Thursday, October 4, 2012

Flipped Accreditation?

Is it time to consider “flipping” the accreditation process? I have some specific ideas about what it means to “flip” accreditation, and how an alternative accreditation process will support innovation, but first I will opine on why the flip is needed.

At an event in Washington DC this week participants were asked, “How are accreditors being a roadblock to innovation?” I’d argue that accreditors can’t help but be a roadblock. The organizational culture and operational process of today’s accreditation agencies is at odds with innovative learning models of education and competency-based credentialing.

Current accreditation processes are self-described using terms like "self-reflection" and "peer review". It is employees of traditional institutions reviewing their own organization and others like it.  They exist as a self-serving barrier to entry keeping out the ‘Riff Raff.’ To their credit, accreditors have served a valuable function in separating legitimate institutions of learning from diploma mills. Unfortunately, for students and employers though the culture and process of accreditation is a barrier to competition. Innovative new institutions that might offer better models for education don’t fit the mold for which the accreditation process was designed, and with which peer reviewers are comfortable.

One aspect of a flipped accreditation process would be a more granular understanding of what learning takes place at an institution. In the U.S., accreditation generally is to the institution. Many non-U.S. accreditation processes take it to the next level, the course of study. I think we can do better than that. I think we can identify the specific sets of competencies that are important for a particular credential and then evaluate whether or not the institution is teaching those competencies, and if there is evidence that students who receive the credential have leaned those competencies.

What is Flipped Accreditation?

I envision flipped accreditation as a market-driven process.  Rather than an accreditation system designed by academia for academia, let the future employees of an institution’s graduates also have a say. Industry groups or specific employers can say what competencies (skills, knowledge, methods of inquiry, habits of practice) are most important to them, and the accreditation process can measure the extent to which institutions graduate individuals with that minimum set of competencies. The minimum set of competencies would also include general competencies needed to be productive citizens regardless of industry/degree.

This market-driven perspective need not constrain the breadth and variety of academic programs in non-industrial-related areas of study. Stakeholders that will be the intended beneficiaries of the graduate’s future productivity, regardless of field or profession, might give input into what should be learned for the related degree or certificate. For example, for a fine art degree, why not let the best artists, designers, museum curators, art collectors, dealers, and art educators all provide input on what is important for an artist to learn and develop. There could even be multiple accreditations validating the same degree based on values of each group’s perspective.

 I envision new entities taking on the role of flipped accreditation providers, supported by key industries, while the traditional accreditors continue to accredit traditional institutions.  Market demand will eventually drive traditional institutions toward competency-based design of degree programs and seeking the additional accreditation based on the flipped model.

Rather than self-reflection and peer review, let the evaluation be based on evidence that the program of study prepares students with the competencies valued by the job market that they will enter. Rather than a labor-intensive peer review of the institution, evaluate if the program is teaching what is important and if students that graduate have learned what is important. Let the data validate if the certificate or degree is aligned with market priorities.

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