Aligning Information Technology with Accreditation Standards

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1 EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research Research Bulletin Volume 2006, Issue 10 May 9, 2006 Aligning Information Technology with Accreditation Standards Catherine Finnegan, Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia 4772 Walnut Street, Suite 206 Boulder, Colorado

2 Overview Over the past decade, two trends have had a major impact on higher education policy growing expectations for accountability and accreditation, and increasing demands for information and instructional technology yet rarely are these trends considered together. For most campuses, the various demands of regional and disciplinary accrediting bodies can impact resource allocation, influence policy decisions, and drive evaluation/assessment agendas. One indicator of a successful information technology (IT) organization is an awareness of the evolving complexity of the regulatory environment. Most accrediting bodies have conditions of eligibility that require some proficiency in the use of technology, as well as basic standards in the level of technology availability. For example, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) asks member institutions to prove that students have access to technology, programs use technology effectively, training in technology is available to students, and technology enhances student learning. In addition to this specific principle on the impact of technology on students and learning, each campus department is required to undertake an administrative review as part of the decennial visits. As many campuses have information and instructional technology units, they often struggle to identify means of proving their effectiveness. A successful IT organization ties strategic and operational planning to budgeting and outcomes assessment. This bulletin will categorize the requirements of the U.S. regional accrediting bodies and key professional organizations related to technology administration and usage and compare their similarities and differences. Additionally, it will compare these requirements to key issues and concerns of chief information officers (CIOs) as measured by the 2005 EDUCAUSE Current Issues Survey in an effort to help the CIO uncover similar issues and better align the IT organization with campus needs and priorities. Highlights of Accreditation Impact on IT Regional accreditors include among their membership nearly all community colleges and public and private colleges and universities in the region they serve. Because of their size, prolonged existence, and visibility, the regional accreditors have the strongest credibility of any accreditor with private employers, the federal and state governments, and other accrediting bodies. 2

3 For this bulletin, the standards of the six U.S. regional accrediting bodies were reviewed: Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE); New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE); North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, Higher Learning Commission (NCA-HLC); Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU); Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), Commission on Colleges; and Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). The Western Association has two standards one for senior colleges and one for community colleges although for the purposes of this bulletin they were treated as a single standard. In addition, the standards of four national disciplinary accrediting bodies were reviewed. These specialty accrediting agencies include the National League for Nursing Accreditation Consortium, Inc. (NLNAC), the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International), and the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). These professional organizations were selected because they provide accreditation for degrees and majors commonly offered at many colleges and universities. AACSB has two standards one for accounting and one for business although for the purposes of this bulletin they were treated as a single standard. The standards for each accrediting agency revealed 14 categories related to technology usage and administration. Table 1 describes these categories and the accrediting bodies that had requirements associated with them. Accreditation Comparisons Researchers found similarities and differences between the approaches accreditation agencies take to address institutional analysis and evaluation. Consistent with mission. If a standard referred to technology reflecting the mission of the institution, it was coded as being consistent with mission. Five of the six regional accrediting agencies had standards in this category, as did two of the four specialty accrediting agencies. For example, the New England standard stressed the importance of congruency among the mission, the delivery system, and the individual courses in their standard: Instructional techniques and delivery systems, including technology, are compatible with and serve to further the mission and purposes of the institution as well as the learning goals of academic programs and objectives of individual courses (2005, p. 15). The nursing standard looked specifically for documentation of consistency: Documentation confirms programming for distance education is congruent with the philosophy and purposes of the governing organization and nursing education unit (2005, p. 147). 3

4 Table 1: Matrix of Technology-Related Accreditation Requirements in U.S. Regional and Selected Disciplinary Accreditation Agencies Category Middle States (MSCHE) New England (NEASC) North Central (NCAHLC) Northwest (NWCCU) Southern (SACS) Western (WASC) NLNAC (Nursing) NCATE (Teacher Education) AACSB (Business) CAPTE (Physical Therapy Education) Consistent with mission X X X X X X X Institutional planning X X Evaluation X X X Curriculum and instruction Professional and technical support Physical resources Library and information services Personnel and management Training students and faculty Infrastructure and equipment Distance education X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X Financial resources X X Student support X X X X Security X Institutional planning. Linkages between institutional planning and technological needs were identified by two of the six regional accrediting agencies, whereas none of the specialty accrediting agencies identified this as a requirement. For example, technology and planning were integrated into a single standard by the Northwest Commission: The institution, in its planning, recognizes the need for management and technical linkages among information resource bases (e.g., libraries, instructional computing, media production and distribution centers, and telecommunication networks) (2003, p. 71). 4

5 Evaluation. Evaluation assesses the effectiveness of the ongoing program in achieving its objectives. This process attempts to determine as systematically as possible the relevance, effectiveness, and impact of activities. Half of the regional accrediting agencies had standards relating to evaluation and technology, whereas the specialty agencies had none. For example, the standard for North Central spoke to student learning: The organization provides evidence of student learning and teaching effectiveness that demonstrates it is fulfilling its educational mission. The organization creates effective learning environments (2003, p. 6). Indeed, the organization s system of quality assurance includes regular review of whether its educational strategies, activities, processes, and technologies enhance student learning. Curriculum and instruction. Half of the regional accrediting agencies had a standard relating to technology and curriculum and instruction. For example, the Northwest Commission standard addressed the appropriateness of technology in meeting curriculum and instruction objectives of its distance-education programs. Institutions are required to monitor the rigor and quality of distanceeducation programs by requiring clear policies, currency of materials, appropriate student and faculty support and training, the timely interaction between students and faculty, and to ensure that the technology used is appropriate to the nature and objectives of the programs (2003, p. 45). Three of the four specialty accrediting agencies addressed curriculum and instruction and technology. The AACSB International standard addressed this area of concern as a learning outcome: Normally, the curriculum management process will result in an undergraduate degree program that includes learning experiences in such general knowledge and skill areas as [u]se of information technology (2003, p. 71). Professional and technical support. Many accrediting agencies were concerned that institutions have professional and technical support within the institution to support the mission. Half of the regional accrediting agencies but only two of the specialty agencies addressed this area. The Northwest Commission standard mandated both faculty support services and technical support: The institution has faculty support services specifically related to teaching via electronic delivery. The institution possesses the equipment and technical expertise required for distance education (2003, p. 46). The physical education standard addressed this area: The program has, or has access to, administrative, secretarial, and technical support staff to meet its professional education, scholarship, and service goals and expected program outcomes (2005, p. B-20). Physical resources. The physical resources category refers to the condition and adequacy of facilities necessary to support technology on a campus. Three of the six regional accrediting agencies and three of the specialty agencies addressed physical resources and technology. The Southern Association standard addressed physical resources: The institution operates and maintains 5

6 physical facilities, both on and off campus, that are adequate to serve the needs of the institution s educational programs, support services, and other missionrelated activities (2004, p. 27). The nursing standard discussed the documentation needs for appropriate and adequate physical resources: Documentation confirms: a) physical facilities include classrooms, labs, multimedia facilities, conference rooms, and office space b) physical facilities, instructional and non-instructional, are adequate for the nursing education unit at whatever site the undergraduate nursing program may be offered (2005, p. 115). Library and information services. All of the regional accrediting agencies and three of the specialty accrediting agencies discussed library and information services. The Northwest Commission provided the standard: Library and information resources and services contribute to developing the ability of students, faculty, and staff to use the resources independently and effectively (2003, p. 69). The physical education standard stated: The resources of the institutional library system and associated learning resources are adequate to support the educational and scholarship goals of the program, including both program faculty and student activities (2005, p. B-21). Personnel and management. The personnel and management category addresses the impact of technology on staffing and workload. Two-thirds of the regional agencies and one of the specialty agencies discussed personnel and management. The New England standard stated: Professionally qualified and numerically adequate staff administers the institution s library, information resources and services (2005, p. 20). The teacher education spoke to faculty load: Faculty load must consider the amount of time required for on-line delivery of courses and course components and provision of electronic support to candidates (2002, p. 41). Training students and faculty. Five of the six regional accrediting agencies discussed the need for training students and faculty in the use of technology, whereas none of the specialty agencies included this in their standards. The Middle States standard discussed the need for faculty to support an ongoing program of appropriate orientation, training, and support for faculty participating in electronically delivered offerings (2002, p. 46). The Northwest Commission standard addressed the need for student support: The institution ensures that the students admitted possess the knowledge and equipment necessary to use the technology employed in the program, and provides aid to students who are experiencing difficulty using the required technology (2003, p. 46). The Southern Association standard discussed users: The institution ensures that users have access to regular and timely instruction in the use of library and other learning/information resources (2004, p. 26). Infrastructure and equipment. The condition of technology infrastructure and equipment as a specific category was only recognized by two regional accrediting agencies and one specialty agency. The Junior Western Association 6

7 standard expected the following: The institution systematically plans, acquires, maintains, and upgrades or replaces technology infrastructure and equipment to meet institutional needs (2005, p. 18). The physical education standard discussed educational technology: The program has, or has ensured use of equipment, technology, and materials necessary to meet the curricular goals and expected student outcomes. Evidence includes the adequacy of the educational technology available to the program (2005, p. B-22). Distance education. Distance education is generally defined, for the purposes of accreditation review, as a formal educational process in which the majority of the instruction occurs when student and instructor are not in the same place. Instruction may be synchronous or asynchronous. Distance education may employ correspondence study, audio, video, or computer technologies. Only two of the regional accrediting agencies and none of the specialty agencies addressed distance education within their regular standards, although several others had special separate standards for review of distance-education programs. Financial resources. Two of the regional accrediting agencies and one specialty agency addressed the need for institutions to provide financial resources for technology. The New England standard discussed financial support for maintenance as well as security: The institution provides sufficient and consistent financial support for the effective maintenance and improvement of the institution s information resources and instructional and information technology (2003, p. 20). The standard made provision for the proper maintenance, preservation, currency, and security of IT and allocated resources for scholarly support services compatible with its instructional and research programs and the needs of faculty and students. The teacher education standard discussed the budget in relation to technological resources: The unit has the leadership, authority, budget, personnel, facilities, and resources including information technology resources, for the preparation of candidates to meet professional, state, and institutional standards (2002, pp. 14, 41). Student support. Four regional agencies included a standard related to technology and the support of students, whereas none of the specialty agencies included this standard. The Senior Western Association standard noted that student support services including financial aid, registration, advising, computer labs, and library and information services are designed to meet the needs of the specific types of students the institution serves and the curricula it offers (2001, p. 13). Security. Security is an enormous issue in the field of technology, but only one accrediting agency addressed this area. The Southern Association standard related to student records and data maintenance: The institution protects the security, confidentiality, and integrity of its students academic records and maintains special security measures to protect and back up data (2004, p. 23). 7

8 Summary of Standards As noted earlier, researchers identified 14 categories related to information and instructional technology in their analysis of the basic standards required by the six regional and four professional accrediting organizations. Not surprisingly, library resources was the category where technology impact was identified as important by almost all of the accrediting bodies. Security was the category least identified by accrediting bodies. Among the regional accreditors, library services, mission consistency, and training were most frequently identified in the standards. New England and Northwest had standards addressing the most categories of technology impact. North Central had the fewest standards addressing technology. As a whole, the specialty accrediting bodies did not have many standards that addressed most of the technology categories. It is not surprising that curriculum, library, and physical resources were the most frequently addressed categories. However, 6 of the 14 categories (institutional planning, evaluation, personnel and management, training for students and faculty, student support, security) were not addressed by any of the specialty agencies. The National League for Nursing Accreditation Consortium s standards most fully incorporated technology concerns into its standards, while the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business addressed only two categories mission and curriculum. Accreditation Categories and Top IT Issues This research followed how closely the categories identified in the accreditation standards reflect those areas that require the most attention and resources of the CIO and IT unit. Each year, EDUCAUSE surveys its membership to learn what trends will have the greatest impact for their practice in the coming years. Survey participants the primary institutional representatives, typically CIOs of EDUCAUSE member institutions are asked to select up to 5 of 30 IT issues in each of the four areas that are critical for strategic success; are expected to increase in significance; demand the greatest amount of the campus IT leader s time; and require the largest expenditures of human and fiscal resources. In general, the top ten issues identified by CIOs are the same across the four areas. Differences are mainly in the ranking rather than the issues included or identified. For an IT unit to succeed on a campus, the CIO must align IT priorities with those of the campus at large. While accreditation could be viewed as a periodic nuisance, the areas identified in the standards tend to reflect areas of ongoing concern at the majority of U.S. higher education institutions. Table 2 compares the EDUCAUSE survey of top ten issues identified by CIOs as critical to institutional strategic success with the 14 accreditation categories. 8

9 Table 2. Comparison of Technological Accreditation Categories with Top IT Issues* 2005 EDUCAUSE Top Ten IT Issues That Need to Be Resolved for the Institution s Strategic Success Funding IT Security and identity management Strategic planning for IT Infrastructure management for IT Faculty development, support, and training E-learning/distributed teaching and learning Governance, organization, and leadership for IT Enterprise-level portals Web systems and services Administrative/ERP/information systems *Italics represent items in common Accreditation Categories Financial resources Security Institutional planning Infrastructure and equipment Training students and faculty Distance education Curriculum and Instruction Consistent with mission Library and information services Evaluation Professional and technical support Physical resources Personnel and management Many of the trends identified in the EDUCAUSE survey compare with the requirements found in accreditation standards. Six of the top ten IT issues identified by CIOs compared favorably with the accrediting categories. For example, tighter higher education budgets in the past few years have CIOs concerned about dwindling funds and increasing demands for technology. Three of the regional accreditation bodies require that an institution provide adequate funding for information resources and services. The increased use of networks at colleges and universities has also increased the risks associated with information access, transmission, and storage. Although this was the number-two issue identified by CIOs, only one accreditor of the ten reviewed included information security as a requirement. Most accreditors expect institutions to engage in strategic planning across all campus departments. In 2005, CIOs included IT strategic planning in their top ten issues. According to Maltz, DeBlois, et al. (2005), IT planning should be derived from the overall goals of the institution in order for technology to be seen as a vital strategic asset and not as a deployment asset. Accreditors and CIOs recognized the importance of the acquisition, maintenance, and upgrade of technology infrastructure and equipment. Replacement plans, monitoring practices, and redundancy strategies are ways successful IT organizations meet these challenges inherent in managing increasingly complex campus infrastructure. 9

10 Changing trends in technology usage to extend learning environments, including hybrid courses, wireless environments, social computing, and context-aware computing, require that CIOs rethink strategies for supporting and training students and faculty. Nearly all accreditors require institutions to provide adequate access for students and faculty for these services. With nearly 80 percent of all public colleges and universities offering online courses (NCES, 2003), distributed and distance learning provide important instructional delivery options. CIOs and accreditors alike recognize that these courses present unique challenges for supporting faculty and students. Many colleges are beginning to consider technology components of their campus missions, either in terms of facilitating access to education through technology or in improving the preparation of graduates for the workplace. The IT office should be included in these discussions, as it will be asked to provide and support the technology necessary to achieve these campus goals. Nearly all accreditors require that technology used for instructional delivery in particular be consistent with the mission of the institution or programs. Alignment Gaps Only three issues identified by CIOs as important were not specifically included in the 14 accreditation categories. However, the planning for, support of, and policies regarding Web systems, portals, and administrative/erp systems might be covered under several accreditation categories. Interestingly, more than one-third of the accreditation categories were not identified as top issues by CIOs in the past year. Two of the accreditation categories, professional training and personnel management, did not make it into the top ten CIO issues for However, in the early 2000s, many CIOs reported that the one of the top issues they faced was recruiting, hiring, retaining, and providing continuing training for IT staff. Although staffing was not among the top issues identified in 2005, many CIOs report that it continues to consume significant institutional resources. Evaluation is an area that CIOs may not have typically considered important to their operation; however, in times of financial exigency, many campuses are questioning the return on investment for technological infrastructure and support. In addition, as many ERP systems provide access to consolidated, potentially integrated data, CIOs may be asked to provide support to both administrative and academic institutional effectiveness initiatives. Determining and assessing outcomes of IT initiatives is one of the key indicators of successful IT organizations. Previous ECAR bulletins have discussed some of the issues CIOs face in equipping new facilities and maintaining older ones (Finnegan & Maier, 2005). Nearly half of the accreditors require that campuses provide adequate maintenance of the physical resources necessary to support instruction and research. 10

11 What It Means to Higher Education High-profile federal mandates for accountability coupled with state legislation tying higher education funding to performance have heightened campus and community attentiveness to planning and assessment academically and administratively. Awareness of accreditation standards is one way CIOs can provide support to their campus that will show increased value and integration of IT. This support can come in a number of ways. First, CIOs should apply the activities associated with successful IT organizations align campus needs with IT planning, initiatives, and assessment. These strategies lead to a well-managed organization, dovetailing with many requirements for successful accreditation. Next, CIOs should offer IT services that may assist campuses in preparing for and conducting their compliance audits and peer visits. For instance, the Southern Association now requires that compliance audits be delivered electronically. IT can play a major role in providing solutions to challenges such as providing collaborative spaces for campus leaders to share and review documents, and authentication and authorization to these documents for visiting committee members. Finally, CIOs may be able to offer assistance to their campuses in assuring that they systematically review their outcomes by providing data warehouses, online surveying opportunities, dashboards for executives, and even access to observational data such as student tracking logs in the course management system. While accreditation is important to most higher education institutions, CIOs should be aware of some of the limitations. First, historically, accrediting agencies have not been overly concerned with impact or administration of technology. None of the accreditors include all 14 categories in their standards. Northwest embraces the most, including all but security and distance education in its main standards. The disciplinary standards reflect their concerns for instruction in their discipline rather than in the overall health and management of the institution. Many federal and state regulations for IT are not included in most accreditation standards except in the vaguest way. Finally, accreditors may tend to lump the support and management of IT under business services, enrollment services, library services, or other categories that may not adequately address issues such as information security, identity management, or disaster recovery. As IT is further integrated into the academic and administrative fabric of higher education institutions, accreditors may require additional proof of compliance. Key Questions to Ask What requirements do my institution s regional and disciplinary accreditors have regarding the use of technology for instruction, planning for IT, and support of infrastructure and users? How does my current IT organization comply with these requirements? What should be done to ensure this compliance? How can my institution s IT organization support accreditation efforts in general? 11

12 Where to Learn More The Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) ( is the overarching organization that acts as a unified voice on higher education accreditation. See < for a directory of all regional accrediting organizations. Approved accrediting organizations, white papers on key accreditation issues, and updates on federal legislation related to accreditation can be found in the references section below. Acknowledgment The author wishes to thank Vicki Bishop, a graduate student at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia, for her contribution to this bulletin, and the WebCT Quality Assessment Innovation Project for its support on this project. References The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. (Adopted 2003; revised 2006, January 1). Eligibility procedures and accreditation standards for business accreditation. Tampa, FL: AACSB International. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). (2003; Revised October 2005). Evaluative criteria for accreditation of education programs for the preparation of physical therapists. Alexandria, VA: CAPTE. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from =/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=19980 Finnegan, C., & Maier, T. (2005, May 10). Information technology and campus facility planning. (Research Bulletin, Issue 10). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. Retrieved February , from Maltz, L., DeBlois, P., & the Current Issues Committee. (2005). Trends in current issues, Y2K EDUCAUSE Quarterly 28(2), Retrieved February 21, 2006, from Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Middle States Commission on Higher Education. (2002; text revised July 2004). Characteristics of excellence in higher education: Eligibility requirements and standards for accreditation. Philadelphia, PA: MSCHE. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from 12

13 National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). (2002). Professional standards for the accreditation of schools, colleges, and departments of education. Washington, DC: NCATE. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission. (2005). Accreditation manual with interpretive guidelines by program type for post secondary and higher degree programs in nursing. New York: NLNAC. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutes of Higher Education. (2005). Standards for accreditation. Bedford, MA: NEASC. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from North Central Association of Colleges and Schools: The Higher Learning Commission. (2003). Institutional accreditation: An overview. Chicago: NCAHLE. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. (2003 Edition). Accreditation handbook. Redmond, WA: NWCCU. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from, Accreditation%20Handbook%202003%20Edition%20Updated%20September% 201% pdf Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges. (2004). Foundations for quality enhancement. Decatur, GA: SACSCOC. Retrieved February 15, 2006, from Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. (August 2005). WASC Accreditation reference handbook. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from Western Association of Schools and Colleges. (2001). Handbook of accreditation. Alameda, CA: WASC. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from Waits, T., & Lewis, L. (2003). Distance education at degree-granting postsecondary institutions: [NCES ]. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from 13

14 About the Author Catherine Finnegan is Director of Assessment and Public Information for the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. Copyright 2006 EDUCAUSE and Catherine Finnegan. All rights reserved. This ECAR research bulletin is proprietary and intended for use only by subscribers. Reproduction, or distribution of ECAR research bulletins to those not formally affiliated with the subscribing organization, is strictly prohibited unless prior permission is granted by EDUCAUSE and the author. 14

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