true desideratum of educational materials is “effective.” I really don’t care what the pre-publication processes was like as long as my students are learning (unless the process was unethical in some way).

So please – let’s stop saying “high quality.” We don’t want “high quality” educational materials – we want “effective” educational materials. In the future, when you catch yourself saying “high quality,” stop and correct yourself. When you hear others say “high quality,” take that teachable moment to help them understand that the phrase is a ruse. If we can change this one element of the education conversation, we’ll have done something powerful.

(And don’t forget – when materials are so expensive that students can’t afford them, they are perfectly ineffective.)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Thanks for this high quality post. I agree.

  • TelmeaStory

    I have just as much problem with PR slicks declaring that their institution provides a “quality” educational experience. Often that quality is “low” quality.

  • Don Gorges

    Thanks for sharing, David. Please provide examples to support your thinking/teaching – i.e. examples of “an educational resource [is] written by experts, copyedited by
    professionals, reviewed by peers, laid out by graphic designers,
    contains beautiful imagery, and is provided in multiple formats, but
    fails to support learning”

  • sherio

    Quality is notoriously difficult to assess and I suppose effective teaching materials would be too. In the consumer world some brands like Mercedes Benz are recognized for high quality. Other brands may scream luxury but be very poor mechanical quality, Jaguar..
    But as a catch phrase for marketing, the word quality sells.

  • I couldn’t agree more. But I think part of the problem is that the usual meaning of “high quality” is a lot easier to measure, to check the boxes off for as you put it, than effectiveness for learning. If I can say of some OER that it’s been peer reviewed by experts in the field (or even used by them), written by an expert, etc., then that’s much easier to show than how effective it is for learning. Would we have to do empirical research for each piece of content to show it is effective? This would leave a lot of OER out that haven’t been evaluated that way (and then we’re back to the other meaning of “high quality,” perhaps), I think, because it’s a fair bit of work to do such research.

    Or might there be other ways to show effectiveness for learning than empirical research?

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  • Don Gorges

    __Your point might make sense if you’d offer
    examples of “an educational resource [is] written by experts, copyedited
    by professionals, reviewed by peers, laid out by graphic designers, contains beautiful imagery, and is provided in multiple formats, but fails to support learning” _ why not compare details of the math products created at Lumen Learning with the math products created at Pearson?

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  • Funny Guy

    High Quality article here…

  • mark terry

    Thanks David, a useful perspective to share and applicable to the use of ‘high quality’ as a marketing phrase across many services: from education to health and even social care. ‘Effective’ may not be the best alternative, but it’s better than any I can think of. Perhaps you’ve thought about better alternatives in the year or so since writing the blog…

  • josey

    Which word can take place of high quality…..