ASEE Prism Magazine - October 2001

 

 

Teaching Toolbox

Under the Magnifying Glass

- By Alvin P. Sanoff

The 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 intensity—and far greater time involved—in 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 programs—civil 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 amount—and type—of 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 parent institution.

This flexibility 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 to be.”

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.”

 

Getting Ready

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 report.

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 one.”

As time-consuming 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.

The engineering 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.”

 

It Never Ends

“It 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 accreditation.

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.”

Alvin P. Sanoff is a freelance writer and higher education consultant based in suburban Washington, D.C.


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