This idea, which seems either common sense or radically new, is that instead of awarding college degrees based on the accumulation of credit hours, you base it on on achieving a set of demonstrated competencies.
Most of us got credits for the amount of "seat time" spent in the classroom. Yes, we also took tests and did assignments which were supposed to measure "what we had learned." But did those assessments measure our competency?
One of the aspects of some CBD programs is that you can accumulate those credits and competencies from places other than your primary college.
Education majors probably were taught that the credit hour was originally called the Carnegie Unit. It was established in 1906 as a way of measuring faculty workload. It was not intended, in the Carnegie Foundation's own words, "to measure, inform or improve the quality of teaching or learning." But the credit hour became the standard way to measure the student's workload and progress. It was used in both secondary and higher education.
I put in my title "the end of credit hours." That's provocative, but as with the "end" of science, writing, privacy and a long list of other things seen as doomed that continue on, I am not sure when the credit hour will end.
Late in 2012, the Carnegie Foundation itself declared that "technology has revealed the potential of personalized learning," and that "it is time to consider how a revised unit, based on competency rather than time, could improve teaching and learning in high schools, colleges and universities."
The Foundation says that they now believe that "a revised unit, based on competency rather than time, could improve teaching and learning in high schools, colleges, and universities."
That should have been bigger news in 2013 than it seemed to be. With all the attention that MOOCs received, it may be that those massive open online courses will be just a part of the changing way we acquire a degree.
A transition from the traditional degree program into a competency-based one will require many changes. One of the most daunting is in an area that schools already struggle with - how student work is assessed.
In a competency-based program, credit can be awarded after a 15-week semester, but also after 4 or 8 weeks or at any point when ability is demonstrated. "Grades" as we use the term now, may not convert easily in a CBD system.
An older concept may get more attention again. Students can earn credits for that CBD by demonstrating competency gained through life and work experiences.
It probably hasn't helped in promoting competency-based learning that for-profit online colleges have been some of the first advocates for CBDs. Capella University is one example. But, there have been a few nonprofit institutions embracing the concept. Western Governors University was founded on the idea of competency-based degrees.
The cost of a college degree has turned some interest to the CBD too. There have been many mainstream media stories about whether or not students are actually learning at college for the huge debts they or their parents accumulate. Return on investment is a concern for college. Is the competency-based degree program a way to deal with the learning? Is it also a way to lower that cost?
Texas A&M University-Commerce and South Texas College have partnered with Pearson to create a competency-based Bachelor of Applied Sciences degree in organizational leadership. Last fall, the University of Wisconsin System launched a CBD program called the Flexible Option. Northern Arizona University's started a competency-based online degree program that emphasizes "personalized learning."
If competencies are the skills or knowledge that are expected for the workforce or for graduate work, then we also have to decide what those skills and what that knowledge will be. I can imagine the arguments around the committee tables for those meetings. And who decides - the schools or the employers?
MOOCs have not yet found a widely-accepted way to measure a learner's competency or mastery. Maybe that is because we haven't found it in traditional face-to-face or online classes.
Khan Academy founder, Salman Khan, lays out in his book a way to reimagine education. His one world schoolhouse emphasizes requiring from a learner "mastery" (competency?) before moving on to the next skill or knowledge set. That means a student can move on more quickly than we might have expected or allowed in a course. But it can also mean that some students will not move on. His model, and competency-based programs, also need to consider that some students will not complete a course in the semester timeline we are used to using.
Evaluating employees based on competency and performance is not a new idea. It is a way that people are promoted - or fired. In education, a shift away from the credit hour that has been around for more than a century will not be an easy move. It is the way everyone in charge of academia learned. It is a complete rethinking of how we measure knowledge and mastery/competency, and then a degree is acquired.