Making virtual education a reality

ALBANY, N.Y. — ALBANY, N.Y. -- Software billionaire Michael Saylor surprised the higher-education community in March with an offer for free Ivy League-quality education for anyone, anywhere backed by a $100 million pledge to make it happen.

Mr. Saylor, the enthusiastic CEO of Micro- strategy in Vienna, Va., envisions a new online-only university featuring star-quality instructors and a stamp of excellence that would give graduates a level of learning and prestige typically associated with America's most respected universities.


His head-turning plan raised anew a debate that has percolated throughout academia since Jones International University last year became the first exclusively online college to receive regional accreditation.

If Mr. Saylor succeeds with his virtual university, the surest way to protect consumers and ensure the Ivy League-quality education Mr. Saylor has promised will be through accreditation.


But the outcry from many campus-based institutions has been loud on this issue, with traditionalists arguing that accreditation for computer-based schools threatens the integrity of higher education.

This is shortsighted. If distance learning institutions can survive the challenging accreditation process, they should not only be welcomed by the higher education community, but embraced.

Indeed, the higher-education community should demand that virtual institutions gain regional accreditation in order to protect its own reputation.

The regional accreditation process was developed to protect the public interest and encourage continuous improvement. Opponents of accreditation for these newer entrants into higher education seem to ignore reality.

Their opposition is based on a belief that virtual institutions reduce higher education to a collection of marketable commodities. They say that "real" learning takes place only within the confines of traditional campus-based classrooms.

Numerous studies indicate that education delivered at a distance, although different from traditional classroom-based instruction, achieves the same outcomes as the brick and mortar campus. Thomas L. Russell from North Carolina State University has compiled information on 355 research reports, summaries and papers that have reported the outcomes of different learning situations.

In his book, "No Measurable Difference" (1999), Mr. Russell wrote: "The good news is that these significant-difference studies provide substantial evidence that technology does not denigrate instruction. This fact opens doors to employing technologies to increase efficiencies, circumvent obstacles, bridge distances, and the like."

Virtual institutions are not new. Many exclusively virtual institutions, as well as those with traditional and virtual components have been accredited for decades. Many traditional schools have offered courses at a distance since the 19th century.


Dual-mode institutions are gaining popularity to the point that seven out of 10 colleges -- including Harvard and Stanford -- offer some form of distance learning, according to a March survey by Market Data Retrieval, a Dun & Bradstreet educational research company. Additionally, 34 percent of two- and four-year colleges offer degrees via computer, compared with 15 percent a year ago.

The rapid growth of virtual education demands uniform accreditation to assure quality across the broadening spectrum of higher education.

Admittedly, some virtual colleges will not have the proper quality and integrity. When this is the case, accreditation will be denied. The merit of the accreditation process is that deserving virtual colleges will benefit, as will an informed public that is able to select schools with the proper credentials.

Extending the quality standards of accreditation to any newly founded college or university that earns it will bring added strength through diversity to our industry. This will not diminish currently accredited traditional institutions, although it surely will disrupt the hegemony of their model.

It is essential that virtual colleges stand for accreditation. Nothing short of this will assure that the United States remains the global leader in higher education.

Paula E. Peinovich is vice president for academic affairs at Regents College in Albany, N.Y., the nation's largest virtual college with 83,000 graduates.