Gaining Accreditation for Your Online Course

You offer an online course and award certificates but they don’t really carry any weight until your program is accredited.

Certificates are great in online courses—and let me clear the air on one thing: you don’t need industry accreditation in order to offer them. People will still be happy to earn them and even print them off.

But what if you do want the certificate to mean something more?

Well, you have a couple options.

Before jumping into it, I must admit that my knowledge on the subject is only pertinent to how things work in the U.S., so it’s likely there will be some slight differences if you live in another country (though the differences are probably minor).

Accreditation Option One: Professional Development

When it comes to accreditation there are generally two ways you can go. You can choose the university route or the accredited professional development route. This can get confusing though since a professional development route can be offered by a university. But for simplicity, think of these as separate.

In the U.S. if you want a course to carry weight it has to be tied to a profession, and that profession often has sanctioning bodies. These are the folks that determine the number of approved CEUs (continuing education units) that a course is ‘worth’ towards maintaining a professional certification. This is relevant across many industries, like real estate, healthcare, finance, etc.

By way of example, here is one of the larger organizations that falls under that umbrella. Also, this one.

These are broad accrediting bodies, but you can also go directly to the source. For instance, the Association for Training & Development offers accredited online courses for instructional design/e-learning development. You could talk with these industry specific organizations to see what kind of criteria they have in place, and if you can eventually position your course to be recognized for some continuing education credits.

Accreditation Option Two: Partnering with a University

Partnering with universities is a bit different, however it’s not “one or the other”.

You could, for example, get accredited by the IACET (link above) and then use that to get your foot in the door with universities.

That said, something to consider when attempting to get a university recognize your course is that they are the ones in control. You will be subject to their market perception. It won’t be seen as very impressive if your course is recognized by a small, unrecognizable institution.

Also, the university route in the U.S. comes with a lot of red tape. In the U.S., legitimate online degree programs are accredited by agencies recognized by either the Department of Education or the nonprofit Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). So yeah… government stuff.

Now you know how to accredit, should you want to. But, that leads us to a bigger question: Should you?

5 Pros of Accreditation

  1. Add a 3rd party stamp of approval to your course. Accreditation is like a super referral. When someone outside your organization looks at your course and gives it their seal of approval, that’s a huge trust indicator for learners who are considering your course.
  2. Contribute to widely recognized career paths. Many people seek accreditation because they need it for professional reasons. Even someone who believes in your brand and in the quality of the course you’re offering may not make a purchase if they can’t claim it as part of their professional development.
  3. Charge premium for extra courses. Offering a course that is more widely accepted by other professional bodies gives you leverage to raise your course prices. If your learners are able to negotiate better jobs using your course, they should be willing to pay extra for it, too.
  4. Gain a competitive edge over your peers. Simply put, if you’re the only course in your competitive zone that’s accredited, that’s a pretty impressive feather in your cap.
  5. Draw on the marketing power of a prestigious brand. Finally, accreditation is not only a referral source among professional networks, it’s also a way to align your course with well-known institutions.

4 Cons of Accreditation

  1. Added bureaucracy and paper work. If accreditation were simple and straightforward, everyone would do it. For some instructors, the benefits to getting accredited simply aren’t enough to outweigh the hassle—and that’s fine! It doesn’t mean your course is worse than anyone else’s.
  2. Ongoing need to maintain accreditation. Accreditations don’t last forever. Courses need to be reviewed routinely to make sure they’re still living up to the standards of the accrediting institution. Maintaining accreditation is usually easier than earning it in the first place, but it’s still extra hoops to jump through.
  3. Needing to change your course to fit someone else’s standards. Accrediting bodies have certain rules and guidelines that they expect every course to meet if it is to gain their stamp of approval. You may have perfectly understandable reasons for not wanting to change your course to meet accrediting guidelines, and that’s fine.
  4. Potentially less freedom to innovate. One of the main reasons you may not want to work with an institution is if you’re experimenting with a new way to teach a skill. Instructional design isn’t a set field, and people are always trying new ways to help learners absorb material. If you want freedom to try new teaching methods, accreditation might not be for you.

To accredit or not to accredit? The choice is up to you.

Gaining accreditation for your online course isn’t always necessary. Yet, despite the hassle, it can be well-worth the effort. It can help increase your visibility and overall value if it does become accredited, and given how easy it is for anyone to create an online course, this is a perfect way to differentiate from your competition – not to mention add  a premium price to your offering.

Author

Justin Ferriman is the co-founder and CEO of LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by Fortune 500 companies, major universities, training organizations, and entrepreneurs worldwide for creating (and selling) their online courses. Let's Talk! | Twitter

16 Responses

  1. Hi Justin,

    Love these articles- so informative. Most LMS companies don’t put in the time you do to help us offer better courses, so thank you.

    We’ve thought about this one a lot, because it can increase sales. Our organization is accredited for professionals through the American Psychological Association and the Yoga Alliance. We used to be accredited for social workers, as well, but that got expensive. There’s a ton of record-keeping and rule-following and time involved, to say the least.

    Some organizations offer accreditation for a fee, though. One that does so for anything related to mental health is this one: http://www.academeca.com/rcs/index.htm.

    Thank you for all that you do!

    Bo

  2. Dear Justin,

    This is just an absolutely wonderful site offering a wealth of resources. Thanks for all that you do. It’s much appreciated.

    Sincerely,
    Laura Eleanor Silverstein
    Sarah Lawrence ’12
    Crime Analyst & Profiler

  3. Thank you for this introduction to accreditation. You have made it all very digestible! I’ve started looking around for my company which teaches English and other languages to children online as well as a training course and certification in online teaching (for the teachers!) We think this is a great course and have received a lot of positive feedback, so now we would really like to get this accredited. Do you have and suggestions in the educational sector for accreditation? Thank you in advance for your help and advise.

  4. I have the same question as Felicity. Do you have any suggestions for ways to gain accreditation in the education sector? I have several teachers wanting to break out on their own, but are being held up because their courses are not accredited. Your help would be greatly appreciated.

    1. I’m afraid I don’t have any more advice that would differ from the above and the necessity to follow the governing protocol for accreditation.

  5. Hi Justin,

    Thanks for sharing your advice! I was wondering if gaining accreditation for a program through a university would be much different in Canada? I know you said the US has a lot of red tape but do you have any advice on who to contact at universities, especially Canadian ones?

  6. I am putting together course involving many areas of life coaching, as well as Fitness and Nutrition. I have been considering accreditation, do you have any suggestions on where I might go for this field? Or would it be in my best interest to just offer the course with a Certificate of Completion with a disclaimer?

  7. It’s good information for beginners.
    My company provides online courses in Cyber Security. Courses are created by company and looking for any help in getting international or US accreditation for my courses.

    Thanks,

  8. Hi
    I have created a Level 3 History Diploma. What is the best start to get it accredited? I am in the UK.
    Thanks
    Kieran

  9. Hello Justin,

    I am an educator from Syria and a founder of an educational non-profit in Lebanon. I am currently working on developing digital courses for teachers training in Arabic. Where should I look for accreditating bodies?

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