Competency-based education has fans, detractors

Western Governors among schools offering programs

By J.K. Wall

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 24 2012 7:35 p.m. MST

And other schools are embracing key parts of WGU's model. For example, Southern New Hampshire University revamped its bachelor's in business administration program using competency-based modules that could eliminate a year of study, while producing better learning among students.

Ivy Tech will turn its Ivy Institute of Technology into a fully competency-based set of programs in 2013. Ivy Institute offers accelerated programs in high-demand, hands-on areas, including automotive; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; machine tooling; advanced manufacturing; office administration; and welding.

Mary Ostyre, Ivy Tech's provost, said Ivy Institute will start students once a quarter — versus any time for WGU — but the students can finish any time they want.

"It's as close to Western Governors as we can get with a lab-based curriculum," Ostyre said.

The breakthrough for Ivy Institute came when the U.S. Department of Education said students could still get a full amount of federal aid even if they complete courses in less time than a typical semester.

"We're not going to slow you down to get your aid," Ostyre said.

John Applegate, who is Indiana University's senior vice president for regional affairs, planning and policy, said the WGU or Southern New Hampshire models aren't for all students. Many learn best — and prefer to learn — in interactive classrooms with other students.

"That kind of learning, obviously, wouldn't be very productive at all, say, for someone who just graduated from high school," he said.

Applegate said IU has no plans to embrace fully asynchronous online courses on its regional campuses.

"I see IU doing a wide range of students' needs and desires, but not every single need," he said.

Other schools in Indiana are keeping tabs on WGU-style competency-based learning, but are still staying fairly close to their traditional models.

"We have a lot of conversations going on and are trying to keep a close eye on what's happening in higher education around these activities," said Ken Brauchle, dean of extended learning at Indiana State University. "We're certainly sensitive to the state's goal of increasing the number of people with postsecondary credentials."

At Indianapolis-based Harrison College, a for-profit educator, all students take a variety of assessments to prove competency at the end of their courses and degree programs. But Harrison, which already has 30 percent of its students taking classes only online, still requires those students to interact with other students as they progress through each 16-week course.

"Not all students are at the point where they want to be in an independent-study type course. Some students want to be in a traditional class or in a 15-person online class," said Nelson Soto, Harrison's associate provost for curriculum and instruction.

Merisotis, the Lumina Foundation chief, thinks the demands of employers, parents and state legislatures will force most colleges and universities to adopt competency-based techniques to ensure their graduates actually know what they're supposed to know, actually finish on time, and do so for a reasonable cost.

"There's so much economic pressure and so much potential for really dramatically bad outcomes that, really, it's forcing a lot of these changes," Merisotis said. "I think you will see competency-based learning becoming common in the majority of institutions in the next decade."

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