Online Education:  Issues and Trends

George K. Kostopoulos[1]

 

 


Abstract ---- Online Education has been in the forefront of education over the past several years. Yet, for many the paramount issues of accreditation and recognition remain vague to say the least. The mere mention of online education often raises subjective questions on its value and reputation, and objective questions on the institutions and programs accreditation, and on the subsequent recognition of such programs in other universities and in the jobmarket. The purpose of this paper is to shed some light into this topic, and to hopefully help all interested in finding ways to assess specific cases of online education. In this endeavor, the organizations authorized to accredit online education are being named, and the origin of their authority is identified. As for online education recognition in the jobmarket, this is a matter of program and level. Graduate programs are more recognized than undergraduate.

 

Index Terms ¾ Accreditation, Online education, Online Education,  Recognition.

 

INTRODUCTION

 

In today’s fast moving world acquisition of education is a life long endeavor, the spectrum of knowledge rapidly expands, and time is becoming our most scarce resource. Fortunately, technology comes to our rescue with a variety of ways, especially with the Internet. However, it just happens that in many cases possession of knowledge is not recognized unless it has been acquired from an accredited and generally recognized educational institution. To vouch on the quality of the acquired education the academic world has the accreditation agencies.

Practically speaking, in any country any form of authority originates with the government from where it is delegated to a variety of agencies. Non-governmental accrediting bodies have de jure authority under some mandate granted to them from the cognizant government agency itself. It is not uncommon, however, that non-governmental accrediting bodies may have acquired for themselves a de facto authority by virtue of the reputation they enjoy in their field of profession.

It must be pointed out that, similarly to the non-accredited educational institutions, there are also non-accredited 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.

 In most countries licenses or mandates issued to academic institutions by the country’s government also imply national accreditation. In the United States of America, on the other hand, there are many universities fully authorized to operate under a State government license that have not passed through any accreditation process.  Many such universities possibly provide a very fine education, but the perception of that education in the academic world and in the jobmarket may not be high. Consequently, graduates of such schools find difficulties in pursuing further education in the accredited schools, and in seeking positions appropriate to the acquired 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.

ACCREDITATION

 Along with the global access to the Internet came cyber online education, 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 online education. 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...“ [1] and it is fully “…. recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and by the U.S. Department of Education…” [2]  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.[3].  The National and the Regional Accrediting Organizations in the United States appear in Tables A and B, respectively.

 CHEA, concerned with the credibility of Online education, 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...” [4].

 A directory of the CHEA recognized organizations should be consulted for academic institutions based in the USA.[5].

Also in the USA, the Association of Online education 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.”  [6].  It should be emphasized 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 Online education Quality Council, ODLQC, is the guardian of quality in open and online education. 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, online education, online or e-learning and other open learning or flexible learning courses ...“ as long as specified standards are met. [7]. 

 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.” [8].    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.” [9]. 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 online education.  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. [10]. 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. [11].

There are several organizations of limited fame claiming to be bona fide online education accrediting bodies, such examples are the Board of Online Universities Accreditation (BOUA), the World Online Education Accrediting Commission (WOEAC), and the Universal Council for Online Education Accreditation (UCOEA). UCOEA states that it  “…has accredited members all over the world.” [12]. Its website lists only two institutions as members claiming to be universities, though they have not been granted an .edu domain name extension. 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. [13]. There are indeed numerous websites on the accreditation in online education. [14]-[15].  However, the one maintained by the Instructional Technology Council is of special interest. [16].

 

RECOGNITION

 

Online education 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 online education 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 Online education world are the result of efforts that are not as rigorous as those found in the in-class learning environment. 

 In evaluating online education 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 online education as they are in in-class learning, then recognition will eventually come. [17].

  

TRENDS

 

It is believed that the online education mode will be appreciated to the point where taking some courses in online education mode will become a graduation requirement.  Already, some institutions currently require all students to take at least one course online during their college career. [18].  One prestigious university – the University of Southern California - believes that online courses “Enhance image of University” [19].  Both cases illustrate the increasing recognition of online education in academia, which will be eventually followed by the marketplace with its usual time lag.

Furthermore, in the USA. “…Nevada is among the states increasing the number of (Mandatory Continuing Legal Education) MCLE credits they will accept from online participation … from 6 of 12 credits in 2001 to (the) full (12) credit in 2002...”. Also,”… the American Bar Association proposed … that … the Internet (be recognized)  as an approved delivery media for MCLE. [20].

An extensive study on online education conducted in Europe has concluded that “The accreditation seems to be the same independently of whether the course or program is offered online or not. Many institutions basically state that accreditation is the same as for campus courses.”[21].

 

CONCLUSION

 

The great demand for training, coupled with the development of new cyber technologies, has opened new areas for innovation in online education. 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 online education is only a mode of education delivery, and can be easily assessed, reviewed and accredited by the existing accrediting bodies. The other claims that online education cannot be regionally accredited because it is global and unconventional, and it, therefore, warrants special considerations and its own accreditation agencies and criteria. 

 

TABLE 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

 

Source:  http://www.chea.org/institutions/partic_recog_orgs_2003.htm

 

TABLE   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

Source:  http://www.chea.org/institutions/partic_recog_orgs_2003.htm 

 

 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 online education fill the professional ranks, this apprehension will slowly dissipate to be replaced by a full-fledged recognition.

 Although online education 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.

 

REFERENCES

 

[1] Distance Education and Training Council. The Association http://www.detc.org/ theassociation.html    August 28, 2004.

[2] Distance Education and Training Council. http://www.detc.org/degree.html (para 1) August 28, 2004.

[3]  Distance Education and Training Council. The Association, http://www.detc.org/theassociation.html    August 28, 2004.

[4] Important Questions about “Diploma Mills” and “Accreditation Mills”.  Council for Higher Education Accreditation, http://www.chea.org/pdf/fact_sheet_6_diploma_mills.pdf  August 28, 2004.

[5] Directory of the CHEA recognized organizations,

http://www.chea.org/pdf/CHEADirectory.pdf   May 13, 2005

[6] National Academy for Higher Education. http://www.nahighered.org/ accreditation.htm  August 28, 2004.

[7] Open and Online education Quality Council.  http://www.odlqc.org.uk/   August 28, 2004.

[8] Education Quality Accrediting Commission. http://www.eqac.org/ about_eqac.htm     August 28, 2004.

[9] Education Quality Accrediting Commission. http://www.eqac.org/ about_eqac.htm     August 28, 2004

[10] Padolina, Christina, D. Country Report: Conditions and Practices of e-Learning in the Philippines. Asia e-Learning Network, http://www.asia-elearning.net/aen_conference_2002/aen_conference_2002/files/ session2/5-philippines.pdf      August 28, 2004. 

[11] Policy and Procedures for Quality Assurance in Off Campus Learning and Open Learning Programs. Monash University. http://www.adm.monash.edu.au/unisec/pol/acad15.html   August 28, 2004.

[12] UCOEA has accredited members all over the world. http://www.ucoea.org/index.htm   May 13, 2005

[13] University of Wisconsin, Distance Education Clearinghouse http://www.uwex.edu/ disted/home.html    August 28, 2004 

[14] Loane, Shannon. ERIC Digest Distance Education and Accreditation. http://www.ericfacility.net/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed464525.html   August 28, 2004.

[15] Degree.Net, http://www.degree.net/guides/accreditation.html   August 28, 2004.

[16] Distance Education Reports and Abstracts. Instructional Technology Council, http://144.162.197.250/reports.htm - Accreditation%20Issues  August 28, 2004.

[17] Distance Technology in Nursing Education: Assessing a New Frontier. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. http://www.aacn.nche.edu/Publications/positions/ whitepaper.htm  August 28, 2004.

[18] Baxendale, Steve.  Computer Technology Resource. Future Trends in Distance Education  http://www.hawaiianharddrive.com/articleview.cfm?articleid=416      

August 28, 2004.

[19] Mak, Chi and Silvester, John. Online education at USC. University of  Southern California. http://www.usc.edu/academe/acsen/about_senate/whitepapers/wp98_distance.html

[20] Online Continuing Legal Education

http://westlegaledcenter.com/requirements/forms/WLEcWhite.pdf

May 13, 2005.

[21] Paulsen, Morten Flate, International Web-based Education and Strategic Recommendations for Decision Makers, http://www.studymentor.com/studymentor/Strategic_Recommendations.pdf  May 13, 2005.



[1] George K. Kostopoulos, The American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, kostopoulos@ausharjah.edu