ACCREDITATION OF ONLINE INSTITUTIONS
Go to Critical Reviews
The media hype that has ensued since the accreditation of Jones International University (JIU), especially after AAUP attacked the decision, has been neither particularly enlightening nor productive. Some critics evidently see the decision as unwarranted approval of educational delivery that is untested yet, strangely enough, already assumed to be significantly flawed and obviously inferior in quality. Others find JIU itself to be the problem: a for-profit institution created by and evidently eager to serve corporate America. AAUP seems willing to use both arguments, the former in letters to the Commission and the latter in discussions with reporters. When viewed in the context of U.S. higher education history and of the Commission role in that history, this decision is more accurately understood as the logical next step in assuring that quality higher education is accessible to new and larger groups of students.
Acceptance of this interpretation clearly requires correction of misunderstandings held by some critics. JIU is now one of 23 for-profit institutions accredited by the Commission. The first one, Keller Graduate School of Management, won accreditation in 1977. At first closely held by an owner or a partnership, several of these proprietary institutions are now parts of large publicly-traded corporations. The smaller institutions that focused on two-year business programs have been replaced by those offering focused baccalaureate and graduate education programs ranging from information technology to professional psychology to business to education. As far as the for-profit nature of institution gaining accreditation, therefore, JIU established no precedent. As with many of our for-profits, its governance structures and financing meet our stated requirements but are clearly shaped by the corporate environment, drawing on services provided by the larger corporate structures in which it is located.
It is true that a substantial amount of private capital is and will be invested in higher education through corporations that establish colleges or serve them. Within the online environment in higher education, however, I forecast that the for-profit presence will be much more evident in partnerships with existing institutions (e.g., through services from companies such as eCollege.com) than through establishing new free-standing institutions. High quality online education that makes the most of the potential of the technology involves significant capital investment. JIU represents only one way to channel that investment into accredited higher education.
Most of our for-profit institutions and, increasingly a number of our independent and public institutions as well, see significant new markets for students in the corporate and industrial sectors of our economy. Community colleges have long been known for their quick responsiveness to changing educational needs in an economy that seems to have an insatiable appetite for "knowledge workers." The University of Phoenix, a for profit institution accredited by the Commission since 1978, makes no secret of its focus on working adults and its close ties with employers, and it has received much favorable attention particularly from the business community and public policy makers. If JIU intends to focus its online educational opportunities in the corporate sector, it breaks no new ground. Instead, it enters a marketplace marked by increasing competition from public and independent sectors of higher education, as well as new and growing for-profit institutions.
Critics of these trends in U.S. higher education such as David Noble appear to be less concerned about online education than the speed with which much of higher education is being shaped by corporate America, by corporate training and research needs, and by the very different educational goals and learning needs of employed adults and other emerging student clienteles. In short, according to these critics, the university in its rush to serve these new student clienteles has sacrificed its capacity to commit to an unfettered search for truth and to be the source of objective analysis of the society in which it exists. If such fundamental definitional reservations lurk beneath the criticism of online education, then distance education is taking an unwarranted rap, and JIU is an undeserving surrogate for much broader concerns.
One important way to view online education is as the most recent means of making higher education accessible to new and larger groups of students. Land Grant universities were created to ensure broader access to education, and their decades-old correspondence programs represent one such effort to assure access. Access has also been provided through truncated summer sessions, evening colleges, weekend colleges, Executive MBA programs, adult degree completion programs, courses and programs offered at off-campus sitesthe list can go on and on. Many of these programs have focused on the specific educational goals of the student even though the university providing them claimed to be about the business of winnowing truth.
The primary argument against the Commissions decision evidently rests with the assumption that the Commissions requirements and standards define traditional campus-based higher education, and, therefore, simply could not fit an institution like JIU.
However, the Commissions accreditation of JIU was simply one in a long line of precedent-setting decisions related to institutions and their programs developed to enhance access to quality education. Traditionalists complained decades ago when normal schools became full-fledged members; later they argued against single purpose and professional schools; and they made dire forecasts when community and technical colleges were made members. Of course, these places had faculty, facilities, and services that could be measured against the input standards common to accreditation.
Similarly, the Commission has over the years been open to distance education and institutions uniquely configured around new technologies. Thirteen years ago we accredited an institution that relies solely on satellite delivery and provides programs today in at least 400 different corporate locations. The University of Phoenix has offered online programs since 1990. Just a few years ago we accredited an institution that relies totally on correspondence education. In all of these decisions, the Commission wrestled with new definitions for faculty, of services for students, and of learning support for the programs. From the 1970s onward, the Commission slowly but surely moved from evaluation based on solely on what exists to evaluation based heavily on what works. JIU is not the first institution accredited by the Commission that lacks a large full-time faculty and a campus with all of its accoutrements.
I argue that the Commissions decision about JIU did not break much new ground, at least not as attributed to it by critics. But I would be disingenuous to suggest that the decision to accredit JIU was just "business as usual." The fact is that the business of higher education is changing significantly, and technology has a large role in that shift. Distance education has not redefined what constitutes higher education. All types of institutions are engaged in this redefinition and in the dialogue on higher education quality, content, methodology, and rigor. Instead, distance education has become a very visible home for many new technological tools being developed to meet the learning needs of a student body that is daily becoming larger and more diverse.
More precisely, online education has come to represent the shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered education. Internet technology has been used simply to extend the live classroom (relying on synchronous use of the technology) where the faculty member continues to control the learning environment and the technology substitutes for the post office and telephone. But internet technology also allows for asynchronous learning in a significantly new environment marked by multimedia components and information access made possible by the web. In these learning environments, faculty facilitate rather than direct the learning experience while students become active participants in shaping that experience.
Faculty are central players in this shift even though many evidently fear that it threatens to marginalize them. To be sure, they will no longer be as autonomous as they once were, for effective use of expensive technology requires teamwork and collaboration. New understandings must be developed about intellectual property. Nevertheless, rigorous higher education must be based on the knowledge defined by content specialists and generalists, and effective education will continue to require the talents of facilitators who understand and enhance learning processes. These are faculty roles and they will continue to be.
We are learning that current accreditation standards do not address as effectively as they must the transformation in higher education resulting from technology. As institutions contract and collaborate, judgments about ownership and control, once easily made, become difficult. The role of the faculty in environments that encourage unbundling of faculty roles seems confusing when it once was plain. Tools to evaluate student learning are both underdeveloped and underused. Standards need to be revised even for "on-ground"home campusinstruction, and the rapid emergence of distance education makes that need all the more obvious.
Even as we strive to define a new and appropriate role for accreditation in this dynamic marketplace, we are learning some important things. That learning, if implemented quickly and flexibly enough into accreditation standards and processes, will allow accreditation agencies to continue to provide strong programs of quality assurance into the next century. So far we should have learned the following lessons:
Quality in online education requires institutional commitment and focus. That is, those institutions that simply attempt to "bolt on" some courses and programs will discover quickly that the competitive marketplace will reward institutions that understand and meet the unique needs of the distant student. At a fairly early point in its foray into online education, an institution should make a series of commitmentsall entailing costsor the quality of its distance education will suffer.
Too few institutions take the time to contemplate the long-range impact of technology on education and integrate the ramifications of it into planning. The short-term answer is to toss money into hardware, software, and a little faculty-centered development program, and establish a web presence. The operating assumption is that the faculty-centered classroom model of higher education will remain unchanged. Neither the increased productivity made possible by technology nor the transformed learning environment it allows will be met by these institutions. Competitors ready to re-vision the learning environment, whether higher education institutions or corporate training programs or courseware developers, will succeed.
Online education gives power to the student. The institutional model of accreditation appears to value institutional autonomy in all things, particularly in developing curriculum and determining when to award credits and degrees. Residency has often been key to institutional control. That was not so difficult when students literally had to move physically to gain access to other learning environments. Online education has the potential to allow studentseven resident students--to find courses to fit particular needs and particular schedules. A students educational progress need not be at the whim of any given institutions course scheduling and class-size limits.
Accrediting agencies are not known for being models of learning organizations. Despite our frequent discussions about distance education and despite our collaborative efforts to develop common guidelines, regional organizations have not done much to share what we are learning about online education with our own institutions. Too often we continue to treat these distance education endeavors as "exceptions" rather than as places of experimentation and sources of change. Perhaps that is really our greatest challenge in this new day and age: finding ways to share learning and good practices about online education without fearing the loss of regional identify and uniqueness.
I like this article. It is on a timely and important subject and is well argued. Publish it. I only suggest that the "Commission" be fully identified when it is introduced early in the article.
Critic AAThe JIU accreditation certainly stirred some fiery discussions earlier this year. This article takes a sane and balanced approach to the controversy, and provides some interesting precedents for readers to ponder. While many readers will likely still disagree, the article does an excellent job of presenting the precedents.
When the author's identity is known, the references in the article to "the Commission" and "our" will likely become clear. However, it may be helpful to spell these out more clearly. Also, for those unfamiliar with his writings, a citation or link to David Noble's work (cited in paragraph 5) may be helpful.
Recommended for publication.
I really like this article. It obviously represents a particular perspective, and it should generate discussions and responses among the readership. Traditional colleges and universities are slow to meet the growing need for online degree programs, creating a vacuum that will quickly and naturally be filled by enterprising private sector entities. This is a wakeup call. Let's go with it. Suggestions for minor changes: (1) Cite specific references for the "media hype" mentioned in the first paragraph and throughout the article. (2) Revise the formatting of the last few paragraphs that appear as indented blocks or block quotes. (3) Add a concluding paragraph; as is, the article ends abruptly.