Accreditation: The Policies on Distance Education

Technology Committee

Accreditation is a stressful and challenging time for any institution. However, it also offers the chance to collectively assess the strengths and weaknesses of your college's programs and services. One wrinkle of any college's accreditation is distance education (DE). Because DE is a relatively new area, many of the policies and procedures are still being ironed out. This is why DE is a particularly worrisome element for those writing the self-study report at any college. There are many issues to consider when examining a DE program for accreditation, including motivation, faculty training, curriculum approval, assessment, and intellectual property rights. What each of these have in common-and what is at the heart of any accreditation self-study process and the team's visit-is a need to ensure that all learning opportunities, whether offered at a distance or in a traditional manner, have the same quality, accountability, and focus on student learning outcomes.

One thing to keep in mind is that the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges' (ACCJC) definition of distance education is slightly different from the System Office definition. According to the California Community College Distance Education Regulations and Guidelines, and Title 5 55205, a distance education course means instruction in which the instructor and student are separated by distance and interact through the assistance of communication technology. However, a System Office Guideline includes an additional requirement that at least 51% of face-to-face time be replaced with distance-time. These Guidelines are currently under revision.

By contrast, in the August 2006 Distance Learning Manual, the ACCJC defines distance education as "a formal interaction designed for learning in which the interaction principally occurs when the student is separated by location from the instructor, resources used to support learning, or other students." The focus here is on the complete student experience-not just instruction but student resources, support, and communication. Further, a class that meets for more than 50% of the time in a traditional classroom can be defined by ACCJC as DE if a significant amount of the course work and interaction takes place at a distance.

The history of the 51% System Office Guideline came from the need to determine when a course was "distance education" for funding and reporting purposes (rather than for curriculum purposes). Because the early attempts for this modality were not very interactive, this, then, was viewed as requiring less effort after the course was developed, so the System funded them at a lower rate.

As technology and distance teaching skills and techniques both developed, the equation was quickly reversed to where it now involves more instructor effort to teach at a distance.

But the regulations still require the tracking of all DE, so the System Office maintains the 51% rule for these reporting purposes only. But the spirit being presented by both the teaching industry and the accrediting agency is that anytime you replace face-to-face time with instruction where the student is separated from the instructor and other students, (for example, in hybrid courses), then distance education is happening.

In other words, the ACCJC's definition of DE puts the focus less on teachers and more on students. This subtle change is at the heart of accreditation and the center of the questions that accreditation teams seek to answer when making site visits: namely, how does your DE program bolster student learning?

To this end, the first and, possibly, most important question an accreditation team will ask about DE is why? Why did your college choose to develop a DE program? Was it a financial decision? Did the college want to save money by offering classes that did not take up valuable classroom space? Was there public pressure to build such a program? Was it driven by a desire on the part of faculty to experiment? Was it developed because everyone else was doing it? Whatever the reasons may be, it is important not only that they fall within the institution's total educational mission, but also that student learning outcomes and opportunities were central in the decision making process.

As often as not, systemic changes occur on a college for the sake of making changes. While we can, in hindsight, identify why the changes occurred, they still occur without a lot of intent or planned direction. So, while some colleges have taken the bull by its strategic horns and thought through an organized network of activities to develop DE, many others have not been so cohesive in their effort but have nonetheless arrived "there." This should not be considered as a reason to inflict self-admonishment, for in fact what most likely happened is faculty and staff began seeing the value of these new educational tools and started developing them, probably on their own time, for the betterment of their students. But if you find yourself "there," step back a bit and try to recall some of the things that led to this shift, and then ask: how can we now be more proactive in assessing and developing this transition?

In any event, the ACCJC does require notification and review for course and program substantive changes and states that when a program is imminently approaching complete DE capacity, the college should be requesting the substantive change review. However, what courses do the ACCJC mean to include in their definition of "a program?" If they are including all the general education courses and a college has one or more general education tracks available in a DE modality, does this place all the institution's programs that much closer to imminently approaching complete DE capacity? Since the ACCJC DE Learning Manual is so new, and in fact DE is still relatively new in terms of spanning entire programs, this is one of the many little bugs that will need further clarification.

So, how are your college's DE courses designed and developed? Do the tools used for delivering DE courses (not just computers but also learning management systems, Interactive TV networks, and teleconferencing communication systems like CCC Confer) allow for regular effective contact between an instructor and students (as required by Title 5 55211) or among student groups? Examples of tools that provide such contact in clude discussion boards, chat rooms, teleconferencing, and so on. Obviously, in order for a DE course to be successful, faculty members need to be trained to use available tools. Does your college offer such training? Are faculty compensated for this training? Is this training purely technical (how to use the tools), or are pedagogical issues considered as well? After all, teaching DE is significantly different from a traditional, face-to-face course, and these differences need to be appreciated by faculty members if those same faculty plan to develop effective course materials.

And, yes, it does take time to develop these materials-a lot of time. How are your faculty compensated for this time? Does your college have in place an evaluation system that seeks to maintain high quality standards in course design? Does the traditional evaluation of faculty (conducted within departments or divisions) incorporate DE instruction? If so, are deans, department chairs, Chief Instructional Officers, and others who conduct such evaluations familiar with DE instruction, both the course materials and the pedagogy?

Further, what resources are in place for students once the DE course is delivered? Does your institution provide computer laboratories or other facilities and equipment necessary and appropriate to support the DE programs? Do the advertisements and admissions information for DE adequately and accurately represent the programs, requirements, and services available? And how exactly does your institution provide adequate access for DE students to the range of student services and library resources offered on any campus, including admissions, financial aid, academic advising, placement, proctoring, counseling and library materials and instruction?

All of these areas need to be considered within the self-study report and addressed ahead of any accreditation site visit. As always, the key is equitability: making sure that your DE students have access to the same materials, same instruction, and same services as traditional students.

The heart of every DE program's success is, of course, student success, and it is vital for any accreditation self-study report to document this area. Student success can be measured through assessments of student learning outcomes, student retention rates, and satisfaction surveys. These measurement mechanisms need to demonstrate comparability between traditional and DE delivery modes, thereby ensuring that DE students receive the same educational rewards as face-to-face students.

Finally, does your institution have clear and effective policies and procedures concerning academic freedom and privacy in the digital realm, ownership of materials, faculty compensation, and copyright issues? While this is often a negotiated element, your academic senate should be working closely with your bargaining agent to ensure working condition rights don't obfuscate sound pedagogical needs and vice-a-versa. So, questions like the following need to be worked out as soon as possible: What happens if a faculty member redevelops on his or her own time a course that the college owns? Who then owns that iteration of the course? What is reasonable pay for developing a course that the college will then own? Should the college even own a course? If they do own it what happens if they decide to change it without faculty input? As you can see, some of these are bargaining issues and some are senate/curriculum concerns.

And what about class size? Should it be the same as the face-to-face versions of the course? Does your administration only see DE as the panacea for FTES generation? Conversely, do your faculty see this as the "grand poobah" mechanism to finally get completely off campus by teaching nothing but DE courses? These are all areas where the administration, the bargaining units and the senates need to work closely, hand in hand.

In short, the accreditation process functions, in the case of DE, to promote effective, carefully deliberated planning on our part about how we currently and will continue to develop distance education. Our self-study reports should demonstrate a willingness and understanding that the decision to offer courses at a distance is based upon our students and their many various needs. While the benefits of these new modalities may also be of benefit to us, the prime driver must always be what's in the best interests of the student.

The ACCJC's website with a link to their 2006 DE Learning Manual is: