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Competency-based education is going upmarket. Three brand-name, Big Ten-affiliated institutions are now offering degrees in this emerging form of higher education.

Yet the new programs at the University of Michigan, Purdue University and the University of Wisconsin System are not aimed at the vast numbers of undergraduates who come to those campuses for the traditional college experience. They are narrow in scope, experimental and not all that sexy.

The Wisconsin System’s “Flexible Option” is the most extensive and established of the programs. Its five competency-based, online credentials, which range from a certificate to bachelor’s degrees, are designed mostly for adult students with some college credits but no degree. And they are offered by the system’s two-year institutions, its extension program, and the Milwaukee campus -- not the Madison campus with the lake and the 80,000-seat Camp Randall Stadium.

Even so, several observers said the measured arrivals of Michigan, Purdue and the Wisconsin System will give a boost to competency-based education. They are big-name institutions that are trying a different form of instruction, which remains both promising and controversial.

“It affirms this new emphasis on student learning outcomes,” said Michelle R. Weise, a senior research fellow with the Clayton Christensen Institute, who recently published a book with Christensen on the potential for online, competency-based education in workforce development.

Weise said other colleges probably are paying attention to Wisconsin and co., in ways that they might not to lower-profile pioneers in competency-based education, such as Southern New Hampshire and Capella Universities. “The network effect is always there in higher education.”

A common thread with the three institutions’ experiments, university officials said, is that they seek to focus more on what students know and can do rather than how much time they spend in class.

“They will emerge with proven competencies,” Mitch Daniels, Purdue’s president, said last month in a written statement announcing the university’s transdisciplinary, competency-based bachelor’s degree. “Businesses will not have to guess whether these students really are ready for the market, ready for their business, ready for the world.”

Michigan joined the party last week, with an announcement that its regional accreditor had approved a new master’s of health professions education. The competency-based degree, which the medical school offers, is not based on the credit-hour standard. It is also a distance-education degree track and lacks campus-based instruction.

The university began offering the degree last year. It is designed for practicing physicians, nurses, dentists and others professions in health fields who have some teaching responsibilities and want to climb the career ladder. Most students will have terminal degrees and a decade or more of professional experience.

In a Web video about the program, Larry Gruppen, Michigan’s chair of medical education, said the program combines practical skills and scholarship.

“You will learn through doing relevant, education-related activities,” he said, “not by sitting through a series of lectures.”

'Professional Activities'

Michigan’s medical school submitted an application for the degree program to the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), said John A. Vasquez, a program manager for the degree. The commission issued a green light last month. Michigan officials now will seek federal-aid eligibility from the U.S. Department of Education.

A competency-based education program wasn’t such a big stretch, said Vasquez. That’s because medical professions have long used competencies and focused on task-based learning. Medical residents, for example, spend years working to hone their skills in well-defined areas.

Faculty members and administrators at the medical school worked for about three years designing the master’s degree. Vasquez said the central challenge was to gear the program to seasoned medical professionals. 

“How are we going to get these people to come back to school?” was one key question, he said.



So Michigan brought the master’s degree to students, with distance learning that relies on interaction with mentors via phone, email, Skype or in-person for students who are nearby.

The program “does not have classes or courses in the traditional sense,” Michigan said in its application to the HLC. “Rather, the key unit of learning is the professional activity, which in many ways resembles a credit of independent study.”

After enrolling, each student’s experience and learning is reviewed by a “competency assessment panel,” which assigns credit for existing competencies. Students are then assigned a mentor who is their main faculty contact. But students also interact with faculty assessors and subject-matter experts.

“The main role of the mentor is to promote learning through professional activities, facilitate learner connections with subject matter experts and learning resources,” according to the university’s application, as well as to “guide the learner in the process of professional and educational planning, and advise the learner on any issues related to the program."

To demonstrate competency, students choose from 21 activities that are tied to the various health professions (see chart), depending on which ones are part of their job. These include tasks (see chart) like designing and beginning a research study, creating a teaching portfolio and critiquing a curricular change.

Activities “map” to the program’s required competencies. More demanding ones might be linked to five competencies, the university said, with one or two on the low end. These competencies in turn match up with credit equivalencies.

Students must provide documentation and evidence of competency, which could be a paper, video presentation, PowerPoint, grant application, portfolio or some combination of multiple pieces of evidence.

To successfully earn the degree, students must earn between 32 and 39 credit equivalencies. However, the program is a “direct assessment” degree, which means that competencies rather than credits are its currency. Another graduation requirement is that students pass a final “summative assessment,” which is based on their learning portfolio.

The pace throughout is flexible, and students could finish more quickly than the typical program length of three years.

Vasquez said the university created the degree because of a national shortage of medical school faculty who can teach in a comprehensive way. Many clinicians, he said, have begun master’s or doctoral programs but never finished them.

Competency-based learning “makes sense for the health professions,” said Vasquez. “We can say you’re competent because you know what you’re doing and why.”

That approach, however, might be trickier for undergraduate or other programs at Michigan, he acknowledged. Campus-wide faculty groups, for example, might balk at the wide adoption of competency-based curriculums.

New Model

The Wisconsin System is one of four institutions to receive approval from the Education Department and a regional accreditor for a direct assessment program. That degree is the Flexible Option’s associate in arts and science, which is self-paced.

The system is seeking department approval to offer financial aid for other online credentials that are free from the credit-hour standard, said David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at Wisconsin’s Extension program.

Schejbal said faculty members are also working on two new competency-based degrees -- a bachelor’s degree in professional studies and a master’s in geographic information systems. The professional studies degree will be aimed at adult degree completers, he said, and will be built by combining several new stackable certificates.

The system is being intentional in how it creates the new curriculums, said Schejbal. That means starting with top-level competencies and then working backward to get more granular. He said faculty members are using the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile and the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) project from the Association of American Colleges and Universities as guides as they design the programs.

Purdue’s competency-based degree is housed at the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, which serves as a “transformational engine” in the university’s College of Technology. Last month Daniels gave a $500,000 prize to the Institute for its proposal to create a competency-based degree.

Faculty spent a year prior to that announcement designing the transdisciplinary bachelor’s degree program, which accepted an initial cohort of 36 university students this fall. The students came from the traditional university. Next year the university plans to begin admitting students directly to the program through the Institute. It will be open to students in any discipline.

Students in the program will graduate with the same degree, the university said, but with one or more concentrations that reflect their interests. Some of the concentrations will link up with existing Purdue majors, while others will emerge from the new program.

Purdue’s program features concurrent, group-based learning sessions, which will touch on multiple subjects, the university said. And a faculty mentor will be assigned to each student.

One reason the new programs from Purdue, Michigan and the Wisconsin System have drawn notice is that public universities face extra layers of bureaucracy when creating degree programs that look different. As a result, private institutions like Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire have dominated the field.

Schejbal said the regulatory process has been slow for Wisconsin's competency-based degrees. And adjusting administrative procedures at the system has also been a challenge, particularly those around financial aid and student registration.

“It’s really rebuilding all of the back-end processes from scratch,” he said, because the new degrees “don’t fit the model.”

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