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EdTech & E-Learning

What’s The Future of Evaluating Online Learning?: Q&A With the DETC

POSTED 04/04/2014
By Robert McGuire

This interview on evaluating online learning — including the challenges, opportunities and trends — is with Leah Matthews, the Executive Director of the Distance Education and Training Council, which is a national accreditor of distance education institutions, from primary school to doctoral programs. They’ve been around for over 80 years, since the days of correspondence courses.

The DETC was in the news most recently for accrediting University of the People, a relatively young online education initiative. Similarly, DETC was the first agency to accredit Western Governors University, so you could argue it’s a bellwether for new education models.

Leah and I talk about the University of the People example, what universities should consider before expanding their distance education programs, trends in competency-based education and credentialing overall.

You can play or download the recording of our telephone interview or read an abbreviated transcript below.

The Future of Evaluating Online Learning: An Interview With the Distance Education and Training Council [Download]


McGuire: I assume that with the growth of online education, business must be booming for DETC.

Matthews: The business is booming for our institutions. DETC also has a lot of work to do as our institutions adjust to accommodate different demands and considerations for forms of distance education. We’re very careful and cautious about quality. We want to make sure that anything delivered to our students and our institutions has academic quality, sound practice in the distance method and adequate faculty and administrative oversight to make sure that the student meets their education goals.

McGuire: What’s a typical program that you evaluate?

Matthews: There really isn’t a typical program. Many of our programs are technology and profession based. Some of our most successful programs are in veterinary technology where students study their coursework online and then go to a clinical site to practice their craft.

We also have a lot of academic degree offerings in areas such as education, law and business administration. Some of our law schools have some of the highest pass rates on the bar exam, and I think it’s because our institutions have so much experience over the years working in a distance education format.

McGuire: There’s a sense that this is a period not just a growth of online education but the growth of new forms of online education. Are you seeing that in kinds of programs emerging that you would potentially evaluate?

Matthews: I do. One of the fastest growing areas of interest is this idea of non-collegiate offerings. I think that MOOCs propelled the idea of online education more into the psyche of our culture in the United States than anything else has.

There are endless possibilities for delivering training and education and learning experiences to students in ways that aren’t tied necessarily to a higher education institution. But there is the question of how to assess these offerings for quality. There really isn’t a model for quality assurance and quality assessment for these non-collegiate offerings.

Our board of directors is interested in maybe adapting part of our model that could be used to assure the quality of other forms of distance ed that are not grounded in an accredited institution.

I’m referring to StraighterLine courses or some of these other associations. I think some non-profit associations like Lumina and Gates are interested in how we can deliver knowledge, just not necessarily delivered by a higher education institution.

It’s exciting, because I can see higher education starting to take on a very student-centered playlist approach where students build their own curriculum of study where they’ll take a MOOC or a course or a clinical experience and build their own profile, if you will, of academic experiences.

The growth of competency-based education

McGuire: What is your organization noticing about competency-based education?

Matthews: One of the most notable is College for America out of the University of Southern New Hampshire. They offer an associate degree that’s fairly open access enrollment. The idea is to give people the opportunity to complete a general studies associate degree at their own pace, and it breaks the traditional mold of having to sit through 16-week increments at the community college to get it done.

Accrediting University of the People

McGuire: Let me ask about the University of the People example. What goes into a decision to accredit a program like that?

Matthews: What DETC wanted to make sure of was, “Is the academic quality sound? What kind of support system is in place to encourage students to continue to work toward their academic goals?” Finally, the resources that are available, “Are they relevant? Are they appropriate? Are they supportive of student learning?” So it’s our student-experience-centered model and our accreditation system that goes into every review.

Shai Reshef, the founder and CEO, is committed to making this university work. He has terrific support from the Gates Foundation, from the Clinton Foundation, to get this idea of a free university with degree granting authority from the United States launched worldwide. That’s really key — the degrees having proper authority, so those students will graduate with a United States degree.

Will the marketplace recognize online education?

McGuire: Having a marketplace that recognizes credentials is the crux of the problem. Ultimately, if the marketplace doesn’t recognize those credentials, then there’s not going to be a lot of incentive for learners.

Matthews: That’s true. There’s still some skepticism about online or distance learning, but I think that skepticism is starting to wane. We have accredited institutions with students who are hired before they even graduate.

One such example is the University of St. Augustine in Florida. Their Doctor of Physical Therapy program graduates are in such demand that they’re often looking at several offers before they graduate. That’s because the University of St. Augustine delivers a very unique combination of distance learning, highly qualified faculty from all over that engage with these students in very good practices in that field, and then they have incredibly well staffed and well equipped clinical sites for students to come and practice their occupational area.

One thing we’ve noticed at the DETC is that the age of our students is getting older. The 18 to 22 year old in a residential campus is one of the smallest demographics right now in higher education. Most learners are working adults. They don’t have time to go to a campus and spend 16 weeks sitting in class.

McGuire: Universities are observing that their traditional enrollment is declining because of demographic changes. That’s a financial challenge, so they need to be thinking about how to serve older learners, and distance education is presumably going to be a critical part of that.

Matthews: It certainly will. People are finding they need further education to advance in the workplace, to hone their skills, and distance education is really the way to do that. Most of our law students are already in professions, so they’re not seeking entry into a profession. They’re seeking advancement.

Career readiness as an evaluation criteria

McGuire: Are there different things that you have to evaluate for an online program versus what an accrediting agency might be looking at for a traditional campus-based program?

Matthews: For online learning, we look at the learning management system. We look at the technology and how effective it is in engaging student learning. Is there an ability for the student to assess their progress? Is there regular and and substantive engagement with the faculty at an appropriate level depending on the type of program under study? How prepared is the student to take their professional exam? We look at things like licensure rates.

When we’re looking at education quality, we’re looking at external resources, support structures, the curriculum design. Is it a proper method of delivery for this content in a distance education delivery system?

More and more people are looking to shape their future around, “What program of study or what education do I need to achieve my goals?” As much as I love and embrace the liberal arts study — I have a liberal arts background myself — I think more and more professionals need to have additional education to get to their goals, and distance education is a very good way of helping them accomplish that.

What universities should consider before adding online degree programs

McGuire: If I was a university academic officer thinking about how my institution would need to dramatically expand its online education offerings, what would you advise me to be thinking about?

Matthews: I would start to engage in some of the distance education communities. There are some very good associations like the Western Conference for Education Technology.

Set aside a significant budget to do it. It is expensive when it’s done right. And also engage faculty. There is a lot of planning and careful thinking that has to go into this. It’s not a step to be taken lightly. It takes a lot of resources and a very strong commitment and passion.

If institutions think that adding online or distance education will help them resolve financial issues, they have to make that decision very carefully. In my experience, it takes a lot of time, money and resources at the front end.

Bypassing Title IV dollars

McGuire: There’s a distinction between an evaluation you do to approve the quality and the evaluation you do to say that it’s certified or approved for federal financial aid. Can you talk a little bit about that distinction?

Matthews: DETC is unique because we have a two-step model that other institutional accreditors don’t have. Out of 102 institutions right now that are DETC accredited, just 14 are involved in federal financial aid programs.

You may ask, “Well, why would you want to be accredited if you’re not going to access Title IV?” The answer is that institutional accreditation is much, much more than access to federal dollars. Many of our institutions have contracts with industries, and industries want accredited programs for their employees. So accreditation with DETC lends itself well to engaging with business and industry on special online training needs customized for different situations.

For institutions that want to go one step further and participate in financial aid, we look at administrative capacity to handle the enormous responsibility of participating in federally funded financial aid programs.

We don’t want to hold all of the institutions to these very, very stringent federal expectations, so we have a two-step process that allows institutions to not be in federal financial aid. But they see DETC’s accreditation as an advantage as a means to have the validation among their community of peers in distance education that they’ve met expectations of quality.

McGuire: I guess if you have more of a start-up mindset, and you’re trying to leverage the power of the internet and open and free resources, then tuition is less of an issue and therefore financial aid is less of an issue.

Matthews: Right. Western Governors came to DETC because no other accreditor would consider them. We had a model that allowed for some flexibility in delivery that didn’t contemplate all of the federal rules, but we still have recognition by the Department of Education and also the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

McGuire: I know you can’t really tell us who you’re evaluating next, but if people want to learn more, I understand there’s a public comment period. Can you explain that?

Matthews: As institutions are preparing for a review by the DETC, we announce when they’ve reached a point for public comment. You can go to our website and look at Public Notice, and we will post lists of institutions that are going to be considered for accreditation. We welcome the public’s comments on any of our institutions to be considered.


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