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Chris trials virtual academic accreditations

Now retired, Chris Guy is an Emeritus Professor of Electronic Engineering at the University of Reading. For 12 years he has been part of a panel of trained, expert IET accreditors who regularly review the content and delivery of HE establishments located around the world. Relevance, coherence, challenge, assessment, staffing, quality assurance and resources are all scrutinised during accreditation visits.

Collaborative approach

“COVID-19 had quite an impact on the panel’s plans,” said Chris. “Usually we each visit several academic institutions a year, but in March all our scheduled visits were cancelled in one fell swoop, for health and safety reasons.

“The Academic Accreditation Committee set up a small panel to talk about how best to respond to the changes brought by the pandemic, including how to continue with our accreditation work despite not being allowed to visit universities in person.” The Committee operates under the regulations of the Engineering Council and the IET was a major contributor to the Engineering Council guidance on accreditation matters during lockdown.

As an IET Academic Accreditor, Chris was involved in many of these discussions. He said: “When we accredit a university, the most important thing is how its programme maintains the learning outcomes. We all agreed that we could not compromise on that. Our task was to come up with new ways to assess and accredit HE institutions without actually doing a physical visit.”

Setting the ground rules

An academic accreditation visit usually involves up to four accreditors and an IET staff member. It has four central components:

  • A physical inspection of the facilities, to view the laboratories and talk to staff
  • A meeting with students to talk about their personal learning experience
  • A meeting with the industrial collaborators that support the students’ project work and advise on the curriculum
  • A final discussion with staff to address any outstanding queries and decide whether the university can deliver the learning outcomes.

Virtual accreditation visits were proposed as a viable alternative to physical visits, but the panel members were adamant that this approach was not suitable for universities applying for their first accreditation; it would be restricted to reaccreditations only.

“We recognised that the most difficult thing to replicate was the visit to the labs,” said Chris. “In my experience, it’s only by physically being there that you get an accurate feel for the place, because you can see the equipment up close and chat to the lab technicians about it. Even meeting staff in corridors can provide interesting insights that you just couldn’t get from a virtual visit.”

With the ground rules established, the ball was set rolling for trialling the new virtual accreditation process with a university-based outside the UK.

A new way of working

A considerable amount of preparation was required behind the scenes to make sure that the videoconferencing software would work as planned.

“We always give universities notice of any issues we plan to discuss and send them a list of questions a week before our visit,” said Chris. “But for this trial we decided to depart from normal practice by giving the department the opportunity to respond in writing, ahead of our virtual visit.

“This meant we were able to clear up a lot of straightforward issues quickly – for example, we wanted to know the proportion of full- and part-time students.”

Virtual visits – pros and cons

The virtual accreditation visit was carried out in July by Chris and Professor Phil Picton, along with IET International Accreditation Manager Lorna Hadfield. To accommodate the time difference between the UK and the university hosting the virtual visit, the meetings took place during four consecutive mornings.

Prior to the visit, the Panel had seen a pre-recorded video of the labs, produced by the university department, which the IET accreditation team reviewed and commented on. Next, the team was given a live remote tour of four or five labs and asked questions about the facilities. “We had a map to refer to and there was a member of staff on camera at each equipment location, ready to answer our questions,” said Chris.

“What we did was perfectly adequate for computer science equipment, especially as I had visited previously, but we didn’t get the same feel for the place as we would have got from a physical lab tour. I think it would be more complicated to view electronic engineering facilities virtually because the components are quite small.”

In the formal meeting with students, getting everyone to contribute was difficult. “Normally we would be able to use eye contact and body language to engage all the students in the conversation,” said Chris. “We couldn’t do that remotely, so the more articulate and confident students tended to dominate the responses. But our meeting with three industrialists was just as good as a face-to-face encounter.

“Talking to the staff members was easy because the department had allocated someone to respond to each issue. Based on that experience, I think it would be helpful in future to give the students and industrialists a list ahead of a virtual visit, detailing the IET’s questions and any issues we’d like to discuss.”

Chris, Phil and Lorna met up online immediately after each component of the visit, to tease out any concerns and make sure that all issues had been addressed and noted. “That worked really well,” said Chris. “But I think that’s partly because Phil and I know each other well, are very experienced accreditors and have complete trust in each other’s judgement. These factors definitely helped and should be a requirement of the visits going forward.

“On a personal level, I found it tricky to maintain concentration at times because we would break off every hour. I would return to domestic issues for a while before having to switch back into accreditation mode.  

“And it felt rather strange to be doing an accreditation visit in my shorts!”

Sarah Odong, Acting Academic Accreditation Manager, added: “Despite all the current challenges, it is encouraging that universities and colleges around the world continue to prioritise their IET accreditation.”

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