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.

Career-minded students seek competency degrees

Career-minded adults are turning to “competency-based” degrees, reports U.S. News.  Online programs that award credits for mastery of skills and knowledge can provide a faster, cheaper route to a degree.

President Barack Obama is a fan of the idea. “If you’re learning the material faster, you can finish faster,” he said in a speech last year.

The Education Department is experimenting with financial aid eligibility for students in accredited competency programs.

Craig Kilgo, 29, is a project manager for the Department of Defense. A Cornell dropout, he’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in information science and technology in the “competency-based” Flexible Option offered by the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee.

 A traditional college program requires the student to “sit in the classroom and go through the material in lock step with everybody else,” says Aaron Brower, interim chancellor at the University of Wisconsin Extension, who is overseeing the Flexible Option. A regular online program allows you to go at your own pace, “but you still have to do A, B and C in sequence,” he says.

In a competency-based program such as UW’s, “you can skip A and B and go right to C, providing you can pass the assessments that show you have mastered the content of A and B,” says Brower.

And the assessments are not a matter of passing or failing. Instead, “You pass, or you haven’t yet passed,” he says. Students are assigned an academic success coach who, if they don’t succeed the first time, can provide extra guidance and supplemental materials.

Kilgo finished a web design course in three weeks, leveraging his on-the-job experience, instead of the typical 16 weeks.

UW students can take one course for $900 or choose the “all you can learn” option: as many courses as they can handle in three months for $2,250. Kilgo, who started with 63 credits, has finished 10 courses in two three-month periods. In another six months, he should have his degree for a total cost of $9,000.

Craig Kilgo and family

Craig Kilgo and family

UW also offers Flexible Option degrees in diagnostic imaging and nursing, a certificate in professional and technical communication, and an associate degree in arts and sciences.

Western Governors University offers online competency-based degrees in business, teaching, information technology and health. Northern Arizona University offers small business administration, computer information technology and liberal arts.

Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based College for America is spinning off its custom-made learning management system, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Federal grants are funding competency-based programs at community colleges. Indiana’s Ivy Tech will offer information technology degrees. Six Kentucky community colleges — Hazard Community and Technical College (HCTC), Big Sandy CTC, Jefferson CTC, Somerset Community College, Southeast Kentucky CTC, and West Kentucky CTC — have formed a consortium to develop competency-based degrees and certificates in information technology.

Washington colleges plan competency degrees

Washington state’s community colleges plan to offer an online, competency-based associate degree in business, reports Katherine Long in the Seattle Times. Students will be able to complete the degree in 18 months — or earlier, if they’ve already earned applicable college credits.

The program is designed for working adults.

Tuition will cost $2,666 for a six-month term and students who take a full load will be eligible for federal and state financial aid.

Graduates who transfer to a state university will be halfway to a bachelor’s degree in business administration. All their credits will be counted.

“The student will earn a transcript that will look like a regular college transcript,” said Jan Yoshiwara, deputy executive director for education at SBCTC. “What’s different is the mode of delivery.”

Competency-based degrees give students a chance to earn credit for what they already know how to do. A student who can demonstrate that he or she has strong writing skills, for example, could skip over parts of an English-composition course. In some courses, a student would take a test to prove he or she has already mastered parts of the subject; in others, the student may complete an assignment, Yoshiwara said.

Students will study composition, lab science, accounting, economics, business calculus, public speaking, political science, sociology and statistics. “Washington community colleges already teach those subjects online — even lab science, which involves using a kit to do experiments at home, and public speaking, in which students record themselves giving speeches,” reports Long.

Western Governors University-Washington, which offers competency-based bachelor’s and master’s degrees, helped design the program.

Competency-based education is “a remarkably logical way to reach students,” said Jean Floten, chancellor of WGU-Washington and formerly the president of Bellevue College. “It’s well-suited to people who have a clear goal in mind, and are self-motivated, and can navigate technology in an independent setting.”

Colleges create competency-based pilots

Competency-based programs in information technology are in the works at 11 community colleges. Western Governors University, a pioneer in online competency-based education (CBE), is helping with the pilots with financial support from the U.S. Labor Department and the Gates Foundation, write Sally Johnstone, WGU’s vice president for academic advancement, and writer Thad Nodine on Inside Higher Ed. 

Most of the pilots are starting with certificates in fields such as computer system specialist, business software specialist, networking and programming. Students will be able to build on their certificates to earn degrees.

In competency programs, students progress at their own pace as they demonstrate mastery of knowledge and skills. Learning– not time — is they key variable. At all 11 colleges, faculty members developed the new CBE courses, sometimes working with industry representatives.

For example, faculty at Sinclair Community College revised the curriculum to align with new Ohio standards in information technology and with industry certifications. Working with instructional designers, faculty members “mapped competencies to content and assessment items.”

In comparison, faculty at Washington’s Columbia Basin College are using existing student objectives and textbooks, write Johnstone and Nodine.

“Mapping course objectives to student learning outcomes to achieve student success; that is not new,” said Gina Sprowl, workforce education chair and professor of accounting (at Lone Star College in Texas). “But taking the course and building it to achieve specific outcomes from the outset, that was new.”

Alan Gandy, assistant professor at Lone Star, said . . . faculty are “breaking down the competencies, matching them to the assessments, so the student will see what piece they are working on in the puzzle. They’ll see the big picture, why they’re studying this and how it matches to the overall competency.”

While instructors are “content experts and mentors,”their roles have shifted “from delivering lectures to providing timely academic tutoring and engagement,” write Johnstone and Nodine.

Some colleges are adding support services. At Edmonds Community College in Washington, a “mentor” will check in with each student weekly and serve as a “coach, troubleshooter, strategist and enthusiast.”

Getting competency right

Competency-based education is super-hot — but nobody’s quite sure what it means, reports Inside Higher Ed. A new Lumina-funded group, the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) will discuss how to do competency ed right.

“There’s really a danger of people just repackaging what they’re doing and calling it competency-based education because it’s the buzzword du jour,” said Amy Laitinen, a former Education Department and White House official who is deputy director of the New America Foundation’s higher education program.

Competency-based education assesses learning outcomes, regardless of whether the student learned in class, online, on the job, through experience or by reading books.

Decades ago pioneering institutions like Alverno College, Excelsior College, Thomas Edison State College and others with a focus on adult students began assessing competencies and issuing college credit for experiential learning. As with Advanced Placement tests, students could pass assessments and earn credit for knowledge and skills they gained outside the traditional classroom.

Western Governors offers a twist on this model. Created in 1997, the online university added the element of self-paced instruction. Students at Western Governors can work through automated, asynchronous online course material at their own speed. And the university’s instructors act more like tutors than professors in a lecture hall.

A third style first hit the scene this year. This approach, which is called “direct assessment,” drops the credit-hour standard and completely severs the link between competencies and the amount of time students spend mastering them.

Earlier this year the federal government and regional accreditors approved direct assessment offerings from College for America, a subsidiary of Southern New Hampshire, and Capella University. Northern Arizona University, the University of Wisconsin system and Brandman University are developing direct-assessment programs.

Competency-based education would give students more choices, cut college costs and help them find jobs, writes Jesse Saffron.

From competency to credentials

Marcus Carmicle trained to be a nursing aide and then a licensed practical nurse at Bluegrass Technical College in Kentucky. After 19 years as an LPN, he’s finally completing a nursing degree. The competency-based online program at Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges is making it possible to achieve his goal.

Meeting Students Where They Are

Meeting Students Where They Are profiles students in competency-based degree programs. Students say competency programs are demanding, according to the report by the Center for American Progress and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Partial mastery isn’t good enough. Nobody squeaks by with a C.

Students said the competencies they learned apply directly to their work. Competency is “what employers look for, not how many hours you sit in a classroom,” said one student.

Adult students value the flexibility, the report says. “I wouldn’t have gone back to school if I had to give up my job,” said an MBA student. “I was only willing to go into so much debt.”

Student said they needed a degree to advance in their jobs. For example, a nurse with an associate degree needed a bachelor’s to be promoted.

Students value the chance to interact with classmates, the report finds. Predominantly online programs don’t offer that opportunity.  Coaches, advisors and mentors also play an important role.

Financial aid should be available for students in competency-based programs, CAP and CAEL advocate. The next version of the Higher Education Act should identify ways to measure student progress other than by the credit hour.

“Competency-based education is spreading among community colleges” with help from Western Governors University, reports Inside Higher Ed.  WGU “has helped 11 community colleges create their own competency-based degrees and certificates, mostly in information technology tracks” in the last year. The Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor have provided start-up funding.

Competency unbundles college

When nearly three out of four students aren’t enrolled in full-time, four-year degree programs, it’s time to go beyond the credit hour, writes the Gates Foundation’s Daniel Greenstein on Impatient Optimists.

The rigidness of semesters and courses and credit hours doesn’t work for adults who are juggling jobs, family and other priorities while they also work toward a degree – an elaborate dance that too often ends in students leaving school with no degree, but lots of debt. Many of today’s students aren’t interested in a classic college experience of dorms and all-nighters. Rather, they need college to be “unbundled,” and to be able to integrate it selectively, sometimes a course at a time, into their busy and full lives.

Competency-based education, which assesses what students know and can do, provides the flexibility today’s students need, argues Greenstein. In the competency model, students “progress at their own pace and to go deep on material they haven’t mastered, while not having to spend time or tuition on concepts and knowledge they’ve learned elsewhere.”

 Not only are competency-based programs better for so many of today’s students, but they promise considerable advantages for employers, who, right now, evaluate newly-minted grads primarily on where they went to college and their grade point average. Because competency-based programs rely on regular student assessments of specific skills and abilities, they can provide employers with more detailed information about what prospective workers know and can do.

Lumina’s Tuning USA project, the European Union’s Bologna process and the American Association of Colleges & Universities’ LEAP initiative have evaluated the essential elements and outcomes that students must master to earn different degrees and credentials, Greenstein writes. Western Governors University led the way to online competency degrees. Now more traditional institututions, such as Southern New Hampshire University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system will be offering credits and credentials for competency.

Credits for competency

Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America has no courses — online or in person. It employs no teachers, just online coaches. Students complete assignments and projects to show their mastery of 120 “competencies,” such as distinguishing fact from opinion or conveying information through charts and graphs, reports the Boston Globe. Students can earn an accredited associate degree, then show potential employers an online portfolio of their work.

Last semester, Ashley Collins often faced a terrible choice: go to her night class, or pick up a waitressing shift to help pay her community college tuition. Class usually lost out.

As a former foster child with no family to help pay for college, the 21-year-old works three jobs while trying to stay in school.

This year, she switched colleges, and now does her schoolwork at home, in her pajamas when she feels like it.

Students move ahead at their own pace, paying $1,250 every six months. Collins is on track to complete a two-year degree in six months. If she’d continued working and taking classes at night, a degree could have taken 10 years, she told the Globe. She earns $9.91 an hour caring for developmentally disabled adults.

College for America started in January with 277 students enrolled through their jobs: groundskeepers, telemarketers, factory workers, gas station employees and caregivers at the nonprofit that employs Collins.

College for America passed a high hurdle in April when the U.S. Education Department agreed to provide financial aid to its students, the first time a program based on competency rather than “seat time” has been approved.

“The federal government is saying, maybe we should be paying for learning rather than time,” said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, a prominent think tank. “I don’t want to be too hyperbolic about it, but it really could signal a new era in higher education.”

Southern New Hampshire, a private nonprofit, developed its online curriculum using online resources, including video lectures, readings and web sites, rather than writing its own study materials.

When students submit assignments, graders provide feedback within 48 hours. If it’s not good enough, students are told to try again.

Many of the assignments are practical. One presents students with hypothetical proposals for a vending machine contract for the employee lounge and ask him to write a memo evaluating the vendors. Then, a grader determines whether the students’ work demonstrates they have mastered five competencies, including writing a business memo, using logic, and making calculations in a spreadsheet.

Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire’s presidents, hopes to offer a bachelor’s degree and enroll 350,000 students by 2018. In addition to working with employers, the college may partner with churches and community organizations to offer support to independent students.

Western Governors University, an online nonprofit created in 1997, offers competency-based, self-paced bachelor’s degree programs.

Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system also are experimenting with competency-based programs, reports USA Today.

KnowledgeWorks looks at the federal role in competency education, focusing on K-12 schooling.

California eyes exam-based university

A proposed “New University of California” would award credits to students who pass exams proving mastery, regardless of whether they learned the material in class, online, at work or whatever, reports KQED.

Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, proposed AB 1306 to expand access to college degrees.  New University would not offer classes, hire professors or charge tuition, but would be empowered to grant degrees if a student qualified for enough academic credit in a course of study. Students would pay a fee to take an exam.

California’s community colleges already offer course credit by exam, said an official in the chancellor’s office.

Wilk’s idea would “cheapen” state university degrees, responds Eric Grunder, opinion editor of the Stockton Record.

. . . before we set a whole new “university,” let’s better fund the community colleges, CSU and UC systems we have, including opening more seats and helping students pay to sit in them.”

College will be “better and drastically cheaper” in the near future as higher education is “unbundled,” argues Vance Fried in College 2020.  “Online 2.0 takes today’s version of online education to another level by making the whole curriculum competency-based and using self-paced courses that eliminate the need for a course instructor,” Fried writes.

Western Governors University, which offers low-cost competency-based degrees, is the first step, he writes. Southern New Hampshire University also is launching an affordable Online 2.0 degree.

Digital learning expands access

Digital learning is expanding higher education options for California students, reports the  San Jose Mercury News.

Estela Garcia, a working mother from Menlo Park, attends class at her kitchen table after she puts her daughters to bed; Tim Barham, a UC Berkeley senior, takes statistics at home after a day at work; and Oakland teenager Sergio Sandoval studies a college course while in high school.

“I think this is the single most transformational thing that could occur in higher education in decades,” said Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District.

With the urging of Gov. Jerry Brown, California’s universities are expanding online options. The University of California, whose campuses offer more than 2,500 online classes, may require undergraduates to take 10 percent of classes online. As soon as this summer,
San Jose State University and Udacity, a Mountain View-based company, “could open for-credit math classes to all takers, at $150 each. Some 300 high school, community college and university students are in a pilot program to test the classes.”

Galatolo wants to work with Udacity to design refresher courses to help incoming students ace placement tests, avoiding the remedial “black hole.”

Estela Garcia and a former classmate, Kelsey Harrison, said their online coursework requires self-discipline.

Still, because of the relatively small size of the class, it was easy for them to reach their College of San Mateoinstructors when they needed help. That kind of communication between students and faculty is impossible in a course with thousands of students. Those courses rely on virtual study groups and crowd-sourcing — seeking answers from the whole universe of students.

A well-developed online class might reach struggling students better than a traditional one, said Ronald Rogers, the San Jose State professor who developed Udacity’s statistics course. Rogers said when he stands in a lecture hall and asks if anyone has a question, nary a hand goes up. The new platform inserts short exercises and quizzes into the lecture, prompting instant student feedback.

“Imagine being in a class where if every minute and a half, the teacher shut up and asked if you got it,” he said.

Online courses helped Tim Barham transfer from a community college to Berkeley a year early. Now at Cal, the legal studies major is taking statistics online. Otherwise, he said, “I would have had to graduate later or cut down on work hours, which I can’t afford to do.”

Older students are looking for ways to combine credits earned in many ways to complete a degree, reports the New York Times. New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State College, a pioneer in flexible, low-cost degrees, is growing rapidly. So are Charter Oak State College in Connecticut and the private, nonprofit Excelsior College in New York.  “The idea of measuring students’ competency, not classroom hours, has become the cornerstone of newer institutions like Western Governors University,” the Times adds.

Pilar Mercedes Foy, 31, a Thomas Edison graduate whose parents did not go to college, said after she got an entry-level job at PSEG, the New Jersey energy company, she realized that she would need a degree to advance. She earned the bulk of her credits through heavily subsidized evening classes offered at work, supplemented by classes at Union County College and 12 credits from the CLEP Spanish exam.

Foy didn’t borrow a penny.

David Esterson, 45, of Whittier, Calif., started taking college classes in high school and attended the University of Washington for a year. After working for years as a photographer and starting a music business, he decided to complete his degree three years ago. He took online courses at the University of Minnesota and the University of Phoenix and at several California community colleges, before earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from Thomas Edison. He’s now enrolled in two graduate programs.