Today’s guest blogger is Karen Solomon of the Higher Learning Commission, one of the regional accrediting agencies.  She shares some of the e-learning emerging issues that they are following. Karen also serves as the chair of WCET’s Steering Committee.  Thank you Karen.

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

Photo of bikes with snow on them
Karen Solomon took this picture showing that both the weather and the future of e-learning are hard to predict.

Disaggregated Services
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.

  • How does information gained from measuring student learning of the courses offered across the enterprise (and from partners) work into the institution’s assessment processes?
  • How do institutional systems and processes “talk” to one another so information flows from faculty evaluation of learning outcomes to the planning and budgeting cycles?
  • How can technology be used more effectively to develop stronger communication paths with students and personnel?

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% of students did not earn a degree at the first institution they attended.  A deeper analysis of the data indicated that 23.6% of traditional aged students and 34.1% 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.

In Conclusion…
These issues (and many more) make for interesting staff meetings at accrediting agencies.  We strive to find a balance between evaluating and recognizing academic quality, while providing space for innovative initiatives to be tested.  I often find the conversations and discussion groups within the WCET membership to be invaluable by keeping me informed about changes on the horizon.

I hope that you have already registered for the WCET Annual Meeting to be held in Denver on November 13-15, 2013.  We will reflect on the organization’s first 25 years and discuss how technology will continue to be a driving force in the evolution of higher education. Technology will play a big role in the years ahead and all of you bring a wealth of experiences to the discussions.  Many of you will be the leaders shaping and driving the change. I look forward to learning more about emerging practices from you and other colleagues.

May the weather be calm and your travel plans uninterrupted when you join us in Denver, so we can continue the dialogue. Photo of Karen Solomon

Karen J. Solomon, Ed.D.
Vice President for Accreditation Relations
Director, Standard Pathway
Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association



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