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Part of Western Governors University

March 26, 2020

Online University Experience

WGU Indiana reacts to COVID-19 (part 3).

Competency based education Q&A with WGU Indiana Chancellor Alison Bell.

COVID-19 has forced institutions to move to e-learning and many are adopting a pass/fail model. The switch is worrying students that such a transition may damage their GPA and, as a result, have a negative impact on their future eligibility. While GPA is not measured at WGU and our competency-based learning model does not provide letter grades, it is a successful alternative to assess student progress. 

Technician looking thru a microscope

WGU Indiana Chancellor Alison Bell answered some frequently asked questions about the unique benefits of a competency-based education model. 

Q: What is Competency-Based Education (CBE)?

This question is one I get a lot and I think it’s often a little hard to comprehend because our competency-based model is such a departure from what a lot of us experienced in our educational journeys. 

Basically, we measure what students know and we don’t connect learning to “time in the seat”. Students are given access to learning resources and are supported by our faculty to learn what they do not already know. When students are ready to demonstrate their competency, they complete an assessment to demonstrate that competency, and they earn a credit. Students can complete that assessment when they are ready, whether that’s at the beginning of a term, two months into the term, or at the end. Our competencies are defined by industry and academic leaders in fields. So, let’s break this down to a topic. 

Using college-level algebra as an example of a requirement in a degree program. WGU has consulted with industry and academic experts to identify the specific skills that define competency in college level algebra. Using those defined skills, we build assessments that will give students the opportunity to demonstrate that competency — that they have the knowledge necessary at the level expected — and then once they demonstrate that competency, credit for that course is earned. 

Q: Due to the current impact of the COVID-19 crisis, many schools are transitioning to online learning and many of those institutions are also adopting a pass/fail model, or a non-letter grade model. For many of the students at traditional universities caught in the transition, there may be concern about how the pass/fail model will impact their GPAs and their ability to go on to grad school. What can you share about WGU’s competency-based model, which also does not rely on GPA, that might ease those concerns? 

When a graduate of WGU applies to a graduate program and needs to share a GPA as a part of their application, we assign a "B" grade for all courses in which students have demonstrated competency (which is the minimum expectation for passing a course). Demonstrating competency in a domain or subject area is actually a higher bar than earning a passing grade in a traditional letter-graded class.

To demonstrate competency indicates that a student both knows the subject and is able to apply that knowledge in relevant contexts. They demonstrate this through passing rigorous exams or through submission of projects that are evaluated by our subject matter expert evaluation faculty.

Q: What makes the CBE model so unique?

CBE focuses entirely on measuring students’ knowledge and their ability to apply that knowledge free of the restrictions of a predetermined timeline. Our students come to us with relevant work experience that has resulted in learning. Through CBE, we measure that learning and award credit for what the student already knows so that they can spend their time learning subjects in which they are not yet competent.

For example, a paraprofessional in a K-12 setting who enrolls in a teacher education degree program might have enough knowledge and experience to demonstrate competency in some of the required courses for their teaching degree by virtue of the fact that they’ve worked in a classroom setting. In the CBE model, that student can demonstrate the competency that they’ve developed through work experience and take the time that they need to learn and understand what they have not learned yet. CBE is a model that makes sense for adults, particularly, but it truly makes sense for most learners because we all learn different subjects at different rates and in different ways. WGU gives students the flexibility to customize their learning based on their own learning style and experiences.

Q: What is one of the greatest ways CBE benefits students?

Our competency-based model allows students to move at the pace that works best for them. They can demonstrate competency quickly and move on, but they can also take longer on certain subjects that take a little longer for them to master.

Q: How does WGU accommodate the CBE model if it allows students to move at their own pace? 

At WGU, students do their work in six-month terms rather than three-month semesters. Students work with their faculty Program Mentor at the start of each six-month term to select which courses they will work to complete and a timeline for completing each course based on that students existing knowledge, comfort with particular academic subjects, and other priorities in that students life like work and family obligations. That changes the pacing and gives our students flexibility within that six months.

Many students are able to take advantage of that flexibility to accelerate and earn more credit within each term without paying any more tuition because our tuition is a flat rate each term. It’s not easy to accelerate but it’s possible at WGU Indiana. Most importantly, the CBE model allows our students to take their time while moving through the term and complete their coursework around their life schedule. If you’re working full time and you have a family, you can use the six months to set up a schedule that fits your day-to-day.

Chancellor Bell has more than 20 years of higher education leadership experience, including four years of prior experience with WGU Indiana as their general manager of operations from 2010-2014. Bell currently serves on the advisory board for TechPoint and for Career Ready Indiana, an Indianapolis Business Journal publication. She previously served on several higher education committees during her tenure at IUPUI, including: Academic Policies and Procedures Committee, the Campus Advising Council, the Recruitment Council, the Welcoming Campus Task Force, and the Mid-North Promise Program.

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