By Alvin P. Sanoff
new EC2000 standards make accreditation a long and arduous process. Just
ask George Mason University, which recently went through it.
Even under the
best of circumstances, preparing for an accreditation visit can be tedious,
time-consuming, and anxiety laden. Typically, before an accreditation
team arrives on a campus, mounds of data are pulled together, reports
are written, and innumerable planning meetings are held. All of this
takes place amid a sense of uncertainty about how the visit will turn
out. And when a new set of accreditation standards is being used, as
in the case of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology's
Engineering Criteria 2000, then the usual sense of uncertainty is multiplied
many times over and there is far more intensityand far greater
time involvedin preparing for the visit. Just ask the leadership
of the School of Information Technology and Engineering at George Mason
University in Fairfax, Virginia, which recently survived evaluation
under ABET's EC2000 standards.
About three years
ago, the leaders of the George Mason undergraduate engineering program
began to plan for the re-accreditation of the university's four
undergraduate programscivil and infrastructure, electrical, computer,
and systems engineering. The leadership faced a choice: Be evaluated
under existing accreditation standards, which were being phased out,
or be among the first to be evaluated using EC2000.
The old standards
were prescriptive, specifying the number of engineering faculty required
for each and every program and spelling out the amountand typeof
course work that was needed program by program. Many academics felt
this approach stifled curricular innovation. But whatever their shortcomings,
the standards were old hat to George Mason's leadership, who knew
what was required to meet them. By contrast, EC2000 was new and still
evolving. It emphasized measuring student outcomes and developing a
process for continuously improving an engineering program, and then
documenting how that continuous-improvement process was to be carried
out. Instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach, EC2000 left it
to institutions to define such essentials as what constitutes a successful
outcome. In devising a definition, institutions could take into account
such factors as the constituencies they serve and the mission of their
was welcome, but the outcomes-oriented approach created a vast amount
of uncertainty for George Mason. How do you measure outcomes when
you are talking about something other than a pure product? asks
William Sutton, associate chair of the Department of Electrical and
Computer Engineering. It is one thing to talk about two defects
per 10,000 cars, but trying to put a metric on knowledge is a real problem.
There are strong disagreements on what the standards of learning ought
Still, after careful
consideration, George Mason decided to be evaluated by EC2000. It
was a pragmatic decision, explains Sutton. The new criteria
are here regardless of how hard they are to interpret. We would have
had to go under EC2000 next time we were accredited, so why not now.
It is good to get early feedback to allow us to grow into the new criteria.
Once the decision
on EC2000 was made, the leaders of George Mason's engineering program
had to begin preparations for a visit by a five-member accreditation
team in the fall of 2000. It turned out to be a mammoth undertaking.
The four engineering programs each developed their own set of 11 or
12 expected outcomes for students. In electrical engineering, for example,
one expected outcome was an ability to identify, formulate, and
solve engineering problems. The electrical engineering program
listed the courses in which students receive relevant training and then
showed how performance on projects, assignments, and exams is used to
assess student knowledge and to determine whether specified outcomes
are being attained. Student performance was documented by collecting
examples of work. Input was also gathered from surveys of students and
alumni and discussions with members of the corporate community who hire
George Mason graduates.
Every single outcome
was dealt with in a different notebook. Faculty members also prepared
a separate assessment notebook for each course, which included suggestions
for improvement and documentation of the rationale behind each suggestion.
In the end, the electrical engineering program compiled 12 outcome
notebooks, 27 course notebooks, one executive summary, and one self-study
Each of George
Mason's other undergraduate programs took a comparable approach,
piling documentation atop documentation. The four programs collectively
compiled 50 outcome notebooks and dozens of course notebooks,
and this in a school that is relatively small with approximately 900
undergraduate engineering majors. The larger the school, the more
programs you have, the harder it is going to be, says Kathryn
Laskey, an associate professor who coordinated ABET preparation for
the systems engineering program.
It was an
undertaking that required an enormous amount of time and energy,
recalls Mark Houck, chair of George Mason's civil, environmental,
and infrastructure engineering program, who estimates that about one
fourth of his time over a two-year period was devoted to preparing for
the ABET accreditation. Laskey says that under the old ABET standards
you could grit your teeth, cram for a year, and pull things together.
But now you have to have records of decisions made that are based on
an assessment of outcomes. The record keeping is more strenuous. You
can't just say that you have added this course or changed that
as the preparation was, it would have been even more onerous if George
Mason did not already have in place industry advisory boards for every
undergraduate program. Each program could draw on the views of board
members to help document that graduates have the skills necessary to
meet the needs of employers, something that EC2000 is designed to foster.
By having these advisory boards, we were able to make a compelling
argument that we are meeting the needs of the community, says
Bernard White, associate dean of the School of Information Technology
and Engineering, who coordinated the EC2000 effort.
George Mason had
a leg up in at least one other respect: It already had in place a process
for continuous improvement, because it surveyed students and alumni
on a regular basis and used this feedback to modify courses so that
they could better achieve stated outcomes.
All of the hard
work seems to have paid off. Although George Mason officials could not
discuss the outcome of the accreditation visit, by all indications it
went well. Engineering faculty said that the accreditation team had
clearly taken the time to review the materials they had compiled. The
fact that each of the programs took a comparable approach to meeting
EC2000 undoubtedly made the assessment easier for the evaluation team
and likely served George Mason well. The key was to organize by
outcomes, not by courses, says Laskey.
programs at George Mason tend toward the nontraditional and, in that
respect, the flexibility of the new standards served the engineering
programs well. Civil engineering, for example, uses computers to simulate
the lab experience; there are no physical labs available to students.
Hands-on lab experience can be gained by working in the facilities of
the program's industrial partners. We don't pretend
to be a traditional program, says Houck, but because you
get to define your program you can have a novel program and do just
fine under the new criteria.
was an undertaking that required an enormous amount of time and energy,
recalls George Mason's Mark Houck, who estimates that about one fourth
of his time over a two-year period was devoted to preparing for the ABET
But the intensive
documentation called for by EC2000 and its requirement that programs
demonstrate a process of continuous improvement means that between now
and the next accreditation visit, which is expected in 2006, George
Mason faculty and administrators have to keep their nose to the accreditation
grindstone. Over the next five years, faculty members in each program
will continually assess student work in every course to see whether
it meets the outcomes established for that course. Annually, teams of
faculty will assess how well their particular program, for example,
electrical engineering, is meeting one half of the outcomes established
for that program. This means that at the end of each two-year cycle,
all the outcomes for a particular program will have been assessed. The
faculty teams will then provide feedback to course instructors and suggestions
to department leaders regarding possible changes needed to attain the
outcomes. George Mason also plans to continue obtaining feedback on
a systematic basis from seniors and alumni through surveys and from
employers via regular meetings and discussions.
There is no question
that EC2000 means a lot more work for all involved in preparing for
an accreditation visit. Laskey says ABET ought to take into account
the extra burden EC2000 places on faculty, without whose intense involvement
George Mason could not have met the new standards. Unless there
is a strong buy-in from the faculty the whole process will fall apart,
says Houck. To get that buy-in requires a strong commitment to EC2000
from the leadership of a school, which George Mason had.
Despite the extra
burdens, on balance the George Mason leadership views EC2000 as a step
forward and believes that the kinks will be worked out as ABET gains
experience with the new standards. While EC2000 still has shortcomings,
says Sutton, it has the potential to move us toward improvement
on a more consistent basis year to year.
P. Sanoff is a freelance writer and higher education consultant based
in suburban Washington, D.C.
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