Accreditation and Recognition in Distance Learning





Dr. George K. Kostopoulos

Professors of Management Information Systems

College of Business and Management

The American University of Sharjah, UAE

Tel: +971-6-515-2343

Fax: +971-6-558-5065


































Accreditation and Recognition in Distance Learning






This paper focuses on two critical issues in Distance Learning, namely, accreditation of institutions and programs, and recognition such programs enjoy in academia and in the workplace.  The agencies authorised to extend accreditation are being identified, their own lineage of authority is described, and caution is raised on the existence of self-authorised accrediting organisations. Regarding the recognition issue, it is pointed out that the general perception in the workplace is that Distance Learning programs are not as rigorous as the in-class ones. However, as accredited universities continue to offer Distance Learning degree programs and claim equivalency with their in-class ones, the workplace will eventually equally accept both. The paper concludes that Distance Learning has passed the experimental stage, and while not yet a mature educational mode, it has earned a significant degree of recognition and it is on the road to being accepted as equivalent to the traditional in-class education.






Distance learning is the fastest growing sector in academia. Consequently, it is experiencing growing pains.  Such pains come from various directions, with the major ones being accreditation and recognition. At all levels of education, let it be Elementary, Secondary or Postsecondary, the term accreditation is vaguely understood by most. As a result, the subsequent recognition of the earned credential can be at risk. 


Absolutely speaking, in any country any form of authority is derived from the government from where it is delegated to its various agencies. For an accrediting body to have de jure authority it must be under the mandate of a cognizant government agency with which it closely works assessing quality in education. There are occasions, however, where organizations with no government affiliation or mandate have acquired prestige in their field of profession to the point of serving as de facto accrediting agencies. Similarly to the non-accredited educational institutions there are also accrediting associations that extend, what they call, peer accreditation. Meaning that their authority to accredit is not derived from any government or quassi-government agency, but from the collective prestige of the association’s membership.


There are many institutions of higher education that are fully authorized to operate under local government license but have not passed through any accreditation process.  Many such institutions may provide a very fine education, but the perception of that education in academia and in the workplace may not be high. As a result, graduates of such schools find difficulties in pursuing further education in the accredited schools, and in seeking a position appropriate to their qualifications.


While it would be unfair to claim that non-accredited colleges or universities do not provide quality education, it would be very wise to extensively scrutinize the claims of schools that are not accredited.




Along with the global access to the Internet came cyber Distance Learning, which internationalized distance education. The various bodies that oversee the academic world realized the need for the establishment of quality control criteria for this new mode of learning. Concerned with the delivery of quality education, the academic accreditation agencies have established guidelines and review processes to properly assess education offered via Distance Learning. Falling in this category are hundreds of academic institutions collectively offering several thousands of courses worldwide.


In the United States, the Distance Education  and  Training  Council,  DETC, “... has been the standard-setting agency for… distance education institutions...“ (DETC, 2004, para 1)  and it is fully “…. recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and by the U.S. Department of Education…” (The Degrees, 2004)  Within the DETC, an Accrediting Commission is formed and charged with the responsibility of institutional accreditation of qualified academic institutions.  The DETC accredited member institutions “ . . . offer more than 500 different academic, vocational, and non-vocational courses by mail or by telecommunications.” (DETC, 2004, para 2).  The National  and the Regional Accrediting Organizations in the United States appear in Appendices A and B, respectively.


CHEA, concerned with the credibility of Distance Learning, has provided a set of guidelines in assessing the credibility of educational institutions and accrediting associations, warning that “…diploma mills and accreditation mills … cast doubt on the reliability of legitimate degrees and accreditation...” (CHEA, 2004, para 3).


Also in the United States, the Association of Distance Learning Programs (ADLP), a division of National Academy for Higher Education, NAHE, is a self-appointed accrediting association having stated in their website that they are concerned with the “... certificates, diplomas and degrees earned through online, distance taught, evaluation of experiential learning and other non-traditional means ...”. Furthermore it is stated that ADLP’s mission is to “... provide a consistent measurement of the acceptability of (the non traditional  education provided by) private schools (K-12), adult high schools, vocational and technical schools, private colleges and postsecondary education.”  (NAHE, 2004, para 1).  It should be emphasised that, presently, neither ADPL nor NAHE are associated with CHEA. However, their university membership includes numerous prestigious schools.


In the United Kingdom, the Open and Distance Learning Quality Council, ODLQC, is the guardian of quality in open and distance learning. Originally set up by the UK government in 1968, it is now an independent body, claiming that it provides accreditation “... to all providers of home study, distance learning, online or e-learning and other open learning or flexible learning courses ...“ as long as specified standards are met. ( ODLQC, 2004, para 2 ) 


In the European Union, the Education Quality Accrediting Commission (EQAC) is an international and independent body, registered in Europe (United Kingdom) and the USA (Washington D.C.),. The EQAC in its website states that it “... examines and evaluates higher education institutions from every country to promote sound education and good business practices. EQAC becomes today's international point of reference for people, companies, and colleges and universities concerned about the quality of higher education.  EQAC will grant recognition and warranty to all the institutions that meet EQAC standards, through a voluntary, non-governmental guided self-regulation that is called accreditation, under the legal authority of the European Union and the United States of America.” (EQAC, 2004, para 1&2).    Instrumental in the creation of the EQAC was the Together in the World Foundation, an organization which “… develops programs and activities according to an interdisciplinary approach, in line with the orientations” established by UNESCO.” (EQAC, 2004, para 6). UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is the educational arm of the United Nations.


There are numerous counterpart associations worldwide aiming at safeguarding the quality of Distance Learning.  In the Philippines the Commission on Higher Education, CHED, has formed a special Technical Committee of reviewers who assess the delivery of Open Learning and Distance Education. (Padolina, 2004, p.6). In Australia, it appears that there is no centralized agency responsible for the accreditation of distance education, but instead the distance education providers themselves, such as the universities, are self-policing the quality assurance of their programs under the umbrella of the Distance Education and Open Learning Committee. (Monash, 2004).


Considering the transborder accessibility of distance education programs, accreditation has become a major issue that concerns academic overseeing bodies worldwide.   Having recognized this issue, the University of Wisconsin has established the Distance Education Clearinghouse, which is a comprehensive website - being updated on a continuous basis - providing distance education information from Wisconsin, national, and international. (University of Wisconsin, 2004). There are indeed numerous websites on the accreditation in Distance Learning. (Loane, 2004) (Accreditation, 2004).  However, the one maintained by the Instructional Technology Council is of special interest. (ITC, 2004).




Distance Learning has been facing a recognition crisis due to the lack of a well-known model of such learning. While the acquisition of knowledge itself provides the individual with intrinsic value, the representation of that acquisition  - the diploma - has only extrinsic value the worth of which depends on the perception of the evaluator. Assessing Distance Learning programs and degrees can be quantified to a certain extent, but recognition of these programs and degrees, in the academia and in the job market, is a totally different issue. 


There is a general perception that evidences of learning – certificates, diplomas, degrees, etc. – acquired in the Distance Learning world are the result of efforts that are not as rigorous as those found in the in-class learning environment. 


In evaluating Distance Learning programs, some of the questions to be asked are:


 “1) Is the quality of distance education programming or courses the same as for traditional instruction?

2) Are the expected outcomes for distance education students the same as for traditional students? “


If the benchmarks for program content and outcomes are the same in Distance Learning as they are in in-class learning, then recognition will eventually come. (AACN, 2004, last para).







It is believed that the Distance Learning mode will be appreciated to the point where taking some courses in Distance Learning mode will become a graduation requirement.  Already, some institutions currently require all students to take at least one course online during their college career. (Baxendale, 2004).  One prestigious university – the University of Southern California - believes that online courses “Enhance image of University” (Mak, 2004, Section C.2.c).  Both cases illustrate the increasing recognition of Distance Learning in academia, which will be eventually followed by the marketplace with its usual time lag.




The great demand for training, coupled with the development of new cyber technologies, has opened new areas for innovation in Distance Learning. Along with innovation in the delivery of education have also come two needs. One is to offer society some guaranties that this education is comparable and compatible with the one conventionally obtained. The other is to secure the beneficiaries of this education an extent of recognition, for their accomplishments, not only in academia but also in the job market.


Currently, there are two growing philosophies in academia. One advocates that Distance Learning is only a mode of education delivery, and can be easily assessed, reviewed and accredited by the existing accrediting bodies. The other claims that Distance Learning cannot be regionally accredited because it is global and unconventional, and it, therefore, warrants special considerations and its own accreditation agencies and criteria. 


In the job market there is a significant apprehension toward programs that are solely completed online, especially when it comes to undergraduate degrees. However, as more products of Distance Learning fill the professional ranks, this apprehension will slowly dissipate to be replaced by a full-fledged recognition.


Although Distance Learning has passed the experimental stage, it is not yet a mature educational mode. However, it has earned a significant degree of recognition and it is on the road to being accepted as equivalent to the traditional in-classroom education.




AACN. (2004,  last para). Distance Technology in Nursing Education: Assessing a New Frontier. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. whitepaper.htm  August 28, 2004.


Accreditation (2004). Degree.Net,   August 28, 2004.


Baxendale, Steve. (2004). Computer Technology Resource. Future Trends in Distance Education       August 28, 2004.


CHEA. (2004, para 3). Important Questions about “Diploma Mills” and “Accreditation Mills”.  Council for Higher Education Accreditation,  August 28, 2004.


DETC. (2004, para 1). Distance Education and Training Council. The Association theassociation.html    August 28, 2004.


DETC. (2004, para 2).  Distance Education and Training Council. The Association,    August 28, 2004.


EQAC. (2004, para 1&2). Education Quality Accrediting Commission. about_eqac.htm     August 28, 2004.


EQAC. (2004, para 6). Education Quality Accrediting Commission. about_eqac.htm     August 28, 2004


ITC. (2004). Distance Education Reports and Abstracts. Instructional Technology Council, - Accreditation%20Issues  August 28, 2004.


Loane, Shannon. (2004). ERIC Digest Distance Education and Accreditation.   August 28, 2004.


Mak, Chi and Silvester, John. (2004, Section C.2.c.). Distance Learning at USC. University of  Southern California.


Monash. (2004). Policy and Procedures for Quality Assurance in Off Campus Learning and Open Learning Programs. Monash University.   August 28, 2004.


NAHE. (2004, para 1). National Academy for Higher Education. accreditation.htm  August 28, 2004.


ODLQC. (2004, para 2). Open and Distance Learning Quality Council.   August 28, 2004.


Padolina, Christina, D. (2004, p.6). Country Report: Conditions and Practices of e-Learning in the Philippines. Asia e-Learning Network, aen_conference_2002/files/session2/5-philippines.pdf      August 28, 2004.


The Degrees. (2004). Distance Education and Training Council. (para 1) August 28, 2004.


University of Wisconsin, (2004). Distance Education Clearinghouse disted/home.html    August 28, 2004.




Accreditation  The seal of approval granted by an accrediting agency to an academic institution indicating that certain quality standards are met.


Accrediting Agency   An organization that grants seals of approval to academic institutions for having met a certain level of quality standards. Normally authorized by a cognizant government entity.


Accreditation Mills  Associations that claim to extend academic accreditation, while themselves do not have any officials or otherwise recognized capacity.


Approved    An educational institution or program that has the explicit recognition of an accrediting agency.


Competency    A combination of education and skills that qualify a professional for a certain task or field.


Diploma Mills  Organizations that offer university diplomas that do not reflect learning.


Distance Learning, DL    The mode of acquiring knowledge while being geographically apart from the source of that knowledge.


Synchronous DL The mode of distance learning where provider and recipient are communicating in real time, that is, talking to each other or seeing each other, while geographically apart.


Asynchronous DL    The mode of distance learning where provider and recipient are communicating off-line. That is, leaving messages for each other or viewing each others pre-recordings, while geographically apart.


Open Education   This is more of a European term, where in the United States it is referred to as Continuing Education. Courses that are being offered for one’s own maintenance of professional currency.


Dr. George K. Kostopoulos is Professor of Information Systems with the School of Business and Management at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. He holds degrees from the Arizona State University, PhD and MS in Computer Engineering, the California State Polytechnic University, MS in Economics, and the Pacific States University, BS in Electronics Engineering. He has been a faculty at the California State Polytechnic University, University of Petroleum and Minerals, Saudi Arabia, Algerian Institute of Engineering (INELEC), Florida Institute of Technology, Florida Atlantic University, Boston University, University of Heidelberg, University of LaVerne, University of Ioannina, Texas A&M International University, and Instituto Tamaulipeco in Mexico.















APPENDIX  A:   National Accrediting Organizations ……………..United States – 2003


Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges

Commission on Accreditation • • 

Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology — •

Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools • • 

Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada

Commission on Accreditation • •

Distance Education and Training Council

Accrediting Commission • •

National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences   Inc. — • 

National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences  Inc. — • 

Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training — • 

Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools Accreditation Commission • • 

National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences, Inc. — • 

Council on Occupational Education — • 

 ** CHEA & USDE Participating or Recognized Accrediting Agencies

--- * USDE Recognized Accrediting Agencies





APPENDIX   B:    Regional Accrediting Organizations……………..United States – 2003


Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools

Commission on Higher Education • • 

New England Association of Schools and Colleges

Commission on Technical and Career Institutions • • 

New England Association of Schools and Colleges

Commission on Institutions of Higher Education • • 

North Central Association of Colleges and Schools

The Higher Learning Commission • •  

Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities • • 

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

Commission on Colleges • •

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

Commission on Colleges • •

Western Association of Schools and Colleges

Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges • •

Western Association of Schools and Colleges

Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities • • 

** CHEA & USDE Participating or Recognized Accrediting Agencies

--- * USDE Recognized Accrediting Agencies