Competency-Based Degrees and the End of Credit Hours

Competency-Based Degrees (CBD) is a fairly new concept in higher education and has gotten some attention the past year. Unlike many educational ideas, I think it would have widespread acceptance from the general public. In fact, I suspect that if you defined it it to most people outside of education their response might be "Isn't that what you are doing now?"

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.

College (Un)bound

I heard Jeff Selingo, editor at large of The Chronicle of Higher Education, speak last month at the NJEDge Annual Conference and bought his book, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students.

You only have to get into the first section of the book to find these passage:

“More than ever, American colleges and universities seem to be in every business but education. They are in the entertainment business, the housing business, the restaurant business, the recreation business, and on some campuses, they operate what are essentially professional sports franchises (page 5).”

“The classroom has become one giant game of favor exchanges between students, professors and administrators (21).”

“The problem is that while the price of a degree is increasing, the amount of learning needed to get that piece of paper is moving in the opposite direction (24).”

In the book's conclusion, Selingo describes what might be the college student of the future. That student does graduate witha degree, but after getting credits from different institutions, He is not a believer that MOOCs will be the big agent of change, but students attending residential colleges, community colleges, studying abroad and using online coursework of any kind will give this new college student a wider variety of educational experiences.

I'm not sure that this kind of variety of opportunities to learn would be available to all students. Students with fewer financial resources may only be able to take advantage of a few of those opportunities. It does sound like the kind of college experience that is preparation for careers where change and a more global view are required.

Selingo blames the credential race for transforming universities into more of a big business, He is critical of the environment that has allowed some middle-tier colleges to get tuitions up with the elite universities even though they have poor graduation rates. He is also critical of colleges granting degrees to graduates who still lack the skills needed for a rapidly evolving job market.

Selingo is optimistic about technology and sees MOOCs, hybrid classes, and adaptive learning software as all being methods to explore. He also thinks that unbundling the traditional degree and credit system will increase access to high-quality education regardless of budget or location. The path to the degree and even the courses and lessons would be much more based on individual needs than the programs we have now.

In this video, Selingo covers some of the same ground as when I heard him speak. His points are covered in more detail in the book, but clearly Jeff Selingo thinks colleges need to allow students to engage in one-on-one mentorships with faculty and those outside the university, global experiences, undergraduate research, experiential learning, and opportunities for creativity and learning from failure.

Giving Up on MOOCs?


Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity which is one of the stars of private sector MOOC providers, has decided after 2+ years that the Massive Open Online Course is not going to disrupt higher education.

He hasn't really given up on the MOOC as much as he has given up on some of that open audience for them. A good part of his disillusionment seems to have come with his efforts to offer courses at San Jose State.

He had seen high enrollments (160,000) but low completion rates when he offered a MOOC at Stanford. But at San Jose State Udacity was offering the best product he had available and the incentive of credits and students were still not completing courses successfully.

The faculty at SJSU hadn't supported the appearance of the courses on campus and now their doubts seem more justified.

Part of the attention to Thrun's new take on the mission of the MOOC is that he seems to be saying that the MOOC learning experience is just not suited to the diverse students at varying levels of readiness that a college like SJSU. 

Of course, we need to keep in mind that it didn't seem as bad when the completion rate was low for those early courses because it didn't really matter (grade and credit-wise) if they didn't finish the course or master all the parts of it. At San Jose State, it mattered.

In a long article on, we learn that even with 1.6 million Udacity students so far, Thrun was obsessed with that discouraging completion rate. I have written before that I feel that we need to rethink how we define completion in the MOOC environment. My own experiences both in taking MOOCs as a student and in teaching them is that some learners are clearly there to gain knowledge about some of the course material, but without any intention to complete all of the course. And that is a valid reason to take a MOOC, as long as you're concerned about grades or credits. And we weren't as concerned with those things in the early - and much more Open - massive courses.

Has Thrun, the “godfather of free online education” given up on the MOOC? Not really. He says that those racially, economically diverse students at SJSU, “were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives…[for them] this medium is not a good fit.” He is giving up on students.

Okay, maybe that's not totally fair. He does admit that some of the Udacity courses are a "lousy product."  But others are jumping on Thrun's "throwing in the towel" comment as the downward turning point for MOOCs. Jonathan Freedman, a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has an article that claims that MOOCs are becoming a “middlebrow” culture that references the Thrun interview comments. Freedman also has criticism for comments Bill gates has made about MOOC use supplanting traditional college coursework, but I am not convinced.

Thrun  ran into Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and Gates told him that “what you're doing is teaching to the 1% most motivated people on the planet. To sign up you have to be self-motivated. To stick with it you also have to be self-motivated. Those people, they can learn from anything. If you gave them a book, they would learn it equally well. So what exactly are you changing?"

That had to hurt. Maybe those words have stayed with him. Gates suggested that he redirect his focus on remedial math education. The Gates Foundation even provided funding for Udacity to offer its courses for free to inner-city high school kids. The success rate in those courses was not impressive, but it was considered a learning process for Udacity too.

What's the future for Udacity? Thrun says up next is “the biggest shift in the history of the company.” The goal is no longer to displace traditional higher education by delivering free elite-level online courses to millions of students worldwide. Now, it will be to move towards smaller, credit-bearing, priced courses that focus on technical and vocational skills.

I have thought since the beginning of the MOOC wave lifting that they would have a bigger impact with professional development and with technical fields. Our traditional classrooms and our traditional online courses will probably still be better for most academic disciplines. And those courses and school will still be the ones that grant degrees.

I agree with what Thrun is saying. Luckily for me, I don't have a company and venture capitalists relying on me to turn a profit.

When community college students stop out or drop out

Community college students face long odds of eventually earning a bachelor’s degree. And those odds get worse if they leave college more than once along the way.

That is the central finding of a new study that tracked the progress of 38,000 community college students in Texas. Toby J. Park, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at Florida State University, conducted the research. His working paper was presented Thursday at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education in St. Louis.

...the study found that 76 percent of those degree completers took only one break from college. After stopping out after a second time, the percentage of returning students completing a bachelor’s degree decreases substantially.

“If you leave twice,” Park said, “you’re not going to come back.”
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