In a recently released report prepared for the National Commission on Financing 21st Century Higher Education, current problems facing higher education in the United States are considered, and recommendations are made to allow for personalized learning to occur as postsecondary education becomes a platform for lifelong learning.
The report, “Transformations Affecting Postsecondary Education Report,” begins by taking a closer look at the credit hour, which is responsible for virtually everything that happens on campus, from faculty workload to financial aid eligibility for students. The main goal for students is to collect enough credits as they are required to in order to graduate with a degree.
However, author Jeffrey J. Selingo suggests that the credit hour is no longer applicable, as the idea of “competency-based education” transforms the way we look at education, taking students away from spending time sitting in classrooms. The strategy, states Selingo, is becoming a popular method for shortening the amount of time necessary to complete a degree program, reduce the costs associated with higher education, and also becoming a better method for demonstrating knowledge.
The author states that competency-based education offers students the ability to learn at their own pace by showing what they know rather than sitting in a classroom for a specified period of time. While the concept originated in the 1970s, it has only been used by nontraditional universities until recently.
However, attitudes are beginning to change toward the method, in part due to name-brand universities, such as the University of Wisconsin, Northern Arizona University, and Southern New Hampshire University, introducing their own self-paced degree programs.
The method works through the creation of learning outcomes by full-time faculty members, as well as the assessments necessary for students to prove that they have mastered the information. The majority of the interaction with students is accomplished through a number of coaches and evaluators who are experts in their field and brought in by the university on a part-time basis as they are needed.
The method saves the university money, which is then passed on to students in the form of lower tuition costs. Many of the schools who apply such a program use an “all-you-can-eat” pricing method in which students are charged a flat fee per semester and are allowed to take as many classes as they would like to in that time.
Selingo suggests that the power to change higher education lies within online courses. However, many do not see the courses as having the same merit as traditional classes taken in a classroom setting. When the classes were first introduced in the 1990s, they were viewed as a “cheap knock-off.” By 2011, a survey from the Pew Research Center found just 29% of adults in the US felt online courses were equivalent in value to courses taken in traditional classrooms.
He recommends that in order to change higher education, students need to follow personalized pathways to a credential, with how and where they learn being flexible. Students would be guided through a combination of coaching and electronic advising. Badges and microcredentials would be received and placed in an electronic learning portfolio that can be taken with them throughout their life. The portfolio would showcase what they know and allow employers to determine where gaps in knowledge exist and fill with additional education later on.