Distance Education Policy Standards: A Review of Current Regional and National Accrediting Organizations in the United States


Suzanne Keil
East Carolina University
keils13@students.ecu.edu


Abbie Brown
East Carolina University
brownab@ecu.edu


Abstract

A review of distance education accreditation policies and standards written by the six United States regional accrediting commissions and two national accrediting organizations: the Middle States Commission on Higher Education; the New England Association of Schools and Colleges - Commission on Institutions of Higher Education; the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools - The Higher Learning Commission; Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities; Southern Association of Colleges and Schools-Commission on Colleges; the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges; the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools; and the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. The proliferation of the distance education policies introduced by these accrediting bodies within the last decade creates a need to review how these policies articulate institutional context and commitment; curriculum and instruction; faculty and faculty support; student support; and evaluation and assessment for institutions undergoing or about to undergo accreditation review.

Distance Education Policy Standards: A Review of Regional and National Accrediting Organizations in the United States

Distance education accreditation standards and related policies have grown in substance and quantity since the late 1990’s, a period when many colleges and universities began offering DE courses for the first time. The U.S. Department of Education has been regularly including distance education in its detailed review of all agencies seeking initial or continued recognition since December 1999. Prior to July 2010, the U.S. Department of Education made a determination as to whether an agency’s scope of recognition included the accreditation of distance education. After July 2010, “at each review for renewal of recognition, an agency will be expected to demonstrate its evaluation of distance education and/or correspondence education in order to retain distance education and/or correspondence education in its scope of recognition.” This series of events prompted the creation of distance education best practices, standards, and policies by national and regional accreditation agencies across the U.S. The accreditation agencies reviewed in this report have published a number of policies/standards and guidelines to evaluate colleges and universities’ distance education programs (U.S. Department of Education, N.D.).

This article is a review of distance education accreditation policies and standards written by the six United States regional accrediting commissions and two national accrediting organizations. The eight accrediting commissions are:

1. Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)

2. New England Association of Schools and Colleges - Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE)

3. North Central Association of Colleges and Schools - The Higher Learning Commission (NCA-HLC)

4. Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)

5. Southern Association of Colleges and Schools-Commission on Colleges (SACS-COC)

6. Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC-WASC)

7. Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), 2013

8. Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)

These accrediting agencies are recognized “as reliable authorities concerning the quality of education or training offered by the institutions of higher education or higher education programs they accredit” by the U.S. Secretary of Education (U.S. Department of Education, ND).

As stated above, distance education programs have grown in abundance in the United States since the late 1990’s. The first author began her employment at a community college in the southeast, in 1997; the same semester that the college’s first distance education course was offered. Although she had taught courses that were computer-based in the early 1990’s at a community college in Ohio; the courses were offered as face-to-face courses. She joined the college’s planning and research department in 2002, as a research specialist and grant writer, to help the college prepare for its reaffirmation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools-Commission on Colleges (SACS-COC). During this time, the head of her department was preparing a substantive change prospectus as requested by SACS-COC regarding the college’s distance education program. The author prepared statistical reports about distance education courses as documentation for the prospectus. It is important to note that very few policies and guidelines regarding the delivery of distance education programs were available in 2002. A search for distance education guidelines for institutions undergoing the reaffirmation of accreditation in 2002-2003 yields information that is general and very brief.

The SACS-COC approval of the substantive change prospectus for the college’s distance education program paved the way for its growth and success. In the following years, the author continued her role of preparing accreditation responses and supporting documentation for the college’s fifth-year interim report and then for the next ten-year reaffirmation review. She chose to review accreditation guidelines and policies regarding distance education for this article because of the changes in accreditation review requirements. The immense growth of distance education in higher education and resulting abundance of policies and guidelines has impacted the preparation of accreditation reports in many capacities.

One of the major resources used for this review and comparison of distance education policies/standards is a publication titled, Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education (Online Learning) (Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC), 2011), authored by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions. The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) is made up of the following agencies: Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges: Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, and Western Association of Schools and Colleges: Senior College and University Commission. The Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education Programs (Online Learning) was developed by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) and is based on two documents: a 2006 report prepared by the U.S. General Accounting Office, Evidence of Quality in Distance Education Drawn from Interviews with the Accreditation Community (U.S. Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education, 2006), and, Best Practice Strategies to promote Academic Integrity in Online Education, prepared by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET, 2009).” This statement is a quotation from the inside cover page of the Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education Programs (Online Learning). Its purpose is “to assist institutions in planning distance education and to provide an assessment framework for institutions already involved in distance education.” (Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC), 2011)

The focus of this review is the accreditation policies on topics that address distance education: institutional context and commitment; curriculum and instruction; faculty and faculty support; student support services; and student identity issues.

Institutional Context and Commitment

The book, An Administrator’s Guide to Online Education, by Shelton and Saltsman, (2005), states in Chapter 2 that “the communication of expectations, desires, and goals to members of the organization is what enables dreams to become a reality.” Institutional commitment to distance education programs should be reflected in the institution’s overarching planning. The Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education Programs (Online Learning) (Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC), 2011) lists various “hallmarks of quality;” the first hallmark addresses the institution’s mission and purposes. The C-RAC analysis/evidence statements include the following:

·   The mission statement explains the role of online learning within the range of the institution’s programs and services;

·  Institutional and program statements of vision and values inform how the online learning environment is created and supported;

·  The office or persons responsible for online learning training programs are clearly identified and have the competencies to accomplish the tasks, including knowledge of the specialized resources and technical support available to support course development and delivery;

·  The institution prepares a multi-year budget for online learning that includes resources for assessment of program demand, marketing, appropriate levels of faculty and staff, faculty and staff development, library and information resources, and technology infrastructure;

·  As appropriate, the institution incorporates into its online learning programs methods of meeting the stated institutional goals for the student experience at the institution; and

·  Senior administrators and staff can articulate how online learning is consonant with the institution’s mission and goals. (Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC), 2011)

Other Policies That Address Institutional Commitment and Context

Other policies include information about the technical and physical plant facilities such as the Middle States Commission on Higher Education policy in Standard 13: “An accredited institution is expected to possess or demonstrate: adequate technical and physical plant facilities, including appropriate staffing and technical assistance, to support electronic offerings;" (Middle States Commission on Higher Education, 2011, page 59). The following table lists many of the guidelines regarding institutional context and commitment (Table 1).


  Curriculum and Instruction

Online course development has evolved considerably in the past 15 years from courses that were primarily text-based converted to electronic form, to courses designed specifically for the distributed Internet setting. In, The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, Anderson (2011) states “As the nature of Internet users evolves, so do their demands and expectations from e-learning,” (page 247). The accrediting agencies’ expectations have also evolved. The C-RAC analysis/evidence statements regarding curriculum and instruction include the following:

·  Approval of online courses and programs follows standard processes used in the college or university;

·  Online learning courses and programs are evaluated on a periodic basis;

·  The curricular goals and course objectives show that the institution or program has knowledge of the best uses of online learning in different disciplines and settings;

·  Curricula delivered through online learning are benchmarked against on-ground courses and programs, if provided by the institution, or those provided by traditional institutions;

·  The curriculum is coherent in its content and sequencing of courses and is effectively defined in easily available documents including course syllabi and program descriptions;

·  Scheduling of online learning courses and programs provides students with a dependable pathway to ensure timely completion of degrees;

·  The institution or program has established and enforces a policy on online learning course enrollments to ensure faculty capacity to work appropriately with students;

·  Expectations for any required face-to-face, on-ground work (e.g., internships, specialized laboratory work) are stated clearly;

·  Course design and delivery supports student-student and faculty-student interaction;

·  Curriculum design and the course management system enable active faculty contribution to the learning environment;

·  Assessment of student learning follows processes used in onsite courses or programs and/or reflects good practice in assessment methods; and

·  Course and program structures provide schedule and support known to be effective in helping online learning students persist and succeed. (Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC), 2011)

Additional Policies Regarding Curriculum and Instruction

Many policies echoing the C-RAC guidelines have been written that reflect the quality concerns and standards for curriculum and instruction. The following tables show many of these policies articulated by national and regional accrediting agencies (see Tables 2a, 2b and 2c).

Faculty and Faculty Support

The role of faculty in the development of distance education programs and the related topic of faculty support has been a key and sometimes thorny issue during the growth of institutions’ distance education programs. Some faculty do not buy-in to the theory of distance education, others have low technology skills for adapting successfully to online instruction, and “many faculty are unprepared for the fundamental differences in the roles required for teaching online,” (Shelton & Saltsman, 2005, page 59). The C-RAC guidelines and other accreditation policies about faculty and faculty support provide optimal strategies for addressing these issues. The C-RAC analysis/evidence statements include the following:

·      The institution’s faculty have a designated role in the design and implementation of its online learning offerings;

·      Evaluation strategies ensure effective communication between faculty members who design curriculum, faculty members who interact with students, and faculty members who evaluate student learning;

·      Online learning faculties are carefully selected, appropriately trained, frequently evaluated, and are marked by an acceptable level of turnover;

·      The institution’s training program for online learning faculty is periodic, incorporates tested good practices in online learning pedagogy, and ensures competency with the range of software products used by the institution;

·      Faculty are proficient and effectively supported in using the course management system;

·      Faculty members engaged in online learning share in the mission and goals of the institution and its programs and are provided the opportunities to contribute to the broader activities of the institution. (Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC), 2011)

Faculty Roles and Faculty Support Addressed in Accreditation Policies

The following two tables (Table 3a and Table 3b) illustrate some of the regional and national accrediting agencies’ policies concerning faculty roles and faculty support.

Student Support

Effective and well-designed student support services are essential for student success. “Unfortunately, institutions have not been as quick to put student services online as they have online courses,” (Shelton & Saltsman, 2005, page 83)  The authors’ experiences as  higher education instructors is that gaps and holes exist in the offering of student services for online learners. The gaps in student services can cause a distance education student to feel frustrated and alone. The C-RAC guidelines list administrative as well as practical strategies for providing effective student support services. The C-RAC analysis/evidence statements include the following:

· The recruitment and admissions programs supporting the online learning courses and programs appropriately target the student populations to be served;

· The students enrolled in the institution’s online learning courses and programs fit the admissions requirements for the students the institution intends to serve;

· The institution regularly evaluates the effectiveness of the academic and support services provided to students in online courses and uses the results for improvement;

· The institution’s admissions program for online learning provides good web-based information to students about the nature of the online learning environment, and assists them in determining if they possess the skills important to success in online learning; 

· The institution provides an online learning orientation program;

· The institution provides support services to students in formats appropriate to the delivery of the online learning program;

· Students in online learning programs have adequate access to student services, including financial aid, course registration, and career and placement counseling;

· Students in online learning programs have ready access to 24/7 tech support;

· Students using online learning have adequate access to learning resources, including library, information resources, laboratories, and equipment and tracking systems;

· Students using online learning demonstrate proficiency in the use of electronic forms of learning resources;

· Student complaint processes are clearly defined and can be used electronically;

· Publications and advertising for online learning programs are accurate and contain necessary information such as program goals, requirements, academic calendar, and faculty; and

· Students are provided with reasonable and cost-effective ways to participate in the institution’s system of student authentication. (Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC), 2011)

Many of the services mentioned above such as online student orientation, library services, student publications, and various tutorials are time-consuming to develop and can be costly; but once in place they are easily updated and maintained. Tables 4a and 4b on Page 17 of this report provide examples of similar policies published by the regional and national accrediting agencies.

Evaluation and Assessment

Shattuck (2012) states, “Open and distance learning providers who have enjoyed freedom from external scrutiny may resist attempts at external regulation and auditing and look upon QA (quality assurance) as yet another imposition of corporatization and bureaucracy on education. Others see it as a means of establishing a culture of quality, self-reflection and self-improvement,” The statement articulates an opinion shared about quality assurance and distance education. Regional and national accrediting policies also address the topics of quality assurance, evaluation and assessment at the institution level, program level and course level with numerous guidelines. The C-RAC analysis/evidence statements include the following:

· Development and ownership of plans for online learning extend beyond the administrators directly responsible for it and the programs directly using it;

· Planning documents are explicit about any goals to increase numbers of programs provided through online learning courses and programs and/or numbers of students to be enrolled in them;

· Plans for online learning are linked effectively to budget and technology planning to ensure adequate support for current and future offerings;

· Plans for expanding online learning demonstrate the institution’s capacity to assure an appropriate level of quality;

· The institution and its online learning programs have a track record of conducting needs analysis and of supporting programs.

· The institution demonstrates the appropriate use of technology to support its assessment strategies;

· The institution documents its successes in implementing changes informed by its programs of assessment and evaluation;

· The institution provides examples of student work and student interactions among themselves and with faculty; ·      The institution sets appropriate goals for the retention/persistence of students using online learning, assesses its achievement of these goals, and uses the results for improvement; and

· Students express satisfaction with the quality of the instruction provided by online learning faculty members. (Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC), 2011).

An example of a national accrediting agency’s evaluation policy is show in Table 5a:

 

Examples of regional accrediting agencies evaluation and assessment policies are shown in Table 5b on the next page.

Student Identity

Most institutions enroll students who receive Federal Student Aid. The U.S. Department of Education requires that institutions have methods in place to verify student identity.  There are “unique risks inherit in the distance education environment.” A final audit report published in February 2014 includes the following statement:

"Current requirements related to verifying the identities of and disbursing Title IV funds to students enrolled in distance education programs are not sufficient to mitigate the risks of fraud and abuse. As a result, fraud rings are targeting distance education programs to illegally obtain Title IV funds. The fraud rings enroll straw students, which are students who do not intend to complete a distance education course or program but who still receive Title IV funds. Both the ringleader and the straw student receive a portion of any Title IV credit balance disbursed in the straw student’s name.” (Office of the Inspector General, US Dept. of Education, 2014)

Other fraud issues include identity questions concerning academic credit and award of degrees, diplomas, and certificates. The C-RAC analysis/evidence statements include:

·   The institution has in place effective procedures through which to ensure that the student who registers in a distance education course or program is the same student who participates in and completes the course or program and receives the academic credit. The institution makes clear in writing that these processes protect student privacy and notifies students at the time of registration or enrollment of any projected additional costs associated with the verification procedures.

·   The institution’s policies on academic integrity include explicit references to online learning;

·   Issues of academic integrity are discussed during the orientation for online students; and

·   Training for faculty members engaged in online learning includes consideration of issues of academic integrity, including ways to reduce cheating. (Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC), 2011)

Conclusion

The review of regional and national accrediting policies provides an overview of recent developments and improvements in accreditation policies and guidelines regarding distance education. The growth of accreditation policies and guidelines has impacted the preparation and focus of interim and reaffirmation reports for colleges and universities. Although a review of many of the policies and guidelines is beneficial, one publication in particular, the C-RAC Guidelines, is helpful to faculty and staff implementing distance education programs and for higher education staff who write institutional accreditation statements for five-year and ten-year reaffirmation reports.

This review is intended to serve as a starting point for further study. As regional and national accrediting bodies add policies and requirements specifically addressing the quality of distance education offered by institutions in terms of faculty preparation, technological support, instructional strategies employed, and evaluation and assessment, we foresee greater challenges within higher education institutions to make effective and meaningful use of these policies and guidelines. Furthermore, we foresee the possible need for higher education institutions’ greater involvement in developing and revising accreditation policies as they relate to distance teaching and learning. Further research is recommended. 


References

Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges. (2013). Policy on Distance Education and on Correspondence Eudcation. In W. A. Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Accreditation Reference Handbook (pp. 52-57). Novato, CA: ACCJC/WASC.

Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) . (2013). Appendix H, Principles and Requirements for Nontraditional Education. In A. C. (ACICS), Accreditation Criteria (pp. 115-118). Washington, DC: ACICS.

Anderson, T. (2011). The Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Edmonton, AB: AU Press, Athabasca University.

College Delegate Assembly. (2012). The Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement. Decatur, GA: SACSCOC.

Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, NEASC. (Revised 2011). Standards for Accreditation. Burlington, MA: NEASC.

Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC). (2011). Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education Programs (Online Learning) . Philadelphia, PA: Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

K. Shelton and G. Saltsman. (2005). An Administrator's Guide to Online Education. Greenwich, CN: IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Middle States Commission on Higher Education. (2011). Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education. Philadelphia, PA: Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Middle States Commission on Higher Education. (Revised March 2011). Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education: Related Educational Activities.Characteristics of excellence in higher education, requirements of affiliation and standards for accreditation. Philadelphia, PA: Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

North Central Association Higher Learning Commission. (2014). Practices for Verification of Student Identity. In N. C. Commission, Higher learning commission policy book. Chicago, IL: Higher Learning Commission.

Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. (2012). Distance education policy. Redmond, WA: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

Office of the Inspector General, US Dept. of Education. (2014). Final audit report, Control Number ED-OIG/A07L0001. Washington, DC: US Dept. of Education.

SACSCOC. (2012). Appendix C. In Resource manual for the principles of accreditation: Foundations for quality enhancement. Decatur, GA: SACSCOC.

SACSCOC. (2012). Distance and correspondence education policy statement. Decatur, Georgia: SACSCOC.

Shattuck, K. (2012). Book Review – Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Distance Education and e-Learning: Models, Policies and Research . The international review of research in open and distance learning. 13(3). Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1272/2222

The Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC). (2012). Section IX - Distance Education. In T. A. (ACCSC), Standards of Accreditation.. Arlington, VA: ACCSC.


Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume XVII, Number III, Fall 2014
University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center
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