/ / / Q&A: Leah K. Matthews

Q&A: Leah K. Matthews

Q & A with Leah K. Matthews, Executive Director
Distance Education Accrediting Commission 

Leah Matthews began serving as the DEAC Executive Director on April 1, 2013. Matthews came to DEAC from her previous position as Vice President for Recognition Services at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), the national coordinating organization for higher education accrediting organizations. Matthews is currently serving an At-Large Member of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) and as a board member of the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA).

Prior to working with CHEA, Dr. Matthews served nearly 12 years on the staff of the Accrediting Commission for Career Schools and Colleges, of which for seven years she held a senior leadership position. Prior to joining ACCSC, Matthews worked for five years as a civilian based at the U.S. Army Japan Headquarters in Zama, Japan where she directed family support services and education programs for children and youth and where she directed the Army Family Action Plan advocating for post-secondary education opportunities for soldiers and families assigned to the U.S. Army Japan, Headquarters. Matthews earned a Bachelor of Arts in Music from Westminster College, New Wilmington, PA; a Master of Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma and a PhD in Education from George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.

Q: Thank you for joining MAE&T for another interview. We noticed that the organization you represent changed its name last year. Tell us about the rationale for the change of name.   

A: Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in another interview with MAE&T. Since we last talked, the organization changed its name on January 5, 2015 from the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) to the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) to reflect our broader strategic initiatives for quality assurance in the field of distance education and our expertise in driving the innovations needed to shape the future of education. The change of name to DEAC communicates a clear and consistent message about DEAC’s primary function in accreditation and its value to a stakeholder base that includes institutions, students, employers, non-traditional education providers, regulators, and trendsetters in distance education.

Q: How do you think distance education is changing and what do you think are some of the most pressing challenges? 

A: All forms of education, to include distance education, have become incredibly dependent on the integration of technology into teaching and learning. This is not going away. It is clear that distance education and online learning is a major focus of nearly every college and university in the United States. Modern learners are continually connected to new and evolving content that addresses their personal learning needs in ways unimagined just as recently as a year ago. Distance education is making more use of open educational resources (OER) that offer free educational material. There are dozens of repositories available to the public for re-use and re-formatting at no charge through resources such as Merlot and OpenStax. More than ever before, distance education is firmly established within the mainstream of higher education. The challenge is to try to imagine what is next for distance education and how to assure the quality of the teaching and learning. Although new technologies that integrate facets such as gamification and adaptive learning into the education experience are innovative and exciting, we must stay focused on what students are learning and on evidence that students are achieving learning outcomes.

Q: You stated above that distance education is “firmly established within the mainstream of higher education.” Upon what do you base this statement?

A: Data reported by institutions to the US Department of education proves this trend. Annually, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) provides detailed summaries and analysis of the distance education data reported to the U.S. Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System Fall Enrollment 2014 survey. IPEDS is a national survey of postsecondary institutions in the United States, which is conducted by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Educational Statistics. Based upon its analysis of the most recently available data, WCET reported that in fall 2014:

  • One-in-seven (14 percent) of all higher education students took all of their courses exclusively at a distance.
  • One-in-seven (14 percent) of all higher education students took some but not all of their courses at a distance.
  • More than one in four students (28 percent) enrolled in at least one of their courses at a distance in the fall of 2014.

WCET’s careful scrutiny of the data also reveals that distance education enrollments grew each year, even as overall higher education enrollments have declined. Clearly, distance education is imbedded within the U.S. system of higher education. If MAE&T readers are interested in learning more about distance education enrollment trends at U.S. institutions, I highly recommend they review the report at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies website:

Q: There is a lot of hype in both the media and in policy forums about competency based education. What do you think is driving the discussion?

A: Competency-based education has been around for a long time and while it once stood as a central feature of vocational education programs, it is now conflated with programs offered by distance education institutions. In an online learning environment, it certainly has the potential to reform higher education, it can increase the effectiveness of the education experience and reduce the amount of time needed to earn a degree. Competency based learning delivered via distance education centers around an academic model where the time it takes to demonstrate competencies varies but the expectations for learning outcomes are constant. Students acquire and demonstrate their knowledge through engaging in learning activities and experiences that align with programmatic outcomes. Learners earn credentials by demonstrating mastery through multiple forms of assessment, often at a pace determined by the learner. However, federal financial aid regulations present significant challenges to fully realizing the potential of competency based learning. The foundation of financial aid regulations holds time as constant (through credit hour allocation) whereas competency based education treats learning as constant and time as variable. Although institutions may offer competency-based education programs that are eligible for federal financial aid, they must map competencies back to time units (credit hours) if students are to receive financial aid.

Q: Are competency-based education opportunities a viable option for service members or veterans?

A: Certainly a competency-based education program can play to the strengths of an individual who has already refined critical skills, knowledge, theories, and abilities through learning and practical experiences gained through military service. Assessments measure an individual’s skills and abilities as well as their understanding of academic theory with an emphasis on practical knowledge. For example, a student studying web design may undergo an assessment that involves a redesign of a website to demonstrate knowledge of interactive best practices, rather than answer multiple-choice questions about effective web design strategies. Students in competency-based education programs are able to move more quickly through material where they have deep experience and slow down to focus on areas that are unfamiliar. Servicemembers and veterans who are interested in learning more about competency-based education programs should consider the Competency Based Education Network (C-BEN) at for a list of institutions that offer competency-based programs.

Q: So when you think about all of the different technologies that support student learning and achievement of competencies, what is your advice for how students can showcase the knowledge they gained in a digital world? This is particularly important for servicemembers and veterans who are anticipating a transition to a new career after completing their education goals.

A: I highly recommend the use of an electronic portfolio or “ePortfolio” in addition to the traditional resumé. ePortfolios are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to traditional paper-based portfolios because they can provide a means for assessment based on evidence of an individual’s growth over time and effort as compared to a list of test scores or an academic transcript. Evaluating the learner’s work using a variety of media such as projects, infographics, written work (a blog, for example), video interviews and other communications provide a view into the individual’s perspectives and capabilities in addition to their academic strengths. A longitudinal view of a learner’s experiences through the use of an ePortfolio presents a profile of accomplishment based on evidence and makes the learning more visible. Students can use free websites such as to organize their materials and then circulate their ePortfolio to a wide audience of potential employers.

Q: What are important factors servicemembers and veterans should consider when determining whether a distance education program is the right fit for achieving their education goals?

A: Choosing the right distance education institution is an extremely important decision. First and foremost, it is essential to confirm that the institution is accredited. There are many different accrediting organizations that are recognized for establishing and assuring quality standards for distance education. These accrediting agencies are listed by The US Department of Higher Education and The Council for Higher Education Accreditation. However, institutional accreditation for distance education is just one important aspect to consider. When potential students are seeking to obtain a credential that will lead to licensure or certification in a specific profession (such as nursing, veterinary technician, teaching, or information technology) it is vitally important to also confirm that the institution holds the appropriate programmatic accreditation status and that upon successful completion of the program the graduate may take the requisite licensure examination needed to enter the profession.

Q: What qualities make someone a good candidate for distance education?

A: It is important to understand that in the distance education environment, students have significant amounts of autonomy and responsibility for the learning experience. Students engage in learning in a digital networked culture that demands participatory learning and authentic engagement. Helping student servicemembers and veterans succeed means assuring that such students have the attitude and aptitude for distance education. Motivation is a key factor of success in distance education. This is an attribute that many servicemembers and veterans already possess; the challenge is to help them adapt the skills and attitude they have developed through their military service for use within a learning environment. To start, potential students should honestly assess their motivation by asking themselves “Do I have the self-discipline needed to avoid distractions, stay organized, and complete my assignments when the going gets tough?” Potential students should also honestly assess their technology preparedness and confidence. A growing number of people consume digital information as part of their daily lives, but engaging as a learner in a networked, digital culture requires a high level of technical aptitude. Being ready technologically requires more than just maintaining an up to date and functioning computer environment, a well-connected and reliable internet service provider, and posting pictures using social media. Potential students should honestly assess whether they possess the technical aptitude necessary to be successful in online learning. They should ask themselves “Do I use a computer, tablet, or smart phone as a normal part of everyday activities (i.e. communicating, networking, banking, information gathering, scheduling)?” and “Do I have at least a working knowledge of open, public, free-of-charge digital platforms frequently used as part of a digital learning environment (i.e. WordPress, TABS Explorer, Diigo, Twitter, or Google Hangouts)?” Many of today’s digital environments incorporate powerful connected learning spaces that require students to access resources and authentic audiences, express themselves through near-professional grade media, and make more immediate connections via hyperlinks and personal learning networks. If engaging in this kind of learning environment raises concern about the technical support needed to take full advantage of this kind of learning environment, and then carefully reconsider online learning.


Q: What are the benefits to distance education as compared to an on-campus education model?

A: Many of the benefits of distance education are already well-established; the convenience and flexibility are immensely appealing to individuals who are seeking a part-time option that is well suited to a busy life of full-time work, family obligations and other pressures. It is also important to consider that for post-traditional students, such as current servicemembers and veterans, a return to a college environment can be overwhelming. Distance education offers the same variety of options as does the on-ground campus setting. Programs of study available online cover the entire spectrum of disciplines, ranging from certification in an information technology field, to health sciences, to Juris doctorate degrees. Enrolling in a distance education program can also help to alleviate the challenges active duty servicemembers face related to geographic mobility, deployments, and other disruptions that interfere with their academic pursuits. A key word here is flexibility. Another key word is connections. More than ever, distance education is building communities of learners who are making connections between their work, research, and personal experiences in ways that are not often discussed in traditional classrooms but are attuned to the nuances of digital workflows. Experiencing diversified and powerful connections through distance education can prepare servicemembers and veterans to engage in a digital world with success and confidence.

Last modified on Thursday, 11 August 2016 00:43

Additional Info

  • Issue: 11
  • Volume: 6
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