One size fits all does not fit today’s college student. In the past two decades, college students have changed, and they will continue to change. Today, the majority of college students are nontraditional students—they are over 25, are working, and have families. These savvy 21st century consumers need and expect an education that is tailored to their individual needs. Colleges and universities need to develop models, programs, and systems that fit students rather than expecting students to fit into their systems.

More than ever, a college credential is key to a better job and better earnings. And, in addition to the more than 36 million adults in the United States with some college and no degree, there is an ever-increasing number of Americans with bachelor’s degrees who need graduate degrees to advance their careers. Finding high quality, affordable ways to help these busy adults get the education they need is a national imperative, and colleges and universities must find new ways to educate 21st century students. One of the most promising innovations in higher education is competency-based education.

"Online competency-based education stands out as the innovation most likely to disrupt higher education." Dr. Clayton Christensen,
Harvard Business School, Innosight

What is Competency-Based Education?

Competency-based education (CBE) measures learning rather than time. Instead of being designed around semesters, classes, and syllabuses, CBE allows students to advance as soon as they can demonstrate that they have mastered the subject matter. With CBE, the focus is not on where or how the student learns, but that the learning occurred and the student has acquired a defined set of knowledge and skills.

Most traditional learning models hold time constant (fixed-length semesters or terms for each course) and let learning vary. In contrast, CBE holds learning constant and lets time vary. With CBE, students, not the institution, set the pace. Students come to college with varying levels of knowledge and very different learning styles, and CBE lets them move quickly through what they already know so they can focus on the things they still need to learn.

Executed effectively, CBE can result in lower costs for students, a higher level of student support, and shorter times to graduation.

Competency-based education is becoming increasingly popular today, and many institutions are in the process of developing CBE programs. Western Governors University developed and pioneered the use of CBE, and has been offering competency-based degree programs since 1999.

How Does Competency-Based Education Work at WGU?

Competencies

Properly selected and well-defined competencies are the foundation of a competency-based degree program. Competencies are the knowledge and skills a student must be able to demonstrate to pass a course, and ultimately, to earn a degree. At WGU, they are identified in collaboration with program councils, which include representatives from employers and other universities. By working with industry leaders to define competencies, WGU ensures that students acquire the skills they need to be prepared for their careers. Once competencies have been established, program councils continue to meet regularly to review them, ensuring that they stay relevant and up-to-date.

Courses

WGU faculty members develop courses that map to the competencies identified by program councils. With CBE at WGU, there are no instructor-led classes. Course titles and content are much the same as those found in traditional settings, but all of the materials, which WGU calls learning resources, are available to students online 24/7. And, all of the course materials are designed and selected to help students develop required competencies.

Learning Resources

For each course at WGU, students use course materials and other study materials designed to ensure that they acquire the knowledge and skills they need to demonstrate competence. In addition to textbooks (most provided as e-books at no additional charge), students have access to practice tests, webinars, interactive exercises, simulations, and videos. WGU provides a variety of different learning resources to accommodate the different learning styles and preferences of students. Rather than creating learning resources, WGU acquires them from the best external sources, ensuring that they are up-to-date and relevant.

Assessments

Because competency-based learning is based on demonstrating knowledge, high-quality, accurate assessments are vital. Using the competencies identified for each course, WGU faculty members develop assessments—either objective exams or performance assessments (papers, presentations, case studies, etc.). Objective assessments, which are multiple choice, true/false, etc., are always proctored and can be taken from home using online proctoring. Many assessments are created by third parties as well.

WGU Faculty Key Factor in Competency-Based Education

Mentors

Competency-based learning changes the role of faculty from that of a “sage on a stage” to one of a “guide on the side.” Courses don't require set meeting times, and the majority of WGU faculty members, called Mentors, work with students one-on-one to guide, coach, and instruct. Their sole focus is on helping students learn and progress. Student Mentors, who hold master’s degrees and have relevant work experience, work with students individually from enrollment through graduation, helping them plan their studies and offering ongoing encouragement and motivational support. Course Mentors, who typically hold PhDs in their fields, are the “professors” for each course, working with students while they are engaged in particular courses, leading discussion groups and webinars as well as providing individualized instruction as needed.

Program Faculty

Other WGU faculty members, Program Managers and Curriculum Developers, are responsible for developing new programs, courses, and curriculum as well as ensuring that existing programs are relevant and up to date. They collaborate with Program Councils as well as Mentors to ensure that degree programs are helping students acquire the competencies they need to succeed in their fields.

Evaluators

A separate group of Evaluators, all with master’s degrees or PhDs in their respective disciplines, review and evaluate performance assessments—the papers and presentations students submit to demonstrate competency in some courses. Evaluators and students submitting assessments are anonymous to each other, which maximizes the objectivity of the evaluations.

What is Competency-Based Education Like for the Student?

Getting Started

Because competency-based education allows students to learn at their own pace and on their own schedules, students can enroll at WGU on the first day of any month. Terms are six months long to accommodate the needs of busy adult students. Longer terms allow students the flexibility to take a few weeks away from studies as needed to take care of issues related to family, health, or job obligations.

On the first day of the term, the student and his or her Student Mentor work together to plan the coursework for the term. Together they will develop a Degree Plan, which maps out a schedule for completing courses, by term, all the way to graduation. The Degree Plan, course materials, and other needed study tools all reside online on the Student Portal. Students who are able to complete courses faster are free to go faster than their original Degree Plan, and this allows many students to accelerate their time to degree and graduate sooner.

Moving through Coursework

Once the student has established a Degree Plan, she can begin her coursework immediately. The learning resources, including e-texts, are available online 24/7. For many courses, students have the opportunity to take a pre-assessment, an exam that determines what they already know and identifies competencies they still need to master. Students who do well on their pre-assessments often elect to take the final assessment for the course quickly. If they pass (they need to earn the equivalent of a B grade or better to pass), they have completed the course and can move on to the next course. If the pre-assessment identifies areas students still need to learn, the student can focus her studies on those specific areas rather than spending time studying material she has already mastered. When the student and her Mentor agree that she is ready, she can take the assessment, and when she passes, she is ready to move on to the next course. If the course requires a paper, case study, or presentation, the student submits them for evaluation and receives feedback through the Portal.

Note: At WGU, all objective assessments are proctored, most using online, remote proctors.

Faculty Support

Competency-based education, while rigorous and challenging, does not mean that students “go it alone.” Each student has individual support from their Student Mentor, meeting by telephone weekly, and emailing and communicating as often as needed. For each course, the student will connect with a Course Mentor, as well as other students taking the course. Course Mentors help students work through course subject matter as well as providing online discussions and webinars aimed at enriching the learning experience.

WGU hosts communities for students to provide an online gathering place for them to discuss course topics, ask questions, and offer each other advice and support. These communities are hosted and monitored by faculty members.

Completing a Degree

CBE allows students to take or turn in assessments on a schedule that works for them, and as a result, students complete courses at WGU—and graduate—every day. While all students may attend commencement in person (or online), graduates receive their diplomas as soon as they complete their degree requirements, regardless of the date.

The Future of Higher Education?

Competency-based education is gaining widespread acceptance and positive recognition from the White House, Congress, many states, and throughout the higher education community. CBE programs have been featured in the recent “Ready to Work” report prepared by Vice President Biden and in President Obama’s plan and fact sheet for higher education as a potential solution to higher education’s rising costs. With bipartisan support, the U.S. House of Representatives also recently unanimously passed H.R. 3136, the Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act of 2014, which will allow colleges and universities to experiment with competency-based learning models.

Employers are increasingly seeing the benefits of competency-based education because it assures them that the graduates they hire have mastered the knowledge and skills they need. And, more and more colleges and universities are developing their own competency-based programs. While most are online, competency-based learning can take place on campuses, in person, as well. As the U.S. continues to look for ways to grow and sustain a well-trained and educated workforce, we need to continue to expand the options for earning a college degree. Competency-based education, with its focus on measuring and ensuring learning, is an innovation that works for the 21st century.

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