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Accrediting Bodies Consider New Standards for Distance-Education Programs
The six bodies that grant accreditation to colleges and universities in the United States are near agreement on guidelines for evaluating distance education that differ from traditional accrediting standards by focusing on how much students learn.
If enacted, the regional accrediting agencies would use the guidelines to set standards for granting accreditation to distance-education programs and institutions.
Under the guidelines, the regional bodies would not accredit a distance-education program unless faculty members controlled the creation of the content, the institution provided technical and program support for both faculty members and students, and the program had evaluation and assessment methods for measuring student learning.
The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, the group made up of all the regional associations, hired the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications to create the draft guidelines and work with the commission throughout the summer as the guidelines become final.
The regional accrediting agencies are creating the guidelines because distance-education programs reach students across regional borders, and the agencies wanted to make sure similar standards were adopted throughout the country, says Sally Johnstone, director of the Western cooperative.
Institutions should use the technologies that are developed for distance education to better understand students' strengths and weaknesses so colleges can personalize curricula to students' needs, she says.
"It really focuses on student learning instead of institutional preferences," Ms. Johnstone says of a draft of the guidelines. "We view technology as a tool that can really enable people to learn in their own way."
Charles M. Cook, director of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges' Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, says distance education can provide a more active learning environment for students than traditional education by engaging the student with interactive technology, instead of relying on a professor's lecture.
"The focus of attention, I think, has changed," he says. "It's focused on the learner."
Rick Skinner, president of the University System of Georgia's distance-learning program, says that focusing on the learner is the correct way to assess quality in an education program. "I think what you learn is more important than how you learn," he says.
However, he says that the accreditors' focus on interactivity and support services sets standards for distance education at a higher level than those for traditional education. "Regional accrediting bodies are bringing to bear some unusual scrutiny," he says.
A course in which a student listened passively to a professor's lecture would have to be changed substantially -- by making it more interactive -- before accreditors would approve its being in a distance-education program, he says.
The plan is to finish the guidelines in September, says David B. Wolf, chairman of the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions. Afterward, each regional accrediting agency will have to decide whether to accept the guidelines and how to apply them to their own standards, he says. Universities can also use the guidelines to help make sure high quality is maintained in their own distance-education programs, he says.
Accrediting agencies are finding themselves having to review new institutions that have no campuses but instead rely on online education to teach students. And traditional universities are creating distance-learning programs that accreditors have to review when the universities' regular accreditation comes up for renewal.
A previous set of distance-education guidelines, created in 1996, focused mostly on televised courses. Regional accreditors decided to update it this year because of the growth of online education. "We've got e-stuff now, and back then we didn't have e-anything," Mr. Wolf says. "You've just got to update the lingo."
More institutions are entering into partnerships with companies and other institutions to share technology and courses, which can make it difficult to apply traditional accreditation standards, he adds.
The guidelines are almost complete, and most of the themes have already been accepted by the accrediting agencies. "They've all sort of agreed to it, more or less," Ms. Johnstone says. "There may be some tweaking in it."
Mr. Wolf, who is also executive director of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges at the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, says the guidelines are meant to be broad so they can maintain quality without putting a stranglehold on institutional creativity. Because online education is new and institutions are still experimenting, the guidelines are being written in a way to keep individuality in the programs.
"The regional accrediting community in no way wants to inhibit the experimentation of institutions," he says.
At the same time, the accreditors want to make sure that experimentation doesn't lead to lousy content, Mr. Wolf says. "Some of those experiments aren't going to last very long," he says.
Accreditation agencies will continue to try to keep up with the constant growth and change of distance education, he says. Standards will be updated as the accreditors and institutions determine what works and what doesn't. "We've got to try to stay with the wave," he says.
About the Author:
Dan Carnavale is a frequent contributor to The Chronicle. He is well known and respected throughout the Distance Learning community. Permission to reprint this article was granted by The Chronicle of Higher Education. This article may not be published, reposted or redistributed without express permission from The Chronicle. Subscribers can read this story on the Web at this address: http://chronicle.com/free/2000/08/2000081101u.htm. This story is from The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com) for Friday, August 11, 2000.Copyright © 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education