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The University of Texas System plans to make its first foray into competency-based education fittingly far-reaching.

The system’s forthcoming “personalized” credentials will be limited to the medical sciences, for now. But the new, competency-based curriculum will involve multiple institutions around the state, system officials said, with a track that eventually will stretch from high school, or even middle school, all the way to medical school.

Many details still need to be hashed out about the project, which the system announced this week. But several key elements are in place.

Competency on "This Week"

Aaron M. Brower, interim chancellor of University of Wisconsin Colleges, and Mike Offerman, a consultant and president emeritus of Capella University, will discuss competency-based education Friday on "This Week," Inside Higher Ed's free weekly news podcast. Sign up here to be notified of new podcasts.

Much of the new course content will be “mobile-first” -- meaning online and designed to be delivered on mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, system officials said. The online content will be adaptive, and respond to individual students. There will also be hybrid courses, which will feature classroom instruction.

The goal is to customize the learning experience for students while also creating a path that is “cross-institutional,” said Steve Mintz, executive director of the Institute for Transformational Learning, which is leading the work.

“It’s breaking barriers between undergraduate and graduate” programs, Mintz said. “It’s thinking about the curriculum as a whole.”

The track will feature certificate, undergraduate and graduate programs. But the first step will be a competency-based bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences, which the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley will begin offering next fall.

Tuition pricing is still being determined, system officials said. But high-performing students will be able to move through competency-based programs more quickly, they said, saving money on their way to a degree.

The Rio Grande Valley campus itself is a work in a progress. The new university, which is slated to open next year, will be the product of a consolidation between the system’s Brownsville and Pan American campuses. It will feature a new medical school.

“Working on this initiative has moved our vision for innovation in competency-based education from exciting to exhilarating,” Francisco Fernandez, the medical school’s dean, said in a written statement. “The future is really here now."

Faculty Role

The medical sciences were a natural fit, system officials said, because medicine is already heavily focused on competencies and experience-based learning. Programmatic accreditation, for example, typically is linked to competencies. And health professions are a growth field.

“We are targeting areas with very high employment demand,” Mintz said.

The system, which includes six health institutions as well as nine universities, educates two-thirds of the professional health care workers in Texas.

Engineering is a likely next area for the system to experiment with competency-based education, he said.

The news follows a recent announcement by the University of Michigan about its new competency-based master’s of health professions education. As in Texas, university officials in Michigan said medical sciences are a natural fit for the emerging form of higher education.

Likewise, the system in Texas joins the University of Wisconsin System in extending its competency-based curriculums across various institutions -- also featuring online components. Some observers say public university systems may be more likely to take the lead in creating competency-based degrees than flagship public institutions, where faculty resistance is more likely.

Even so, some faculty members in the University of Texas System are concerned about the announcement this week, said Derek Catsam, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. Catsam, who is co-chair of academic affairs and faculty quality for the system’s Faculty Advisory Council, said the Texas institute had not involved professors adequately in creating the program, at least so far.

“I don’t think they’ve brought us in as well as they could,” he said.

Administrators countered that faculty members were playing a leading role in designing the competency-based degrees. Elizabeth Heise, an associate professor of geology and oceanography, who chairs the system’s Faculty Advisory Council, agreed with that assertion.

“They are being included” in the program’s design, she said, adding that professors “don’t see it as a threat.”

Heise also said the new programs will be additive, and will create new opportunities for students and faculty members who want to try competency-based education.

“For the students it will serve, it will serve them very well,” said Heise. “We’re not replacing traditional medical education pathways.”

Catsam, however, worried that the institute might be over-enthused about the use of technology, which is a trendy "solution" to higher education's ills among some policy makers.

"We really can't be replaced with gadgets and apps," he said. "There are no panaceas and there really shouldn't be any shortcuts."

Building TEx

The system’s Board of Regents created the Institute for Transformational Learning in 2012 with $50 million in funding. It was tasked with improving student success and access through the use of technology.

The institute is building its own competency-based platform, but is drawing pieces from several vendors to put it together.

Marni Baker Stein, the institute’s chief innovation officer, described a “stack” of elements, dubbed TEx, for Total Educational Experience. TEx will include customer relationship software, adaptive technology, a “cross-contextual” user interface and mobile technology. RealizeIt from CCKF, Big Tomorrow and Robots and Pencils are some of the firms the system has tapped.

The curriculum will be tied to the credit-hour standard. That's partially because the system’s regional accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), has yet to sign off on “direct assessment” programs, which do not rely on the credit hour. In addition, the system will issue both a competency-based and a traditional transcript to graduates of the new degree programs.

Students will move through the curriculum in groups, Baker Stein said. Each term will feature competencies that are linked to credits. And students will be able to track their progress.

“Those credits, they stack up to courses,” she said. “Students can see a map -- and it’s actually a map.”

The competencies from one term will undergird the terms that follow. If students do not retain their “mastery” from a previous term, Baker Stein said the course software will remind them about those competencies, which they must master again.

The content is personalized and adjusts to a student’s mastery level through the “constant use of diagnostics,” said Mintz. Data collected through the platform can be used to help students with remediation, he said, or by adding additional material as “enrichment.” It will also bolster student support systems, such as coaching and advising.

Students can prove they have mastered competencies by completing simulations, team-based projects and clinical experiences. And the more traditional course content will be "gamified" in an attempt to make it as engaging as possible.

The system wants to “open windows to students about what it’s like to practice medicine,” said Baker Stein. “We want their learning experiences to go with them into the field.”

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