Community Colleges | Feature

Using Technology to 'Turbo' Through Accreditation

Every four years the accreditation process returns to institutions--looming on the horizon like a dreaded standardized exam. And the reputation and competitiveness of a school is dependent on its successful outcome. Much like doing our taxes, the process is a journey often fraught with pressure, anxiety, and time-consuming paperwork that is only enjoyed when it is successfully completed and behind you. But what I have learned is that it doesn't have to be that way. Existing technology--specifically today's classroom management solutions--can be for the accreditation process what TurboTax is to tax preparation, making it automated, easy, and, above all, accurate.

The Standard Accreditation Process

Thousands of higher education institutions across the country participate in the accreditation process regularly. Going in front of an accrediting body, whether regional or national, is, plainly stated, a lot of work, especially for large institutions with hundreds of students per classroom.

The accreditation process touches everyone, from top-level administrators to teaching faculty, at the institutional, school, or departmental level. The institution must demonstrate that specific learning objectives are being met by students under the guidance of their instructors. An external accrediting body reviews, analyzes, interviews, and searches for proof--for months at a time in some cases--to confirm that strong systems are in place to provide the most beneficial and valuable learning experience for students. Consequentially, accreditation takes a significant amount of time, involving teaching faculty and requiring them to pull together detailed reports and supporting materials that summarize class data (e.g., GPA as well as homework assignment, quiz, and test scores) to help show that specific learning objectives are being successfully met.

Changing Our Historical Process at Johnston

As both an instructor and an administrator, it was strikingly evident to me that the huge amount of time my team and I had spent in previous years, manually pulling the required data for our accreditation review process, was unacceptable, especially considering time taken away from teaching students. For our Fall 2012 accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), those of us in the Math, Social and Natural Sciences Programs at Johnston Community College (NC) were determined that this time would be different. Of course we knew our accreditation was essential, but we also recognized that we needed to be able to move through it much more efficiently than we had in the past via outdated manual data collection and analysis processes.

Leveraging Existing Technology

We began researching automated systems to find something that would eliminate as much of the manual work of accreditation as possible. As our search deepened, we were delighted to discover that we already had the technology we needed in place--it was just a matter of leveraging our current digital teaching and learning platform, McGraw-Hill's Connect, to take advantage of features that could help streamline our accreditation process.

One of the key features of Connect that streamlined our most recent accreditation process is the ability to easily create and assign metadata to all classroom interactions, making the finding and sorting of accreditation data much easier and faster. We used Connect to tag the questions asked on homework assignments and tests with the specific learning objectives with which they are aligned. When reports are needed that aggregate and analyze data from the outcomes of learning objectives, instructors can pull tremendously detailed data and analysis, basically with the click of a button. The many hours of often frustrating manual work to pull the required data for each class has been reduced to about 10 minutes of intriguing queries. 

Some Advice

The classroom automation solutions available to instructors today are impressive, but as we discovered, if you're only using them to streamline homework assignments and grading, you're not using them to their full potential. But to leverage these tools for accreditation, some advanced planning will be essential. No matter which classroom management tools you use, the following considerations should be kept in mind if you wish to sail efficiently and smoothly through the accreditation process:

1.   - Choose your technology solutions wisely: You'll find a variety of classroom management tools available that help engage students and keep course content organized, but at the risk of being cliché, I want to advise you to "think outside the box". Consider all of your needs and how non-traditional uses of your technology can increase its value to you and your institution. In our case, rather than investing in a new accreditation solution, we were able to use an existing technology in new ways that yielded surprisingly beneficial results. If you are purchasing a new solution, make sure you are buying more than a one-trick pony.

2.   - Use your technology to reduce human error: Data collection and reporting are tedious tasks, and the reality is we're human beings who make mistakes when we conduct manual calculations. By automating the process, we can avoid much of the possibility for human error that delays the accreditation process. In the end, you should be able to go to your accrediting agency with the confidence of knowing that your reports and reporting processes are accurate and irrefutable.

3.   - Advance preparation and planning are key: Plan ahead at the beginning of each semester to ensure that all class activities are as aligned as possible with your curriculum's stated learning objectives. This will give you the framework you need to create the metadata you will later need to streamline the accreditation process. If you wait to do this until after the class semester has begun (or worse, is finished), you will be creating additional work for yourself and will likely lose many of the benefits we have been describing.

As we all know, technology has the power to streamline and simplify tasks that would otherwise take us inordinate amounts of time. I've described what we've done at Johnston for our accreditation process. The principles I've described can be applied with whichever technology you are using, so be sure to look at ways you might leverage your existing systems, whatever they may be.

Our agency was impressed by how thoroughly we were able to prove that learning outcomes had been met by our institution. Accreditation is a critical "seal of approval" in today's highly competitive education environment, but it doesn't have to be the dreaded process it has been in the past. By taking the time to plan ahead for your next review cycle, you too can ensure that your accreditation process is smooth sailing for all involved.

About the Author

Nahel Awadallah is the Director of Math, Social and Natural Sciences Programs at Johnston Community College in Smithfield, NC, where he also served as the Quality Enhancement Plan Director for a project aimed at enhancing student learning at the institution.

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