Six years after the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity emerged to attack a knotty problem -- making it feasible and affordable for colleges to offer online programs in states other than the one in which they are physically located -- that "easy work" is done, Paul Lingenfelter, the group's board chair, said with a hint of irony in an interview last week.
The work certainly hasn't been easy: many states are very protective of their standards for judging the quality of educational providers within their borders, and getting 49 of the 50 states (California remains the lone outlier) to sign on has been a heavy lift. But it may have been easier (or at least more straightforward), Lingenfelter said, than what the organization wants to do next: "to see if we can now begin to work with institutions and accreditors to improve the quality of distance education."
Now that won't be easy work, given how hard it is to define educational quality of any kind. But if NC-SARA, as the council is called, can coalesce the state regulators and the colleges and universities they authorize around a definition of quality online education in the same way it got them over the last six years to agree on a common definition of minimum quality, anything is possible.
Lots of entities are in the "online quality" space -- associations like the National Council for Online Education, Quality Matters and the Online Learning Consortium, quasi-regulators like regional and national accrediting agencies, and actual oversight bodies like federal and state governments. Some play largely a cheerleading or "best practices" role; others regulate. What might NC-SARA do?
"I'd like to see us do something that is more substantial than exhortation but more effective than regulation," said Lingenfelter, who helped to birth NC-SARA when he was president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers association. The former creates unevenness, but focusing on compliance requirements isn't particularly effective, he said: "Institutions will figure out a way to meet those, and to just meet those, in the least onerous, least burdensome way possible. It won't be very deep."
His early thoughts on what might be effective: "There may be ways you can measure what institutions do that will encourage them to do better." And whatever it does, NC-SARA will be a collaborator among the various other players in the space, a role it has filled effectively in building the state-approval coalition.
Responsibility for designing and carrying out how the organization will try to increase the quality of online education will fall largely to its new executive director, Lori Williams, whose appointment was announced last week. Williams is vice president of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, where she has worked at the intersection of accountability and institutional quality for the regional accreditor for California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.
Before that, she worked at a wide range of institutions, from large for-profits (she was provost and accreditation liaison at Ashford University and student success director at Walden University) to small private nonprofit colleges such as Saint Michael's and Middlebury Colleges.
Like any incoming leader, Williams says she won't form an agenda until she talks to many of NC-SARA's constituents in her first few months on the job.
But she has some early goals, including reeling in the big remaining fish that NC-SARA has yet to catch: California, the only state that has yet to join the national group.
She's also excited about an emergent NC-SARA project to create a searchable database for students seeking information about institutions that offer distance education programs. "This would help students understand who’s out there and compare which would best meet their needs," Williams said.
That initiative aims at a target that Williams believes should be at the core of NC-SARA's work (and higher education's, for that matter).
"Our focus should be on helping institutions that provide distance education provide adequate support to their students to be successful," Williams said. "That's why we're all here."