ERIC Identifier: ED464525
Publication Date: 2001-12-00
Author: Loane, Shannon
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Higher Education Washington DC.
Distance Education and Accreditation. ERIC Digest.
In 1997-1998, there were more than 1.3 million enrollments in college-level,
credit-granting distance education courses - approximately double the almost
754,000 formal enrollments in 1994-1995 (Lewis, Snow, Farris, and Levin, 1999,
p. 50). The number of courses offered also almost doubled, with the nearly
26,000 distance education courses offered by 2- and 4-year higher education
institutions in 1994-1995 growing to more than 47,500 different college-level
courses in 1997-1998 (Lewis, Snow, Farris, and Levin, 1999, p. 49).
This rapid growth in distance education has created the potential for fraud
and abuse. With so many courses and programs offered by so many providers, how
can students determine which courses and programs are worthwhile - and which
ones are shams? This digest will, after reviewing some information on distance
education, discuss accreditation, the traditional method of determining the
quality of higher education offerings in the United States, and its application
to distance education.
Distance education, sometimes known as
distance learning, is "the process whereby the education of a student occurs in
circumstances where the educator and the student are geographically separated,
and the communication across this distance is accomplished by one or more forms
of technology" (American Association of University Professors, May-June 1998, p.
32). It is not a new concept - distance education was initially offered through
print-based correspondence courses, then through telecourses and videotapes, and
now through computer-based instruction (although print and video are still
The current explosion in distance education is attributable to the
development and spread of new technologies. In 1997-1998, the most popular
technology for offering distance education courses was Internet courses using
asynchronous computer-based instruction. Sixty percent of higher education
institutions offering distance education courses used this technology, up from
22 percent in 1995. Other popular technologies included two-way interactive
video (56 percent), one-way prerecorded video (48 percent), Internet courses
using synchronous computer-based instruction (19 percent), and one-way video
with two-way audio (14 percent) (Lewis, Snow, Farris, and Levin, 1999, p. 52).
There are other variables in distance education. Students can do anything
from taking a single course, which may or may not require occasional meetings on
campus, to completing an entire degree or program online. Distance education
courses or programs may be offered by traditional bricks-and-mortar universities
or colleges, by "virtual" institutions whose entire offerings are online, by
online consortia, or by for-profit institutions.
Its supporters claim that distance education is more convenient and
accessible for nontraditional students - an increasingly large percentage of the
higher education population (American Association of University Professors,
May-June 1998, p. 31; Trinkle, 1999, August 6). Distance education allows these
students to pursue an education in addition to fulfilling their commitments to
jobs and families. It also provides accessibility for those not located near a
traditional college or university. Supporters also point to cost savings - with
virtual courses, educational institutions can accommodate greater numbers of
students without incurring the costs of new buildings and classrooms
(Dasher-Alton, Patton, 1998, p. 13).
Critics of distance education, however, question whether there are genuine
cost savings, after taking into account the investment in infrastructure, the
work involved in adapting or creating a course for delivery through
computer-based instruction, and the need to provide distance education students
with basic university functions, such as registration, advising, and access to
library materials (American Association of University Professors, May-June 1998,
They also question the quality of the online educational experience, and
point to the increasing publicity about online "diploma mills" as an example of
what happens when students cannot see what they are paying for. "Diploma mills"
are fraudulent institutions that offer worthless degrees, many requiring little
or no coursework, in exchange for money. Such institutions have existed in the
past, but the Internet offers them the ability not only to reach many more
potential students, but also to attract these students through enticing and
The American higher education system has
faced the dilemma of ascertaining quality before - with traditional colleges and
universities. The solution then was accreditation, a voluntary non-governmental
system of quality assurance. Most countries have a "Ministry of Education," or
its equivalent, that exercises control over the quality of educational
institutions, but the U.S. Department of Education has no such role. Instead,
the Department of Education, as required by law, publishes a list of "nationally
recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary determines to be reliable
authorities as to the quality of education or training provided by the
institutions of higher education and the higher education programs they
accredit" (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education.
Overview of Accreditation). An accredited institution undergoes periodic
self-studies, inspections, and evaluations to certify that it meets the
standards of the accrediting body in areas as diverse as governance, curriculum,
faculty, finances, and student services (Wellman, 2000, September 22).
The Department of Education lists the following as some of the functions of
Verifying that an institution or program meets established standards;
Assisting prospective students in identifying acceptable institutions;
Assisting institutions in determining the acceptability of transfer credits;
Helping to identify institutions and programs for the investment of public and
Protecting an institution against harmful internal and external pressure;
Creating goals for self-improvement of weaker programs and stimulating a general
raising of standards among educational institutions;
Involving the faculty and staff comprehensively in institutional evaluation and
Establishing criteria for professional certification and licensure and for
upgrading courses offering such preparation; and
Providing one of several considerations used as a basis for determining
eligibility for Federal assistance.
Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education. Accreditation in the
The nationally recognized accrediting agencies offer three basic types of
accreditation: regional, national, and specialized.
Regional: The six regional accrediting agencies evaluate entire institutions,
not the individual programs within them. An institution with regional
accreditation has satisfied the agency that it meets the accreditation standards
as a whole, and that each of its programs, while not necessarily all of the same
quality, contributes to the institution's standing. All state universities, most
private colleges, and most private research institutions, are regionally
accredited (Lezberg, Summer 1999) diverse programs. Examples of the types of
institutions that might have national accreditation are Bible colleges and other
theological schools or distance education.
National: National accreditation also focuses on the entire Institution, but
usually on institutions with a very narrow focus, not universities or colleges
with many institutions.
Specialized: Specialized accreditors evaluate individual programs, usually
within an institution (that institution probably holds regional or national
accreditation as a whole). These programs are often those leading to a
professional degree. Programs in law, medicine, and business are among those
that have specialized accreditation.
THE CHALLENGES DISTANCE EDUCATION POSES FOR
Distance education challenges accreditation in a number of
Many of the measures used in traditional accreditation reviews do not apply to
online institutions - among these are the institution's full-time faculty, the
number of volumes in the research library, and the amount of time that students
are in class (Wellman, 2000, September 22).
How can it be determined if a course offered online is equivalent to a
traditional classroom based course?
Who will accredit a university that does not have a physical campus? Regional
accreditation, as its name suggests, is based on the physical location of the
institution. Western Governors University, a collaboration of 18 states and
Guam, has its administrative headquarters in Utah (located within the Northwest
Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation region) and its academic
headquarters in Colorado (located within the North Central Association of
Colleges and Schools accreditation region).
Even for those institutions that do have a physical campus, what happens when
the student is in another region and never sets foot on the physical campus?
Educators are divided on these and other questions. Some educators believe
that current accreditation standards, with some changes, are flexible enough to
accommodate distance education programs (Olsen, 1999, August 6). Others believe
that distance education means major changes, and possibly a challenge to the
very idea of accreditation (Wellman, 2000, September 22; Carnevale, 2000,
CURRENT STATUS OF DISTANCE EDUCATION AND ACCREDITATION
number of efforts are underway as the higher education community attempts to
resolve the issue of accreditation of distance education courses and programs.
The Department of Education has determined that distance education "is
considered to be implicitly included in the scope of recognition of any
accrediting agency that was recognized by the Secretary on or before October 1,
1998, provided the agency was engaged in accrediting review activities related
to distance education at that time. Since December 1999, the Department has been
routinely including distance education in its in-depth review of all agencies
seeking initial or continued recognition. Consequently, all recognition
decisions made after December 1, 1999 include a determination as to whether or
not an agency's scope of recognition includes the accreditation of distance
education" (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education.
Nationally Recognized Accreditation Agencies).
In addition, the Department of Education has granted the Accrediting
Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) the authority
to accredit "private and non-private distance education institutions offering
non-degree and associate, baccalaureate, and master's degree programs primarily
through the distance learning method" (U.S. Department of Education, Office of
Postsecondary Education. National Institutional and Specialized Accrediting
Bodies - Distance Education and Training Council).
The regional accrediting agencies joined together in the Council of Regional
Accrediting Commissions to work for consistency across regions in distance
education accreditation. Two documents developed by the Council, Statement of
Commitment by the Regional Accrediting Commissions for the Evaluation of
Electronically Offered Degree and Certificate Programs and Best Practices for
Electronically Offered Degree and Certificate Programs, are under consideration
by the individual agencies (Carnevale, 2000, September 8; Western Interstate
Commission for Higher Education, Western Cooperative for Educational
Telecommunications. Regional Accrediting Agency Documents on Electronically
Offered Degree and Certificate Programs).
The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools has been one of the
more active regional accrediting agencies in the area of distance education
institutions. In 1999, it accredited Jones International University, the first
completely virtual university to win accreditation status from a regional
accrediting agency (Olsen, 1999, August 6). North Central has also granted DeVry
Institutes accreditation for its online bachelor's degree programs (Blumenstyk,
2000, September 8). And, along with three other regional accrediting agencies,
North Central has formed the Inter-Regional Accrediting Committee (IRAC) to
create and implement an accreditation plan for Western Governors University
(WGU) (Guernsey, 1997, December 19). WGU, which has already been accredited by
DETC, received "Candidate for Accreditation" status from IRAC in November 2000
(Western Governors University. About WGU).
HOW TO DETERMINE IF A DISTANCE EDUCATION PROGRAM IS
To determine if a distance education program or course is
accredited, first check with the institution to see which agency has granted the
institution accreditation. Remember, however, that some institutions may claim
accreditation from non-existent agencies with plausible-sounding names, or from
accreditation agencies they themselves have established, but which have no
standing with the Department of Education.
Confirm any information received about an institution's accreditation with
the Department of Education and the accrediting agency in question. Department
of Education-recognized accrediting agencies are listed on the Department of
Education website at
one may link to the accrediting agency's website and determine whether a
particular institution is on its list of accredited institutions.
As the world of distance education expands and
changes, the need to ensure that courses and programs offered through distance
education meet minimum standards of quality has become more important than ever.
The traditional method of determining that higher education institutions in the
United States meet these minimum standards has been through accreditation by
agencies recognized by the Department of Education. Although the past five years
have seen much controversy, debate, and uncertainty, it appears that the
accreditation community has begun to adapt - in large and small ways -
accreditation practices and standards and apply them to distance education
programs and institutions.
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remains a challenge, educators agree [Electronic version]. The Chronicle of
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