Friday, January 31, 2014

Open Letter to Middle States Commission on Higher Education

Middle States, one of the major higher education accrediting bodies, is seeking feedback on a new set of Characteristics for Excellence [pdf] in Higher Education. They have a survey which is open for comment but only until the end of today (1/31/14) so I encourage everyone to read the draft and submit feedback. For reference, it may help to read the previous Characteristics of Excellence though they're a lot longer and more convoluted, IMHO.


Accrediting standards for libraries should be more rigorous, certainly not entirely absent.
Also, stop making assumptions about why students attend higher education institutions.

Below are the survey questions and my responses to them.

5. Provide any general comments on the draft of the Characteristics of Excellence (MSCHE accreditation standards):

There's a glaring lack of consideration for libraries, information literacy, and library services in the draft. Specific weaknesses will be addressed in the answers below.
I do want to say that I appreciate the authors' focus on brevity. Whatever my complaints below, this draft is far easier to read, understand, and reason about. This is not only due to its conciseness but also due to the reduced redundancies: no longer must one constantly cross-reference between standards when investigating a single topic, such as assessment of student learning outcomes. It is commendable that this was clearly a focus of the authors.

There is a reason that every higher education institution in America has a library in some form or another, but if institutions were held to these draft standards a library would be an unnecessary expense. Hopefully in my following answers it will become clear why higher education institutions have always had and continue to need libraries.

6. Provide specific comments about the ability of the revised accreditation standards to honor the diversity of institutional mission:

This passage from Standard IV makes assumptions about the reasons why students attend institutions: "the successful achievement of students’ educational goals including degree completion, transfer to other institutions, and post-completion placement". While those are only examples, they reduce education entirely to credentialing (degrees) and job placement. This neglects civic duties like preparing students to be informed, critical, and engaged citizens but also many other educational missions (lifelong learning, job promotion, understanding others, bettering one's self, curiosity, entertainment even). Really, it should either read "the successful achievement of students’ educational goals" with no examples that make damaging assumptions about why students attend the institutions that they do or encompass a far broader range of educational missions. Isn't it enough that institutions support students' goals, not what they think students' goals should be?

7. Provide specific comments regarding the ability of the revised accreditation standards to measure and demonstrate academic rigor and institutional quality:

Standard III #5 which outlines a general education program does not include information literacy, which was covered in the past standards. I would hardly call education which doesn't include information literacy rigorous or quality. While the draft's authors perhaps think that critical analysis and technological competency encompass information literacy, the discipline exceeds those two in places. For instance, critical reasoning does not cover efficiently accessing information, incorporating it into one's knowledge base, employing it to accomplish a specific purpose, or understanding its surrounding ethical/legal/technical issues in the same way that, say, the Association of College and Research Libraries' information literacy standards do. If anything, information literacy is a prerequisite for any critical analysis and more worthy of inclusion. It would be difficult to critically analyze sources when staying within the prescribed arena of assigned readings and one's own filter bubble online, for instance, yet the draft standards do not assure that students will have the means of identifying, seeking, and finding information outside of those areas. Similarly, technological competence doesn't extend to retrieving documents from information systems or ethical inquiry into the innate bias of different technologies and how that bias shapes the availability of information. To mention filter bubbles again, one can be perfectly "competent" at Google searching without realizing that it serves different results to different users depending on a variety of factors such as geographic location, gender, and the web browser being used.

Libraries also provide access to scholarly resources. With no institutional obligation to provide a library to its students, the quality of information available to students cannot be validated. Even if instructors were excellent and the student experience sublime, the scholarly materials available would be lacking. While an increasing amount of academic material is available freely on the web, the vast majority of scholarly literature is still locked in subscription databases. Furthermore, academic information on the web is scattered, difficult to find, and hidden amongst sources of more dubious quality. Couple that with the fact that you have not required that students be information literate and there is simply no hope that they will learn to read and use high-quality information, an effect that in turn reduces institutional quality. Finally, librarians are trained and strive to provide information from multiple paradigms. Without them, academia becomes an exercise in confirmation bias; there's no assurance that students or even faculty will seek out, or have available to them, alternate points of views.

Probably for the reasons outlined above, many other major higher education associations recognize information literacy as a key competency, e.g.:
AACU "LEAP" Essential Learning Outcomes:
New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, Standard 4 "The Academic Program"

8. Please provide specific comments related to the ability of the revised accreditation standards to measure the quality of the student experience - both within and outside of the classroom:

Standard IV #6 mentions review of student support services "designed, delivered, or assessed by third-party providers" but does not apply the same to in-house services. Apparently only outsourced services need to be of sufficient quality? Or is the implication that support services should not be developed locally?

Further, libraries are essential to student experience and go completely unmentioned in the draft. Libraries provide space for study, whether in collaborative groups or in quiet isolation, as well as territories for intellectual exploration. These territories are increasingly digital; do not picture simply a student roaming tall shelves filled with volumes, but also browsing interactive digital archives that serve both to sustain cultural memory and stimulate curiosity. What's more, many libraries are engaged in creative endeavors that involve facilitating student production of various artifacts, whether those be videos, podcasts, publications both print and online, or artifacts produced by three-dimensional printers.

It is not merely that libraries go mentioned which is disconcerting, but that Middle States has never sufficiently assessed libraries. I am currently in the middle of a self-study and am personally disappointed at how meek the library requirements are. The standards seem to ask "Do you have a library? If so, check yes." They do not ask that library services be responsive to student needs and assessed for their efficacy. Holding libraries to the very low standard of mere existence damages both the profession of librarianship and higher education at large. If anything, rather than excising all mention of libraries from the Characteristics, your organization should seek more substantive demonstrations of value from libraries.

9. Please provide specific comments related to the ability of the revised accreditation standards to maintain a focus on continuous improvement while demonstrating meaningful institutional outcomes:

(I had nothing to say here, plus was rambling too much elsewhere, so left it blank)

10. Please provide specific comments related to the ability of the revised accreditation standards to encourage and support innovation:

While I see nothing in the standards that specifically encourages innovation, I see much that limits it. Specifically, commitments to specific planning, documentation, and reporting structures limit the agility of institutions, particularly small ones. Innovation is given lip service in Standard III #2 subsection d, which is shared with professional development. If it's so important that you ask for feedback in this survey, perhaps it deserves more prominent focus in the Characteristics.

One improvement might be recognizing the role that failure plays in innovative organizations. Language is powerful and an accrediting body actually acknowledging that failure can be a learning and growing experience would be of immense benefit to higher education. Accreditation has traditionally been a punitive exercise; do something wrong and you are warned or lose accreditation. What if you reframed it as a process that rewards experimentation? Experiments often do not work out, but if results are shared properly then they prevent others from making the same mistakes and increase the likelihood that future efforts will succeed. Encourage effort and sharing as opposed to punishing failure.

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