The Rise of Competency-Based Education (webinar)


Competency-based education (CBE) is taking off – and its impact extends throughout higher education. In CBE, students are evaluated and awarded credit and degrees not on seat time or completing traditional courses, but based on their ability to demonstrate specific skills and competencies.

For many students, this speeds up degree completion. And for adult students who have extensive work experience and knowledge gained outside the classroom, and are frequently unable to attend courses offered during traditional classroom hours, CBE can provide a way to earn degrees reflecting that experience and knowledge.

Inside Higher Ed editors Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman will host a discussion on CBE in a free webinar on Tuesday, February 23 at 2:00 p.m. ET.   

You can view the webinar here. To download the accompanying slide deck, click here.

Virtual Expeditions

Virtual field trips have been around in schools almost as long as Internet has been in the classroom. Before there were fast connections in schools and video applications that could handle streaming environments, a virtual field trip to a location like a museum or outdoor site could an unpleasant technological experience.

But things have improved. 

A new Apps for Education, back in 2006 with cloud-based email, calendar and document-sharing products available free to schools. Google's field-trip simulation system, called Expeditions, will also be free to schools as part of a company effort to further develop the technology.

Microsoft is also in the education market with its own email, calendar, Skype and other software. and they have also introduced new products like the note-taking app called OneNote Class Notebook.

Google Expeditions is very much designed for classroom use, rather than being an existing consumer/enterprise products like Skype being marketed to schools. 

Google Classroom is another free app (to create, collect and comment on student assignments) that was made for schools. And don't count out the juggernaut that is Facebook which has tried classroom connections before and had engineers working with schools in California on adaptive learning software to customize to individual students.

A University Without Lectures or Classrooms

campus sketchup

How would a university without majors, lectures, and traditional classrooms look and operate? Those are questions that Christine Ortiz will be dealing with the next few years after she leaves her jobs as Professor of  Materials Science and Engineering and Dean of Graduate Education at MIT. She wants to start a nonprofit university that will be radically different from the university we know now.

In a recent interview with, she discussed some of her early ideas.

At its core, it will be project-based learning with longer rather than shorter-term projects. She sees it as closer to the graduate-education model, though it is for undergraduate study.

It will be virtually online, but there will be a physical campus and buildings. rather than "classrooms," there will be large, open spaces and big centralized laboratories where no one really has their own individual laboratory - an "integrated giant laboratory."

Taking inspiration from the MOOC, the traditional lecture is chunked into many smaller (5-10 minutes) learning objects.

The academic structure is transdisciplinary without departments. 

She sees tenure as a mismatch for this type of university and wants to investigate alternative models, She also sees many talented doctoral students and postdocs that are unable to secure jobs in academia as a pool of potential faculty.

Ortiz mentions that this radical approach has been talked about before. She references a former MIT president, Charles M. Vest, who spoke more than a decade ago about the emergence of the "metacurriculum." This would be a virtually open metacurriculum that would be emerging and some will say has already has begun .

Call it Education 2.0 or a way to address The Disconnected. It is an evolution that Ortiz is hoping to get into early. 

The Money-Back Guarantee Comes to MOOCs

Udacity, a provider of MOOCs, announced this month their Nanodegree Plus which guarantees its graduates will land a job in their field within six months of completing the program, or get their money back.

As their website describes it: "Empowering yourself through learning, acquiring critical skills, pursuing career advancement. These are life-changing steps to undertake. They require commitment, hard work, and a willingness to take risks. We recognize this, and want you to know we support you every step of the way, from enrollment to getting hired. Enroll in Nanodegree Plus, and we guarantee you’ll get hired within 6 months of graduating, or we’ll refund 100% of your tuition. That’s the kind of confidence we have in you."

Naturally, such an offer requires Terms and Conditions.  

For now, students need to enroll in Udacity programs that teach the most marketable skills. The 4 offered are machine-learning engineer, Android developer, iOS developer, and senior web developer. Students must complete the courses. That seems obvious. but that has always been a point of contention for MOOCs since the majority of students in them (Udacity has four million students) do not complete all the coursework. Of course, most learners in MOOCs do not intend to finish or use the course as a path to credits or a degree. In the Nanodegree Plus, students pay an extra monthly fee.

Udacity says that it will take 6-8 months of working 10 hours a week to complete a program.

The jobs graduates get have no salary benchmarks, but Sebastian Thrun, chief executive of Udacity, said in an interview that the jobs they get will be "real" jobs and "not jobs as a Starbucks barista."

Thrun has moved Udacity away from it earlier partnerships with universities and into partnerships with companies.  

The idea of guarantees like Udacity and other for-profits is seen as a market solution, a gimmick and not feasible depending on the reviewer. Certainly, colleges are unlikely to return tuition to graduates who don't find jobs in the major, even though Thrun said he "would recommend every college president to think about this."

Everyone Should Be Coding

I wrote earlier about the "Hour of Code" and about how coding is a subject not often taught in schools (at all levels) or taught in isolation and to only a small percentage of students.

Students and teachers are sometimes moving into coding via other projects, such as a makerspace and playing with things like an Arduino board or robotics that require some coding knowledge. But a lot of coding education is occurring outside of traditional school settings. has a search tool to find computer science classes in your area and my searching around New Jersey didn't turn up as much as I would have guessed.


Coding bootcamps are intensive, accelerated learning programs that teach beginners coding skills, but the "coding academies" like General Assembly, Galvanize, and the Flatiron School are much more. 

I know someone is reading this and thinking "Why do I or my students need to learn to code?"  I might answer that you don't know what skills will be necessary for your future work, but knowing something about coding could be part of that skil set. Of course, that is very close to the answer I got from my 8th grade algebra teacher when I complained that I would never need algebra to be a writer or English teacher.

These coding bootcamps and academies have only been around for about five years, although there have been computer science classes and programming courses in schools and for-profits for more than three decades.

Bootcamps can vary in length from 6 to 28 weeks, with the average at about 10 weeks long. Code schools teach a broader technical curriculum. It might include Full-Stack Web Development, Data Science, Digital Marketing, UX/UI Design along with teaching coding languages like Ruby on Rails, Python on Django, JavaScript, and LAMP Stack.

Ones that are intended for adults are usually making their money by offering courses aligned with or even in partnership with an employer network.

In 2015, it was expected that the number of graduates from such programs would be 16,000. Not an enormous number, but more than double from 2014, according to a recent survey by Course Report.

Almost none of these are accredited and so students enrolled are more interested in skills than credits or certificates. However, some of these students would probably be interested in using those courses towards a college degree if it was offered, as is the case with many college certificate programs that are usually part of their continuing education or adult learning programs. These can include courses that lead directly into graduate degree programs.

College tuition isn't cheap and these outside bootcamps and academies aren’t cheap either. A summary of the Course Report survey notes that the average cost of the courses is more than $11,000. There are about 70 of the programs in the United States and Canada today.

Last March, President Obama announced an initiative, called TechHire, to train Americans in technology jobs. Among other things, the effort encourages people to enroll in coding boot camps.

Boot camps have the potential to complement computer-science departments’ curricula and degrees, but most colleges are not comfortable in these partnerships, although they do often work with individual employers looking for customized training.

I am particularly interested in the growth of programs for our younger students that use coding both as a critical thinking builder and as a way to learn coding in order to do other STEAM projects.

The vision of many of these groups is based on the belief that computer science and programming should be part of the core curriculum in education, alongside other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, such as biology, physics, chemistry and algebra.

Here are some resources towards that goal. – This nonprofit foundation website is a great starting point for coding novices. It shares lots of useful online resources, apps and places to learning coding. 

Scratch was designed by MIT students and aimed at children ages 8 to 16 as an easy-to-use programming language. Without using lines of code, you arrange and snap together Scratch blocks of code. 

Stencyl  is software inspired by Scratch's snapping blocks system that allows you to create simple games for iOS, Android, Flash, Windows, Linux and Mac. There are paid pro plans that come with advanced functionality. 

Khan Academy is best known for its math tutorials that often look like games, but it also has basic programming tutorials and students can learn to build graphics, animations and interactive visualizations.

CodeAcademy is an interactive website that has a gentle learning curve and teaches kids basic code through fun and simple exercises that feel like games.

Hackety Hack this quick download allows you to learn Ruby, an open-source programming language that's easy and intuitive. 

Code Monster is  particularly good for kids learning as the Code Monster shows two adjacent boxes - one showing code, the other shows what the code does. As you play around with the code with some help from a prompt, you learn what each command does.

No one knows how old you are when you use these sites, so all you curious adults should feel free to use them as a way to get started - an then share them with your own kids in school or at home.