CHEA Conference Update
Accreditors Adopt Common Accord
Assuring Quality in Distance Learning
on Transfer and the Public Interest
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FOCUS: Assuring Quality in Distance Learning
BY JUDITH S. EATON
President, Council for Higher Education Accreditation
Presidents, chancellors, other college and university administrators,
and trustees are called upon every day to make effective and immediate
decisions about distance learning.1 These decisions
are supposed to result in shrewd investment in hardware and software,
substantive assistance to faculty as they develop online teaching skills,
thoughtful policies for future determination of intellectual property
rights, and meeting students' technology needs with laptop computers
and wired dormitories.
Obtaining reliable information on which to base
these distance learning decisions, however, is a daunting task. Prior
experience with site-based institutions, no matter how valuable, is
no longer an adequate guide for presidents and other leaders. Distance
learning decisions are made in an unfamiliar context: the potential
of online enrollment, emerging new providers, the growing for-profit
presence in higher education, renewed federal and state interest in
regulation of higher education, and more and more questions about international
distance learning. The scope, variation, and amount of information on
these issues can be truly staggering.
Influencing all the decisions that presidents
make about distance learning is a strong and steady desire to assure
quality. Our willingness to take advantage of distance learning capacity
is, in many ways, shaped by our confidence that we can continue to sustain
and enhance this long-standing commitment.
In the fluid and sometimes volatile environment
created by distance learning, we at the Council for Higher Education
Accreditation (CHEA)the national coordinating body for national,
regional, and specialized accreditationstruggle to bring some
order to the avalanche of information about both distance learning and
quality assurance. What is an effective strategy for inquiry? How do
we develop a framework for strategic understanding of distance learning?
How do we assist our member colleges and universities with the right
questions about quality?
Strategy for Inquiry
At CHEA, we track a limited number of important distance learning indicators:
enrollments (numbers and locations of students enrolled), new providers
(those offering distance learning outside traditional institutions),
and quality review (how accreditors and other external reviewers assure
quality in distance learning). There are other issues to which we also
pay some attentionthe role of faculty is one exampleand
we know that additional areas will become more important in the future.
Dividing distance learning into these more manageable
areas of inquiry enables us temporarily to ignore material that, however
valuable, is not germane to a particular inquiry at a particular time.
For example, when we need information about quality teaching and learning
in an online setting, material on hardware purchase is irrelevant.
In CHEA's inquiry into distance learning, we
have found that some information just a few years old is already out
of date. For this reason, we rely heavily on online sources, which are
easier to update. We have found that some of the most reliable information
about distance learning often is generated not by the higher education
community, but, for example, by business or government. We pay particular
attention to periodical literature, whether in print or online. We regularly
check useful web sites and subscribe to listservs that are rich with
Framework for Understanding
How do we find out about distance learning enrollments and what other
colleges and universities are doing? The U.S. Department of Education's
Distance Education at Postsecondary Institutions 1997-98 (//nces.ed.gov)
is one important source for enrollment information. Another is Peterson's
Guide to Distance Learning Programs 2000. The Chronicle of Higher
provides extensive coverage of distance learning. Corporate reports
such as Merrill Lynch's The Knowledge Web (May 2000; contact
email@example.com) and Credit Suisse/First Boston's Education Industry
Quarterly Report Card (January 2000; contact firstname.lastname@example.org)
publish regular enrollment updates and projections.
To satisfy growing distance learning enrollments,
site-based institutions are creating exciting new models of teaching
and learning. The University of Maryland University College (//umuc.edu)
enrolls 40,000 students online and the University of Phoenix Online
(//online.uophx.edu) enrolls approximately
12,000 students. The University of Illinois site (www.uillinois.edu/uionline)
and the University of Wisconsin-Madison site (//uwmad.courses.wisc.edu),
as well as its distance education clearinghouse (//uwex.edu/disted/home.html),
are also valuable sources of information.
Who are the new distance-based providers of
higher education? "New providers," those who deliver distance learning
outside traditional site-based institutions, are increasingly important
in considerations of quality. There is much to be gained from visiting
the web sites of virtual universities such as Western Governors University
(www.wgu.edu), Jones International
and United States Open University (www.open.edu).
Other new providers include consortia such as the Southern Regional
Electronic Campus (www.srec.sreb.org)
and Unext's Cardean University (www.cardean.com).
Corporate universities and corporate information technology certification
programs are considered new providers as well (see Cliff Adelman's "A
Parallel Universe," Change, May/June 2000). New providers also
include those offering online courses and programs that are not affiliated
with any institution.
Information that usefully organizes and categorizes
these different modes of delivering distance learning and lists new
providers is not easy to obtain. Help is available from Sally Johnstone
and David Wolf's "Cleaning Up the Language: Establishing a Consistent
Vocabulary for Electronically Delivered Academic Programs" (Change,
July/August 1999). Diana Oblinger and Jill Kidwell's "Are We Being Realistic?"
(EDUCAUSE Review, May/June 2000) also provides assistance. Ted
Marchese's "Not-So-Distant Competitors" (AAHE Bulletin, Vol.
15, No. 9, 1998) offers insight and structure to the distance learning
discussion. Linda Cannell's "A Review of Literature on Distance Education"
(Theological Education, Autumn 1999) is a thoughtful treatment
of many of the complex issues involved in distance learning.
Questions About Quality
Emerging quality issues in distance learning revolve around questions
such as: "How do I know a distance learning course is as good as a site-based
course?" "Is the same level and breadth of student achievement available
online and on-site?" "What resources provide a reasonable expectation
of quality in online teaching and learning?" "Can national, regional,
and specialized accreditation as we know it assure quality in distance
CHEA has addressed some of these questions in
its Assuring Quality in Distance Learning (1998), which provides
an overview of quality issues and challenges for distance learning and
accreditation. Assuring Quality is augmented by CHEA's Distance
Learning in Higher Education Updates 1-3 (1999-2000; www.chea.org)
and Core Academic Values, Quality, and Regional Accreditation: The
Challenge of Distance Learning (2000; www.chea.org).
National, regional, and specialized accrediting
organizations are responding to these emerging questions by applying
existing accreditation standards to distance learning and developing
new standards (in familiar areas such as faculty and curriculum) for
this purpose. Accreditors are applying these standards to distance learning
initiatives within site-based institutions and to new providers when
the latter meet the eligibility provisions of the accreditor. There
has been less attention paid to unaffiliated online providers.
A number of accreditors also have developed
guidelines or policy statements on distance learning. The eight regional
accrediting commissions have built their distance learning practices
on The Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications' (WCET)
"Principles of Good Practice for Electronically Offered Academic Degree
and Certificate Programs" (1996; www.wiche.edu/telecom/projects/balancing/principles.htm).
The commissions are presently engaged with WCET in a significant expansion
of these principles and practices. AACSB-The International Association
for Management Education's Quality Issues in Distance Learning
(July 1999) is another example of thoughtful attention to quality review
challenges (www.aacsb.edu; the publication
must be ordered via mail or fax).
For a faculty perspective on assuring quality,
valuable sources are the University of Illinois' Teaching at an Internet
Distance: The Pedagogy of Online Teaching and Learning (December
1999; www.vpaa.uillinois. edu/tid/report), the National Education Association's
A Survey of Traditional and Distance Learning Higher Education Members
(June 2000; www.nea.org/he/abouthe/dlstudy.pdf),
and the American Federation of Teachers' resolution on "Ensuring High
Quality in Distance Education for College Credit," adopted at its July
2000 convention (www.aft.org/about/resolutions/2000/distanceed.html).
We find help abroad as well. The New Zealand
Universities Academic Audit Unit's External Quality Assurance for
the Virtual Institution (July 1999; contact email@example.com)
and from the United Kingdom, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher
Education's Guidelines on the Quality Assurance of Distance Learning
are rich resources that carefully describe distance learning environments
and offer excellent suggestions for quality review.
An effective strategy for inquiry, a framework
for strategic understanding, and asking the right questions about quality
all are part of CHEA's effort to organize and render coherent the plethora
of information about distance learning and quality. We know that the
price for misunderstanding distance learning is very, very highespecially
in terms of our commitment to the quality of our colleges and universities.
Reprinted from The Presidency, Fall 2000, © 2000 American Council
(1) As used here, "distance learning" refers to online teaching and
learning, as well as academic support and student support services that
are electronically delivered.