Competency-based degrees – The quiet revolution?

Over the past two years hardly a day has passed without an article about massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Critics protested that MOOCs would mean the end of higher education as we knew it. Supporters hailed MOOCs as the saviour of higher education in the future.

The jury is still out on the potential of MOOCs to either destroy or save higher education. But quietly, and without much controversy, another potential ‘disruption’ is taking place: competency-based degrees.

Although this is a worldwide trend, this article will focus on competency-based degrees in the United States.

The dictionary defines competency as the quality of being adequately or well qualified physically and intellectually. The Western Governors University, founded by a consortium of 19 states, has awarded college degrees based on assessments of learning since 1997.

The university defines competency-based education as allowing students to earn a college degree through demonstration of skills and knowledge in a required subject area through a series of carefully designed assessments.

Students take tests, write papers and complete assignments. But rather than focus on seat time or credit hours, degrees are awarded through tangible evidence of learning. Outcomes and assessments are the bookends of competency-based learning.

The US Department of Education is interested in supporting competency-based learning because 37 million Americans have some college credits but no degree. To support this initiative, the department recently invited colleges to submit programmes for consideration under Title IV federal financial aid that are not based on time spent in the classroom.

Colleges and universities in New Hampshire, Ohio, Michigan, Arizona and Wisconsin rushed to meet the deadlines set by the department for competency-based degree approval.

Several state educational agencies have already implemented the mechanisms to award students credits based on prior learning and assessment. And students are eligible to receive financial aid to assist in degree completion.

Multiple pathways

In 1893 Charles Eliot, president of Harvard, introduced to the National Education Association the concept of the credit hour. One hour of lecture time a week for a 12-week to 14-week semester. The seat-time system was based on the hours spent in the classroom.

More than a century later Jamie P Merisotis, president and chief executive of the Lumina Foundation, challenges the credit hour system. He writes: “Competency is a student-centred, learning-outcome-based model. Where you get the education is secondary to what you know and are able to do.”

Competency-based learning saves students both time and money and creates multiple pathways to graduation. It allows for online and blended learning and for greater flexibility in mapping out a path to earning a college degree.

Competency-based learning allows for personalised learning opportunities, dual enrolment and better use of technology. (Is this not what MOOCs are supposed to do?)

In the United States, competency-based degrees are recognised by employers for hiring, promotion and advancement.

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning maintains that competency-based learning gives students a framework for understanding what they are expected to learn and how they are expected to apply that learning, and employers are increasingly seeking workers who can demonstrate the ability to adapt to new workforce challenges.

Pushbacks are inevitable.

In a January 2014 survey of chief academic officers, half agreed that competency-based education could increase the number of students with college credentials, but worry that it would damage general education. Critics contend that competency-based learning has the potential to dilute the value of a college degree. (Is this not what MOOCs are supposed to do?)

Digital learners

There is enough evidence to support the belief that the traditional academic and administrative structure of higher education is changing.

Technology is rendering the traditional semester obsolete, the Khan Academy is preparing a new generation of digital learners and even though the jury is still out on MOOCs, many faculties would agree that MOOCs will play some role in how courses are delivered and how students learn in the future.

Change is inevitable both for the academy and for the administrators who support college and university structures. Many colleges and universities could solve some of their financial problems by offering students a menu of options to consider, including hybrid programmes, online learning, MOOCs and competency-based learning.

These educational delivery mechanisms can supplement, not replace, classroom instruction. Competency-based learning has the potential to rethink higher education in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and fairness. This is what the public, legislators and employers are demanding.

Competency-based learning is not for everyone. As with MOOCs, this is a highly disciplined method of learning. Only individual students can determine if they have the motivation and determination to earn a college degree through assessment and competency.

Students from around the world, and from emerging economies, especially African students, are more likely to embrace alternative educational delivery methods. Competency-based learning has the potential to increase, not shrink, enrolment in the future.

For many colleges and universities it may mean financial stability and survival in the future and is a ‘disruption’ worth exploring.

* Marguerite J Dennis is president of MJ Dennis Consulting, specialising in higher education trends and international strategic planning. Her new book, The New College Guide, will be published in March.