Competency pilot produces first graduates

An experiment in online competency-based education has its first graduate, reports Inside Higher Ed. Less than 100 days after enrolling,  Zach Sherman, a 21-year-old sanitation worker in Ohio, earned a self-paced associate degree from College for America. Four others also have completed degrees.

Southern New Hampshire University launched the college in January

It is one of three institutions now offering “direct assessment” academic tracks, which are not based on the credit hour standard. That means students can control how fast they move through the program’s task-oriented homework, assignments and assessments. There are no formal instructors at the college — only academic coaches and reviewers who determine if students have mastered each task by checking each assignment and sending them back to students for more work until they demonstrate competency.

Sherman works nights at a ConAgra Foods plant that makes Slim Jim snack meats, usually working a 56-hour week. In three months, he earned the equivalent of 60 credits by mastering 120 competencies. In one month, he averaged 30 hours a week on schoolwork.

Most of College for America’s 500 students are enrolled through partnerships with employers such as ConAgra, Anthem, FedEx and the City of Memphis.

Sherman took vocational classes in high school, earned a diploma and enrolled in the local Edison Community College. But he quit after a year because he was “working crazy hours” at ConAgra.

When pressed, Sherman also says the traditional college classroom experience was underwhelming. His faculty and coursework at Edison were good, he says. But going to class reminded him of elementary school.

“I don’t necessarily like that sit-down format,” he says. “It felt like we were robots at times.”

Sherman has applied to be a sanitation supervisor job at the plant. His associate degree is “going to help me move up,” he believes.  “They’re really big on degrees.”

Sherman’s couldn’t transfer his community college credits to College of America’s program, which isn’t based on credit hours. But students can “use their knowledge and learning from previously taken college courses to more quickly demonstrate competencies,” explains Inside Higher Ed. If a graduate wants to go for a higher degree, the associate degree can be “translated” into course equivalencies.

Tuition was free for the first cohort. The next group will pay $2,500 a year and will be eligible for college aid, employer-paid tuition subsidies and Pell Grants.

College for America is a learning revolution that will help fill the job skills gap, writes Julian Alssid.


Khan offers self-paced, online remedial help

Self-paced online courses backed by data analytics could help community colleges get students up to speed, said Khan Academy founder Salman Khan at the San Francisco convention of the American Association of Community Colleges. “About six million people around the world watch Khan’s free online tutorials each month, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed.

Khan thinks his nonprofit website can help community colleges, which he said are in the academy’s “sweet spot.” And he views community colleges as potential allies rather than competition.

“We’d love to work with any of you,” said Khan, apparently broaching the suggestion for the first time.

Free online courseware could help remedial students advance at their own pace, Khan said.

AACC leaders talked with Khan about collaborations, said Walter G. Bumphus, the association’s president. “It’s going to be good for community colleges and good for AACC,” Bumphus said.

Many conference sessions focused on using online courses — massive and otherwise — to serve more students, Fain writes. Some community colleges are creating their own online tutorials, often geared to remedial students.

In Louisiana, Bossier Parish Community College offers free, online study guides that teach grammar, skill by skill. Students can prepare for placement tests or brush up on the basics while taking college-level courses.

North Carolina’s Wake Tech Community College is using a Gates Foundation grant to create a massive open online course (MOOC) in remedial math. College instructors create the tutorials; Udacity provides the platform.

Colleges will design competency-based, self-paced courses

Community college students will be able to demonstrate competency to earn credits in self-paced classes, reports the Texas Tribune. It’s the Western Governors University model — but classes will include classroom instruction as well as online learning.

WGU Texas and three community colleges — Sinclair Community College in Ohio, Broward College in Florida and Texas’ own Austin Community College — have received a shared $12 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to develop curricula for key technology fields that allow students to move at their own pace in courses that aren’t purely internet based.

ACC hopes to offer self-paced computer programming courses as early as the fall of 2013. Students who earn an associate’s degree will be able to go on to WGU Texas for a bachelor’s degree.

(ACC President Richard Rhodes) said using “competency units” rather than credit hours would allow the school to be more responsive to the region’s workforce needs. If, for example, a company wanted employees to acquire certain skills quickly, they might be able to “invert the degree” by teaching the requested skills first and then later adding general education requirements necessary for an associate’s degree.

Computer science students could earn 11 industry certifications, an associate degree and a bachelor’s, says Mark David Milliron, chancellor of WGU Texas, a former Gates Foundation official.

The competency model could expand to other majors, Rhodes says.

Computer lab replaces math class

A giant math lab staffed by tutors has replaced entry-level math classes taught by professors at Virginia Tech, reports the Washington Post. The model is spreading to other universities and to community colleges.

Students can take self-paced lessons online in their dorm rooms or come to the Math Emporium, where placing a red cup on a monitor summons human assistance. (Tests and quizzes must be taken in the Emporium.)

The Emporium is the Wal-Mart of higher education, a triumph in economy of scale and a glimpse at a possible future of computer-led learning. Eight thousand students a year take introductory math in a space that once housed a discount department store. Four math instructors, none of them professors, lead seven courses with enrollments of 200 to 2,000.

. . .  Virginia Tech students pass introductory math courses at a higher rate now than 15 years ago, when the Emporium was built. And research has found the teaching model trims per-student expense by more than one-third, vital savings for public institutions with dwindling state support.

“When I first came here, I was like, ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’ ” said Mike Bilynsky, a freshman from Epping, N.H., who is taking calculus. “But it works.”

Montgomery College in Maryland and Northern Virginia Community College have created their own math labs modeled on the Emporium.

The lab format “seems to work best in subjects that stress skill development — such as solving problems over and over,” the Post reports.

Each lesson typically starts with an online lecture or reading passage, then leads to a series of problems. Students receive instant feedback; hints are dispensed and wrong answers explained. The module ends in a quiz. Faculty design every course and have added modest improvements over the years, such as interactive animation and embedded links that hark back to previous lessons.

The lab gives students lots of practice in problem solving and lets students move at their own pace. That’s especially useful for students who are weak in basic skills.

Colorado colleges boost remedial success rate

Colorado community colleges are getting better at advancing remedial students to college-level classes, concludes the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. However, more high school graduates require remediation.

Arapahoe Community College has boosted retention rates by 11 percent,  reports the Denver Post.

. . .  students who are not ready to take college-level math take remedial classes at their own pace in a flex-format program. They use the computer lab on their own time and can move through assignments and tests alone or with help of tutors or lab staff trained to teach the math skills.

The college is creating flex-format courses for remedial reading and writing courses.

Morgan Community College, which retains 59.6 percent of remedial students, had the highest retention rate among the state’s community colleges.  The college blended two remedial math classes into one and added tests to monitor students’ progress.

Statewide, remedial students are more likely to pass their classes and return for another year of community college, the report found.
But more Colorado high school graduates need remediation at state colleges and universities. Overall, 31.8 percent of Colorado’s 2011 graduates who enrolled in in-state schools tested below college level, up from 28.6 percent the year before. That reflects a 58.2 percent remediation rate for new community college students, 20.5 percent at four-year schools.


Self-paced math labs replace lectures

Self-paced math labs have replaced remedial math classes at Maryland’s Montgomery College, reports Inside Higher Ed. In the “emporium” model, students work on math software that tracks their progress, allowing them to move on when they’ve achieved mastery of a concept. Instructors provide help online and in the lab, serving more as tutors than lecturers.

Before the switch last year, half of the college’s remedial math students placed into low-level classes. Only 15 percent of low-level students passed a college-level math course within 3.5 years.

Now students are more engaged, professors say. Some students are able to move very quickly through the remedial sequence.  However, it’s too early to tell if more students will move on to pass college-level courses.

“I hate math,” say students in this Montgomery College video. Working at their own pace makes math doable, they say.

Do-it-yourself online learning

Self-paced learning is catching on at community colleges, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

At Kentucky’s Jefferson Community & Technical College, Learn Anytime students aren’t bound by the semester schedule. They start a class when it’s convenient for them and finish when they can. That means there is no group of students moving through the coursework together, no discussions among classmates and no group projects.

Supporters see the self-paced model as a means to serve more students, since no one is turned away because of a full section, missed deadline, or canceled class. Others criticize go-it-alone learning as a second-rate system that leaves students in greater danger of dropping out.

“Educationally, it’s not defensible,” says D. Randy Garrison, a veteran distance-education researcher who directs the Teaching & Learning Centre at the University of Calgary. “It doesn’t allow students to get a deep understanding of the content.”

There are bureaucratic headaches, the Chronicle reports.  

. . . Jefferson officials urge students not to enroll in open-entry courses if they receive financial aid. Their course work might straddle two traditional terms, and the lack of a grade posted for the previous term could endanger continuing aid, says Joshua Smith, the college’s executive director for e-learning initiatives.

Online professors don’t get normal vacations if there’s no semester break. But they also have the opportunity to earn a lot more money.

Ford Smith teaches three classes at Jefferson: English 101 and 102 and Introduction to Humanities. With no due dates and students popping in daily, that feels more like coordinating 400 independent studies.

He asks students not to call between midnight and 6 a.m.; otherwise, he’s mostly working. He tells two stories that sound apocryphal, but which he insists are true. One: During his wife’s labor, Mr. Smith was e-mailing a student and writing a tutorial on “monophony” and “polyphony” while urging her to push. Two: He calls his daughter “Angel,” after a course-management system. (Her real name is Angelica; his wife wasn’t keen on naming their child for a piece of software.)

Learn Anytime professors are paid $65 per student. With the addition of other teaching jobs, Smith earns $120,000 a year. He’s an adjunct.

Now in its third year, Learn Anytime enrolls nearly 1,300 students in 25 courses such as introductory English, economics, math, physics, psychology and computers.

Robert Johnson, who’s bringing the Learn Anytime idea to Louisiana’s community and technical colleges, has been teaching theatre appreciation for more than 1,000 days.  He says self-paced students get his individual attention and feedback.

Some say students need the chance to learn from each other. That could be possible: Self-paced students may be able to interact with others who are at the same point in the course through social networking. Canada’s Athabasca University is working on it; so is Rio Salado College in Arizona, which offers an online student union.