Compliance Or Learning: What’s Accreditation For?

It must be accreditation season. This spring I served on two regional accreditation teams (one for WASC, one for NWCCU) as a peer reviewer. Wait – did you say peer reviewer???


Hear that students of mine? Peer Review! Yep – just like we do in our class, this process asks us reviewers to use criteria (“standards”) to assess how well we think an institution is doing based on their self-assessment report (called a “self-study”), interviews with lots and lots of people (including students), and direct evidence (such as meeting minutes, syllabi, catalogs, etc.) And you all thought I came up with peer review as a way to lighten my paper-reading load. NOPE – it’s about learning with and from others.


First, let me share with you a few fun facts about serving on an accreditation team. For one thing, you get to travel to beautiful and exotic places. For my first visit, this was my office:

For the second, this:

(Ok, ok. I took those pictures while on accreditation visits, but I really didn’t get to hang out and work right there, in the midst of that beauty. Well, except for the top one. I really did write half the report looking at that view. But of course, that’s not always the case. To be fair, I’ve heard colleagues talk about writing accreditation reports from truck stops and Denny’s restaurants.)

Serving on a peer review team is a fabulous learning experience. I learned not only from the institutions I visited, but also from my teammates. I have new ideas and strategies to bring back to my institution, and a new set of colleagues in my network. When serving on a team, you get to know other folks from other institutions who are serving with you, and because you may be tackling tough problems together in a condensed period of time (often working together into the wee hours of the night), you tend to get to know each other pretty well. In both cases this spring, I developed neat collaborative relationships with the team members, and many of us still keep in touch.

The peer review part of accreditation can present learning opportunities for an institution’s students too. A student at one institution covered the accreditation visit by writing two stories for her campus newspaper to help her fellow students know what was happening. The first was a “hey, they’re coming” story, and the second was a “hey, I had lunch with them” story. Read them here:

University makes progress with accreditation renewal

Food for thought: Accreditation luncheon

Finally, if institutions are amenable to constructive feedback (as we all should be) and if they see the process as one of genuine self-reflection and assessment in order to keep doing what works and change what doesn’t, they learn and improve too. To be clear: the reports are not easy to write or put together; looking in the mirror and calling attention to your flaws isn’t exactly a party (though you also get to call attention to your beauty marks, and identifying those can be rewarding). My own institution is a great example of the learning and improvements that can come from the process.  We have made huge improvements in how we educate and serve students since our last accreditation visit as a result of our self-assessment and feedback from peers about our practices. And it’s all good because it’s all learning.

All in all, accreditation sometimes gets a bad rap because it’s tangled into real and legitimate issues of compliance, accountability, and in some cases fear. A recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education makes a compelling point for why faculty should get involved accordingly:

But it’s time for college and university faculty to start paying attention to this seemingly dry issue. Further, it’s time they joined the effort by administrators and accreditors to resist the government’s increasing intrusion into accreditation. That intrusion endangers both academic freedom and the unique American system of separation of the academy from the state.

Ultimately, if we really want to improve higher education, and if we want opportunities for learning and developing networks with others, participating in a regional accreditation process can be a great way to do so. If anything, through our participation and engagement, we can help accreditation be focused on learning and improvement for everyone, including regional accrediting agencies themselves.


Planning Your Learning Visit

I recently wrote about the great benefits I am getting from learning visits — as visitor and visitee (is that a word? Well, you know what I mean). A few colleagues who read that piece have since had some questions for me, mostly about logistics. So I thought I would jot down some tips for planning a learning visit.


The first step, of course, is to identify what you want to learn. What would the learning outcomes of a visit be? Surely you will learn stuff you didn’t know you wanted to learn too, but if you can identify a focus for yourself and your institution, proposing a visit and the visit itself will be a lot more focused.

For example, for my recent visit to a university in SoCal, I identified these focus areas and shared them with my colleague there:

  • What you are doing with Liberal Arts assessment, specifically using the VALUE rubrics and your institution’s core revision process?
  • What the librarians are doing with their assessment work?  (You’d mentioned that they were using SAILS – I’m wondering if it would be possible to meet with them to learn more about how they are doing assessment?)
  • A sense of how the Assessment Committee(s) work — their structure, charge, participants, etc.
  • More about your Program Review processes and outcomes
  • Your role in building the culture of evidence / assessment

This list helped her know who to set up meetings with and what materials I might be interested in seeing. (Indeed, it was a rather large list, but in all fairness, I was coming from out of town and only had one day to meet with them. I was trying to be comprehensive.)


In my experience, there are two main types of learning visits:

1) Problem-based: This kind of visit is intended to help you work on a problem you or your institution has. For example, I arranged a phone visit for myself and 3 colleagues from my university to talk with a person at another institution in Chicago about how they manage the assessment of student learning in an outcomes-based liberal arts curriculum; this was a very real problem for us at the time. (Turns out it was for them too!)

2) Topic-based:  This kind of visit is more focused on a specific shared topic, such as “general education learning outcomes” or “facilitating internships.”  A while back, I set up a session with a person using the Mahara ePortfolio system at a different institution because we wanted to explore this system and see it in action. We used a web-based desktop sharing system and the phone, and she kindly took us on a 45-minute tour of how they are using Mahara ePortfolios. Nice!


Figuring out where and with whom to visit per your desired learning outcomes is likely the next step. Here are some ideas for how to do so:

1) Look to your local network. Are there colleagues with similar job responsibilities at institutions near you? Do you know anyone at an institution near you that can connect you? Do any of your current colleagues have connections at these institutions that they could leverage for you?

2) Look to your distant network. Have you connected with folks at conferences that you can reconnect with? Even if you can’t visit physically, with the phone, Skype, or with other technologies you can visit virtually. I have a “coffee date” about once a term with a colleague from another institution across the country who I met at a conference; we both get a cup of coffee and talk on the phone for about an hour, and just learn from each other.

3) Look to your virtual network. If you use LinkedIn or Twitter, search for and follow people who are in similar roles or who have identified projects they are working on that are similar to yours. This is how I connected with the Mahara ePortfolio person; I had learned a lot from her by just following her on Twitter, and then when my colleagues and I were ready, I sent her a message with a few questions. From this initial conversation came the idea to have a short virtual meeting in which she took us on a tour.


First, make contact and make a simple initial proposal. It might look something like this:

Hi there – My colleague XX shared with me your contact information because I am interested in learning about what you are doing with blah blah blah at your university; we are trying to implement this at my university as well, and I wonder if we might be able to set up a time to chat briefly about what is working and what’s not. Maybe we can learn some strategies from each other. Etc etc etc …

As demonstrated here, a proposal for a visit might be more compelling if you identify what you can bring to the table. What will be in the visit for them? What might you be able to contribute to the conversation?

Also, start small. You don’t need to visit for a whole day. Maybe you just begin with a short phone conversation, or maybe (if you’re close) you meet for lunch.

Finally, I think it’s useful to learn with others, as a team. If you can, take a colleague or two from your institution with you, or invite them to the phone / Skype conversation. Propose the person you’re meeting with do the same. The more the merrier!


After the visit, assess your learning. Did you achieve your learning outcomes? If not, what might be next steps? What additional questions were raised for you, or what other resources should you explore? Likewise, was the person / institution you met with interested in learning more and continuing the conversation? If so, then maybe you all set up another learning visit with each other.


In the spirit of academic integrity,1) don’t take and just start using what is not yours and 2) give credit where credit is due. We all adopt and adapt ideas and materials all the time in higher education; if you want to borrow something from someone you’ve visited, ask permission and then attribute it. There may be nothing more irksome than being visited and sharing a rubric, for example, and not knowing the visitor adopted it or re-purposed it.

Happy visiting – learn lots!

Meeting The Challenge With Learning Visits

The good folks over at the University of Venus began a networking challenge this fall. I never got around to actually signing up for it, but I thought it was a great idea and I intended to participate. Their challenge consisted of doing one of the following:

  • Go interdisciplinary
  • Go international
  • Go outside your institution
  • Go to a neighboring institution
  • Go to your local community

What a great way to broaden my perspectives and learn new things, and bring back good ideas to my own institution; what a neat form of professional development; and except for “go international,” many of these things I would be able do with low impact on my to-do list and relatively low-cost to me or my institution.

But then I realized that I already do this kind of stuff all the time. These kinds of activities have been integral to my own scholarship for a long time now (if you subscribe to Boyer’s definition of scholarship, which I do). Perhaps these kinds of activities might be defined as networking activities (as University of Venus does) or could even be considered some funny form of academic tourism, but I prefer to think of them as I have experienced them: learning visits.

Learning Visits, Not Academic Tourism

Let me share some recent examples. I will begin, first, with an experience of being visited:

Several months ago, colleagues from an institution similar to mine (but way across the country) contacted me about coming to my campus for a learning visit. I had met a few of these good folks at a conference a year before; we had a healthy exchange of ideas then and had remained loosely in touch. Their institution was planning to take a team of folks to three universities in the Pacific Northwest, just to learn. They came and spent a day with us, learning from and sharing with several folks on my campus.  It turned into a learning exchange within a learning community. Indeed, we asked as many questions of them as they did us, and we learned as much from them as I hope they learned from us.

Since then, one of the members of that visiting team and I have had virtual coffee dates to continue to discuss shared challenges and opportunities (mostly about assessment, but also about implementing liberal arts programs as well as working with adult learners in higher education). To continue our shared learning, next week several of us are visiting again (though this time virtually) to talk about Prior Learning Assessment. And we are visiting with each other just to learn: What’s working and why? What’s not? What ideas might we come up with to improve our programs and our students’ experiences?

This past Friday I completed a learning visit of my own to a university in Southern California (and my university will host them in a learning visit this coming week). This was actually one of the assignments for the WASC Assessment Leadership Academy in which I am participating, but it was a great excuse to spend the good part of a day at another institution learning about what they are doing with assessment and how they are building their teaching/learning/assessment culture. I met with folks from a few academic areas, student services, and institutional research, and also learned how their cross-college assessment committee supports this important work at their institution. I learned about their progress, and their challenges. The visit gave me several ideas for strategies and tools I might bring back to my institution (with adaptations of course), and it also confirmed some of the work we are already doing. I learned.

I am learning so much from these learning visits that I am planning more. With colleagues from our Assessment Program, I am planning a learning visit to a local college to explore their experiential learning simulations lab and think about how such teaching/assessment systems might apply to other disciplines. With a colleague from our Service Program, I am planning to visit another local university to learn about their service-learning program.

I have taken the challenge to heart, and I intend to keep doing so.  I think learning visits might be unique opportunities to higher education (perhaps I am incorrect, but I can hardly imagine car or technology companies doing “learning visits” with other car or technology companies). I also think they just might help all of us get better. If higher education is about learning — our students’ learning and our own — then learning visits are one relatively simple way we can achieve great learning outcomes.