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Helpful or a Hindrance?

September 19, 2013

WASHINGTON -- A one-hour phone conversation between officials at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a regional accreditor was necessary for the creation of one of the biggest developments in the MOOC craze. Whether that discussion was a regulatory burden or a courtesy call depends on whom you ask.

Georgia Tech earlier this year announced it had partnered with Udacity, a massive open online course provider, to offer a $6,600, fully online master’s degree in computer science. The institute hopes to enroll up to 10,000 students from around the world in the program.

Charles Isbell, the senior associate dean for the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, described the new degree Wednesday on Capitol Hill. He was testifying at a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives’ subcommittee on higher education (video available here). The event was dubbed: “Keeping College Within Reach: Improving Access and Affordability Through Innovative Partnerships.”

Deals between nonprofit colleges and for-profit online providers can be tricky territory. Accreditors can crack down on partnerships where they determine that too much of a program’s academic operation has been outsourced to a non-accredited company -- the shuttering of Ivy Bridge College being a recent example.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, the Republican from North Carolina who chairs the subcommittee, asked Isbell how Georgia Tech got its accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, to sign off on the Udacity arrangement. 

Foxx, who has often suggested that colleges be open to collaborations with for-profit entities, didn't leave much doubt about her take on the accreditation process.

“What did you have to do to get programmatic approval from your accreditor?” Foxx asked. “Is there anything you had to do differently compared to a traditional program at Georgia Tech, to comply with federal law or regulations? And did this impede the college mission?"

If Foxx was looking for tales of box-checking bureaucrats blocking innovation, she didn't get any.

The process was similar, Isbell said. But there was a wrinkle.

“The biggest problem that we’ve had in working with our accreditor is the ambiguity in the rules,” he said.

As a result, Isbell said administrators at Georgia Tech had a “very long, hourlong conversation” with officials from the commission to get some clarity. The goal of the call was to see if Georgia Tech could proceed or whether the jointly operated program would first require a site visit by a team of reviewers from the commission.

“The difficulty arises in the complexity of our relationships,” said Isbell. “It isn’t very clear what it means in today’s society for someone to own a platform or for someone to own the curriculum and the education.”

Ivy Bridge’s ownership structure was a key problem in that college’s unraveling.

Tiffin University, a private institution, jointly managed the online college with Altius Education, a for-profit company. The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central of Association of Colleges and Schools questioned whether Tiffin had adequate control of Ivy Bridge.

However, Georgia Tech was able to gain tentative approval from its accreditor for the partnership with Udacity, which is a for-profit company. Further review will follow next year, when the institute is up for renewal of its accreditation.

“They promised to come and to look very carefully at what we’re doing,” Isbell said. “The good news is that everyone is on the same page in that we’re all trying to do the right thing together. They want to do what’s best for students. We want to do what’s best for students.”

One congressman didn’t seem worried about whether Georgia Tech had faced unnecessary regulatory burdens with its Udacity partnership.

Rep. Tim Bishop is a Democrat from New York. He’s also a former college provost.

“We hear a lot about how the regional accrediting process is often an inhibiting force in terms of program development and program innovation,” Bishop said during the hearing.

He asked Isbell if Georgia Tech’s new computer science offering is the first master’s degree that will be offered exclusively on a MOOC platform. Isbell said it was. Bishop didn’t stop there.

“And you were able to in effect gain the concurrence of your accreditor by virtue of an hourlong conversation and then I would assume some other conversations?” he asked.

“That is correct,” said Isbell.

“So it’s fair to assume that the accreditor was cooperative and helpful as opposed to inhibiting?” Bishop asked.

“Absolutely,” Isbell said.

“Thank you and congratulations,” Bishop said, referring to the new degree. “Really, it’s very impressive.”

 

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