Home Distance Education Distance Education Enrollment Continues to Experience Significant Growth
Distance Education Enrollment Continues to Experience Significant Growth

Distance Education Enrollment Continues to Experience Significant Growth


Interview with Dr. Leah K. Matthews, Executive Director, Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)

Tell us a little about the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC).

DEAC-accredited schools provide a broad range of educational offerings, from postsecondary certificates to doctoral degree programs. The missions vary as well; they may serve to introduce a student to a new field or offer a program to enhance the skills of an existing professional. Programs may be offered on an asynchronous purely remote-learning model or according to a synchronous, semester-based calendar using an online or hybrid model that entail both approaches. They may have completely open admissions, or they may practice a selective admissions process. The student population among DEAC-accredited schools is still more varied. The vast majority of these students are working adults, balancing family, financial, and other constraints, for whom the traditional models of education do not work or have not worked. Their goals in returning to school are equally varied. For some, it is to expand existing professional skills; for others, it is to prepare for an entry-level position; for still others, it is to complete degree requirements, to qualify for a promotion, or to dip their toe into a new field – or it is because they have always wanted to study the Great Books, complete a divinity degree, or gain new knowledge on health and wellness.

For all of them, the flexibility of learning models offered by DEAC-accredited schools provides them with an opportunity to extend their lives in ways that are otherwise not available to them because of money, time, or location.

For some, geography or other challenges make the distance learning model their only opportunity to access accredited educational programs.

DEAC offers a unique accreditation model that is an effective assessment structure for educational programs that are often student-paced, where interaction between student and instructor is primarily initiated by the student and is typically more limited both in scope and frequency than in a traditional setting or in a distance education program where interaction between students and faculty is regular and substantive, as required by the U.S. Department of Education for Title IV participation. DEAC implements standards for reviewing regular and substantive interactions for Title IV participating institutions, but it also values student-paced and/or asynchronous models that support an individualized learning process that is responsive to both the preferences and the real-life constraints of its student population. Therefore, some distance education schools seek accreditation from DEAC because its standards align well with their unique missions and highly individualized learning outcomes for students.

DEAC does course module reviews, referred to as Approved Quality Curriculum or AQC. Can you explain what this is and how it works?

AQC is designed to align with an external quality review system carried out by a network of higher education curriculum experts. DEAC created AQC in response to calls for quality assurance of non-institutional distance education providers, that is businesses that are not licensed as educational institutions within the state where they operate that offer distance education courses directly to students. Although it is not accreditation, AQC engages a peer review process that is designed to give distance education providers meaningful, relevant feedback that is consistent with the quality enhancement and improvement principles of accreditation. The DEAC’s AQC process mirrors DEAC’s standards for distance education curriculum. It focuses on the quality of curriculum and on the soundness of the curriculum’s distance education delivery system. AQC evaluation process affirms that educational objectives are clearly defined; the character, nature, quality, value, source of instruction, and educational services are set forth in a manner that is appropriate for the type of learner enrolled; the educational objectives are reasonably attainable through electronic means, online delivery, or other methods of distance study; the curriculum is sufficiently comprehensive for learners to achieve the stated educational objectives, is coherent in its content and sequencing, and is supported by sound research and practice; the curriculum is designed to require learners to engage in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as part of the course requirements; the curriculum reflects current knowledge and practice; instructional materials are sufficiently comprehensive to enable learners to achieve the announced program objectives; movement through the course is intuitive and logical, and a consistent layout design orients learners throughout the course; and examinations and other assessment techniques reflect current knowledge and practice.

A majority of your members do not participate in federal financial aid programs. How do your schools remain successful without having to rely on Title IV?

This aspect of DEAC is primarily attributed to the unique missions of DEAC institutions and the type of students that they serve. Some examples of institutions accredited by DEAC that do not utilize Title IV would include the Hadley Institute for the Blind, a non-profit school founded in 1920 which is the largest provider of distance education for blind and vision-impaired individuals and the largest educator of braille worldwide. Hadley currently serves more than 10,000 students annually both inside and outside the U.S. with low-cost courses and programs that offer flexible pathways in teaching and learning. DEAC also accredits the University of the People which offers tuition-free degree programs to help qualified students overcome personal, cultural geographic and similar barriers to higher education. The University of the People currently enrolls over 7,650 students in 194 countries and has academic partnerships with UC Berkeley, NYU, and Yale Law School and affiliations with UNESCO and Ashoka. To help carry out its mission, the institution receives financial support through a number of education foundations and philanthropic organizations. A third example is American Graduate University, an institution that provides graduate degree programs in areas such as contract management, project/program management, and supply chain management where students primarily receive tuition assistance through their employers.

What are some important trends that you are seeing in distance education?

Distance education enrollment within higher education continues to experience significant growth even when overall enrollment in higher education is shrinking. At its 2017 Annual Conference, DEAC received a presentation from the Digital Learning Compass on distance education enrollment trends on its analysis of data submitted to IPEDS by degree-granting institutions for 2012-2015.

The data showed that while total student enrollment in degree-granting programs decreased from 20,928,443 to 20,266,367 the number of enrollments in distance education increased from 5,425,406 to 6,022,105.

These trends show that a little over 30 percent of the overall degree program student body is enrolled in distance education. The breakdown of distance education enrollments by type of institution shows that the vast majority – 68 percent are enrolled in public universities, 18 percent are enrolled in private, non-profit institutions and 14 percent are enrolled in private for-profit institutions. Much more detail is available in the Digital Compass Report available at https://shar.es/1FjNGT and digitallearningcompass.org.

The increasing enrollment in distance education gives rise to other important trends and issues that the distance education community is addressing. These issues include digital accessibility, adaptive courseware, open educational resources, concerns about academic integrity, student authentication technologies, digital learning equity and, of course, regular and substantive interaction in Title IV participating distance education programs.

Are there successful education technologies that your members are using?

There is so much to choose from when considering education technologies; it can be overwhelming. These days, I am very interested in Lea(R)n and its LEARNPlatform that allows institutions to track the technology they are using. Lea(R)n is utilizing an impressive network of educators, administrators and organizations to focus on student outcomes. Through a process called IMPACT™ analysis, Lea(R)n integrates data from multiple sources (e.g., usage, achievement, pricing) to produce reports and dashboards on student engagement and product efficacy, providing insights on both the implementation and the effectiveness of educational interventions. I became acquainted with Lea(R)n through my work with the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) and I look forward to observing how Lea(R)n evolves to support effective teaching and learning in distance education.

With the recent OIG audit of Western Governors University, do you think it will have any impact on competency-based distance education? Should there be changes to HEA or how the Department of Education views competency-based education?

The OIG Report has certainly had a chilling effect on innovations in online competency-based education programs. The root issue rests with the statutory definition of distance education for purposes of participating in Title IV federal student financial aid programs; as such, it is currently defined as “…education that uses one or more technologies…to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the institution; and to support regular and substantive interaction between students and the instructor, synchronously and asynchronously.” This language was instituted as part of the 1992 HEA reauthorization to provide for a clear distinction between “correspondence schools” and “distance education.” This language needs a major overhaul to better address the needs of 21st century teaching and learning. Furthermore, it is time to discard outdated terms used to describe distance education technology (one-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, video cassettes, DVDs, and DC-ROMs). The distance education community needs to develop and agree upon language that reflects a variety of technologies in teaching and learning models that supports innovative delivery systems.

How do you think accreditation needs to change?

The past five years have seen a burgeoning in the field of distance education, as well as a justified winnowing out of some of its players. New technologies, 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 sector, from traditional brick-and-mortar establishments to pure distance learning schools to institutions that offer some combination of classroom and online learning. Accreditation must rise to the occasion of embracing changing, evolving new models of teaching and learning. Accreditation must be assertive in implementing changes to standards and procedures with the intention of being more effective and proactive, both as monitors of institutional quality and as leaders of institutional improvement, including enhanced requirements for data collection and analytics and a strengthening focus on the area of student outcomes. Accreditation is going to be held more accountable to the quality of education provided by accredited institutions.

Leah Matthews

DR. MATTHEWS has served as the Executive Director of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission since April 2013. She is active in the distance education community and currently serves as Chair of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) Steering Committee, as a board member of the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) and as a board member of the Presidents’ Forum. DEAC is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and the U.S. Department of Education.

Contact Information: Leah K. Matthews // Executive Director // Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) // 202-234-5100 Ext. 101 // leah.matthews@deac.org // www.deac.org // Twitter: @leahkmatthews


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