Peer Review for Quality

April 1, 2007
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Students in the Idaho State University (ISU) Geomatics Technology program complete restoration of public land surveying corners.



The academic discipline known as “geomatics,” “surveying and mapping” or just simply “surveying” has gradually emerged during the past 40 years as a distinct, free-standing area of study at U.S. universities. This academic identity matches the surveying profession’s emergence in other areas of professional identity, namely, state and national professional associations, licensure and regulation, public image, professional examinations, standards of practice and national accreditation of university programs. Distinct national accreditation represents a significant advance in the profession’s stature.

These accreditation advances have been accomplished through ABET Inc. (formerly the Accredi-tation Board for Engineering and Technology), the body responsible for accreditation of U.S. college and university programs for science, engineering, computing and technology. ABET has been a willing and active partner with the surveying profession in establishing alternative accreditation routes for surveying. This article summarizes ABET procedures and policies that aim to ensure the quality of academic programs serving the surveying and mapping profession.



The geomatics program at the Oregon Institute of Technology offers a broad curriculum of courses, including courses in GIS mapping.

ABET Goals Set and Met

Academic programs in each specialized academic discipline such as medicine, architecture, accountancy, business, etc. are accredited by recognized agencies that are established by the particular profession for that purpose. These agencies are recognized by an umbrella group named CHEA, the Council of Higher Education Accreditation. Most of these agencies are also recognized by the U. S. Department of Education.

An academic program has “stakeholders,” such as students, parents, university administration, faculty, graduates, employers, state legislatures that provide funding, professional societies and individual benefactors who financially support the program, licensing agencies and sources of scholarship support. Each of these groups seeks assurance that the academic program of interest has met a threshold of quality and that the program is continually improving. National accreditation is the process of providing that assurance of quality. ABET has evolved from the 1930s as the organization responsible for accreditation in engineering and related disciplines in the United States.

ABET’s goals are clear. When a program is ABET-accredited, stakeholders can be assured of the program’s quality, thereby relieving the stakeholders from performing extensive personal investigation in a subject matter (academic program quality) that few people can judge adequately.

To carry out this goal, ABET publishes and follows its vision and mission statements.

ABET Vision: ABET will provide world leadership in assuring quality and in stimulating innovation in applied science, computing, engineering and technology education.

ABET Mission: ABET serves the public through the promotion and advancement of education in applied science, computing, engineering and technology. ABET will:

• Accredit educational programs.

• Promote quality and innovation in education.

• Consult and assist in the development and advancement of education worldwide in a financially self-sustaining manner.

• Communicate with our constituencies and the public regarding activities and accomplishments.

• Anticipate and prepare for the changing environment and the future needs of constituencies.

• Manage the operations and resources to be effective and fiscally responsible.

ABET meets these goals through a process of peer review where each program is periodically subjected to a thorough review of quality by a visiting team of academic and professional peers. This team gathers factual information on the program; ABET then judges whether the program meets established ABET criteria, which are quality threshold statements that have been proposed by the professional societies through ABET. The criteria is a further example of peer review whereby professional peers determine what program features must be met for accreditation.



A student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark takes GPS observations in challenging weather conditions.

Does Accreditation Matter?

With accreditation, stakeholders are assured of a program’s quality. Without national accreditation, a program’s value is uncertain. Graduation from an ABET-accredited program is prominently placed on a graduate’s résumé. Thus, employers are guaranteed that applicants come from a quality institution. With a solid national accreditation process in place, licensing agencies can simply require that licensees be graduates of an accredited program to ensure protection of the public.

Students and parents can also be certain that their chosen school is peer recognized. Recognition from peers relates to many areas of human interaction. Peer respect is one of our strongest psychological motivating factors. Many who wish to financially support a program will not do so if there are any doubts about a program’s recognition or quality.

Further, university administrators do not want to continue offering a program without assurance of peer acceptance for quality. Faculty and program administrators invite accreditation for the purpose of having an outside opinion of academic quality and to bring issues to the direct attention of the top university administration so they can be addressed.

Perhaps the strongest support for national accreditation comes from simple questions asked of a non-accredited program: “You’re not accredited. Why not? What do you fear from an in-depth peer review? What are you hiding?” Going through a national accreditation definitely puts an end to such questions.

ABET has a long record of recognition for supplying assurance of quality. ABET is the only accreditation agency in the United States that covers surveying, engineering and related disciplines. As a result, ABET prints a brochure titled “Proud to Be an Accredited Program” (available at www.abet.org/Linked%20Documents-UPDATE/ProudPostersCombined.pdf). Schools routinely publish and advertise their ABET-accreditation as a quality feature.



The author works with a student from the University of Florida’s Geomatics Program.

The Future of Accreditation

ABET has been a leader among its peer accreditation agencies for a wave of innovation in accreditation--moving from “bean counting” to “outcomes-based” accreditation criteria. In the future, outcomes-based accreditation will become more visible in all areas of academia.

Prior to 2000, ABET, like other agencies, measured minimum criteria (a certain minimum semester credit hours of mathematics, minimum hours of science, etc.) in a curriculum. Of course, students could pass these courses and still not be able to apply math and science in their work. ABET recognized that “bean counting” was not as important as students’ outcomes, specifically, being able to successfully apply their university education to their professional work.

At present, ABET requires programs to identify stakeholders who help the program define measurable outcomes and objectives. The school must continuously poll its stakeholders and develop firm data that measures whether graduates are indeed meeting the program’s objectives. Likewise, the faculty must assure ABET that its graduates are meeting academic outcomes at the time of graduation. All of this measurement data is then presented to ABET reviewers at the next accreditation evaluation.

In addition, ABET requires continuous improvement during an ongoing cycle of measurement and response. This includes polling stakeholders for outcome measurements, new and revised outcomes and objective statements, and revising the academic curriculum in response to comments from stakeholders. These actions thereby continually improve program outcomes.

ABET’s Structure: Separate but Equal

ABET accredits surveying and mapping programs in three of its four commissions: the ASAC (Applied Science Accreditation Commission), the EAC (Engineering Accreditation Commis-sion) and the TAC (Technology Accreditation Commission). To date, there are no surveying and mapping programs in the CAC (Computing Accreditation Commission), though a surveying/GIS program could develop there.

Even though ABET accreditation actions take place in four different commissions, ABET has recently been attempting to create a “one ABET” view of its operations so that procedures and criteria are similar between commissions.

This is very clear in surveying. An ASAC program (such as a B.S. in surveying and mapping), EAC program (such as a B.S. in surveying engineering) and a TAC program (such as a B.S. in surveying engineering technology) are now considered equivalent by licensing boards. The choice of a commission depends on the school structure and internal state academic structures, not on the quality of the graduates.



Distance Education Options

Some surveying and mapping schools that rely heavily on distance education are ABET-accredited: Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colo., and Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich., for example. The accreditation process for these types of programs was streamlined by the transition to the outcome-based method. If a school can demonstrate outcomes in its graduates, then ABET is less concerned with how the program reaches those outcomes and objectives.

At this time, however, there is no accreditation for individual distance education courses or seminar offerings. Only an entire academic program is accredited by ABET.



Common Accreditation Problems

In the days of bean counting, programs struggled to reach standards that required a minimum of three full-time faculty and a minimum of math courses offered at the proper level. Today, with outcomes assessment, ABET programs struggle to measure and demonstrate that they meet their own stated objectives and outcomes. It is easy to state objectives that program graduates must perform in the workplace, but it’s not easy to measure and demonstrate that these objectives are being met. Additionally, certain academic outcomes, such as applying higher mathematics to the discipline’s subject matter, are not simple to measure and demonstrate. Therefore, most programs are making a large adjustment to this new accreditation environment, which is not easily done.



Tomorrow's Program Instructors

A big issue in surveying and mapping academic circles is where surveying and mapping instructors will come from in the future. As more and more universities initiate new programs and as more states pass laws requiring degrees, a large shortage of professors has developed.

This concern is coupled with the decline of PhD-granting surveying programs in the United States. In the 1970s, many programs at major universities also granted PhDs. However, the number of PhD-granting schools in surveying have declined, with only Purdue, Ohio State, University of Florida (Gainsville) and University of Maine (Orono) remaining.

Two approaches may possibly alleviate this shortage. Internationally, there are many institutions offering PhDs in surveying. Canada has several quality programs with significant student numbers, as do programs in Australia, Europe, the Far East, the Middle East and other areas. U.S. institutions must now hope to import faculty members with high degrees and then team up with the surveying profession here. This transition is indeed possible and has worked well.

Another approach to gaining qualified instructors for surveying and mapping programs is through distance delivery of university courses. The duplication of faculty expertise at each university program is unnecessary today. Instead, those with expertise in GIS, boundaries, photogrammetry, geodesy and other areas could easily produce distance courses that other schools could use. As long as each school has one or two faculty members with a solid background in surveying, many of the specialties could be met through a distance education consortium. This could lead to a “virtual university” for surveying topics.



Pride and Focus

Surveying and mapping education continues to advance, and ABET will continue to be the focus agency for quality assurance of its programs. The profession should take great pride in what it has accomplished to date while focusing on what areas still need attention.

For more information on ABET, click to www.pobonline.com and search for “ABET” or visit www.abet.org. At ABET’s website, search the list of programs by the curricular area of “Surveying and Geomatics” to find nationally accredited programs.

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