How has online learning affected college accreditation?

As universities embrace a plethora of new virtual learning platforms and expand their online course catalogs to meet the demand for distance learning options, it’s hard not to agree on the fact that COVID-19 has helped to dramatically change the way learning takes place in institutions across the United States. distance and online programming has catalyzed the digitization of higher education, little has changed in the way the country’s regional accrediting bodies assess institutions and their programs, which according to the leaders of the bodies of accreditation, are primarily measured by their performance over time.

According to Jamienne Studley, chair of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), the growth of virtual learning during COVID-19 has helped bring discussions of student performance firmly into the spotlight as that educators strive to maintain engagement and provide adequate academic supports remotely. Regarding the evaluation of online programs, she said organizations like hers tend to measure student learning outcomes such as postgraduate success and job placement, among other metrics found on the board. dashboard of WSCUC’s online key indicators, to “put student performance in context across time and institutions. .”

“Preparing institutions and accreditation reviewers to use this information in a thoughtful, consistent and nuanced way, to understand whether students are succeeding and why, to appreciate differences in student populations and delivery models, and especially how to use this information to improve results,” she said in an email to Government Technology.

Studley said the shift to comprehensive online learning in all course subjects during COVID-19 has forced education officials and institutions to take a closer and deeper look at the different needs of students, especially particularly first-generation students who tend to need educational guidance that is often more readily available in traditional in-person classes. Working with the WASC Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, the two accrediting bodies have accredited a total of 340 institutions, most of which have followed suit with other colleges and universities developing online programming during COVID-19.


“A specific challenge that online education has brought to the fore is ensuring student services and supports are tailored to different programs, student needs, and education delivery models. Online education has forced colleges and universities to demand [more about] how to provide effective counseling, information resources, career development, extracurricular opportunities, health services, and other services to their students. This, in turn, prepared them to better understand needs and options to support all students,” she said. Government Technology. “Many students and educators believe that online education is just a method of delivery that can be judged by the same standards of quality and results that accreditors apply to higher education generally…As for today’s debates about remote office and in-person work, the challenge is to make sure we understand what we mean by success, productivity and results, and to think creatively about how to ensure quality for students in all types of learning context.

Along the same lines, Janea Johnson, public relations and data specialist for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), said very little, if anything, has fundamentally changed in the way the SACSCOC accredits schools as they add to their online course catalogs. While some assessments for institutional accreditation took place remotely at the start of the pandemic in 2020, she said all 810 institutions accredited by the organization are assessed against the same standards measuring student outcomes, institutional planning and whether or not the instructional strategies are evidence. -based.

“We accredit institutions that offer online education long before COVID, and we use the same process to determine if institutions are prepared for online teaching,” she said. “We do not distinguish between in person and online [learning] for our member institutions, and our institutions are held accountable to 88 standards, regardless of their method of course delivery… There is no alternative path.

Sonny Ramaswamy, chair of the North West Commission on Colleges and Universities, said a big part of evaluating the effectiveness of online programming in the institutional accreditation process is looking at how instructors themselves are trained. With the adoption of digital learning tools changing the nature of teaching, he said, professional development of edtech is a key factor in schools’ ability to administer online courses. .
“We need to make sure that the online program is properly vetted in the sense that they have the proper resources and the faculty members and the credentials to be able to do that,” he said, noting that schools that are fully in line such as Western Governors University are among the 162 institutions accredited by the organization.

“When we do accreditation and site visits, we look at various types of courses and degree programs offered by those institutions, whether online or on campus, and we also look at them in detail. . We also require annual reports from institutions, in which they provide us with information about online or on-campus courses and study programs,” he said. “They disaggregate the data for us, in terms of enrollment and in terms of graduation, completion, retention and all of those things as well.”

Despite some concerns about the effectiveness of distance learning for students who need more in-person academic support and guidance, he hopes the rise of distance learning will serve to “democratize” the higher education in the years to come by meeting students where they are.

“As an accrediting body, our evaluators review student results. Have they acquired the knowledge promised by the institution? Did they obtain the diploma promised by the institution? And then also, we are now starting to track other things such as outcomes beyond college,” he said. “As it concerns [concerns about] academic dishonesty and academic integrity and all that, it could happen in either situation, whether it’s online or in person… The idea is really to make sure you meet the needs of that student wherever they are, and I think the digital revolution really allows us to do that well.

Speaking on behalf of the Commission on Distance Education Accreditation, Executive Director and CEO Leah Matthews said the effectiveness of online programming largely depends on how courses are administered. Like Ramaswamy, she believes that edtech professional development is a key factor in an online institution’s ability to gain accreditation.

“Many [regional accreditation bodies] have very clear and specific procedures for adding distance learning that institutions had to follow to move forward, and some are tracking rapid approvals that occurred at the start of the pandemic. There were some indulgences around the swift approval of distance learning, with the caveat that there would be rigorous follow-up review of the quality of education,” she said, noting that unlike most regional bodies, DEAC only evaluates comprehensive online academies in all 50 states.

“Education quality standards for distance education measure outcomes in the same way as [in-person] delivery of education, but standards on how faculty are qualified to teach in online learning, how learning management systems deliver the curriculum to the online learner, and the quality of this program, its accessibility and ability to measure student learning and provide progress reports to the student on their learning outcomes is a very important factor. This is often done differently than curriculum assessment for students in a traditional face-to-face learning environment,” she continued. “I would also say that we value additional resources differently… How is that integrated into the program? Are the materials at an appropriate level of rigor and are they relevant? »

Matthews added that while accrediting bodies adhere to US Department of Education guidelines for institutional and programmatic assessment, the United States has a largely decentralized accreditation system. She added that the effectiveness of online programs can vary widely when comparing first-generation students who need more academic support with advanced students who will benefit most from the flexibility of online learning.

“When you’re decentralized, no two institutions or two accreditors operate the same way, and all of that decentralization and diversity can lead to unequal outcomes for students,” she said. “Getting started with online learning can be extremely challenging for them… First-time learners tend to struggle the most with retention, focus and maintenance.

“If we really want to grow online learning, especially for these learners, we really need to channel our resources into support services for them, coaching, mentoring, academic advising, tutoring and building communities of online learners.

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