Historians of this period, possessing the clearsightedness that only time provides, will likely point to online learning as the disruptive technology platform that radically changed higher education, which had remained largely unchanged since the cathedral schools of medieval Europe -- football, beer pong and food courts notwithstanding.
Online learning is already well-understood, well-established and well-respected by those who genuinely know it. But what we now see in higher education is a new wave of innovation that uses online learning, or at least aspects of it, as a starting point. The meteoric growth of the for-profit sector, the emergence of MOOCs, new self-paced competency-based programs, adaptive learning environments, peer-to-peer learning platforms, third-party service providers, the end of geographic limitations on program delivery and more all spring from the maturation of online learning and the technology that supports it. Online learning has provided a platform for rethinking delivery models and much of accreditation is not designed to account for these new approaches.
Until now, regional accreditation has been based on a review of an integrated organization and its activities: the college or university. These were largely cohesive and relatively easy to understand organizational structures where almost everything was integrated to produce the learning experience and degree. Accreditation is now faced with assessing learning in an increasingly disaggregated world with organizations that are increasingly complex, or at least differently complex, including shifting roles, new stakeholders and participants, various contractual obligations and relationships, and new delivery models. There is likely to be increasing pressure for accreditation to move from looking only at the overall whole, the institution, to include smaller parts within the whole or alternatives to the whole: perhaps programs, providers and offerings other than degrees and maybe provided by entities other than traditional institutions. In other words, in an increasingly disaggregated world does accreditation need to become more disaggregated as well?
Take the emergence of competency-based education, which is more profound – if less discussed – than massive open online courses (MOOCs). Our own competency-based program, College for America (CfA), is the first of its kind to so wholly move from any anchoring to the three-credit hour Carnegie Unit that pervades higher education (shaping workload, units of learning, resource allocation, space utilization, salary structures, financial aid regulations, transfer policies, degree definitions and more). The irony of the three-credit hour is that it fixes time while it leaves variable the actual learning. In other words, we are really good at telling the world how long students have sat at their desks and we are really quite poor at saying how much they have learned or even what they learned. Competency-based education flips the relationship and says let time be variable, but make learning well-defined, fixed and non-negotiable.
In our CfA program, there are no courses. There are 120 competencies – “can do” statements, if you will – precisely defined by well-developed rubrics. Students demonstrate mastery of those competencies through completion of “tasks” that are then assessed by faculty reviewers using the rubrics. Students can’t “slide by” with a C or a B; they have either mastered the competencies or they are still working on them. When they are successful, the assessments are maintained in a web-based portfolio as evidence of learning. Students can begin with any competency at any level (there are three levels moving from smaller, simpler competencies to higher level, complicated competencies) and go as fast or as slow as they need to be successful. We offer the degree for $2,500 per year, so an associate degree for $5,000 if a student takes two years and for as little as $1,250 if they complete in just six months (an admittedly formidable task for most). CfA is the first program of its kind to be approved by a regional accreditor, NEASC in our case, and is the first to seek approval for Title IV funding through the “direct assessment of learning” provisions. At the time of this writing, CfA has successfully passed the first stage review by the Department of Education and is still moving through the approval process.
The radical possibility offered in the competency-based movement is that traditional higher education may lose its monopoly on delivery models. Accreditors have for some time put more emphasis on learning outcomes and assessment, but the competency-based education movement privileges them above all else. When we excel at both defining and assessing learning, we open up enormous possibilities for new delivery models, creativity and innovation. It’s not a notion that most incumbent providers welcome, but in terms of finding new answers to the cost, access, quality, productivity and relevance problems that are reaching crisis proportions in higher education, competency-based education may be the most dramatic development in higher education in hundreds of years. For example, the path to legitimacy for MOOCs probably lies in competency-based approaches, and while they can readily tackle the outcomes or competency side of the equation, they still face formidable challenges of reliable, trustworthy and rigorous assessment at scale (at least while trying to remain free). Well-developed competency-based approaches can also help undergird the badges movement, demanding that such efforts be transparent about the claims associated with a badge and the assessments used to validate learning or mastery.
Competency-based education may also provide accreditors with a framework for more fundamentally rethinking assessment. It would shift accreditation to looking much harder at learning outcomes and competencies, the claims an entity is making for the education it provides and for the mechanisms it uses for knowing and demonstrating that the learning has occurred. The good news here is that such a dual focus would free accreditors from so much attention on inputs, like organization, stakeholder roles and governance, and instead allow for the emergence of all sorts of new delivery models. The bad news is that we are still working on how to craft well designed learning outcomes and conduct effective assessment. It’s harder than many think. A greater focus on outcomes and assessment also begs other important questions for accreditors:
- How will they rethink standards to account for far more complex and disaggregated business models which might have a mix of “suppliers,” some for-profit and some nonprofit, and which look very different from traditional institutions?
- Will they only accredit institutions or does accreditation have to be disaggregated too? Might there by multiple forms of accreditation: for institutions, for programs, for courses, for MOOCs, for badges and so on? At what level of granularity?
- CBE programs are coming. College for America is one example, but other institutions have announced efforts in this area. Major foundations are lining up behind the effort (most notably the Lumina and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations), and the Department of Education appears to be relying on accreditors to attest to the quality and rigor of those programs. While the Department of Education is moving cautiously on this question, accreditors might want to think through what a world untethered to the credit hour might look like. Might there be two paths to accreditation: the traditional “institutional path” and the “competency-based education path,” with the former looking largely unchanged and the latter using rigorous outcomes and assessment review to support more innovation than current standards now do? Innovation theory would predict that new innovative CBE accreditation pathway would come to improve the incumbent accreditation processes and standards.
This last point is important: accreditors need to think about their relationship to innovation. If the standards are largely built to assess incumbent models and enforced by incumbents, they must be by their very nature conservative and in service of the status quo. Yet the nation is in many ways frustrated with the status quo and unwilling to support it in the old ways. Frankly, they believe we are failing, and the ways they think we are failing depend on whom you ask. But never has the popular press (and thus the public and policy makers) been so consumed with the problems of traditional higher education and intrigued by the alternatives. In some ways, accreditors are being asked to shift or at least expand their role to accommodate these new models.
If regional accreditors are unable to rise to that challenge they might see new alternative accreditors emerge and be left tethered to incumbent models that are increasingly less relevant or central to how higher education takes place 10 years from now. There is time. As has been said, we frequently overestimate the amount of change in the next two years and the dramatically underestimate the amount of change in the next 10. The time is now for regional accreditors to re-engineer the paths to accreditation. In doing so they can not only be ready for that future, they can help usher it into reality.
Paul J. LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University. This essay is adapted from writing produced for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges as part of a convening to look at the future of accreditation. WASC has given permission for it to be shared more widely and without restriction.