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How Technology Is Reinventing Accreditation

Tech innovation is redefining student learning. Can accreditation keep pace with the changing face of higher education?

Reinventing Accreditation

Few would dispute that technology is rapidly changing the higher education experience. New models of delivery such as competency-based and self-paced programs are leaving some people in higher education wondering how to gauge the quality of student learning. Up until now, the final word for established institutions came from the six regional accreditors: You knew you were doing a decent job when accreditation was renewed. But some in the business of education are questioning whether the "regionals," as they're called, can keep up with the innovations being introduced by their member schools.

The outcome has high stakes. Institutions need to assure students, families and the rest of the American public that they're maintaining high levels of quality even as they're transforming themselves. And no school wants to risk losing federal funding and financial aid dollars. Nevertheless, pioneering institutions are carefully pushing the envelope and helping reinvent the accreditation process.

A Tale of Accreditation

In an Educause essay, "Thinking about Accreditation in a Rapidly Changing World," Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, asserted that the time has come for the accreditation process to stop focusing on the "overall whole" of the institution and become more granular in what it examines — to become as disaggregated as education itself.

LeBlanc's university made history in 2013 when it became the first institution to gain approval under the "Direct Assessment" provision of the Higher Education Act, which allowed for disbursement of federal financial aid based on learning outcomes rather than time-based credit hours.

Direct Assessment is a practice described in the Higher Education Act that can be used as an alternative to seat time as a measure of student learning. Going that route has two requirements: 1) getting approval from the Secretary of Education; and 2) working with the accrediting agency to evaluate the program and get approval of the Direct Assessment program's equivalence in terms of credit or clock hours.

The new program at SNHU, College for America, allows adult learners to pursue competency-based associate degrees as quickly as they're able to become competent in the learning outcomes. "For the first time, federal financial aid dollars would now pay for completed competencies instead of three-credit courses," LeBlanc told a U.S. Senate subcommittee in October. "Put another way, education attainment can now be untethered to time, and this has profound implications."

SNHU, which is accredited by the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, practically sailed through the approval process for its new program. Recalled LeBlanc, "We worked well with the director, who came up in August and said, 'If you can get me something by September, we can get it in front of the Commission by October,' and we were approved." But, he added, "That has not been the case for lots of other schools in other regions. We have colleague institutions that look at us and say, 'Oh, my god, how did you do that? We're getting yanked around; we can't get clarity; we're getting really negative signals.'"

In other words, rather than opening a floodgate of innovation among the regionals, the approval heralded a mere trickle of additional institutions pursuing a similar tack.

Hacking the Pathway

As SNHU was nearing its goal, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) in the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the largest of the regionals, announced that it had begun a Direct Assessment pilot with four institutions — Capella University, Northern Arizona University, the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Prior to this, said Deborah Bushway, vice president of academic innovation at Capella, her university had begun a conversation with the Department of Education about regulatory barriers to innovation in higher ed. The school wanted to introduce its own competency-based online program, FlexPath, which could be completed at the student's own pace. ED's suggestion: "You really should be using the Direct Assessment language to get through this." Capella's response: "Okay. Nobody has ever used it, but why not?"

The university took its case to its regional accreditor, and that's where progress stalled. Even though Capella has used competency-based curriculum for some two decades in its degree programs for working adults, FlexPath represented something different: a much looser schedule for finishing course activities; no limits on the number of courses a student could take simultaneously; and a new per-quarter pricing scheme.

At the same time, Northern Arizona U was developing its Personalized Learning program as an addition to its Extended Campuses division. This competency-based degree program has a flat six-month "subscription rate" and accepts transfer credits not only from other institutions but also based on what the student already knows.

For both schools, the HLC wanted to do a "paper review." Said Fred Hurst, NAU's senior vice president of Extended Campuses, "In the case of a new program like this, we really didn't have a whole lot for them to look at. They can't look at students; they can't look at the courses they're taking." So both institutions submitted their plans. NAU's ran over 500 pages. "We wanted to do that because we knew we were one of the first, and we wanted any question they might have about what we were doing and how we were doing it to be answered."

It took 17 months from the time NAU approached HLC about offering a Direct Assessment program to the time the university received approval. "Yes, we were frustrated at points, but it was important that it was done correctly," said Hurst, who has worked as a peer evaluator for HLC for 14 years and is a member of HLC's Institutional Actions Council. "In the scope of things, for institutions that come along in the future, I think the process will be fairly simple, because it will be a routinized sort of approach."

Bushway concurred with Hurst's assessment. "If you look on the HLC website now, they've posted the application that you have to use in order to get approval for Direct Assessment. That didn't exist when we were finding our way through this. We had to have dialogue and conversation, and we all had to figure our way through it. The pathway is definitely more clear."

What's Next?

The approval route may be clearer, but nobody really knows if it will be faster, and time matters to innovators — they want to move quickly. "You want to do things differently," said LeBlanc. "One of the most common complaints I hear from some of my colleagues is, 'Sheesh! Six months?! We're ready to go!'"

While LeBlanc insisted the regionals are all "trying to get their arms around" competency-based education (as one example of innovation), moving quickly is not what they were built for. "Nobody wants to be cast as a stodgy player. No one in this world wants to be anti-innovation. But in reality, their DNA and the reason they exist is to assure quality and protect consumers," he explained. "Approval of anything they want to do is in the context of standards. The standards are not invariably flexible. The standards are meant to say, these are the ways we think well-run institutions should do their business. They tend to perpetuate ways of doing business. That is the nature of standards."

So LeBlanc thinks regional accrediting could make improvements on two fronts. First, he'd like to see "multiple pathways" for accreditation. "I would have a traditional pathway, so you don't have to throw out the old regimen. But I might try to have a pathway that looks at non-credit-based learning too," he noted. That latter pathway would be able to accredit smaller "moving parts" that come from different providers. "Could an individual MOOC be accredited? Could individual learning experiences be accredited that don't really amount to a degree, but something less?"

Second, he'd like to see creation of "safe zones for experimentation and trying new things." LeBlanc doesn't want to give the idea that innovations being put forth by colleges and universities are "below standard." But, he added, "Innovators often get it wrong for a while before they get it right." So he'd prefer for accreditors to become "more tolerant for mistakes in learning. You can't come down like a ton of bricks when those things happen."

Radical Approaches

Lumina Foundation believes it's time to put the focus of quality not on the institution as a whole but on the learning outcomes achieved by students. To that end, in 2011 the education reform organization released its "degree qualification profile," a framework that defines what a student should be expected to know in five areas of learning at each of the degree levels.

Currently, "degrees are made up of accumulations of credit hours: some from column A, some from column B and some from column C, and you get a degree," said Lumina Vice President for Policy and Strategy Dewayne Matthews. "There's an assumption that the accumulation of all of those individual courses adds up to something. Of course, anybody who's been to a big university knows that you hope that's the case, but it may not be. It may that you've just taken a whole bunch of courses, and at the end of the day they give you a degree."

The entire system of higher education is "organized, operated [and] funded" around units of instructional time. Basing the system on what the student knows and learns as an alternative would result, Matthews added, in a "whole different environment."

Some states, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, he noted, are making a big push to expand their schools' capacity to assess prior learning and allow individual students to incorporate those areas of competency into their programs of study. Higher ed is becoming "unbundled and rebundled in a lot of different ways. The primacy of the institution as the sole arbiter of learning is breaking down." Quality is evolving from being an institutional characteristic to one defined in terms of what the student is learning.

What's left looks "much more modular," Matthews continued. At one extreme learning could consist of individual concepts, "which is sort of what Khan Academy is about with these little bitty modules of things." At the other extreme it would encompass much larger, integrated modules, "where you've got a cumulative project that may represent high-level integration of many skills accumulated through years of study." Any of these could be delivered, he added, "by organizations completely outside of what we think of as higher education."

In this new, more distributed environment, the question then becomes, how do you assure quality for the purposes of what should be eligible for public funding? One approach is developing transparent standards by which credit-granting bodies capture proof of learning and report on it. "That has the benefit of opening up the system to innovation. It allows people to get recognition for everything they know, not just the stuff that happens to pass through an accredited institutional system," Matthews explained.

As long as accreditation serves as the sole "gatekeeper," he pointed out, those kinds of changes won't happen.

Based on the kinds of research being done by organizations such as Lumina and the eventual findings of the many new competency-based programs, the accreditation process could "move forward constructively and positively into this new environment," Matthews said. "Ideally, this would be a — shall we say — consensually phased approach."

Then there are those who would like to see obliteration of the regional construct altogether. In a report published in 2012 by conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, education researcher Lindsey Burke and Stuart Butler, director of Heritage's Center for Policy Innovation, called the accreditation process "antiquated" and a "considerable obstacle" to higher education reform.

"Accreditation has become first and foremost a barrier to entry for so many people," said Burke more recently. "There's a big problem when you have college costs at historically high levels at a time when access to basic knowledge is cheaper than at any other point in history — with a wonderful proliferation of online options. These are not fly-by-night providers. These are online courses provided by Harvard [MA] and MIT."

According to Burke, the first steps toward a solution in reducing college costs should be: 1) decoupling federal financing from accreditation and allowing federal funding and student loans to follow students instead of institutions; and 2) decoupling accreditation from the institution itself. That would create "a lot more flexibility," she explained. "Right now when you become accredited, the entire institution becomes accredited. Any course you offer at that institution becomes an accredited course." That's how we end up, she added, with a 300-level course on Lady Gaga and the culture of fame, offered a few years ago at the University of South Carolina.

The Heritage Foundation would prefer to allow states to choose what or who could make decisions about accrediting. In essence, Burke said, "you would have 51 entities that could choose who could accredit." What would that look like? Organizations, companies and other entities accrediting courses in their areas of expertise. A state, for example, could choose Boeing to accredit aeronautical engineering courses and a historical society to accredit history courses.

"When you move to a model like that, you create a much more dynamic higher ed experience for students," she explained. "They might take four or five courses at a state university, but they might take a couple of courses from the Virginia Historical Society or something that Boeing has approved. It's a matter of going around and amassing different credentials or seals of approval that you as an individual think will be valuable to employers, and that employers actually value."

Burke sees no role for regional accreditors as they currently exist. "The way we've envisioned this is to let states step up and take that regional accrediting role," she noted. They'd decide how to structure the metrics for determining who can accredit courses. "Once that's laid out, it becomes a pretty good oversight mechanism."

Playing It Safe

No matter what they may think in private, institutional administrators are probably wary of calling for major transformation of the accreditation process. "Your accreditation is your pathway to Title IV approval, and you don't want to bet your Title IV approval on this," LeBlanc observed. "I'm not saying that schools would [necessarily] be penalized, but I don't think anybody wants to take that chance."

If only for that reason alone, regional accreditation remains in an angle of repose. As long as nobody kicks up too much dirt, nobody will be lost down the hillside.

Of course, at some point maintaining stasis will not be an option. Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education, recently spoke at a retreat of the regional accrediting organizations held every three years. "Just judging by the topics and speakers, they're trying to understand the rapidly evolving world of higher education, like the rest of us are," she mused.

It may be that the best way to steer accreditation to stay up with education innovation is by using its strength: peer support. At least that's what's envisioned by Capella's Bushway: "We feel like everybody needs to hold hands and move forward. We're all going to take the risk together."

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