Virtual Accreditation Visits: What You Need to Know
The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. It’s hard to believe that was just over two months ago. How the world as we know it has changed in that short period of time.
At AACSB we had been closely following the unfolding situation and had already moved several accreditation visits to next year to ensure the safety of our volunteers. But we realized on March 11 that we would need to take bold and decisive action on the remainder of the accreditation visits for the 2019–20 academic year. That action included moving 38 continuous improvement review (CIR) visits and eight initial accreditation visits to 2020–21. Fifteen schools with CIR visits opted for a virtual visit. Needless to say, virtual accreditation visits are historically unconventional, and had been reserved primarily for unique emergency situations. But indeed, the current pandemic certainly qualifies as such a situation.
Twelve of those 15 CIR visits have now occurred, and schools and volunteers have been fantastic about sharing what they have learned. One of those schools is the John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University. The school’s dean, Mark Taylor, shares his perspective on opting in to a virtual visit:
WashU Olin is proud to be a pioneer in this area. With our outstanding international peer review team, we took the opportunity to innovate in the midst of challenging circumstances. By leveraging the technical and pedagogical talent of our staff and faculty, we welcomed important global perspectives from AACSB into the Olin community and provided a window into the work we’re doing to advance path-breaking research and world-class education.
In light of the continuing pandemic, AACSB’s accreditation leadership has determined that for the 2020–21 academic year, all CIR visits will be conducted virtually. We made this decision for several reasons. Importantly, this plan alleviates the anxiety and uncertainty of schools that have scrupulously prepared for their upcoming CIR visits. In most cases, peer review teams assigned to these schools have already been working closely with their host school to prepare for their visit, with dates set 12 to 18 months in advance of these visits.
We also know there is great financial stress in many of our schools due to COVID-19 and its impacts. Having a virtual visit allows a school to continue with their accreditation cycle, gain important consultative advice by their peers, and, additionally, avoid the travel costs associated with a face-to-face visit.
Given this perspective, the path of least disruption to the schools is to conduct these visits virtually. We have been in communication with all schools with CIR visits next year and are working closely with schools to ensure a high-quality experience.
To assist schools in preparing for a virtual CIR visit, we have prepared a guiding document that identifies both protocols (i.e., required by AACSB) and best practices (i.e., not required by AACSB, but recommended based on feedback from schools that have undergone the virtual CIR process). Below are some highlights of both protocols and best practices.
- Virtual CIR visits must include the same meetings that would have taken place in a face-to-face accreditation visit. Meetings with students as appropriate to the mission of the school are vitally important. If a representative group of students is not available, the CIR visit will be moved to another date. Likewise, the president and provost should be available to participate in the visit as would normally occur.
- Prior to the meeting, a digital “base” room should be established that contains the normal accreditation-related documents that would be available in a face-to-face visit, with access instructions communicated to the team. We recommend that the peer review team communicate what specific documents they would like to have available to ensure a smooth visit.
- The technology to be used (Skype, Zoom, etc.) should be facilitated and supported by the school. The school will set up all meetings in accordance with the agreed-upon agenda. The technology should be tested by the school and all peer review team members in advance of the virtual visit. An agreed-upon contingency plan should be in place in the event of technology failure.
- A virtual tour of the facilities should be included as part of the visit. This should include a live walking tour that can be supplemented by a prerecorded tour. The peer review team may request to view certain spaces such as labs, so the school should be prepared for requests to view space.
Best Practices Advice
Several volunteers provided additional perspective on how to ensure a smooth visit. Among our volunteers who have provided valuable feedback is Rosemary Amato, an accounting practitioner serving on a peer review team for a recent visit. She offers the following viewpoint:
After participating on a virtual visit, I realized that a peer review team can be very effective if the following things are in place: (1) everyone’s commitment to be on time so the agreed upon schedule is maintained, (2) sufficient bandwidth at everyone’s location to have productive video calls, (3) sufficient time between calls so everyone can have a break and get their thoughts summarized as well as be prepared for the next call, and (4) remembering to turn your audio off when listening. These may sound like simple reminders, but when you are in the midst of a virtual visit, they need to be embedded in your virtual visit “DNA.”
Adding to the advice for schools is Greg Whitwell, dean of the University of Sydney Business School, who took part in a recent virtual visit. He advises:
Where possible, try to ensure that the team members are in time zones that allow each member of the team to be present for the virtual meetings. This may require that you ask the host school to reschedule or shorten some of the meetings. Where this is not possible, make sure that the meetings are recorded so that the team member unable to be present can listen to the discussion prior to writing the report.
These are turbulent times, and we do not know whether virtual visits will one day become the norm. But this much is certain: unconventional times require unconventional thinking. We are fortunate to live in a time where technology provides a path forward in new and innovative ways. As Amato puts it, “We have the technology available to us now to be able to conduct a peer review team visit efficiently and effectively.” But she cautions, “Just be prepared by putting procedures in place before you start. I can tell you it does work!”
Please know that AACSB is here to support you and ensure that next year’s visits are the same high quality you’ve come to know and expect as an AACSB-accredited school. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to your staff liaison, or you can reach out to me personally with questions or concerns. Together we will make next year a great success.