Accreditors are monitoring changes in e-Learning

The constantly changing environment is challenging for institutions and accreditors alike and while we like to talk about what we have seen and experienced, we must continue to monitor the forecast.

The definition of success in online learning is ever changing.

Weather is always a source of great conversation and stories. Just like the weather, the patterns of higher education are changing. Some events are predictable like the changing of the seasons and at times we find ourselves navigating through rough weather.

There are several interesting issues developing on the horizon including the disaggregation of services, expectations for institutional and student success, and direct assessment.

The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) recently revised its Criteria for Accreditation and clearly set out expectations that institutions are responsible for providing “high quality education wherever and however” delivered.

We then went on to explain that this includes all campuses and locations, modalities (including distance delivery), dual credit, and contractual or consortial arrangements.

While the disaggregation of services is reshaping the role of many institutions, we expect that faculty retain responsibility for the curriculum regardless of how it is delivered. Faculty or instructors with subject matter expertise should be integral in the oversight and approval of curriculum even when an institution develops a relationship with a contractual partner.


When discussing the term “success” I often wonder if we are talking about institutional or student success. Students are mobile.

They earn credits across institutions and utilize many modalities along the cycle.

An organization can document that a student completed a program of study while enrolled at the institution, but there may be several institutions that awarded credits to the student.

Should this achievement be considered institutional success only by the institution awarding the degree? Should all other involved institutions also be able to consider the completion as success?

The 2012 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center Signature Report “Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates” noted that approximately 22.4 percent of students did not earn a degree at the first institution they attended.

A deeper analysis of the data indicated that 23.6 percent of traditional aged students and 34.1 percent of students who began at two-year institutions completed degrees a different institution than where they started.

Many institutions are beginning to incorporate data analytics into their decision processes and the WCET PAR project is one example of how datasets shared by a group of institutions can provide insight into factors of success across targeted groups of students in order to improve persistence and completion.

On the other hand, student success is achieved when they meet personal goals. It may be a few courses or an entire degree, but they often have difficulty identifying institutional programs and services that will support their needs.

Current ranking structures and various transparency websites, including the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator, provide data, but a review across several sites does not provide consistent comparable data nor do they provide much information about student or institutional success.

So how does a student discern what institutions would be a good “fit” to reach personal goals?

In the years ahead, accreditors expect that institutions will be able to provide evidence of initiatives taken to improve institutional and student success in terms of persistence and retention. At HLC, the revised Criteria and annual review of key indicators related to persistence and completion placed more emphasis on success.

To support institutions efforts, we are launching an Academy for Student Persistence and Completion in early 2015.

The multi-year experience will allow cohort groups of member institutions to focus on issues through a facilitated process with the opportunity to collaborate and communicate with other institutions and mentors. The Commission will collect and disseminate emerging practices as institutional initiatives are completed as part of our commitment to support the development of good practices.

Direct Assessment

Efforts to evaluate and document student learning becomes even more important as the method and measures for awarding credit continue to change. For years, students have been earning degrees based on the demonstration of certain previously defined competencies.

The programs were designed with course-based units that were assigned academic credit. Most times, the credits were use as an equivalency measure primarily in order to meet requirements for federal or state aid, and to provide a commonly understood student transcript.

The Commission recently approved four institutions to offer degrees via direct assessment. These institutions will be offering competency-based degrees and an equivalency between competencies and credit hours is not present. Student completion will be documented through a list of competencies that have been met instead of courses taken and passed.

The interaction between students, faculty, advisors, and peer reviewers will evolve. Much of the ongoing communication and evaluation will take place through technological environments and institutions needed to demonstrate that the infrastructure is up-to-date and sufficient to handle the changing environment.

Translation of this new form of degree credentialing to the broader public including employers and other institutions will be critical.

It is a topic that will need broader discussion and the development of commonly understood practice so students utilizing this form of credentialing can be competitive in job searches and careers, transfer to other institutions or apply for admittance into advanced degree programs. Offering this alternative provides another option to support students in achieving success.

Karen Solomon is from the Higher Learning Commission, one of the regional accrediting agencies. Solomon also serves as the chair of WCET’s Steering CommitteeThis post originally appeared on WCET Frontiers.

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