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Online Learning Quality: Guidelines for Evaluation and Accreditation


Accreditation is a critical factor to consider when planning for higher education. The process is designed to provide some assurance to prospective students, that the academic programs they are considering have been evaluated and found to have a basic level of quality. There are multiple types of accreditation and accrediting agencies, which play significant roles in academic and career activities such as transferring credits, receiving financial aid, pursuing professional credentials, and meeting employers' expectations.

The Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education (Online Learning) [PDF] were developed by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions and published in 2011 by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), as an update to guidelines written in 2002. As I have described in previous posts, the process of accreditation is evolving, and online learning environments provide the catalyst for the latest changes.

The Instructional Technology Council states in its 2011 Distance Education Survey Results [PDF] that the Interregional Guidelines have been adopted and endorsed by all U.S. regional accrediting bodies. The "Nine Hallmarks of Quality" include standards that could be used to not only evaluate existing online programs undergoing accreditation review:

  1. Vision and Mission: "Online learning is appropriate to the institution's mission and purposes."
  2. Planning and Maintenance: "The institution's plans for developing, sustaining, and if appropriate, expanding online learning offerings are integrated into its regular planning and evaluation processes."
  3. Collaboration: "Online learning is incorporated into the institution's systems of governance and academic oversight."
  4. Academic Rigor: "Curricula for the institution's online learning offerings are coherent, cohesive, and comparable in academic rigor to programs offered in traditional formats."
  5. Evaluation: "The institution evaluates the effectiveness of its online learning offerings, including the extent to which online learning goals are achieved, and uses the results of its evaluations to enhance the attainment of the goals."
  6. Faculty: "Faculty responsible for delivering the online learning curricula and evaluating the students' success in achieving the online learning goals are appropriately qualified and effectively supported."
  7. Student Services: "The institution provides effective student and academic services to support students enrolled in online learning offerings."
  8. Resources: "The institution provides sufficient resources to support and, if appropriate, expand its online learning offerings."
  9. Integrity: "The institution assures integrity of its online offerings."

MSCHE states that Interregional Guidelines "are intended to be used in conjunction with the relevant standards and policies of each accreditor" through a process in which "institutions are asked to include evidence of the extent to which they meet these hallmarks." The guidelines also address evaluation at an institutional or program level. Assessing quality at the course level may benefit from the addition of tools designed for this purpose, such as the Quality Matters Rubric from MarylandOnline or the Rubric for Online Instruction from California State University, Chico.

In addition to the evaluation of existing programs, the guidelines can also be used to guide the development of new programs. As a learning professional working in higher education it's encouraging to see this kind of focus on planning for academic quality that takes place before launching an new online program with students.

The Student's Perspective 

What does all of this mean for students? It's good news. Online learners may be the primary beneficiaries of a learning environment where these guidelines have been implemented – ultimately improving program design, supporting students and their instructors in and out of class, and providing the high-quality learning achievement that should result from the completion of an academic program. The Interregional Guidelines also bring attention to the needs of online learners, hopefully leading to improved efforts related to preparation and support, and to greater transparency of online schools and programs so that prospective students can make informed choices about their education.

What Educators are Saying

Pearson eCollege's Online Blogucation blog reviewed the hallmarks in detail noting along the way that "working through these items should help the success of an online program and allow the institution to truly 'put their money where their mouth is' " (Hallmark 8). This review also identified potential challenges related to interpretation and implementation by a school's faculty and administrators (Hallmark 5). 

Educator and eLearning consultant Barry Dahl also reviewed the Hallmarks of Quality earlier this year. Dahl found that they "cover a lot of ground and are pretty hard to argue with," but was also careful to point out that they do emphasize a comparison of online and on-campus learning. Hallmark 4, for example, directs that online options should be "comprable" to traditional courses, with traditional versions as the standard. While higher education as a whole seems to be getting closer to measuring learning and developing leading practices that address all types of learning in a formal academic course – traditional and e-learning – online options are still new to many schools and often developed based on existing face-to-face classes.

The Interregional Guidelines aren't the only references available. Check out additional resources related to the review and evaluation of distance education [PDF] from the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET). There you'll find some of the additional policies and recommendations used by the regional accrediting organizations.

It's important to remember that accreditation isn't required. Schools can operate and offer courses without accreditation, but students at non-accredited schools may encounter numerous problems, such as being ineligible for financial aid and finding that transferring earned credits to other schools is difficult if not impossible. While accreditation is just one part of the process of choosing an online program, prospective students must ask if a school is accredited and find out more about how their learning will be supported in these programs.

Image credit: MagneticNorth, Flickr, CC-BY-SA

May 4th, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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