January/February 2000 // Virtual University
Accreditation of Online Institutions
by Steven Crow
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Steven Crow "Accreditation of Online Institutions" The Technology Source, January/February 2000. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The media hype (Olsen, 1999; Jones, 1999; "An on-line first," 1999) that has ensued since the accreditation of Jones International University (JIU) by the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, especially after the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) attacked the decision, has been neither particularly enlightening nor productive. Some critics see the decision as an unwarranted approval of educational delivery methodologies that are untested, yet those same critics assume the methodologies to be flawed and inferior. Other critics find JIU itself to be the problem; it is a for-profit institution created by and for corporate America. The AAUP seems willing to use both arguments, the former in letters to the Commission and the latter in discussions with reporters. When viewed in the context of U.S. higher education history and the Commission's role in that history, however, this decision is more accurately understood as a logical step that makes quality higher education accessible to new and larger groups of students.

This interpretation corrects the misunderstandings held by some critics. JIU is now one of 23 for-profit institutions accredited by the Commission, and it was not the first such school to receive accreditation (Keller Graduate School of Management won accreditation in 1977). Though these proprietary institutions were first closely held by owners or partners, several have now become parts of large publicly-traded corporations. Smaller institutions that focused on two-year business programs have been replaced by those offering baccalaureate and graduate education programs ranging from information technology to professional psychology to business to education. As a for-profit institution seeking accreditation, JIU established no precedent. Its governance structures and financing are shaped by the corporate environment, drawing on services provided by the larger corporate structures supporting it, but it meets the Commission's stated requirements.

It is true that a substantial amount of private capital has been and will be invested in higher education by corporations that establish or serve colleges. Within developments in online education, however, I forecast that the for-profit presence will be much more evident in partnerships with existing institutions (e.g., services from companies such as eCollege.com) than in new free-standing institutions. High quality online education that makes the most of available technology involves significant capital investment. JIU represents only one way to develop those investments.

Most for-profit institutions accredited by the Commission and, increasingly, a number of accredited independent and public institutions as well, see significant new markets for students in the corporate and industrial sectors of our economy. Community colleges have long been known for their quick responsiveness to changing educational needs in an economy that seems to have an insatiable appetite for "knowledge workers." The University of Phoenix, a for-profit institution accredited by the Commission since 1978, makes no secret of its focus on working adults and its close ties with employers, and it has received much favorable attention, particularly from the business community and public policy makers. If JIU intends to focus its online educational opportunities in the corporate sector, it breaks no new ground. Instead, it joins competitors from public and independent sectors of higher education, as well as new and growing for-profit institutions.

Critics of these trends in U.S. higher education such as David Noble (Noble, 1999) appear to be less concerned with accessing the potential in online education and more concerned with reducing the influence of corporate America's training and research needs. These critics are also concerned about the very different educational goals and learning needs of employed adults and other emerging student clienteles. According to these critics, the university has rushed to serve these new student clienteles and has sacrificed its commitment to an unfettered search for truth, jeopardizing its position as the source of objective analysis of the society in which it exists. If such fundamental definitional reservations lurk beneath the criticism of online education, then distance education is taking an unwarranted rap, and JIU is a scapegoat for much broader concerns.

One important way to view online education is as the most recently developed means of making higher education accessible to new and larger groups of students. Land grant universities were created to ensure broader access to education, and their decades-old correspondence programs represent one historic effort to provide that access. Access has also been provided through truncated summer sessions, evening colleges, weekend colleges, executive MBA programs, adult degree completion programs, courses and programs offered at off-campus sites—the list goes on and on. Many of these programs have focused on the specific educational goals of the student even as the university providing them has claimed to be about the business of winnowing truth.

The primary argument against the Commission’s decision rests on the assumption that the Commission’s requirements and standards define traditional campus-based higher education, and, therefore, simply could not fit an institution like JIU. However, the Commission’s accreditation of JIU was simply one in a long line of decisions about programs designed to enhance access to quality education. Traditionalists complained decades ago when normal schools became full-fledged members; later they argued against single purpose and professional schools; and they made dire forecasts when community and technical colleges were made members. Of course, these programs had faculty, facilities, and services that could be measured against the input standards for accreditation.

For years, the Commission has been open to distance education and institutions uniquely configured around new technologies. Thirteen years ago we accredited an institution that relies solely on satellite delivery and provides programs today in at least 400 different corporate locations. Another institution has offered online programs since 1990. Just a few years ago we accredited an institution that relies totally on correspondence education. In all of these decisions, the Commission wrestled with new definitions of faculty, of services for students, and of learning support for the programs. From the 1970s onward, the Commission slowly but surely moved from evaluation based solely on what exists to evaluation based heavily on what works. JIU is not the first institution accredited by the Commission that lacks a large full-time faculty or a campus with all of the traditional accoutrements.

Although it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that the decision to accredit JIU was just "business as usual," I argue that the Commission’s decision about JIU did not break much new ground, at least not as suggested by critics. The fact is that the business of higher education is changing significantly, and technology has a large role in that shift. Distance education has not redefined what constitutes higher education. All types of institutions are engaged in this redefinition and in the dialogue on higher education quality, content, methodology, and rigor. Distance education has simply become a very visible home for new technological tools designed for a larger, more diverse student body.

More precisely, online education has come to represent the shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered education. Internet technology has been used simply to extend the live classroom (relying on synchronous use of the technology) where the faculty member continues to control the learning environment and the technology substitutes for the post office and telephone. But Internet technology also allows for asynchronous learning in a significantly new environment marked by multimedia components and information access made possible by the Web. In these learning environments, faculty facilitate rather than direct the learning experience while students become active participants in shaping that experience.

Faculty are central players in this shift even though many evidently fear that it threatens to marginalize them. To be sure, they may no longer be as autonomous as they once were, for effective use of expensive technology requires teamwork and collaboration in many cases. Nevertheless, rigorous higher education must be based on the knowledge defined by content specialists and generalists, and effective education will continue to require the talents of facilitators who understand and can enhance learning. These are and will continue to be faculty roles.

It is easier for me to affirm faculty roles than for my Commission quickly to operationalize changing definitions of those roles. New understandings must be developed about intellectual property in this collaborative environment. As institutions contract and collaborate, judgments about ownership and control, once easily made, become difficult. We are learning that current accreditation standards do not address as effectively as they must the transformation in higher education resulting from technology. The responsibilities of the faculty in environments that encourage unbundling of traditional roles seem confusing when they once were plain. Tools to evaluate student learning are both underdeveloped and underused. Standards need to be revised even for campus-based instruction, and the rapid emergence of distance education makes that need all the more obvious.

Even as we strive to define a new and appropriate role for accreditation in this dynamic marketplace, we are learning some important things. This learning, if implemented quickly and flexibly enough into accreditation standards and processes, will allow accreditation agencies to continue to provide strong programs of quality assurance into the next century. So far we should have learned the following lessons:

  • Quality online education requires institutional commitment and focus. Those institutions simply attempting to "bolt on" some courses and programs will discover quickly that the competitive marketplace will reward institutions that better understand and meet the unique needs of the distant student. At a fairly early point in its foray into online education, an institution should make a series of commitments—all of which will entail costs—or the quality of its distance education will suffer.
  • Too few institutions take the time to contemplate the long-range effects of technology on education and integrate those effects into planning. Many institutions toss money into hardware, software, and a little faculty-centered development program, hoping merely to establish a Web presence. Their operating assumption is that the faculty-centered classroom model of higher education will remain unchanged. But these institutions will not benefit from the increased productivity made possible by technology or the transformed learning environment it enables. Competitors ready to re-envision the learning environment, whether higher education institutions or corporate training programs or courseware developers, will succeed.
  • Online education gives power to the student. The institutional model of accreditation appears to value institutional autonomy in all things, particularly in developing curriculum and determining when to award credits and degrees. Residency has often been key to institutional control. That was not so difficult when students had to move physically to gain access to other learning environments. Online education has the potential to allow students—even resident students—to find courses to fit particular needs and particular schedules. A student’s educational progress need not be restricted by an institution’s course scheduling and class-size limits.

We are also learning that in this rapidly changing environment, accrediting agencies try to manage change, but too frequently do not learn from their experiences. Too often we treat distance education endeavors as "exceptions" rather than as sources of change. In the jealous protection of regional autonomy, each agency alone tries to develop the best standards for online education. In the late nineteenth century, educators anxious to define and protect good education in a chaotic environment banded together into regional organizations to define voluntary accreditation based on peer review. If we choose to grasp it, we have the opportunity once again to be seen as the appropriate definers of educational quality and good practice in this exciting, messy, and competitive educational marketplace. Perhaps the greatest challenge to regional accrediting associations in this new day is to share learning and good practices about online education without fearing the loss of regional identity or the wrath of educational traditionalists.


Noble, D. (1999, May). Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education. First Monday. Retrieved December 23, 1999 from the World Wide Web.

Olsen, F. (1999, August 6). 'Virtual' institutions challenge accreditors to devise new ways of measuring quality. Chronicle of Higher Education, pp. A29-A30.

Patrice M. Jones, (1999, June 29). Accrediting of cyber u. virtual blow to academia. Chicago Tribune, section 2, pp. 1-2.

An on-line first: Virtual university gains accreditation (1999, May). University Business, 16.

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