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Rethinking ABET Accreditation of Computer Science Degree Programs

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Curricular Issues in Computing and Information Technology Programs I

Tagged Division

Computing & Information Technology

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Paper Authors


Gene Lee Fisher Ph.D. California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

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Gene Fisher received a BS in Computer Science and a BA in Mathematics from the University of California Irvine in 1973. After several years in industry he returned to Irvine for his PhD, which he completed in 1985.

Currently Dr. Fisher is an emeritus professor in the Department of Computer Science at the California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo. He joined the Cal Poly faculty in 1990. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Professor at the University of California Davis from 1983 to 1989. His most significant industrial position was at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory where he was a software analyst and technical writer from 1975 through 1979.

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This paper examines a number of alternatives for improving the Computer Science accreditation process. The specific focus of the paper is on the accreditation process sponsored by ABET -- the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.

The paper’s author has over three decades of experience with the accreditation of Computer Science degree programs, with multiple accreditation agencies. The experience has been as a student, a faculty member, an administrator, and the program leader of a successful ABET accreditation effort. The views presented in the paper are based on this experience.

The paper considers alternatives for Computer Science accreditation on a four-level spectrum. The most radical alternative is to consider a Computer Science degree program with no ABET accreditation at all. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the ABET status quo, with a fully accredited degree program. At each alternative level of the spectrum, the paper discusses the pros and cons relevant to that level. Where appropriate, the paper makes concrete experience-based suggestions for how specific aspects of the accreditation process could be improved.

The first alternative for "improvement" to ABET accreditation is to eliminate it altogether. This approach is taken by a number of Computer Science departments, most notably Stanford University. At the Stanford Computer Science web site, they make the blunt statement that ABET accreditation "... has no practical significance whatsoever in computer science" [].

The second-level alternative for improvement entails substantial restructuring to the ABET accreditation process and requirements. This restructuring includes a fundamental change in how assessments are made and how they are reported to ABET. In particular, it would allow departments to present their own models of assessment and leave it to ABET evaluators to map a department's assessment standards onto ABET standards. In effect, this would mean that the burden of proof for a department to meet ABET standards would be met far more by the ABET evaluators and far less by the department, in marked contrast to how the current process operates.

The third-level alternative is to consider more modest and reasonably straightforward changes to the ABET process. These include reducing the volume of documentation required in ABET self-studies and improving the transparency of the ABET requirements. Also at this level are suggestions for improving the style of on-site ABET visits. Specifically, the visits could be structured more like a collaborative discussion between like-minded educators and less like a fault-finding audit.

The final alternative for improvement is to leave matters entirely up to ABET. The ABET organization does continually propose improvements, such as those currently under review for student outcome and curriculum criteria []. Based however on ABET's history, improvements such as those suggested for levels 1 through 3 above seem unlikely to originate from ABET.

Fisher, G. L. (2017, June), Rethinking ABET Accreditation of Computer Science Degree Programs Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28804

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