Mar 29 2016

How Competency-Based Courses Are Changing the Education Game

Technology-backed learning offers opportunities to institutions and students, as long as IT can keep pace with the new requirements.

When Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc stepped onto the stage at Campus Tech 2015 in July, he painted a bright picture of competency-based higher ed.

“Today, 500 institutions are moving to competency-based education, and they are not-for-profit,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity.”

LeBlanc certainly had that right.

In the eight months that have passed since that technology conference, I’ve heard more and more higher ed administrators discuss competency-based education. And whether institutions are creating new programs or expanding existing ones, the bandwagon is slowly but surely filling up.

So What Does Competency-Based Education Look Like?

The underlying idea behind the model is pretty simple: Design course completion around a student’s mastery of a topic, not around the amount of time that they sit through classes.

With most programs, students follow a carefully designed curriculum that leads them through specific learning objectives. They then demonstrate proficiencies by completing a series of demanding tests, writing assignments and other assessments.

This student-centric model creates a more reliable way for colleges and universities to make sure students have acquired the skills and knowledge they need to graduate. It also makes it possible for learners to move at their own pace.

Peter Starr, who participated in the competency-based program at Purdue Polytechnic Institute, said the plan’s flexibility let him use his time more efficiently; he could breeze past objectives he already understood and devote extra effort to those he didn’t.

David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at University of Wisconsin-Extension, said the adjustable nature of his institution’s UW Flexible Option also opens the door to working professionals who seek to continue their education in one form or another.

“Some students come into education not needing to finish degrees; they need just-in-time learning because they need to do something on the job, and then they can cycle out,” he said in a video posted on Brightspace by D2L.

That’s why, like other programs, the UW Flexible Option offers everything from certificates to bachelor’s degrees.

“We’re not intending to use the flexible option to replace traditional forms of learning,” Schejbal said in the video. “We see this as significantly growing the pie.”

Examining the Impact on IT

While self-paced, objectives-based learning is beneficial for students and institutions, it can be problematic for IT departments. That’s because the transition to this new learning model can touch an incredible number of technologies, including student information systems, analytics and reporting platforms, and customer relationship management tools.

Learning management systems represent one of the biggest challenges for IT, as they need to be able to track days since a student enrolled, release new modules as students complete competencies and send out automated student feedback.

Enrollment systems are also a problem. With traditional courses, registration periods are predetermined and set in place. With competency-based programs, on the other hand, IT needs to be able to accommodate on-demand enrollment, because students will start courses on their own schedule.

The on-demand aspect of competency-based online classes can also make trouble for institutions that are using their own servers for hosting. IT infrastructure needs to be able to meet the demands of students as they stream high-definition course videos, participate in online discussion forums and complete homework assignments.

Colleges and universities with mature competency-based approaches may already have found dedicated technology solutions to support these requirements, but institutions that are just starting out will likely need to build makeshift tools from the systems they already have.

As CIOs oversee the transition to the competency-based model, they might want to make sure the presence of these stopgaps doesn’t slow the search for long-term solutions. New tools and technologies are quickly becoming available, and IT professionals should spend ample time investigating their options. A knowledgeable technology partner can help CIOs and their teams make well-informed technology investments, so their institutions can build a fully supported competency-based program that puts students in control of their education.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.


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