Interregional Accreditation Guidelines for Online Programs

Map of U.S. showing regional accrediting territoriesThe regional accrediting bodies have recently published their updated document: the Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education (Online Learning). The new guidelines were developed through C-RAC (Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions) and  have been endorsed by all regional accrediting organizations in the U.S.

Here is that doc: Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education Programs (PDF)

These guidelines will be used “to assist institutions in planning distance education and to provide an assessment framework for institutions already involved in distance education. The Guidelines are also intended for use by evaluation teams.” 

There are nine “Hallmarks of Quality.” They are:

  1. Online learning is appropriate to the institution’s mission and purposes.
  2. The institution’s plans for developing, sustaining, and, if appropriate, expanding online learning offerings are integrated into its regular planning and evaluation processes.
  3. Online learning is incorporated into the institution’s systems of governance and academic oversight.
  4. Curricula for the institution’s online learning offerings are coherent, cohesive, and comparable in academic rigor to programs offered in traditional instructional formats.
  5. The institution evaluates the effectiveness of its online learning offerings, including the extent to which the online learning goals are achieved, and uses the results of its evaluations to enhance the attainment of the goals.
  6. 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. The institution provides effective student and academic services to support students enrolled in online learning offerings.
  8. The institution provides sufficient resources to support and, if appropriate, expand its online learning offerings.
  9. The institution assures the integrity of its online offerings.

These nine items cover quite a bit of ground and are pretty hard to argue with. But let me take a few minutes to argue against the overall “tone” (or something like that) which seems to perpetuate the idea held by many that online learning is fundamentally different from on-campus (or traditional learning, as they say) and fundamentally “less than.”

Every time they feel the need to say something like “Online learning is incorporated into the institution’s systems of governance and academic oversight,” it sounds to me that this wouldn’t be expected to happen unless they explicitly state that it should. Same goes with almost all of these “hallmarks” which are things that we would expect in traditional learning settings – so why would we start with the assumption that we won’t find them in online learning? I think the accrediting bodies give the appearance of starting out on the side of the e-Learning skeptics (thinking that e-Learning sucks) and expect us to convince them that we really are providing an education to the students enrolled online. This is a pretty sad statement, but not at all a new one.

Although the basic hallmarks may be hard to argue with, C-RAC went further down the road by providing some examples  of meeting the hallmarks – not all of which are as easy to agree with.

“institutions are asked to include evidence of the extent to which they meet these hallmarks. Examples of the types of evidence that institutions might use are provided in this booklet. These lists are not meant to be exhaustive; it is likely that institutions will include additional types of evidence in their reports.”

Here are a few of the examples they provide (called “Analysis/Evidence” in the document):

Hallmark 4:  Curricula delivered through online learning are benchmarked against on-ground courses and programs, if provided by the institution, or those provided by traditional institutions;

  • I take exception with the continued denigration of online learning to second-class status. By saying that online learning should be “benchmarked against on-ground courses and programs,” C-RAC is saying that the on-ground learning is the gold standard against which online should be measured. Hogwash.
  • I’ve seen examples of where the on-ground learning should be benchmarked against what is happening in the online courses of that discipline/department/college. I think they dropped the ball on this one.

Hallmark 7:  Publications and advertising for online learning programs are accurate and contain necessary information such as program goals, requirements, academic calendar, and faculty;

  • Say what? They’re talking about advertising in the accreditation guidelines? And saying that advertising needs to include program goals, calendar info, etc.? That’s crazy talk.
  • We produced a series of award-winning online learning video ads at my former college and they don’t fit that description at all – but they were damn good ads.

Hallmark 8:  The institution provides evidence of a multi-year technology plan that addresses its goals for online learning and includes provision for a robust and scalable technical infrastructure.

  • Once again I take exception to something that C-RAC probably just thought was a given. This is mostly related to the age-old (okay, 10-15 year-old) debate about whether online learning is a technology function or an academic function. That debate mainly comes from all the silos in higher ed, and the need to fit e-learning into one of them.
  • I suppose there is nothing wrong with online learning being addressed as part of the technology plan – especially as far as software/LMS purchasing and other clearly tech-related items are concerned. However, it is a HUGE OVERSIGHT to not encourage colleges to include online learning in their ACADEMIC PLANS!! Yikes. After all, it is about the learning, not about the technology.

That’s a wrap for this time. (P.S. If your school will be going through an accreditation change request for online programs, I know someone who can help with that.)

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3 Responses

  1. Barry, you nailed it. I am amazed that educators and accreditation agencies continually take about progressive approaches to providing learning in a changing world and yet hold on so tightly to traditional standards and means of delivery. Our f2f classrooms are not much different than those found in universities in the 1600’s…Sage on the stage and good little students sitting quietly in rows taking notes. And yet, the pure lecture style of delivery is never questioned. I find the new guidelines to be insulting and prejudicial towards the archaic methods of delivery.

  2. Yes, yes, and yes! Well stated, Barry. Thanks.

  3. […] 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 […]

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