Online Schools Accreditation

Schools across America are moving toward online education because it opens up new ways of learning for students. In the national Speak-Up Survey for 2013, two-thirds of teachers stated they were currently using online curriculum, tools, and resources in some type of blended learning arrangement. Thirty-seven percent of principals reported offering online classes in addition to face-to-face instruction. One-third of parents were supportive of their schools increasing the use of online instruction. There was a positive 10-percentage-point difference for students who said they enjoyed their studies online as compared with those studying in a brick-and-mortar-school.

This is not an educational fad. Students and families choose online learning for its flexibility, safety, ability to meet learning differences, and varied course offerings. Online learning can grant them more control of the educational environment or a much-needed change of pace; it is changing the nature of education. Accreditation will have a significant role in shaping what constitutes quality programs (Connections Academy 2013).  

Online learning is defined as instruction that is delivered to a student (1) wholly or partially through electronic means via text, audio, video, CD, DVD, telephone, or Internet, (2) synchronously or asynchronously, (3) in a structured course with assignments and assessments, for credit, (4) under the guidance of a qualified instructor. Accreditation standards and indicators for online learning differ from those for traditional learning in the specific areas considered as schools develop online instruction and in how those indicators are demonstrated. The poor reputation of "diploma mill" schools will call into question the ability of reputable schools to offer quality online education. Reports such as the U.S. Department of Education's "Evidence of Quality in Distance Education Programs Drawn from Interviews with the Accreditation Community" warn that online programs will be less than effective when faculty attempt to convert traditional instruction to online courses. They suggest the course must be truly reenvisioned for a new medium and should be equivalent, not identical, in instructional activities. Unique standards and indicators for online programs will help schools determine if they are using truly effective educational strategies and have appropriate conditions for online education.  

Accreditation also matters when considering the legal use of educational materials in online instruction. The Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act allows the fair use of educational materials to be extended to accredited, nonprofit online schools, provided the school has a published policy regarding copyrights and a training program for faculty, staff, and students (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, Zvacek 2012). This permission does not extend to unaccredited schools.  

Online education and the opportunity to deliver truly personalized learning calls for new ways to evaluate education. In order to assist online and blended programs in Christian schools, ACSI has developed the ACSI Accreditation Protocol for Online Learning. During the 2015-16 school year, several schools throughout the United States piloted this new protocol, which can be used three different ways:  

  1. ACSI accredited schools use a subset of indicators focusing on the online components of a program.
  2. Schools accredited by a secular agency use a subset of indicators focusing on the spiritual formation and biblical foundations of the program.
  3. Schools for which the ACSI document will be the primary accreditation protocol use all indicators; other secular agency documents may be added as secondary documents for dual accreditation.

Currently, ACSI accredits two 100% online schools, NorthStar Academy and Liberty University Online Academy, and two additional 100% online schools are in candidacy. There are also several schools that have used the protocol to accredit portions of their programs that are online or blended.  

For more information about the online accreditation protocol, or membership in ACSI for online schools, contact accreditation@acsi.org.  

Adapted from:

Wilcox, E. 2015. "Protocol for Online/Blended School Programs." CSE: A Magazine for Christian School Educators (19) 2: 37.     

References

Connections Academy. 2013. "Why Families Choose Online School." http://www. connectionsacademy.com/blog/posts/2013-08-02/Why-Families-Choose-Online- School.aspx.  

Simonson, Michael, Sharon Smaldino, Michael Albright, Susan Zvacek. 2012. Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education, Fifth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.