Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

8 September 2015

Accreditation and Compliance Craziness

Clark @ 8:07 AM

A continued bane of my existence is the ongoing requirements that are put in place for a variety of things.  Two in particular are related and worth noting: accreditation and compliance.  The way they’re typically construed is barking mad, and we can (and need to) do better.

To start with accreditation. It sounds like a good thing: to make sure that someone issuing some sort of certification has in place the proper procedures.  And, done rightly, it would be. However, what we currently see is that, basically, the body says you have to take what the Subject Matter Expert (SME) says as the gospel. And this is problematic.

The root of the problem is that SMEs don’t have access to around 70% of what they do, as research at the University of Southern California’s Cognitive Technology group has documented. However, of course, they have access to all they ‘know’. So it’s easy for them to say what learners should know, but not what learners actually should be able to do.  And some experts are better than others at articulating this, but the process is opaque to this nuance.

So unless the certification process is willing to allow the issuing institution the flexibility to use a process to drill down into the actual ‘do’, you’re going to get knowledge-focused courses that don’t actually achieve important outcomes. You could do things like incorporating those who depend on the practitioners, and/or using a replicable and grounded process with SMEs that helps them work out what the core objectives need to be; meaningful ones, ala competencies. And a shoutout to Western Governors University for somehow being accredited using competencies!

Compliance is, arguably, worse.  Somehow, the amount of time you spend is the important determining factor. Not what you can do at the end, but instead that you’ve done something for an hour.  The notion that amount of time spent relates to ability at this level of granularity is outright maniacal.  Time would matter, differently for different folks, but you have to be doing the right thing, and there’s no stricture for that.   Instead, if you’ve been subjected to an hour of information, that somehow is going to change your behavior. As if.

Again, competencies would make sense.  Determine what you need them to be able to do, and then assess that. If it takes them 30 minutes, that’s OK. If it takes them 5 hours, well, it’s necessary to be compliant.

I’d like to be wrong, but I’ve seen personal instances of both of these, working with clients. I’d really like to find a point of leverage to address this.  How can we start having processes that obtain necessary skills, and then use those to determine ability, not time or arbitrary authority!  Where can we start to make this necessary change?


  1. Nice post, as always, but you give too much credit to SMEs when you say “they have access to all they ‘know’.” Attempts to build intelligent systems has shown how many facts everyone uses unconsciously. The more some fact is used, the less likely we are to articulate it.

    Like you, I am encouraged by the increasing acceptance of competency as an alternative to compliance (seat time) in accreditation. But we come back to content. What competency is being measured? Both Western Governors and the Florida Virtual School are competency-based but their curricula are still organized around knowledge areas not skills.

    Finally, can the point of leverage be anywhere else except employers, broadly construed? Get them to abandon assessments based on multiple-choice quizzes for more skill-based approaches. My vote is for scenario-based challenges with grades based on fine-grained analysis of deliverables and problem solving choices. Change the assessments employers accept and you change the schooling students seek.

    Comment by Chris Riesbeck — 9 September 2015 @ 11:02 AM

  2. Chris, good points as always. I still see SMEs saying “they need to know this and they need to know that” referring to knowledge (i.e. not “they need to be able to do this” ;). Yes, those curricula may well be structured around knowledge not skills (and the processes may not yet be quite systematic); perhaps I should point to XTOL instead. I think employers might be the point of leverage for accreditation, but not for compliance. The government is typically the determinant there, and employers aren’t going to shake it off. I do think that having employers involved in accreditation is part of the solution, e.g. the end market for the accreditation as well as the SMEs (and the cases where I’ve seen this work better, e.g. some vocational occasions, they have had employers determining the curricula). But the awareness of the barriers is still not widespread enough, I believe. Thanks very much for your feedback!

    Comment by Clark — 10 September 2015 @ 6:55 AM

  3. I am inspired by the increasing acceptance of ability as another to compliance (seat time) in enfranchisement. however we have a tendency to come to content.

    Comment by Theyagu — 11 September 2015 @ 6:16 AM

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