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Accreditation Standards and Best Practice for Distance Education

By Colin Easom / May 2015

TYPE: HIGHER EDUCATION
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Accreditation. That one word often elicits fear in the heart of academics and school administrators alike; fear that some erudite agency is out to ensnare them, or catch them with a trick question. But instead of viewing accreditation as something to be endured, what if we looked to accreditation standards to help us establish and enhance quality through best practice? At the end of the day, we all want what's best for our students, and an open approach to accreditation standards could help us achieve exactly that.

Most schools are familiar with the accreditation site visit process, but I've often wondered how many understand the process by which accreditation standards are established in the first place. Are they simply dreamed up over a few cocktails and written on a napkin, or are they founded in research and written in collaboration with member schools?

At the end of February, I traveled to Las Vegas, NV to attend the annual conference of the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES), the only agency recognized by the Department of Education to accredit Allied Health schools and programs.+ Despite a full conference schedule, Christy Baily-Byers, Manager of Training and Distance Education Development, and Amy Rowe, Director of Institutional Review and Development, were kind enough to sit down with me and walk me through the process by which ABHES standards for distance and online education are established and reviewed.

As we began talking, I quickly realized standards are not static. They are living and breathing, adapting to an ever changing academic climate as demonstrated by the four revisions of ABHES distance education standards in as many years. The latest incarnation has achieved an entire chapter in the 2015 accreditation manual, a publication detailing ABHES accreditation standards for member schools and evaluators, compared to its former life as an appendix.

Ms. Baily-Byers explained the review of standards is very systematic and begins by ensuring standards are aligned with those established by the Department of Education, before looking at what other accrediting bodies are doing, and examining the latest research in the field of distance education.

Far from operating in silos, accrediting bodies get together to discuss what's happening in the field of academics and share ideas on standards. Indeed, staffers responsible for distance education for the national accrediting bodies-The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, Distance Education Accrediting Commission, and the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education & Training-have started meeting annually to discuss best practices for distance education accreditation.

A prime example is the 2009 document "Nine Hallmarks of Quality for Distance Education—Guidelines for the evaluation of distance education (on-line learning)" developed by Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions [1]. Each of these nine "hallmarks"is broken down into components through which schools can demonstrate compliance. You'll find each of these hallmarks incorporated into the ABHES distance education standards, despite the slightly different wording. Does it matter that those hallmarks came out of a regional accreditation agency when ABHES is national? Not at all, because these hallmarks are applicable to all institutions offering distance education, regardless of their accrediting body.

Another example of how agencies collaborate on standards is the recently established National Council for State Authorization of Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA). In a nutshell, any institution that has been approved to run distance education in any one member state of SARA is automatically approved to offer distance education in any other member state. At the time of writing, there are currently 18 member states in the consortium. SARA's standards and guidelines serve as an overriding minimum for any institution wishing to be approved by SARA. For almost 20 states to agree on distance education standards, they have to be founded on proven best practice, and the state with the highest requirements sets the minimum standards for all.

So that's how some standards come into existence; but what about those that have been established for a while? Ms. Rowe informed me ABHES has some automatic review triggers in place to ensure standards are rooted in best practice. If a standard is "vague or subject to various interpretations" or the standard's average score on a constituent bi-annual surveys reflects "limited or modest value," it is automatically selected for review. Additionally if the incidence of non-compliance for any standard exceeds 10 percent of schools visited each year, the standard is also automatically reviewed. While standards are never lowered, they may be revised depending on currently identified best practice and the state of the allied health industry.

ABHES offers programmatic accreditation as well as institutional. This means standards are reviewed by both programmatic committees, whose members are comprised of both experts working in the allied health fields and education specialists, as well as by institutional committees. This varied membership ensures that a multitude of perspectives on standards are considered and are relevant to allied health as well as being academically rigorous.

In the case of distance and online education, the ABHES Distance Education Committee meets face to face at least once a year, and as many times as necessary, via conference call if issues arise. Any draft standard revisions to come out of the Distance Education Committee are submitted to the Standards Review Committee for review, who then submits them to the Commissioners. If the Commissioners approve the draft, the proposed revisions are submitted to ABHES member schools for comments. The schools return comments to the Commissioners for final approval. If adopted, the standards go into effect and are rolled out to membership. If the Commission is unable to finalize the revised standards, they would be tasked with going back to the Standards Review or the Distance Education Committees, and the process is repeated until the standards are finalized.

That's a deliberately lengthy and comprehensive review process that takes approximately 18 months to two years from the initial draft to final publication of standards. ABHES provides extensive explanations of its standards, examples of how each one can be met, and a glossary of terms to ensure each school has the maximum opportunity to actualize the best practice of each standard. It's important to remember any accreditation standard is a minimum standard, and schools are invited to exceed them. In fact, ABHES has an "Exceeds" category on its site-visit reports if a school truly demonstrates going above and beyond a standard. "Bottom line, accreditation standards are there to ensure a great experience for the student," explained Ms. Baily-Byers. As educators, that's what we all want, isn't it? So let's joyfully grab those accreditation standards in full knowledge that they really are rigorous, well thought out, founded on best practice, and will help make our schools shine.


+ The views expressed are the author's own and are in no way directly influenced by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools.

References

[1] Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education Programs (Online Learning). Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Philadelphia, 2011.

About the Author

After obtaining a bachelor's and master's degree in library science and information management, Colin Easom gained a certificate in online teaching in 1998. Since then, he has worked at both the high school and the college level teaching both on-ground and online, has mentored faculty in the use of educational technologies, and currently manages more than 100 online faculty. Colin also serves as a distance education specialist for the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools.

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Comments

  • Sun, 28 Jun 2015
    Post by virtual education system

    Educational accreditation is specially very important for Distance Learning education. It is because due to the reason, that if an institution have good accreditation standard, then they will be responsible for good quality education,also it has good impact on virtual education and the inflow of the people will be increased. http://www.a2zvirtualeducation.com/ is one of the leading E-learning education platform.

ADDITIONAL READING

Editor's note: Accreditation is a critical component to consider when comparing academic programs. These external evaluations provide some assurance of quality for prospective students and parents. Accreditation reviews have a come a long way in recent years, giving more attention to the specific needs and characteristics of online students, programs, and faculty members. Colin Easom's interview with two representatives of the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) provides an inside look at how distance education accreditation standards are established with an emphasis on collaborative input and decision-making.