Online competency ed is on the rise

Online “competency-based education” (CBE) is a faster, cheaper, more flexible way for adults to earn college credentials valued by employers. It’s coming on strong.

“CBE lets students progress at their own pace,” I write on Open Standard. “They may watch mini-lectures, read, work through exercises, chat with virtual classmates, consult with a faculty mentor – or apply what they’ve already learned on the job, in the military or through independent study.”

“The idea of divorcing learning from seat time – rewarding people for mastery – has radical implications,” said Julian Alssid, chief workforce strategist at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America.

To earn credit, students demonstrate mastery of a “learning objective” by taking quizzes and tests, writing papers or completing a project. Those who haven’t fully mastered a competency don’t get a B or a C. They keep trying until they learn it.

Almost all online CBE programs target working adults. That’s a large group: Some 37 million Americans, nearly a quarter of the workforce, tried college but dropped out before earning a degree. They don’t have the skills – or the sheepskin – to move up to better jobs. Another six million are trying to earn a living with only a high school diploma.

“Online competency-based education is revolutionary because it marks . . . the right learning model, the right technologies, the right customers, and the right business model,” wrote Clayton Christensen and Michelle Weise in Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution.

Western Governors University, the pioneer, is helping community colleges set up online CBE programs. The University of Wisconsin, Northern Arizona University and dozens of other institutions have jumped in. The University of Michigan just announced its first online CBE program, which is aimed at health professionals.

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