Competency-based education has fans, detractors

Western Governors among schools offering programs

By J.K. Wall

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 24 2012 8:01 p.m. MST

But what none of them offered was the ability to take courses "asynchronously" — that is, to do the coursework at her own speed and at the times of the day and the week convenient for her.

Those were critical factors for Carney because she worked 12-hour night shifts, three days a week — but never the same days. That's common among nurses.

"So many of the brick-and-mortar schools want to put their content online and then say they have online content," said Carney, who is now 57.

The content might be online, but it was not accessible 24/7. Assignments or tests often had to be completed within limited time slots.

She found the same to be true even at most of the online programs run by for-profit companies.

The average WGU student completes a bachelor's degree in three years instead of nearly five at traditional universities.

And WGU includes a strong incentive for students to finish quickly. It allows its students to take as many courses as possible within a six-month time frame — for the same flat fee.

Carney completed seven courses for her bachelor's degree in six months, and paid just $3,325 for it. She took a full year for her master's program, paying $6,650 for that.

After receiving her bachelor's degree, she got a job in the pediatric intensive care unit at Peyton Manning Children's Hospital in Indianapolis. She now earns $38 an hour, up from the $23 an hour she made before going to WGU.

"It opened up a lot of doors for me," Carney said.

Even so, Carney said, she gets lots of comments and questions about the quality of her degrees. WGU gets the same questions.

So in response, it has produced lots of metrics on what its students can do. For example, WGU seniors score higher on the Collegiate Learning Assessment — a test designed to assess students' abilities to write, make arguments and critique arguments — than 78 percent of their peers at 171 other higher education institutions that administer the test.

And 100 percent of employers, surveyed by Harris Interactive, said WGU graduates were prepared for their jobs. Only 42 percent of WGU graduates reported a salary increase after graduating, according to Harris, but only 33 percent of all higher education graduates reported a salary increase.

WGU is able to produce such good results because it overhauled the role of faculty members, said Bob Mendenhall, who helped 19 governors found WGU in 1997. The not-for-profit is based in Salt Lake City.

Some professors serve as students' individual mentors, holding weekly conversations and help sessions with them throughout their time at WGU. Other faculty members serve a similar mentor role during the times students are taking a particular course. A third group of professors does all the grading of students' work. And a fourth group designs the courses and assessments.

That separation of roles, as well as the use of online technology, allows WGU to have a student-to-teacher ratio of 50-to-1, which is double or triple that found at most traditional universities.

Yet WGU students rate the quality of their relationships with faculty members higher than do students at more than 575 other institutions that participated in the National Survey of Student Engagement.

Also, Mendenhall said, WGU has narrowed its mission to only bachelor's and master's degrees in just four areas: nursing, business, information technology and teaching.

"If we had 300 different programs and 20 people in each, we'd be just as inefficient as any other university," Mendenhall said.

Other universities have taken notice of WGU's results. Just this year, WGU started holding seminars to teach administrators from other universities about competency-based education. The seminars were a response to the overwhelming number of calls WGU has been receiving in recent years.

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