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Quality Control Versus Academic Freedom: Walk the line

By Miriam RB Abbott, Jami M. Nininger, Peggy Shaw / July 2018

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Colleges and universities incorporate online education using a variety of approaches. For some, there is little oversight applied to course design; faculty members enjoy free reign to engineer course structure as they wish within a college's learning management system. At other institutions, instructors manage pre-written courses and serve only to grade assignments and answer student questions.

At institutions in which there is little oversight on design, academic freedom reigns supreme. Instructors may independently design and organize their respective online courses. This may be characterized as a "faculty-centered" approach, from which stem at least two concerns:

  1. Professional development programs are typically used to share best practices in online instruction. A survey of 432 college faculty members suggests 26 percent of faculty have not attended any professional development courses, and 40 percent are uncertain or unlikely to attend future development opportunities [1] Lack of time and lack of financial incentive are persistent barriers to participation in faculty development programs [2, 3, 4].
  2. In the absence of consistency in course design, students must learn new learning protocols and navigation styles upon entry to each course within an institution.

At the other end of the spectrum, institutions that hire instructors to lead pre-written courses offer little academic freedom. While pre-written courses may be designed to promote a student-centered environment in which navigational approaches are familiar, they do so while restricting the editorial academic freedoms of faculty members.

Administrators are therefore faced with a formidable challenge: finding a sustainable balance between student-centered standardization and academic freedom.

Balance and Accreditation

The importance of academic freedom within an institution is classically tied to the freedom of speech provision in the Bill of Rights. Such freedom is important to individual faculty members, and it is also important for institutional accreditation. Across the board, accreditation of colleges and universities is predicated upon the preservation of academic freedom [5].

However, in an age wherein online education opportunities are expanding rapidly, accreditors have begun to search for consistency and predictability in online college classrooms. Accreditors have adopted a pronounced emphasis on a student-centered approach to course design, rather than on a faculty-centered approach. For example, The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, a partnership that comprises the major accreditors for more than 3,000 colleges in the United States, has published an interregional list of guidelines for online education [6]. The guidelines suggest that consistency of student experience is valued as a measure of program quality, as curricula for online offerings within an institution must demonstrate a "coherent" and "cohesive" relationship with traditional classrooms. The guidelines also require that online classrooms are the subjects of internal reviews, and online classrooms must adhere to best practices, which include disclosures of university policies, systems of accommodation, and support mechanisms-all of which may be unique in the online environment.

Because terms such as "coherent" and "cohesive" can be subjectively assessed, colleges and universities may be underprepared for the expectations of review teams. This is of particular concern when accreditation assessments are made through a process of peer review. The practice of peer review itself has been under fire for its inconsistencies and reliability [7], and when applied as a means to assess a field that is rapidly evolving (online education), the process becomes even more unpredictable.

The 2017 observations of the Higher Learning Commission, a regional accreditor, provide insight into the accreditation outcomes of a wholly faculty-centered approach. It denied approval of online programs for Arizona-based Scottsdale Community College [8]. The assessment documentation cited lapses in faculty participation in elective online training, inconsistencies in course navigation, and decentralized, uncoordinated mechanisms for course reviews and oversight. The peer review team's recommendations included student-centered standardization and consistency across the college's academic online offerings.

Balance with Limited Standardization

Colleges must therefore navigate a path that ensures both academic freedom and a student-centered standardization in approach as sought by accreditors. Of course, standardization has long been a taboo term in education communities. Typically, it denotes a pre-established curriculum and coursework. Limited standardization, however, can be a boon to both student and faculty communities. A learner in a traditional classroom knows to read the syllabus, come to class, and follow the professor's instructions. When learners enter an online classroom, it may not be evident how to find the syllabus, the professor, or the instructions. Standardization in course design within a program can effectively address these variables, without affecting an instructor's academic freedom. Course-design templates, selected elements of content, and grading rubrics may all be standardized without meaningful losses in academic freedom.

Course templates are tools that promote consistency without infringing on academic freedom. A template may designate standard denotations and locations for posting a syllabus, collecting assignments, posting a calendar, contact information, and nomenclature for sections of the course. While the instructor retains control of course content, adhering to consistency in course design fosters student success in navigation as they begin each new course within a program. Research indicates professors who use standard course templates observe a decrease in student confusion, and appreciate a framework that allows instructors more time to be "creative" with content [9].

It may be counterintuitive to suggest some elements of content may also be standardized without adversely affecting academic freedom. However, faculty syllabi traditionally contain standardized language to cover institutionally required disclosures. The inclusion of such language has been widely accepted by faculty communities. As online courses require specialized information about protocols, services, and policies, the availability of such pre-written content for reproduction within the course itself would be a boon to teaching faculty. Few would argue that academic freedom requires the ability to compose postings of college policies on help services, professor points of contact, or online accommodation.

Further, online faculty and students may benefit from elements of standardization within grading rubrics for assignments. Standardization promotes consistency in grading practices, which in turn supports student learning. Moreover, standardized grading rubrics that are customizable by instructors to meet the needs of an assignment can preserve palatable levels of academic freedom [10].

Anecdotally, within an online program that transitioned towards increased predictability and student-centered elements of standardization, faculty turnover rates were no higher than the rates in face-to-face programs, indicating comparable faculty satisfaction with the level of academic freedom. Moreover, in a survey conducted with the permission of the internal review board, all faculty members within the online program who underwent audits and revisions to align their courses with quality control standards indicated that the process was "helpful," with responses ranging from "somewhat helpful" (9 percent) to "very helpful" (28 percent).

Concluding Recommendations

Online education evolves at a faster pace than the traditional classroom. As such, both institutions and faculty have grown agile at managing change. As online education continues to change and expand, the expectations of accreditation teams also change to ensure institutions meet the needs of the students they serve. Evidence suggests accreditors should seek consistency in online courses within a program. Standardized tools such as course templates, disclosures regarding online course policies, and grading rubrics can help institutions demonstrate consistency and quality while preserving faculty academic freedom in course content.


[1] Pesce, J. Professional development for teaching in higher education: Faculty perceptions and attitudes. Doctoral thesis. Boston College. 2015.

[2] Betts, K. Factors influencing faculty participation and retention in online & blended education. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 17, 1 (2014).

[3] Mascher, E. A. Factors Influencing Participation in Professional Development to Promote Online Course Excellence and the Impact on Faculty Confidence and Teaching. Dissertation. University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. 2016.

[4] Steinert, Y., McLeod, P., Boillat, M., Meterissian, S., Elizov, M., and MacDonald, M. Faculty development: A "field of dreams"? Medical Education 43, 1 (2009), 46-54. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2008.03246.x

[5] American Association of University Professors. Regional accreditation standards concerning academic freedom and the faculty role in governance. n.d.

[6] Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC). Interregional guidelines for the evaluation of distance education. 2011. /p>

[7] Alacbay, A. Accreditation dysfunction. The Forum. July 13, 2016. American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

[8] Higher Learning Commission. Embedded Change Report: Substantive Change Recommendation Form. 2017.

[9] Burgess, V. Barth, K., and Mersereau, C. Quality online instruction -a template for consistent and effective online course design. Online Learning Consortium. 2008.

[10] Abbott, M. and Shaw, P.. Concordance within an RN to BSN program: Standardized writing assessment rubrics. Nursing Education Perspectives. Publication forthcoming.

About the Authors

Miriam RB Abbott teaches and composes both online and hybrid courses at Mount Carmel College of Nursing. She's taught online courses for over a decade, using four different platforms. Abbott has also served as a member of the College's audit team, supporting colleagues in the development of coursework within the online programs.

Jami M. Nininger, Assistant Dean of Distance Education at Mount Carmel College of Nursing, is an "early adopter" of technology in education, having worked in online education since 2002 and in nursing education since 1994. Nininger's passion for achieving excellence in nursing is evidenced in her pursuit of quality standards in online education. She knows that quality education and professional practice are cultivated through innovative approaches and immersion in evidence. Nininger has applied processes of continuous quality improvement and quality assurance to cultivate faculty buy-in and to build a team approaches aimed at nationally recognized quality standards.

Peggy Shaw is the Academic Advisor for students entering the online RN-BSN program at Mount Carmel College of Nursing. In her role, she helps orient students who may be new to online education, and supports them throughout their academic careers.

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