July 24, 2014

Does the U.S. accreditation system discriminate against online learning?

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Vedder, R. (2012) The Unholy Alliance Against Online Learning, Bloomberg, October 29

Yes, says Richard Vedder, professor of economics at the University of Ohio. He points to examples such as Minnesota, which briefly banned Coursera courses because they had not been accredited in the state, Ashford University, whose online courses are accredited in one region, but refused accreditation in another, and the Federal government requirement that online programs must be separately approved by every one of the 52 states individually (now under challenge in the courts), which is an onerous, costly and time-consuming requirement.

I certainly don’t claim any expertise in the arcane system (if it can be called that) of accreditation in the USA, but I think there are several separate issues at play here, and they need to be treated somewhat differently:

  • it is difficult to argue that there is a ‘system’ of accrediting institutions or programs in the USA; as Vedder says, it is a patchwork quilt, with varying standards. It is self-regulatory, and each institution picks and chooses whatever agency suits its purpose. There is no direct relationship between accrediting boards and state legislative supervision of institutions. The entire US accrediting system is incredibly confusing and misleading for potential students and should be thoroughly overhauled; but that ain’t going to happen, because of the decentralized nature of higher education in the USA.
  • one reason for the extremely cautious approaches of the federal and state governments in the USA to the accreditation of online courses is the long history of dubious practices by for-profit higher education institutions. Unfortunately, online and distance have become equated in legislators’ minds with for-profit education, which is now reaping what its earlier practitioners sowed: widespread distrust. However, if there had been integrity in the accreditation system, the for-profits would have been prevented from driving a coach and horses through the accreditation process
  • this bizarre system was worked around when education was delivered locally. States could exercise some element of control over what was happening on campuses within the state. This just doesn’t work though for distance or online learning, which can originate anywhere, not just in the USA, but from across the world.

Another barrier: the Carnegie unit of measurement

The Carnegie unit of measurement, based on time in class (e.g. three credit hours a week based on hourly lectures) doesn’t work for online learning. The US Department of Education uses the Carnegie system to determine whether a student is full-time or not, i.e. that the student takes 30 credits a year, in order to get financial aid. However, online learning does not fit the model of 39 hours of lectures over 13 weeks. Modules of learning can be much shorter or much longer, depending on the ability of the students and the needs of the teaching. What is being measured through the Carnegie system of ‘accumulating’ credits is not learning, but time spent studying.

Quite apart from discriminating against all part-time learners, making the Carnegie unit the basis for funding causes all kinds of problems for innovative ways of delivering programs to learners in the 21st century. Most learners are in essence part-time these days (average time to a bachelor’s degree in the USA is between six and seven years). Institutions such as Western Governors University, which provides an accelerated path for those already with defined competencies, has to build its competency-based training into ‘chunks’ that equate to Carnegie units, so that students qualify for financial aid. Innovative online courses have to equate to the amount of time students on campus would spend taking the same course, which is a hazy figure at best. We should be measuring outcomes, what students have learned, not how long they have spent learning it.

What should be done

Although we have our own problems north of the border, at least there is a somewhat consistent system of accreditation in Canada. Each provincial government has set up an arms-length degree quality assurance board (the name varies, but the principle is the same). The Ministry of Advanced Education or its equivalent appoints a committee of senior, respected academics from the institutions, and usually has a bureaucrat ‘observer’ on the committee who ensures the rules are followed. All institutions have to submit new degree proposals and show that they meet provincial standards, which include financial and long-term sustainability. In particular institutions are required to show that they have followed a proper quality assurance process in developing the degree proposal. Most proposals have been thoroughly vetted internally before they reach the committee.The more established universities then get much lighter oversight than a new institution.  Canada though has almost no for-profit universities and those that have tried to set up have run into real difficulties, especially regarding the financial sustainability criterion, which are deliberately rigorous. The aim though is to prevent institutions enrolling students then closing down or disappearing before the students qualify.

However, inter-provincial accreditation, especially for online courses, remains a major problem in Canada. Alberta and British Columbia have an effective agreement that enables transfer of credit and hence student mobility between the two provinces (a BC Minister once famously proclaimed Alberta’s Athabasca University ‘BC’s open university,’ much to the chagrin of BC’s Thompson Rivers University, which operates the BC Open University). However, transfer of credits between students with credits from an institution in one province to an institution in another province is still extremely bureaucratic and difficult in most cases.

In practice, students don’t care about provincial or state boundaries. Athabasca University claims that up to 40% of its students come from Ontario, for instance. The futility of trying to stop students in Minnesota from taking ‘free’ MOOCs from Stanford in California was so obvious that the ban was removed in less than 24 hours. What students do care about though is the quality of the online program. However, as long as each province or state has a rigorous process for accrediting programs and institutions, the acceptance across provinces or states of online courses from ‘approved’ institutions should be automatic.

Furthermore, problems remain in both Canada and the USA if students want to start taking online courses from an institution out of state or province then use that for advancement by transferring to a local university. The answer of course is more flexible credit transfer arrangements, more flexible prior learning assessment, and challenge exams, where students can demonstrate their learning without having to work through courses they have already taken elsewhere. Even some of the more prestigious research universities in Canada are realising that they need to be more flexible if they are to attract lifelong learners, for instance. Thus it’s as much up to the institutions as the regulators to ensure there is some flexibility in the system for students taking out of state or out of province online courses.

Yes, there needs to be sensible protections against fraud and fly-by-night online operators, but too often the restrictions, regulations and barriers are steeped in practices that no longer apply in an open, knowledge-based society. Every institution should be examining the structure of its courses, its admission requirements, its arrangements for credit transfer and prior learning assessment, and its strategy for lifelong learning, if it is to be fit for purpose in the 21st century. It is not an issue just of online learning.

Further reading

U.S. Network for Education Information. (2011). Accreditation and quality assurance. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Re.Vica’s ‘Accreditation in the US‘ and ‘Accreditation of Higher Education Institutions in the USA’ (pdf)

Barriers to inter-state accreditation of online courses in the USA

Has the credit hour become a relic?

What’s a Credit Worth?

Zemsky, R. (2009) Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education Chapel Hill NC: Rutgers University Press

A different standard for accrediting online programs?

Lederman, D. (2011) Mend it, Don’t End It, Inside Higher Education, February 4

 

 

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