Exclusive Interview With Mr. Michael Lambert, Executive Director, Distance Education and Training Council

February 26, 2012

The process of accreditation has been the subject of analysis and controversy in academic quarters as well as in the press in recent times. I thought that an interview with Mr. Michael Lambert, Executive Director of Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) at this time would clarify recent developments and provide some important guidelines on how to navigate the changing terrain of quality assessment and accreditation. Mr. Lambert’s remarks in response to my questions reflect his 40 years of experience and leadership in the field. I am sure you will find them extremely interesting and useful.

Farhad (Fred) Saba, Ph. D.
Found and Editor

Mr. Michael Lambert, Executive Director, Distance Education and Training Council (DETC)


Dr. Saba: Mr. Lambert, you have been a leader in the field for as long as I remember. Would you please tell us how you became involved in distance education, and how your original work in the US Army transitioned into your current leadership position?

Mr. Lambert: My first encounter with the distance education method of learning was as a young 2nd Lieutenant in the Army, at my first duty station at the U.S. Army Quartermaster School in Fort Lee, Virginia in 1970. The QM School had, in that era, become famous in the Army education system for pioneering new ways of creating correspondence study course materials. The Army had been teaching by correspondence study—we called it nonresident instruction—since 1912, when a course by mail in logistics was offered at the Philadelphia Army Depot.
The QM School was breaking down complex curricula into modular units we called SLABS—Sub-Lesson Assignment Booklets. Each SLAB was  20-30 pages and it covered one or two specific skills or topics, and had an objective, computer scored examination at the back. The Instructional Systems Development  –or ISD–method was the breakthrough for us in those days. It was a nearly fool-proof way to present distance study to a vast audience scattered around the globe. It was a “plug and play” method that capitalized on what some might call “granular training objects” today.

The Army taught me just about everything I needed to know in creating world class distance study curriculum, from how to write a learning objective, to how to write an examination item to how to “build the teacher into the text.” I learn the art of distance study curriculum design from experts who knew what they were doing.

We made use of self-check quizzes, programmed instruction, and a wide variety of testing methods to ensure learner mastery of the stated outcomes for each SLAB. It all tied together nicely. We used the team approach, much like the approach the British Open University had been using in the 1960s, in creating curriculum.

We had writers, subject experts, test item specialists, graphic artists, photographers, etc. who built each SLAB,  and then the SLABS were used interchangeably in dozens of different programs. It was an early use of modularization of instruction. And it worked beautifully.

When I left the Army, I came to Washington to join the staff of what was then called the National Home Study Council, a federally recognized accrediting association that had been around since 1926. NHSC changed its name in 1994 to the Distance Education and Training Council or DETC. I have been with DETC since 1972 and have loved working in the field of distance learning ever since.

I sometimes think with the rush to use published, off the shelf textbooks as the core content providers in today’s online learning, we have lost the art of creating texts that “sing to the student” and maximize the distance learners engagement with the material. Today’s $250 textbooks are fine, but they do not even approach the level of what we had been achieving in terms of learner involvement in those Army correspondence study booklets of 40 years ago!

Dr. Saba: Distance education is a growing field. Very often, entrepreneurs who are contemplating the process of accreditation for their newly minted schools ask me why they should choose DETC for reviewing their programs and courses. How would you answer that question?

Mr. Lambert: Quite simply put, DETC has the most experience, 57 years and counting,  in going about the accreditation of online institutions today. It has the most relevant and targeted standards for online institutions, and has the best cadre of volunteer peer group evaluators who conduct site reviews.
Make no mistake: DETC standards are very high, in fact, its Business Standards are some of the most stringent and rigorous of any accrediting association today.

If I had to provide a single reason for seeking DETC accreditation, it would be that earning it—which is not easy—is a solid indicator of high quality and a great assurance for institutional success going forward. Most institutions seem to flourish almost immediately after gaining DETC accreditation.
DETC’s recent video history, The American Way To Learn, tells the DETC story best.

For more than a century, DETC institutions have been leaders in the field of distance education.  DETC accreditation:

  • provides a reliable indicator of institution quality for counselors, employers, educators, governmental officials, and the public.
  • is an expression of confidence in the educational program, the policies, and the procedures of the institution by its peers—a lasting source of pride to the institution.
  • is an external source of stimulation to improve services, programs, and staff through periodic self-studies and evaluations by an outside agency.
  • is an assurance of high standards and educational quality through the institution’s adherence to established criteria, policies, and standards.
  • brings the institution recognition through the extension of special status by several states under their legislation and regulations, as well as recognition given by federal, state, and local agencies in referring students to accredited institutions
  • enables the institution to qualify to participate in the voluntary education tuition assistance program administered by the Defense Activity on Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) for most of the U.S. military services.
  • by federal law, provides eligibility for certain benefits. For example, only accredited distance education institutions are eligible to participate in the Montgomery and Post-9/11 G.I. Bills and, as mentioned above, the DANTES tuition assistance program. DETC degree-awarding “distance education” (as defined under Federal law) institutions are eligible to apply the U.S. Department of Education to participate in the Title IV federal student aid programs.
  • provides a unique professional development opportunity for the institution’s staff members to serve on accrediting examining committees visiting other institutions

Dr. Saba: News that is reflected in Distance-Educator.com indicate that we are in a new era for distance education accreditation. How do you characterize this phase? What are some of the key trends from your perspective?

Mr. Lambert: There is no question that voluntary, non -governmental accreditation has entered a new era, one that is vastly different from what went before us.

Today, because of the more than $175 billion the Federal Government is making available to students and institutions, the age of “compliance” with laws and regulations is here to stay

We ask ourselves: “Are we cops on the beat, or consultants? Or both?”

It is no longer enough to have generic academic standards and general peer group assessments of institutions. We now live in an age of documenting that we are achieving measurable outcomes. We live in an age of transparency and open sharing of what was once proprietary information.

The key trends are:

  • Compliance with law and regulation are paramount
  • Highly prescriptive regulations controlling the most minute aspects of education practice, e.g., the assignment of credit hours
  • The rise of State Regulators, who want to make online institutions register with them even when the institution has no physical presence in their state
  • Demands for more accountability from institutions, e.g., placement rates, graduation rates and other output indicators
  • And, there is no longer implicit trust in accreditation by government. Each accrediting body must document 100% compliance with every Federal regulation today.

Dr. Saba: Now, let’s look at the other side of the coin; that is looking at these trends and new developments from the perspective of established institutions. What are your top five recommendations to them in terms of navigating these new trends?

Mr. Lambert: I would offer these suggestions as my top five recommendations for navigating the rocky shoals of today

  1. Create and support a compliance officer or rules and regulation “Czar” to manage the complex job of keeping in tune with regulatory changes.
  2. Establish an external affairs office for online learning specifically to deal with State, Federal, and Accrediting Officials
  3. Establish an Ombudsman to keep a handle on student complaints—the Internet and particularly social media have made it possible for unhappy campers to take their gripes to the world in an instant!
  4. Continuously be investigating and testing and adapting to the new technology. Have a Technology Plan that looks no more than one year out.
  5. Attend trade fairs, subscribe to the techie magazines and create a Skunk Works that is given a budget to experiment, and even fail. Staying on the cutting edge of Learning Management Software is probably the top job.
  6. Finally, listen to your students! Survey them continuously, have focus groups, empower them to make suggestions for changes, get a student advisory council going and launch Alumni Groups around the country. Our graduates are the best PR Ambassadors we can ever have. Tap their energy

Dr. Saba: Looking into the future, what is your thinking about how quality assessment and accreditation is going to evolve in the next 5 to 10 years?

Mr. Lambert: I hope that the pendulum will swing back from the current obsession with outcomes data. I hope that we can back to some semblance of sanity when it comes to the true and original role of accreditation: identifying quality institutions and stimulating institutional self-improvement.

In the next 5 years, I suspect we will see the continued ascendancy of Federal involvement in higher education, more controls and more rules being placed on accrediting bodies by the government, more demands for disclosures of outcomes data, and a more demands for higher levels of achievement by students.

Accreditors and institutions will need to adapt to this new age of transparency and accountability. There is just too much Federal money on the table for government not to want some level of accountability for it, and as a taxpayer, I cheer the push for accountability of my tax dollars.

Wither the future of voluntary accreditation?

I think it will survive and become reborn. It is not a perfect system of quality assurance by any means, but it is the best system we have.  It will continue to meet the needs of  future generations of students.

And in my view, the true measure of the worth of any accrediting body is not the reflected glow from the long-ago established  reputations of the institutions that are accredited by them, but in how the accrediting association itself  made a difference in helping transform a modest institution into a great one. What “value add”  did the accreditor bring to the t institutions? What differences did the accreditor make in helping touch the lives of students? Not how famous are the colleges in our region.

We know that Americans will always want to attend accredited institutions, and we know that they want to  send their children to accredited institutions.

Accrediting associations will evolve and step up to meet the new demands being placed on them. There is no other option.

Dr. Saba: Thank you for sharing this valuable information with us. I am sure our readers will find this interview very informative valuable for their practice.

Mr. Michael P. Lambert earned a Bachelor of Science in English Education and a Master of Arts in English Literature from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a Master of Business Administration from George Mason University, and a Certificate in English History from the University of Cambridge

Mr. Lambert’s contributions to distance education began in 1970 as a Lieutenant responsible for distance study course development at the United States Army Quartermaster School in Fort Lee, Virginia. Upon completion of service with the United States Army Reserve, Mr. Lambert joined the National Home Study Council (NHSC) in 1972 as an accrediting program coordinator and was promoted to Assistant Director in 1976 and Associate Director in 1987. In 1992, Mr. Lambert was elected Executive Director at NHSC. In 1994, under Mr. Lambert’s leadership, the National Home Study Council, founded in 1926, changed its name to the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), which has accredited many distance learning institutions and educated more than 135 million Americans. Since assuming the role of Executive Director at DETC, Mr. Lambert has facilitated many significant strides for the Council and distance learning.

Through the years, Mr. Lambert has served on more than four hundred fifty accreditation review committees in eight countries. Mr. Lambert is nationally and internationally regarded as a top expert in the area of voluntary accreditation and is considered to be a key national leader and technical expert in distance learning. Not only has Mr. Lambert opened up various avenues for distance learning, but he has always focused on the needs of the student. He is “passionate about consumer protection,” which allows students and individuals involved with DETC to expect the highest standards from the organization and its accredited institutions.

Mr. Lambert has authored and co-authored more than five dozen publications and is widely published in academic journals. He has addressed audiences in the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, England, Ireland, Germany, Norway, Scotland, and South Africa. He is frequently called upon to consult with federal, state, and foreign governments, universities, corporations, and trade associations about distance education. His writing, speaking, and consulting have shaped national debate defining quality in distance education.

Additionally, Mr. Lambert serves on various advisory boards, including the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) Committee on Recognition, the CHEA International Commission, the American Council on Education (ACE) Commission on Lifelong Learning, and Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC), where he is the current chair. Mr. Lambert’s awards include the United States Army Commendation Medal, the DETC Distinguished Recognition Award, the DETC Distinguished Service Award, the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Distinguished Alumnus Award, and the European Association for Distance Learning’s “Roll of Honour” for his lifetime contributions to the field.

Visit the  Distance Education and Training Council Website