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Northern Arizona University has inked a deal with Pearson to co-develop three fully online baccalaureate degree programs based on the increasingly popular and somewhat controversial “competency based” model of higher education.

Beginning in January, the university plans to offer competency-based courses and bachelor’s degrees in business administration, computer information technology and liberal studies. The courses will be aimed largely at adult students who are looking to earn credit for professional and life experience and close the remaining distance to a college degree.  

Unlike traditional college courses, these courses will rely heavily on course materials — a buffet of traditional textbooks, recorded lectures and automated tutoring software — to instill students with the knowledge and skills they need to complete assignments and pass exams. Instructors will be available on demand, but the university hopes to assemble a library of nonhuman learning resources effective enough so that students will only need to call on professors as a last resort.

“In higher education, the major cost driver is always the cost of faculty,” says Fred Hurst, senior vice president for extended campuses at Northern Arizona. Rather than expending an equal amount of faculty time and attention on each student, the idea here is to reallocate valuable faculty time away from students who do not need it and spend it only on those students who do.

Theoretically this will reduce the cost of providing the course while acknowledging the personal learning needs of individual students, says Hurst. (The university’s branding strategy is oriented to that second part: the three competency-based baccalaureate programs will be housed in Northern Arizona’s new Personalized Learning Division.)

Northern Arizona’s prospective business plan for the Personalized Learning Division nevertheless accounts for an uncommonly economical use of faculty time. “The assumption is that, on average, a faculty member will be spending a half-hour per week with a student,” says Hurst. This could vary widely, he adds, depending on how many students do in fact require faculty intervention in order to learn a concept. “In some cases it will be a very small amount,” says Hurst, “and in other cases it will be considerably more.”

University officials emphasize that they will not cap the amount of time instructors have to spend on students who need help. To the contrary, Northern Arizona intends for its faculty to be just as available as its traditional faculty, if not more so. “Our expectation of [faculty members] is they will spend the amount of time they need to not only help students understand material within the discipline they’re studying, but also help them deal with work-life balance, study skills, whatever is standing in the way of that student being successful,” says Hurst.

The degree to which the Personalized Learning Division generates profit for the university, however, may turn on the extent to which students actually end up availing themselves of the expertise of live professors. And while John Haeger, the university’s president, says he does not necessarily “expect” the new division to turn into a cash cow (although he does hope for it to break even in four or five years), he and Hurst believe that digital resources have matured to a point where it is at least plausible that only a minority of students will want or need regular contact with a professor.

Similar to Western Governors University, the most visible example of competency based online education, tuition for the new Northern Arizona programs will work on a ticking-clock principle: students will pay a flat fee of $2,500 every six months. Rather than holding scheduled class sessions, the university will invite them to work through the material at their own pace and take exams when they feel ready.

Northern Arizona’s contract with Pearson is good for three years. The university will pay the company $875 per enrolled student every six months.

The courses in the new programs — Northern Arizona and Pearson are shooting for 90 of them ready to go by January — will be presided over by new faculty members, which the university intends to hire as needed, mostly on an adjunct or part-time basis, according to Haeger. These new faculty will collaborate with current Northern Arizona professors and instructional designers employed by Pearson to design the courses, which will go through the university’s normal approval process.

Despite the unconventional nature of the competency-based model, Northern Arizona does not expect the Personalized Learning Division will ruffle feathers at the university’s regional accrediting agency, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which is scheduled to review the new programs in the fall, says Haeger, the president. “We were very upfront with the North Central accrediting people,” he says. “They understand pretty well what we’re doing.”

Nor does Haeger expect any trouble from the U.S. Department of Education, which controls the federal financial aid purse and has expressed mixed feelings about the competency-based model.

Allen Reich, chair of the Faculty Senate and a professor in the university’s hotel management school, said he and other faculty members he has talked to about the new competency based division are enthusiastic. “Personally I think it’s necessary and exciting, because we need to meet the needs of a new and growing market,” says Reich.

Contrary to some traditional faculty at other universities, Reich said he is not bothered by the competency-based model. Demonstrable competency is the objective of traditional higher education too, he says; it does not matter whether students get there on their own or with a professor’s help.

“Because of all the new technology applications, there will be new ways of doing things that we’re not used to — but things that we’re going to have to become used to because of having less money and fewer tenure-track faculty,” says Reich.

Northern Arizona is not the only public institution to explore competency-based learning as a way to usher more adults to degree completion. The University of Wisconsin System earlier this month announced plans to build its own competency-based degree programs. In recent years, public higher education systems in Indiana, Washington and Texas have created partnerships with the nonprofit Western Governors University to make competency-based programs available in those states.

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