THE BLOG

Rethink Education? All Roads Lead to Accreditation

02/03/2015 12:29 GMT | Updated 26/04/2015 10:59 BST

Accreditation is perhaps the biggest issue in undergraduate education that no one is talking about.

Why? Frankly, because it's so unreasonably complex that very few fully understand it.

Accreditation has evolved so much from its originally-intended purpose that it's become an entangled web vestigial functions. It has failed to keep pace with the transformative change in the industry (which it should have been responsible for overseeing) - and its fragmentation and entanglement has made it nearly impossible to unpack and fix.

Just as all roads lead to Rome, all issues in undergraduate education can be mapped to accreditation.

Forget big data analytics, ed tech, adaptive learning, and the dozen other 'shiny objects' that smokescreen Twitter's Monday night #edchat conversations, if we don't solve the underlying accreditation crisis, we won't get far.

Part of the role of some accreditation bureaus and audit committees is to assess the financial strength and stability of educational institutions. However, as government education subsidies continue to dry up, the cost structures of these institutions have been so fatally impaired by what they thought was an endless flow of government aid, they are left no choice but to raise tuition rates to accommodate equally rising deficits. Accreditors have failed to hold institutions accountable to any acceptable level of financial independence.

Even if they did, the only way they accreditors could penalize a member institution would be to strip away their accreditation. But this rarely occurs as it would simply result in students leaving the institution, and it forcibly shutting down - leading to mass layoffs, a disgruntled student body, and an affected community.

Then why grant accreditation if you will never take it away? That's like getting a driver's license, and instead of losing your license after poor driving habits, you get a letter in the mail with suggestions on how you can drive better.

The same thing goes for academic quality. Today's skills gap can be, in many ways, attributed to antiquated or contradictory standards imposed by accreditors, as well as a lacking responsibility to match employer needs with institutional learning outcomes. Limitations on adjunct professors (who are more affordable and oftentimes more effective), overly theoretical course content restrictions, and the unrealistic expectations to implement vague, principle-based recommendations, are just some examples of how they fall short.

It's not like students could have pushed for more rigorous and relevant academic curricula. What kind of graduate would belittle their own degree by saying it's not giving them the right knowledge or skills? Even if they did, where would they go? A competing institution? Unlikely, given the difficulty to transfer their already-completed credits. Instead, they'd keep at it and be proud of the piece of paper they get saying their an expert in something.

And then there are the inconveniences of accreditation review. Some university presidents have estimated the cost of preparing for reviews exceeding £600 and taking up tens of thousands of hours of staff time. The arguable benefit for this expense is relatively minuscule.

Yet the main thing that accreditation has blocked is the development of innovative, market-based solutions. In other words, making it easier for new, alternative models to enter the sector without making it so hard to compete against subsidy-backed, century-old institutions.

Now I'm sure there are some accreditors and employees upholding strong standards and pushing for change, but the system is simply too complex to achieve the results they want.

What's required is a full rethink of the accreditation system - what new models could work, and how can the existing model be reshaped to address the issues above?

Mozilla's Open Badges could be a good start, which allows any entity - corporations, non-profits, or educational institutions - to digitally grant badges after achieving a skill or a task. This would create a distributed network of education providers - a trend we're already seeing with the rise of corporate universities and MOOCs. As a result, students wouldn't get their 'degrees' from a single institution, rather it would be a collection of badges from certain providers.

Another model is to simply discount the need for accreditation altogether, and base a student's educational success on what they were able to achieve in the real-world during their time at school. The Global Leadership Academy out of Canada is adopting this model, requiring students to complete six achievements before they graduate - such as doing an internship, volunteering abroad, and solving a social problem. This flips traditional academia on its head and requires students to be out in the world more than they are in the classroom.

Either way, it's a significant issue that will require support from all actors in the ecosystem - governments, employers, institutions, communities, and students.

We're making progress, but it's a long road ahead.