Accountability in a Post-Pandemic Landscape

Every day, colleges and universities are facing new and difficult realities as they address the unprecedented circumstances brought about by COVID-19. There are countless emerging concerns that require immediate attention and resources. Accreditation agencies have made extraordinary efforts to embrace flexibility and innovation while remaining focused on the essentials: an institution’s capacity to carry out its educational mission, to design and deliver quality curriculum for distance education, to assess student learning, and to govern independently and conduct strategic and financial planning.

Student learning outcomes, in their full breadth, are integral to and the driving force behind the mission of every educational institution. Education is, after all, both creatively and operationally, the “leading out” of the student into a world of greater dimension and opportunity. During this time of unprecedented challenges, student learning outcomes must remain at the center of the education enterprise – from curricula to faculty to learning management systems to resources and, to the furthest extent possible, practica. With the precious time that we have left this summer, it is essential that institutions evaluate the quality of distance education, make changes ahead of the fall term, and envision accountability for the future.

As you know, the US Department of Education has provided broad approval for institutions to offer distance education on a temporary basis to students without going through the regular approval process with their accreditors. This temporary approval is effective through December 31, 2020.  The Department has clarified that distance education need not be provided via sophisticated software or online platforms unless required to comply with accreditor standards (which accreditors may waive), although instructors must initiate substantive communications with students on a regular basis. Ensuring accountability to these provisions necessitates an understanding of the current federal definition of distance education along with a comprehensive internally mandated assessment of distance learning.

Curricula, for example, must not just meet academic standards of scope and content, but must also be mapped against student outcome goals and developed using online instructional tools and design elements tailored for distance learning. Likewise, faculty need to calibrate not just their academic and teaching expertise, but their ability to engage with students on a remote basis, their availability through multiple forms of communication and across more flexible time frames, and their ability to teach effectively across a broader range of student capabilities and learning levels. Similarly, institutions need to work actively to ensure online accessibility and the availability of a rich range of resources and learning management software platforms that support greater student engagement in course materials, and effective communications between faculty and students, and the opportunity for social networking among students. Most important: institutions must clearly and conspicuously provide disclosures to students on costs, fees, technology requirements, satisfactory academic progress, learning outcomes and, if applicable, professional licensure requirements.

The past five years have seen a burgeoning in the field of distance education. New technology, new participants, a changing student profile, and a shift in the domestic as well as global economic system have individually and collectively brought challenges to educators across the industry, from traditional brick-and-mortar establishments to pure distance learning schools to institutions that offer some combination of classroom and online learning. The onset of COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated this movement toward online learning. Accreditors are being called upon to embrace new models of teaching and learning that are being implemented at a rapid pace and scale while serving both as monitors of institutional quality and as leaders of institutional improvement, including data collection and analytics and a strengthening focus on the area of student learning outcomes.

Within her April 24, 2020 state of the community address, Dr. Jamienne Studley, President of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, called for “rapid innovation and radical flexibility” in response to COVID-19. I couldn’t agree more. Our post-pandemic understanding will likely bring about many changes to the way higher education serves students, along with a healthy dose of introspective hindsight. Accountability, and accreditation’s pivotal role in assuring quality education, however, will remain.