November 18, 2017

One reason we are not getting enough engineers in Canada: the professional associations

The CN Tower in Toronto: construction supervised by an engineer originally from Iran

From nearly 2,500 posts over nine years, none has generated so many comments as Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? 

What you will see from the comments from readers is a deep and widespread frustration at the lack of recognition by Canadian professional engineering associations of any courses or programs taken by distance. This is now getting to the point where it is becoming a national scandal. Rather than your having to read through the 120 comments or so on this post, I will summarise them for you.

Accreditation as a professional engineer in Canada

I am not an engineer by background, so please correct me if I am wrong about the process. But this seems to me to be how it works.

In order to obtain work as a professional engineer in Canada, most employers require you to be accredited through the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB). However, this means applying to one of the provincial accreditation agencies such as the Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) or the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), who assess your qualifications and issue membership to their organisation.

These organisations are groups made of of professional engineers and educators (usually Deans of Engineering Schools in universities and Institutes of Technology), so it is a self-regulating process. Usually the minimum qualification for membership is a four year bachelor’s degree in engineering from a Canadian university or its equivalent (i.e. a university in the USA whose engineering program is recognized by the U.S. Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

The decision about what foreign qualifications will be accepted is entirely at the discretion of the Canadian professional associations. This is not unlike other professions in Canada, such as teaching, medicine or nursing.

The professional association will require an individual to take further qualifications if it deems the existing qualifications do not meet the standards set.

Engineering and online learning in Canada

Until very recently, there were no fully online undergraduate courses, let alone degree programs, offered by Canadian universities in engineering. That is beginning to change. For instance:

  • Queens University, Ontario is now offering a fully online Bachelor of Mining Engineering Technology. This program is particularly directed at those already working in the mining industry. Queen’s University is one of the oldest and most well-established public universities in Canada;
  • McMaster University, Ontario, is developing an online B.Tech (mainly software engineering) in partnership with Mohawk College. Students can take a diploma program from Mohawk then take the third and fourth year courses from McMaster University. Although the campus-based B. Tech. is well-established and successful, the online version is still in development and not yet available at the time of writing. McMaster University is another well-established Canadian public university with an outstanding reputation in engineering, especially in the automative and steel industries;
  • Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia, offers a one year online B.Tech Manufacturing degree. It is available to students with technology diploma programs from colleges across Canada which have an articulation agreement in place with CBU providing for immediate advanced standing in the BET (Manufacturing) program. Students complete the B. Tech program via distance format in as little as one academic year.

These are the only online programs in engineering from accredited Canadian universities that I know about. If you know of others please let me know.

In addition there are more (but not many) accredited universities in the USA that offer fully online engineering degrees, for example:

  • the University of North Dakota (a highly respected state university) has been offering a range of engineering courses (civil, mechanical, petroleum) mainly or fully online for several years. 
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics)

Will these qualifications be recognised?

Here’s what Queen’s University states about its Bachelor of Mining Engineering Technology:

The BTech program is unaccredited. Graduates seeking professional licensure would need to apply to write the Board Exams in mining engineering. In Ontario, the application would go to the Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO). As with applications from an accredited program, graduates would also need to write the law and ethics exam, and complete the required supervised work experience program in order to be considered for licensure.

Neither the McMaster nor the Cape Breton web sites provides any statement about professional accreditation.

What do the professional associations say about online or distance learning?

The Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) stated in 2016 that

  • ‘PEO does not recognize online or distance education.’

Similarly from APEGA:

  • ‘The current Board of Examiners practice is that they do not recognize distance learning programs.’ 

So frankly, don’t bother to take an online program in engineering in Canada if you want to be a professional engineer.

Determining eligibility: obfuscation and confusion

Furthermore the whole process of identifying from the professional associations whether an online program would be accepted is circuitous and unhelpful. One reader of my blog wrote and told me that he had written to APEGA to ask whether the University of North Dakota engineering degree would be recognised as a qualification towards membership of APEGA. Here is the response he received:

 
The eligibility of any courses you’ve completed will be determined by our Academic Examiners. If the courses were completed in Canada, you will need to submit the transcripts for them to be reviewed. If they were from outside of Canada, you will need to obtain an Academic Assessment Report from World Education Services (WES).

In other words, spend several thousand dollars in tuition fees, THEN we will tell you whether we accept your qualifications or not.

Note that the UND program had already been accredited by the ABET in the USA. Alberta’s APEGA was in fact prepared to make an exception for this degree, but this was not acceptable to Ontario’s PEO. Discussions were to continue with the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board, but I could find no record of such discussions in a search of their recent documentation. So who knows whether or not the UND degree will be accepted by which provincial association?
 
Or let’s say you are a recent immigrant with an engineering degree from another country. In Alberta, the Alberta Council for Admissions and Transfer (ACAT) is the official body that provides information on admission requirements to engineering programs in Alberta universities and colleges. If you go to the ACAT web site to find out whether you degree would be accredited in Alberta, you are referred to another web site, The Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials. They then refer you back to APEGA.

Why it’s a scandal

Without obtaining a P.Eng. from the professional engineering association in a particular province, it is difficult if not impossible to get a job as a professional engineer. Of course such associations are important to ensure that engineering is being done professionally. Nobody wants their bridges to collapse or car parks on shopping malls to crash into shoppers below (Oh, wait – both of those did happen recently in Ontario).

Why we need high standards in engineering qualifications: Elliott Lake shopping mall collapse

But are these organizations making it unnecessarily difficult for people to qualify as professional engineers? From the 120 comments or so to my blog, there is strong evidence that they are. Yet at the same time we have great hand-wringing from employers, especially, about the lack of qualified engineers.

Let’s be clear about this. This engineering gap is not going to be met purely from high school leavers going into engineering programs at conventional universities. The demographics mean that many of those already working at the technical level in engineering will need upgrading and further qualifications, many while still working – hence the brave but unaccredited program from Queen’s University in mining engineering. Presumably employers will take these graduates even if the PEO holds its nose and sniffs at them because the program was done online.

I heard recently on CBC radio there are currently 18,000 engineers in Canada who came from Iran, one of whom was the supervisor for the construction of the CN tower in Toronto. We will need more engineers from immigrants who should be able to upgrade their existing engineering qualifications online while working at a lower level, without having to start from scratch.

I am not arguing that all engineering can be done fully online. Hands-on experience with equipment and laboratory work are essential. However, increasingly we are seeing co-op programs where employers provide that hands-on experience, often with more advanced and newer equipment than the universities have. Furthermore, more and more engineering is itself virtual (automation for driverless cars, for instance). Simulations and animations are increasingly replacing hands-on training. All the theoretical components of an engineering degree can be handled just as well online, and probably better, than in a face-to-face lecture class.

APEGA and PEO, like many professional bodies, are basically a closed shop or guild that restrict entry to create shortages so that members then can charge higher fees. More importantly they are often run, on a voluntary basis, by older engineers who are blissfully ignorant of new developments in engineering education. At a time when we need more highly qualified people we need greater flexibility in accepting credentials from other countries and more openness to online and distance education qualifications.

It’s time the professional associations in engineering realised that this is the 21st century and recognized appropriate online qualifications.

What do we mean by quality when teaching in a digital age?

© Insights, 2012

© Insights, 2012

Before I start on my nine steps to quality learning for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I have needed to ‘clear the decks’ about what we mean by quality. I thought this bit might be useful to share, as quality is a very slippery concept at the best of times.

The aim of this chapter is to provide some practical guidelines for teachers and instructors to ensure quality teaching in a digital age. Before I can do this, however, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by ‘quality’ in education, because I am using ‘quality’ here in a very specific way.

Definitions

Probably there is no other topic in education which generates so much discussion and controversy as ‘quality’. Many books have been written on the topic, but I will cut to the chase and give my definition of quality up-front. For the purposes of this book, quality is defined as:

teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age.

This of course is the short answer to the question. A longer answer means looking, at least briefly, at:

  • institutional and degree accreditation
  • internal (academic) quality assurance processes
  • differences in quality assurance between traditional classroom teaching and online and distance education
  • the relationship between quality assurance processes and learning outcomes
  • ‘quality assurance fit for purpose’: meeting the goals of education in a digital age.

This will then provide the foundations for my recommendations for quality teaching that will follow in this chapter.

Institutional and degree accreditation

Most governments act to protect consumers in the education market by ensuring that institutions are properly accredited and the qualifications they award are valid and are recognised as of being of ‘quality.’ However, the manner in which institutions and degrees are accredited varies a great deal. The main difference is between the USA and virtually any other country.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Network for Education Information states in its description of accreditation and quality assurance in the USA:

Accreditation is the process used in U.S. education to ensure that schools, postsecondary institutions, and other education providers meet, and maintain, minimum standards of quality and integrity regarding academics, administration, and related services. It is a voluntary process based on the principle of academic self-governance. Schools, postsecondary institutions and programs (faculties) within institutions participate in accreditation. The entities which conduct accreditation are associations comprised of institutions and academic specialists in specific subjects, who establish and enforce standards of membership and procedures for conducting the accreditation process.

Both the federal and state governments recognize accreditation as the mechanism by which institutional and programmatic legitimacy are ensured. In international terms, accreditation by a recognized accrediting authority is accepted as the U.S. equivalent of other countries’ ministerial recognition of institutions belonging to national education systems.

In other words, in the USA, accreditation and quality assurance is effectively self-regulated by the educational institutions and faculty through their control of accreditation agencies, although the government does have some ‘weapons of enforcement’, mainly through the withdrawal of student financial aid for students at any institution that the U.S. Department of Education deems to be failing to meet standards.

In many other countries, government has the ultimate authority to accredit institutions and approve degrees, although in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, this is often exercised by arm’s length agencies appointed by government, but consisting mainly of representatives from the various institutions within the system. These bodies have a variety of names, but Degree Quality Assurance Board is a typical title.

However, more important than the formal lines of responsibility for quality is how the accrediting agencies actually operate. Usually, once a degree program is approved, there is little follow-up or monitoring afterwards, unless formal complaints are subsequently made about the quality of the program, although many institutions now voluntarily review programs every five years or so. Also, once an institution has been accredited, the accreditation agency may delegate back to the institution the approval of it own degree programs, providing that it has an internal process in place for assuring quality, although where government is formally responsible, new degrees may still come to an accrediting agency, to ensure there is no duplication within the system, that there is a defined market for the program, or where approval to deviate from government guidelines on fees may be requested. Nevertheless, mainly to ensure academic freedom from direct government interference, universities in particular have a large degree of autonomy in most economically advanced countries for determining ‘quality’ in programming.

However, in recent years, some regulatory agencies such as the United Kingdom’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education have adopted formal quality assurance processes based on practices that originated in industry. The U.K. QAA’s Quality Code for Higher Education which aims to guide universities on what the QAA is looking for runs to several hundred pages. Chapter B3 on Learning and Teaching is 25 pages long and has seven indicators of quality. Indicator 4 is typical:

Higher education providers assure themselves that everyone involved in teaching or supporting student learning is appropriately qualified, supported and developed.

Many institutions as a result of pressure from external agencies have therefore put in place formal quality assurance processes over and beyond the normal academic approval processes (see Clarke-Okah et al., 2014, for a typical, low-cost example).

Internal quality assurance

It can be seen then that the internal processes for ensuring quality programs within an institution are particularly important. Although again the process can vary considerably between institutions, at least in universities the process is fairly standard. A proposal for a new degree will usually originate from a group of faculty/instructors within a department. The proposal will be discussed and amended at departmental and/or Faculty meetings, then once approved will go to the university senate for final approval. The administration in the form of the Provost’s Office will usually be involved, particularly where resources, such as new appointments, are required.

Although this is probably an over-generalisation, significantly the proposal will contain information about who will teach the course and their qualifications to teach it, the content to be covered within the program (often as a list of courses with short descriptions), a set of required readings, and usually something about how students will be assessed. Increasingly, such proposals may also include broad learning outcomes for the program.

If there is a proposal for courses within a program or the whole program to be delivered fully online, it is likely that the proposal will come under intense internal scrutiny. What is unlikely to be included in a proposal though is what methods of teaching will be used. This is usually considered the responsibility of individual faculty members. It is this aspect of quality with which this chapter is concerned.

Lastly, some institutions require every program to be reviewed after five or more years of operation, or at the discretion of the senior administration. Again whether and how this is done varies considerably. One common approach is for an internal review process, with an internal evaluation report by a committee set up by the department offering the program, followed by a review of the internal committee’s report by external assessors. This review may or (more frequently) may not lead to significant changes in a program, but this will depend on the instructors responsible for teaching the program agreeing to implement any recommended changes. Less frequently, where enrolment for a program has declined to unacceptable levels or where external complaints about a program have been received, the Vice President Academic may call for an external review of the program, in which case anything is possible, up to and including closure of the program.

Jung and Latchem (2102), in a review of quality assessment processes in a large number of online and distance education institutions around the world, make the following important points about quality assurance processes within institutions:

  • focus on outcomes as the leading measure of quality
  • take a systemic approach to quality assurance
  • see QA as a process of continuous improvement
  • move the institution from external controls to an internal culture of quality
  • poor quality has very high costs so investment in quality is worthwhile.

In particular, Butcher and Wilson-Strydom (2013) warn:

you should not assume that creating quality assurance structures… automatically improves quality….Institutional quality assurance structures and processes are important, but beware of making them an exercise in compliance for accountability, rather than a process of learning and self-improvement that really improves quality.

There are many guidelines for quality traditional classroom teaching. Perhaps the most well know are those of Chickering and Gamson (1987), based on an analysis of 50 years of research into best practices in teaching. They argue that good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Encourages active learning.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Online courses and programs

Because online learning was new and hence open to concern about its quality, there have also been many guidelines, best practices and quality assurance criteria created and applied to online programming. All these guidelines and procedures have been derived from the experience of previously successful online programs, best practices in teaching and learning, and research and evaluation of online teaching and learning.

Some degree quality assurance boards (such as the QAA in the UK and PEQAB in Ontario) have put in place specific ‘benchmarks’ for online courses. A comprehensive list of online quality assurance standards, organizations and research on online learning can be found in Appendix 3. Graham et al. (2001) applied Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles for face-to-face teaching to the evaluation of four online courses from a mid-western university in the USA, and adapted these principles for online learning.

Thus ensuring quality in online learning is not rocket science. There is plenty of evidence of what works and what doesn’t, which will be examined in more detail in this chapter. There is no need to build a bureaucracy around this, but there does need to be some mechanism, some way of calling institutions when they fail to meet these standards. However, we should also do the same for campus-based teaching. As more and more already accredited (and ‘high quality’) campus-based institutions start moving into hybrid learning, the establishment of quality in the online learning elements of programs will become even more important.

Thus there are plenty of evidence-based guidelines for ensuring quality in teaching, both face-to-face and online. The main challenge then is to ensure that teachers and instructors are aware of these best practices and that institutions have processes in place to ensure that guidelines for quality teaching are implemented and followed.

Quality assurance, innovation and learning outcomes

It may have been noted that most QA processes are front-loaded, i.e. they look at inputs – such as the academic qualifications of faculty, or the processes to be adopted for effective teaching, such as clear learning objectives – rather than outputs, such as what students have actually learned. They also tend to be backward-looking, that is, they focus on past best practices.

This is particularly important for evaluating new teaching approaches. Butcher and Hoosen (2014) state:

The quality assurance of post-traditional higher education is not straightforward, because openness and flexibility are primary characteristics of these new approaches, whereas traditional approaches to quality assurance were designed for teaching and learning within more tightly structured frameworks.

 However, Butcher and Hoosen (2014) go on to say that:

fundamental judgements about quality should not depend on whether education is provided in a traditional or post-traditional manner …the growth of openness is unlikely to demand major changes to quality assurance practices in institutions. The principles of good quality higher education have not changed…. Quality distance education is a sub-set of quality education…Distance education should be subject to the same quality assurance mechanisms as education generally.’

Such arguments though offer a particular challenge for teaching in a digital age, where it is argued that learning outcomes need to include the development of skills such as independent learning, facility in using social media for communication, and knowledge management, skills that have not been explicitly identified in the past. Quality assurance processes are not usually tied to specific types of learning outcomes, but are more closely linked to general performance measures such as course completion rates, time to degree completion and grades based on past learning goals.

Furthermore, we have already seen in Chapters 9 and 10 that new media and new methods of teaching are emerging that have not been around long enough to be subject to analysis of best practices. A too rigid view of quality assessment based on past practices could have serious negative implications for innovation in teaching and for meeting newly emerging learning needs. ‘Best practice’ may need occasionally to be challenged, so new approaches can be experimented with and evaluated.

Quality assurance: fit for purpose in a digital age

Maxim Jean-Louis, the President of Contact North, at a presentation in 2010 to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, made a very useful distinction about different ways of looking at quality in education:

  • Quality as ‘Excellence’– a definition that sets abstract goals for institutions and academic communities to always striving to be the best, mainly taken as having elitist undertones. In post-secondary education this could mean winning Nobel prizes, attraction of research funds or the “best” faculty as measured by research output and teaching evaluations. The drawback here is that this tends to also exclude the work of the ‘further education’ sectors, and is not applied equally between disciplines (citation counts do not exist for historians and many other subjects).
  • Quality as ‘Meeting a pre-determined standard’– a definition that requires only a given standard to be met, e.g. a minimum grade, basic competency, the ability to read, write, use a computer, etc. [It might also include competencies and skills, degree completion rates, time to degree completion, etc.] The drawback of this is that setting and measuring this ‘standard’ is difficult at best and idealistic at worst.
  • Quality as ‘fitness for purpose’ – in this construction of quality, we have to decide the extent to which the service or product meets the goals set – does this course or program do what it says it was going to do? Such a construction of quality allows institutions/sectors to define goals themselves according to their mandate and concentrates on meeting the needs of their customers (whether this be upgrading learners, graduate researchers, industry, etc.).

Quality assurance processes must address the increasing diversity of our educational systems. Distance education organizations are not the same as elite traditional universities and shouldn’t try to be. This would mean looking for different measures of quality in the Open University, for instance, than in Cambridge University. Neither one is necessarily better (depending on what they are trying to achieve), but the learning experience ought to be different, even though the intended learning outcomes may be similar; this will mean different design criteria but not necessarily different criteria for assessing the quality of the learning.

In the meantime, much more attention needs to be directed at what campus-based institutions are doing when they move to hybrid or online learning. Are they following best practices, or even better, developing innovative, better teaching methods? The design of xMOOCs and the high drop-out rates of many new two year colleges new to online learning in the USA suggest they are not.

This means that different types of institution will and should evaluate quality differently. If the goal or purpose is to develop the knowledge and skills that learners will need in a digital age, then this is the ‘standard’ by which quality should be assessed, while at the same time taking into account what we already know about general best practices in teaching. The recommendations for quality teaching in a digital age that follow in this chapter are based on these principles.

Over to you

There is so much I wanted to write here about the stupidity of the current system of institutional accreditation and internal quality assurance processes, especially but not exclusively in the United Kingdom, but this section is meant as an introduction to practical guidelines for teaching and learning. So I’ve tried to be uncharacteristically restrained in writing this section. But feedback is even more welcome than usual.

1. (a) First, are there any incorrect facts in this section? This is a large and complex topic and it is easy to get things wrong.

(b) Have I left out anything really important about assessing quality in teaching and learning?

2. One problem with this topic is that it tends to gravitate between two polarised positions: those who believe in absolute truth and those who are relativists. Absolute truthers believe that there is a God-given set of ‘quality’ standards that are set primarily by elite institutions that everyone else should strive to meet. Relativists (like myself) believe that quality is in the eye of the beholder; it all depends on what your goals are. Hence my definition of quality is set among the rather limited goal in one way – and extremely ambitious in another – of developing teaching methods that will help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will need in a digital age. So: any views on my definition of quality? Is it fit for purpose?

3. What do you think of the current system of (a) institutional accreditation and (b) internal quality assurance processes?

My own view is that institutional accreditation is definitely needed to protect against really incompetent or downright dishonest organisations, but, depending on the jurisdiction, it is very much an insider’s process and not very transparent, and while current accreditation processes may set minimum standards it certainly doesn’t do much to improve quality in the system.

Similarly, internal quality assurance processes are far too cosy and protect the status quo. The internal program approval processes are based again on peer review of a very limited kind, with often ‘I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine’ approach to program approval. I’ve been on a number of program reviews as an external reviewer, but rarely see any significant changes, despite sometimes scathing reviews from the externals.

And as for formal QA processes, they are the kiss of death for quality, tangling faculty and administrators in incredibly bureaucratic processes without dealing with the real issues around quality teaching and learning.

Of course, all these practices are in the name of protecting academic freedom, which is important – but surely better processes can be derived for improving quality without threatening academic freedom.

4. So lastly, is it wise for me to restrain myself from adding these types of comments in the book – or will I muddy the waters of what is to come if I do?

References and further reading

Butcher, N. and Wilson-Strydom, M. (2013) A Guide to Quality in Online Learning Dallas TX: Academic Partnerships

Butcher, N. and Hoosen, S. (2014) A Guide to Quality in Post-traditional Online Higher Education Dallas TX: Academic Partnerships

Chickering, A., and Gamson, Z. (1987) ‘Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education’ AAHE Bulletin, March 1987.

Clarke-Okah, W. et al. (2014) The Commonwealth of Learning Review and Improvement Model for Higher Education Institutions Vancouver BC: Commonwealth of Learning

Graham, C. et al. (2001) Seven Principles of Effective Teaching: A Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses The Technology Source, March/April

Jung, I. and Latchem, C. (2012) Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Distance Education and e-Learning New York/London: Routledge

MOOCs, specializations, and continuing education

Vanderbilit and University of maryland will be offering a MOOC specialization in designing  Android apps

Vanderbilit and University of Maryland will be offering a MOOC specialization in designing Android apps

Academic Partnerships (2014) Academic Partnerships Launches New Online Global Specializations Credential Dallas, January 21

Gannes, L. (2104) Coursera Offers the Equivalent of a MOOC Major: Specialization Certificates Re/Code, January 21

It must be more than a co-incidence that these two completely separate organizations announced new ‘specialization’ certificates on the same day. First, a little background.

Coursera certificates

Coursera is planning to offer certificates for students who take a set combination of MOOCs and pass the assessment. The minimum number of MOOCs would be three, with other certificates requiring up to eight MOOCs. The certificates will be awarded by ‘leading universities.’ One of the first specializations open for enrollment is from Vanderbilt and the University of Maryland on making Android apps.  A Coursera specialization certificate will require students to verify their identity and pay on a per-course basis, usually $49 per course.

Academic Partnerships

Most people will know about Coursera, but Academic Partnerships may be less well known, but is still a significant player in the higher education world of the USA. Its is a private company that ‘assists universities in converting their traditional degree programs and certificates into an online format, recruits qualified students, and supports enrolled students through graduation’. It works particularly with prestigious U.S. institutions that often were slow into credit-based online learning, or those that wish to keep the online learning activity at somewhat arms-length from their campus activities, but usually to increase enrollments and/or revenues.

Academic Partnership’s new initiative is on the global marketing of specialization certificates from prestigious U.S. universities, ‘to help partner universities capitalize on the globalization of higher education….Specializations consist of three progressive certificates that are offered in multiple languages and can be earned in nine months….AP’s partner universities outside of the United States, meanwhile, will serve as host universities for the Specializations….We believe that our Specializations initiative, which we originated and are launching with partner universities, will significantly increase post-secondary enrollment around the world, resulting in untold benefits for citizens everywhere, while simultaneously addressing the financial challenges faced by U.S. universities.’

Comment

These seem like sensible moves, moving MOOCs and other ‘open’ online courses much more clearly into the continuing education niche, and internationalizing them. The idea of opening up online courses to international markets of course is not new. The University of British Columbia launched an ‘open’ (but not free) online certificate program on distributed learning as early as 1996, which developed into an international Master in Educational Technology in 2003 (which is still very successful). The first enrollments for UBC’s certificate program came from over 30 different countries. There is clearly a large international market for online courses and programs from prestigious North American institutions, and Australia universities for many years have had a highly profitable international online learning presence.

Questions still remain though. One obvious one is about the transferability of credit from specializations: will students obtaining certificates be able to transfer these into regular credit programs, online or on campus, at North American or local universities? Will students, especially those overseas, be told this when they enroll?

The second challenge is the business model, at least for the MOOC initiative. It is not so much the MOOCs or courses themselves – they may be offered free by the institutions. But how will this impact on their Continuing Education divisions, who often exist now mainly to bring in extra revenues for the university? Many universities – at least here in Canada – have extensive online certificate programs which bring in a large profit for the university. One wonders why institutions would ‘give away’ this highly lucrative market in order to provide free, open courses. Or maybe MOOCs will destroy the current continuing education model for online courses, which will send a chill through many universities’ CE divisions.

For the Academic Partnership model, the success will depend on the added value that Academic Partnerships can bring to the university in international marketing and recruitment. It will be interesting to see how they price these certificates in the different international markets. There is also a strong Hawthorne effect here. As institutions in other countries begin to build their own MOOCs and online credit programs, the market starts to drop for programs from other countries, so timing is everything.

One thing that both initiatives though should be aware of – and this is free advice – from my experience in internationalizing online courses is that one needs to be aware of this from the beginning, ensuring the materials are appropriate for multicultural use (which goes way beyond direct translation), and above all, that there is 24×7 online learner support available in some form or other that extends beyond answering simple technical or administrative questions. In particular, international students will want to know what they can do with these specialization certificates and which employers are likely to recognize them. Since this will vary greatly from country to country, this is no simple or low-cost task. This is the major challenge in internationalizing MOOCs, and will require a very strong business model and excellent partners in the other countries for the Academic Partnership’s initiative to succeed.

Lastly, if I was a Director of Continuing Education or International Education, I would not be sitting back waiting for these initiatives to happen, but would be developing a business plan to go out and compete directly for international students and lifelong learners through online learning.

 

An explanation of how ACE accredits MOOCs

ACE2 Book, P. (2103) ACE as Academic Credit Reviewer–Adjustment, Accommodation, and Acceptance WCET Learn, July 25

Over the next few weeks, WCET will publish a series of blog posts on Massively Open Online Courses. This, the first in the series, provides a detailed explanation of how ACE (the American Council on Education) assessed five Coursera courses.

ACE represents the presidents of U.S. accredited, degree-granting institutions, which include two- and four-year colleges, private and public universities, and nonprofit and for-profit entities.

Pat Book, the author of the post, is a Former Assistant Vice President at the American Council on Education, and led the process for assessing the courses.

Highlights from the process

For those of you who wonder how the accreditation process works in the USA, this is fascinating reading. Here are some highlights from Pat Book’s post:

ACE finds itself in the awkward position of advocating for the best interests of their institutional members while at the same time serving as a shadow accrediting body distributing the ACE imprimatur (defined by those very member institutions) to a host of newly emerging for-profit ventures whose mission and goals are very different.

Reviewing academic courses taught by faculty at top tier universities was a new venture for ACE as its CREDIT recommendation service was not designed for nor … ever had been deployed for this type of review.  ACE leadership was anxious, as was Coursera, to address the major topic of discussion last year about whether or not MOOCs were credit-worthy.

The initial courses subject to ACE review were selected by Coursera in consultation with their partner universities (which included the University of California at Irvine, and Duke).  Coursera and the partner universities chose courses that were already offered on campus or were using content similar to an on-campus course.

All five courses reviewed received credit recommendations based on ACE’s review criteria.  The five courses received math and science recommendations, one at the developmental math level, that is, three-credits of pre-college, three at the lower division baccalaureate level, all three credits, and one two-credit recommendation at the  upper division baccalaureate level.  Faculty reviewed all course exhibits including learning outcomes, competencies, and assessment methods.  Faculty made suggestions regarding perquisites and offered other notes.  While ACE has recommended academic credit, it is up to each university or college to review these credit recommendations and determine how they may align with their general education requirements or degree programs.  There is no guarantee that any university of college will accept the ACE credit recommendations.

 ….it seems like a foregone conclusion that the courses Coursera self-selected for review would be highly likely to receive an ACE CREDIT® recommendation.  They were courses developed by faculty and already reviewed for credit in their university system in some cases and just being offered in a new delivery method albeit to a massively scaled audience.

The review process doesn’t evaluate learning outcomes, but is a course content focused review thus obviating all the questions about effectiveness of the pedagogy in terms of learning outcomes. 

 MOOCs currently serve largely an international audience who already hold college degrees and have reasons other than degree attainment motivating them.   The jury is still out on the value for the vast majority of American students who need developmental education and/or are seeking affordable access to college credentials.

Comment

First, thanks to Pat Book for making this process transparent. We are better informed about the meaning of ACE’s accreditation for MOOCs as a result.

My concern though is that ACE accreditation misleadingly suggests that Coursera courses have been approved by the American post-secondary system (represented by ACE). In fact what the ACE accreditation does (as explained by Pat Book) is merely accredit courses from institutions that are already accredited. However, it seems that a commercial organization (Coursera) has consequently received enormous marketing value for almost no cost (the article makes it clear that reviewers are paid almost nothing to do the reviews.)

More importantly, the article makes it clear that the MOOCs were accredited solely on the quality of the content. This though does nothing to address the main criticisms of MOOCs: that they employ unsuitable pedagogy for online delivery, and that the student assessment process is fundamentally flawed. ACE accreditation in essence does nothing to assure learners that they might actually be able to complete successfully such courses, or that if they do so their certificate will be transferable for credit within regular programs.

I think that we really need to squash the idea that Coursera MOOCs offer a meaningful, radical alternative to conventional higher education, and focus on their value as educational broadcasting, notwithstanding their important value in forcing many elite institutions to take much more seriously for the first time the potential role of credit-based online learning.

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

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