Virtual Quality Assurance Site Visits (QAF 2.2.1 and 5.2.1)

The Quality Assurance Framework specifies circumstances under which, with agreement of the external reviewers, a desk review (where only documents are reviewed) or a virtual site visit are acceptable (replacing an in-person site visit). The following offers some practical advice and suggestions for the virtual site visit option.

  1. Format and principles: Things to consider early in the process
  • Pre-established roles for each session:
    • Who will host the meeting, with responsibilities such as:
      • Managing meeting participants through your virtual meeting platform
      • Meeting “etiquette” overview (see attached and below)
    • Who will chair the meeting?
      • Presenting the topics, raising the issues, asking the questions, facilitating discussion and response, keeping a “speakers list”
    • Who will provide tech support?
      • Ideally, this will be someone other than the host so that the host can remain as host while the tech support person attends to any tech issues that may arise
      • If necessary, have this person participate in any tutorials or training that the web conferencing provider offers
      • When the virtual site visit occurs, and if this person is someone other than the “host”, consider having your tech person sit in on the event to monitor the quality of the event. Either way, the tech support person should be able to troubleshoot immediately and as and when problems arise to avoid having to reschedule the entire virtual site visit to a later date
      • Consider keeping a phone line clear or a chat window at the ready
      • Consider sharing a mobile number, either of the host or staff in the QA Office in case of additional troubleshooting requirements
      • During the meetings, the participants in the “Waiting Room” (if using Zoom) need to be vetted and admitted, at the appropriate time
      • Participants may need tech support in “re-naming” their video image with their real names and/or any other element of the virtual site visit
    • Who will monitor the chat function, if this is being used?
  • Do your reviewers need some time built into the beginning of the virtual visit to plan their visit and / or get to know one another a little?
  • Will your reviewers also need you to provide them with a private session to debrief and discuss their next steps at the end of the virtual visit? If so, how is this to be managed?
  • In-person visits typically include some less formal/more social elements. Are there any opportunities to build this aspect into the virtual visit?
  • Will participants need to be able to see and discuss documents during the virtual site visit? If so, you will need a plan for sharing on everyone’s screen or disseminating before the visit takes place. Consider using the meeting invitation or a secure site (Teams, etc,) for this purpose
  • Is there to be a virtual tour of labs, facilities, etc? If so, a wireless web cam might need to be part of the plan. In addition, programs may already have video and virtual tours of facilities. Consider vetting these to determine their viability for this purpose. For example, are they more modelled for “recruitment”, and/or are they detailed enough to show the functionality of the facilities?
  • Will participants be joining the meetings across more than one time zone? If so, this will need to be accounted for when scheduling the meetings. In addition, make sure that the time zones are synchronized for the sign on time
  • Take special care to ensure that all students who are to attend a meeting(s) understand the purpose of the cyclical review and the importance of their role in it
  • Consider creating some meeting “etiquette” guidelines (see the attached example that was created for Zoom meetings – you will likely wish to create your own version)
  1. Scheduling considerations
  • The current one- to two-day contiguous face-to-face site visits are principally driven by the travel and accommodation considerations for the external reviewer(s). Schedule multiple sessions, each for no more than two hours
  • Consider scheduling no more than three meetings in a single day
  • The meetings might also helpfully occur over a few days — which could be several days apart — increasing the flexibility of timing and making it possible to complete the site visit and the review more quickly
  • Also, remember to build in sufficient breaks between meetings so that the reviewers and other meeting participants can take a comfort break, eat, etc.
  • Try to retain the preferred sequence of meetings that would have occurred if the visit had been in-person. For example, have the review committee meet in camera first on their own, and try to schedule meetings with the Provost, Deans, and Department Chair early in the process
  • Consider having a representative from the QA / Provost’s Office attend the first meeting to “put faces to names,” to review the format and schedule, answer any questions, and cover what to do if there are any technical issues
  • It can also be helpful to have someone from the QA / Provost’s Office participate at the end of the site visit to ensure that the external reviewers feel they have spoken to everyone that they need to, as well as to answer any questions they may have and to review next steps
  1. Spend time on finding the right tool(s) to replace the in-person visit
  • Try to balance ease of access and use with appropriate security features
  • What is your budget? Some tools are free, others have packages that are paid on a monthly basis, while still others may use a per-minute fee structure
  • Security considerations for each platform
  • Options to consider: Microsoft Teams, Zoom, WebEx, Business Skype, and RealPresence (there may be others)
  • Your external reviewers may not have the same computer system / phone / internet speed to support the software you are considering and you may need access to more than one tool
  • Zoom on Android does not offer the same functionality as when used on an iOS device
  • If possible, leverage the experts on your campus in your central or local computing group. They may have already developed tip sheets and experience with inviting significant numbers of external guests into virtual meetings. They may also have detailed instructions to share with participants
  1. Security considerations
  • Zoom, while accessible and easy to use, has also raised concerns about security –including but not limited to security of the meeting itself (i.e., Zoom-bombing). No matter which platform is being used for the virtual site visit, your institution’s guidelines for matters such as security and privacy will be a critical resource.
  • Depending on the tools available in your platform of choice, consider implementing:
    • Mandatory passwords
    • Separate “meeting” invites to each and every session that make up the site visit
    • Enable the “Waiting Room” function to get into the meeting itself and ask all participants to label (or rename) their video with their real first and last name. The moderator (or “host”) should then compare that name with the attendance list for the meeting and not admit anyone whose name does not match
    • Manage participants in a meeting to control who can share their screen, etc.
  • Many of the platforms include the capacity for any of the participants to record and / or capture screenshots and “chats”. See below for more on this feature.
  1. Do a test run
  • The host or tech support person should conduct a dry run with each of your external reviewers
  • This dry run should include testing all features that you plan to use during the virtual site visit to ensure everyone is comfortable with the tools. This will also identify whether there are any issues with someone’s platform not supporting an important component so that the meeting itself can run as smoothly as possible
  1. During the meetings
  • Establish the meeting “Etiquette” for all participants at the beginning of each session
  • Walk all participants through the agreed meeting etiquette (see attached) and establish the norms for the meeting: everyone “muted” when not speaking, cameras on, virtual hand raising to speak, “chat” panel open, etc.
  • Make it clear at the final meeting that if any additional meetings are needed, or if the reviewers need to speak to an individual or group again, that can be arranged
  • Reinforce at the final meeting that if needed, you are available to answer any questions (or find the answers) or provide clarifications for the reviewers as they prepare their report
  1. Be thoughtful and clear in advance with all participants about the potential use of the “RECORD” function of the software
  • One of the new features of virtual/video site visits is the easy opportunity to produce both a video and a written transcript of each session. Each university will need to decide whether to use this feature based on your own privacy practices.
  • Before hitting “record” for any part of any session, ensure all participants are aware they will be recorded. Some participants may be reluctant to be recorded and therefore the host or QA staff should be familiar with privacy guidelines.
  • There should be a clear understanding by all participants on the issues of who “owns” the recording, who will have access to it (and who will not) and at what stage in the process. Again, your institutional privacy guidelines will assist in this regard.
  1. Consider how to offset the increased “distancing” of External Reviewers
  • Some may be concerned about substituting a virtual/video site visit for the traditional face-to-face and the increased psychological distancing of the Reviewers. Whether this concern is legitimate or not, having orientation processes in place to address the concern is a benefit
  • Meeting your reviewers from the privacy of their own offices / homes will also be a different experience than if the meetings were on the institution’s “home turf”. Reviewers should be encouraged to be mindful of this change in dynamic
  1. Have a back-up plan
  • Despite your best preparations, something can always go wrong: A lost connection, a power outage, etc.
  • Prior to the site visit, consider also circulating a backup teleconference number that participants can access with cell phones or a landline
  • Be sure that the tech support person has access to all relevant email addresses for all participants for each session, so that they can email documents that fail to load or display on the screen
  1. Gather feedback
  • Ask your reviewers for feedback on the effectiveness of the format during the final meeting
  • Ask all other participants (via email or a brief survey) for feedback on what worked well / what did not and what you could do differently next time to make the process more user-friendly and effective