Badges, credit, and accreditation in online education

Accreditation matters to everyone: students, parents, education institutions, research and teaching faculty, alumni, employers, government and taxpayers. Institutions that fail to receive sought-after (re-)accreditation lose access to federal funds that support student financial aid.

Unaccredited institutions are less likely to attract top faculty and administrators, making them potentially less inviting to prospective students. This can lead to loss of access to grant programs and to community and corporate donors falling away.

Accordingly, accreditation is, by its nature, a conservative, deliberative, painstaking undertaking; change to accreditation policies and processes happens slowly. Accreditors must gain recognition by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) by demonstrating that they are operating in compliance with federal regulations, a requirement that can further dampen efforts to alter policies and/or processes.

The emphasis on credit, academic oversight and faculty participation, and limitations to experiential or non-collegiate sponsored learning all suggest a disinclination by the accreditation community to rush to badges.

Rather, it will fall to institutions to proceed with development and recognition of badges in a way that addresses the issues that O’Brien highlights.

Before the badge discussion really takes off, the accreditation community must address the antecedent issue of competency-based learning. During a recent email conversation, Karen Solomon (Higher Learning Commission of North Central Association) offered the following recounting regarding competency-based learning accreditation to light the way for those interested in badges:

The Commission recently approved four institutions to offer competency based degrees. Due to USDE requirements, a new application and review process was developed to evaluate institutions as they redefined how degrees could be earned when they moved away from credit hours determined by seat time to competencies. Students earn degrees once they demonstrate mastery of competencies. The concept of a two-year or four-year degree does not exist since the concept of time is separated from the degree. Some students with a great deal of experience might demonstrate mastery to several competencies in a few weeks while others may take several years. Since they are not enrolled in courses, the financial aid system must be re-evaluated. Accrediting agencies will need to identify peer reviewers that can evaluate institutional preparation and resources available for degrees that are decoupled from the credit hour.