Virtual Site Visits – Lessons From Spring, Plans for Fall

Virtual Site Visits – Lessons From Spring, Plans for Fall

AAQEP accreditation reviews will continue to be entirely online for the remainder of 2020. The pandemic that brought a halt to on-site reviews in March continues to make travel a risky proposition, and we hope to eliminate the need to plan for multiple scenarios (we have enough of that in our lives at the moment!) by making the call now. 

Since March, AAQEP programs, reviewers, and staff have been making the most of this opportunity to innovate and learn what works in a new format until in-person site visits can resume. Thanks to the flexibility and responsiveness of everyone involved, all of the spring semester’s reviews successfully reached the finish line—even those that made the shift with little notice. 

I spoke with the leaders of three of these programs to learn how things went. All of them were glad to have been able to complete their accreditation on schedule, and all cited both advantages and disadvantages to a virtual site visit. 

Stakeholder interviews were one element that worked well over videoconference. “I think there was better participation, especially for interns, mentors, principals, and supervisors who would have had to come to campus,” said Kathy Angeletti, who headed the accreditation effort for two sets of programs at the University of Maryland, College Park. She said conducting such meetings virtually “was a much more efficient use of people’s time.”

Cheryl Stanley, who led the AAQEP bid at Westfield State University (MA), agreed the online format “allowed the team to interview a larger number of alums than would have been possible if done on campus; this also held true with P-12 partners/teachers.” She also noted the high attendance in group interviews actually had one disadvantage: not everyone who wanted to speak got the chance to do so.

Another advantage of virtual site visits is cost savings. Although institutions still pay the standard AAQEP site visit fee, which covers the same staff time and process supports regardless of the review modality, they save on costs by not paying for the hotel, meals, and transportation for an on-site team (and other participants). For Westfield State, Stanley said, the savings helped the institution offset budgetary stress related to the pandemic “yet continue with nationally accrediting its teacher education programs.”

Some elements of a conventional site visit don’t translate well to the virtual format. One common benefit of in-person reviews is their openness to serendipitous encounters outside of the planned agenda, such as from side conversations or a chance meeting with someone on campus. The online visit, in contrast, is less suited to spontaneity. 

“We couldn’t do the informal check-ins we’d normally do on site,” said Kate DaBoll-Lavoie, dean of the School of Education at Nazareth College (NY). She recommends at least holding an end-of-day phone call between the program head and team lead, “like you might stop by an office to say good night. It’s a nice way to signal we’re done for the day.”

DaBoll-Lavoie also noted the potential challenge of responding remotely to last-minute reviewer requests that might normally be handled on site, such as pulling together a sample student folder or other material that might not exist electronically—or that needs confidential treatment. She suggested giving advance thought to what documents reviewers might need to look at if they were on site, and how to make them available digitally—especially if you’re not in your campus office and might need help accessing digital records yourself.

Other advice these members offered for hosting virtual site visits:

  • When creating the visit schedule, build in plenty of breaks for the participants to step away from their computers. Add an end-of-day meeting for the team and program lead to discuss progress and any needed changes to the next day’s agenda.
  • Keep group interviews small—perhaps 15 or fewer participants.
  • Avoid sending too many emails to the people you’re inviting to participate in interviews or focus groups. Streamline communications, possibly sending the videoconference link through a calendar invitation, to help ensure they don’t lose track of their login information.
  • Work out roles for each meeting in advance, including who will be the host and cohost (important in case the host loses connection) and who can and can’t attend each meeting. Determine a protocol to follow in case the video platform or someone’s internet connection goes down. 
  • Assign one person on the team to monitor and admit people from the virtual waiting room to ensure each meeting progresses smoothly and the wait time for participants is minimized.
  • Have someone on call for tech support in case of problems with the meeting platform or with accessing institutional records (especially if you’re participating from home). 
  • Hold a brief virtual meeting just before the visit with the team lead, and perhaps the AAQEP liaison, to review plans and test the system.
  • Have meeting participants log in 5-10 minutes early so meetings can start punctually and maximize discussion time. Consider posting your institution’s logo or other recognizable image to the waiting room screen to reassure participants that they are in the right place.

Staff are preparing new guidance for this fall’s review teams and programs based on these and other lessons from the spring semester—with input from reviewers as well as host institutions.

Thanks to everyone who carried out the virtual reviews and contributed to these lessons for the fall!

Leave a Reply

Close Menu