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Take-Aways from the 2014 SACSCOC Annual Meeting

The 2014 SACSCOC Annual Meeting was held in Nashville, Tennessee, from December 6-9, 2014. Up to 4,500 attendees were from across the Southern Region and 1,100 of us were first-time attendees. Like other new attendees at the conference, I was learning about the national picture of higher education and issues specific to accreditation: reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, completion (graduation) rates, cost of higher education, transparency of student achievement data, and distance learning assessment.

In the Orientation for First-Time Attendees, Dr. Belle S. Wheelan, President, SACSCOC, kicked-off the first-timers’ meeting experience with a discussion of how the diminishing focus on access to higher education is being replaced with a “major push” on student success. People who at one time didn’t have to think about college now do because of the need to be educated in order to succeed in today’s technology-based work environments. The challenge for higher education is to successfully educate students who can move forward in the high-tech job market. Yet, the cost of higher education is still an issue, causing increasing student loan default rates due to students either not getting jobs or not choosing to pay back student loans.

With media reports focusing on the high unemployment rates of college graduates, the American public is now asking for student achievement data. The Federal Government, in response to public demands for data, is requiring higher education institutions to make student achievement numbers available online, and requiring committee reports on accreditation be made more transparent.

MOOCs and badges, distance education (DE), and partnerships with international institutions are still “out there and SACS must pay attention to the quality of these methods and organizations for learning.” The former were given some mention; however, more time was spent overviewing the need to ensure the quality of competency-based assessment. With more students not having to attend class because they have shown “competency” of a given subject, SACS has to verify that competency-based programs are the same as on-campus programs.

General Sessions

Three General Sessions (GS) were presented, one on each day of the conference. Margaret Spellings, President of the George Bush Foundation, gave her assessment of the current landscape and predictions of the policies ahead for education. And back by previous attendees’ popular demand, Dr. Bell Wheelan gave her annual state of the Commission address. What is most worthy of summarizing is the GS, Sounding the Right Notes: Relevance in a Time of Transition, presented by Microsoft Corporation’s National and Chief Technical Officer Cameron Evans. More engaging than Spellings, Evans talked about the journey of education transformation over the past 30 years, which was enveloped in Microsoft’s interest in education. The topic of the college-educated being underemployed or unemployed framed the talk, with an emphasis on the fact that four generations of people are now in the workplace, including Millennials. Those in higher education need to understand and remember that college and university degrees need to be relevant and useful to the real-world work culture. Graduating students who want to be successful in the work force need to have technical skills combined with cultural empathy, understanding the role of narrative/storytelling, and the ability to collaborate.

Focusing on students who will be enrolling in college in the next decade, Evans left the attendees to consider the following questions: How do you prepare students for what no one has seen before? Do we have a platform for learning that doesn’t require students to distinguish learning from play? Are we creating learning so students can be successful…experiences that are relevant and engaging with real problems right now? Are we teaching students who can create new knowledge versus just acquiring knowledge?

Concurrent Sessions

More than 160 concurrent sessions were scheduled during the meeting (not including pre-paid workshops). The following topics capture the many recurring themes that were presented during the meeting:

  • Assessment, accreditation, faculty qualifications and reporting
  • Faculty development programs impacting learning outcomes
  • Improving student success in high failure rate courses
  • Assessing student learning at the program level
  • Preparing for Compliance Certification
  • Preparing SACS reaffirmation visits
  • Roles and responsibilities of the accreditation liaisons
  • Data visualizations tools and reports
  • QEP – plans, rubrics, implementation, buy-in and much more
  • Substantive change – new program implementation

Relative to the number of concurrent sessions and common topics and subtopics presented, few touched on SACS Comprehensive Standards specific to course redesign, instructional technology and DE. Presenters who did discuss assessment in the context of instructional technology and DE focused on these themes and challenges:

  • Using QEP and course redesign to enhance student learning
  • Ways to engage and retain online learners
  • Assessing online instructor quality
  • Transforming teaching and learning using mobile technology
  • Course flipping techniques
  • Best practices for improving DE using the Sloan Consortium Quality Scorecard for the Administration of Online Education programs
  • Comprehensive Standard 3.13.4a – requiring institutions to review DE

Particularly worth mentioning are a small number of sessions that focused on ways to improve student success in online learning. These presentations placed emphasis on faculty development and instructor quality, whether via training or initial hiring. Representatives from a private college in Louisville, Kentucky, presented how they determined faculty success when teaching online. Effective online teaching was measured by the percentage of faculty participation in the course (announcements, feedback, participation in discussions, etc.).

Texas State University implemented the SLOAN Consortium Quality Scorecard for the Administration of online Education Programs, which is based on best practices and research with experts, to self-assess its DE programs. A team of faculty members and administrators worked on the assessment for nine months, from start to finish. Each team-member was assigned 6-16 indicators (75 total quality indicators), gathered evidence, documented and assigned ratings to the programs. The categories used for ratings were institutional support, technology support, course development and instructional design, course structure, teaching and learning, social and student engagement, faculty support, student support, and evaluation and assessment. Using the final scores and data evidence, recommendations were made for moving forward with DE programs. Attendees of this session were given the chance to try the scorecard themselves, matching a SACSCOC Expectation with a Quality Indicator. To date, Texas State implements 2-3 scorecard recommendations per year. Their efforts have led to revisions of some university policies specific to DE, improvements in faculty readiness to teach online, and ongoing SACSCOC compliance with policies and accreditation standards. Currently, and in the future, the university is requiring training and professional development for faculty teaching online, developing options for online faculty training, developing a system to document training of instructors which will include new models and self-certification, and develop a Best Practices Checklist for Online and Hybrid Courses.

In a group discussion session that promoted open dialogue between facilitators and the participants, topics related to accreditation or current issues in higher education were informally discussed. Representatives from Florida International University led a conversation titled, Simplifying the Assessment Process: Tools and Resources. Acknowledging that assessment is often viewed and felt as a “heavy burden,” the facilitators focused on the importance taking advantage of the latest tools and resources to help with the assessment process. Several resources were shared including online rubrics and resources for assessment methods to enhance the quality and efficiency of the process. In a post-conference email, the presenters provided links to additional online resources:

As mentioned above, the meeting was made up of a wide-variety of concurrent sessions with topics of interest to university administrators, support staff and faculty. Tracks were organized for attendees from universities offering undergraduate degrees and institutions offering undergraduate and graduate degrees. Take-away materials included a SACSCOC workshop, concurrent session, vendor and general session Program, and a CD containing (most) concurrent session presentations in PDF format. Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in borrowing the Program and/or CD.