Nursing accreditation visits may be headed online
How to be prepared for your first-ever virtual nursing accreditation visit
By Debbie Lyles, PhD, RN, CNE, and Ann Underwood Smith, PhD, MSN, RN, FNP, CNE
On March 17, in response to the global impact of COVID-19, another traditional fixture of higher education — the accreditation visit — saw a significant change occur. The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) decided that, temporarily, accreditation agencies could conduct visits virtually and provided guidance for doing so.
No one knows how long this unusual situation will last, but allowing for the flexibility of virtual visits will enable accrediting agencies to continue serving governing organizations, nursing programs, and students during the period of novel coronavirus interruption.
(Due to the unusual circumstances, the USDOE allowed the adoption of the virtual site visit policy without a public comment period.)
TAKING NURSING ACCREDITATION VIRTUAL
So will virtual accreditation visits differ from the in-person visits with which you may be familiar? Obviously, the format won’t be your customary experience of accreditation site visitors arriving on campus, groups of you sitting down in conference rooms, or leading your visitors on tours of your campuses, classrooms, or sim labs.
In fact, the accrediting agency will first use the USDOE guidelines to determine if your school is even eligible for a virtual visit. For example, it will check whether your school allows visitors on campus. Next, the agency will refer to the guidelines to decide whether the virtual visit will be full or partial and what the technology requirements will be.
Assuming your nursing accreditation agency decides your program is eligible and sets plans in motion for the visit to occur, you can take some specific actions to lessen the limitations of these virtual visits. Basically, you want to do your best to make your accreditation evaluators as comfortable and engaged as they would have been for an in-person experience. But you also need to be prepared for situations for which you wouldn’t have needed contingencies in the past.
We’ve put together some tips to help you make the most of your online accreditation encounter. To get your planning started:
- Visit your accreditation website ASAP (see links at the end of this article) to review the recommendations and prepare for the virtual visit.
- Anticipate meetings that are collaborative and interactive. Don’t expect to simply exchange emails or that evaluators will review documents offline. Instead, plan to participate in a synchronous (real-time) online meeting format.
- Expect to prepare for the accreditation visit with the same rigor, quality, and process that you would for an onsite visit.
- Assume the visit will be require a heavy reliance on technologies. You’ll want to ensure the review process is not compromised, communication is seamless, virtual tours are supported, and evidence can be reviewed easily.
- Do not record any portion of the visit, either by audio or video means.
Contact your IT department as early as possible when you learn that a virtual nursing accreditation visit will take place. Work with your IT department to check on whether your network’s infrastructure can accommodate accreditation agency review needs. Ask about:
- The best choice for a virtual-meeting platform
- How to ensure optimal audio and video capabilities
- Other group-conferencing requirements.
The faculty involved in the accreditation process may also need special support in preparing for the virtual visit. Despite some new experiences teaching online over the last few months, they may still feel uncomfortable with some of the technology.
Identify where faculty may need help, such as providing:
- Intensive IT support, including having help immediately available during the entire visit (much like the support faculty might require during an onsite visit)
- Experience with your virtual meeting platform
- Familiarity with best practices in virtual meetings.
Once you’ve identified areas of need, get to work with some “hands-on” preparation:
- Practice makes perfect, so practice, practice, practice with the technology you’ll be using.
- Organize mock group meetings.
- Rehearse how to share screens.
- Ask an external person to participate in previsit preparation to verify all technology works correctly.
PREPPING AN ONLINE DOCUMENT ROOM VS. BINDERS, FOLDERS, AND CRATES
Your preparation in the past may have relied on reams of printed copies of necessary documentation. But for your virtual visit, you won’t be able to rely on pulling documents from file cabinets or sending an aide to search storage facilities; you’ll need to have them available for easy virtual retrieval.
It’s likely, too, that your nursing accreditation agency will have a preferred format for virtual documents. So you’ll need to identify its requirements and ensure your documents:
- Follow preferred naming conventions. Make sure you label your digital files according to the standards identified in your agency’s guidelines.
- Can be accessed with ease. Once you’ve uploaded the documents to your version of an “online document room,” ask a team member to verify that all documents are accessible and no PDFs, for example, are corrupt or otherwise unable to be opened.
- Are protected. Much of your documentation may include sensitive information. So work with your administration, IT, and the Team Chair of your visit to determine how to safely and securely store necessary records.
You should also work with your Team Chair to determine how accreditors will review faculty and student files.
Speaking of your Team Chair, that individual will likely plan the agenda of your nursing accreditation experience with your program’s nurse administrator. He or she will need to ensure:
- All eligible participants have access to your records.
- Your clinical sites can successfully be toured in a virtual manner (if allowed by your agency) and that students are in clinical during that visit.
- Classroom observation can also be performed virtually (with the possibility of using taped classroom sessions for review).
OTHER CONSIDERATIONS FOR YOUR NURSING ACCREDITATION VIRTUAL VISIT
Just like you would prepare for an onsite visit, be prepared to:
- Explain how you maintained best practice during the transition to online education. (For example, be able to show that you’ve continued to link all activities and assignments to your student learning outcomes.)
- Provide access to all of your online courses, both those being offered during the accreditation team’s virtual visit, as well as those that took place during the COVID-19-era of spring/summer 2020 courses.
No matter how well you prepare, it’s possible your nursing accreditation agency may decide to follow up your virtual visit with an onsite one. These ensuing experiences may focus on:
- Areas of noncompliance
- Areas in which development is needed
- Areas the virtual team couldn’t review virtually, such as physical facilities and/or clinical sites.
To get the specifics on what your accrediting agency expects, visit its website:
- Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
- Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
- National League for Nursing Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation (NLN CNEA)