Commentary

Time Is Right for Colleges to Shift From Assembly-Line Education

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

September 14, 2015

Competency-based education, which focuses on the results of education — what students have learned — rather than the process of education — number of courses taken, credits earned, seat time served — is hot. Google it and you get hundreds of thousands of choices.

The federal government is paying for it. Colleges and universities are adopting it, with 150 institutions enrolling some 200,000 students in such programs. Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Alverno College, among other institutions, have built national reputations based on their work in this area.

In June the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions outlined the criteria that accreditors will now use in defining and approving competency-based education programs.

Yet recently, as I talked with two education reporters about what they considered the "big" issues in higher education, they rolled their eyes when I mentioned competency-based education. One characterized the term as incomprehensible jargon, a buzzword, and the other dismissed it as the latest education fad. The MOOC of 2015.

Their skepticism is not surprising. Thirty years of a national school-reform movement have produced a seemingly endless number of silver bullets. But competency-based education is not the fad du jour. It’s here to stay, and it promises to become the norm in education. Here are a few reasons why.

First, the United States is making a transition from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy. Industrial economies, epitomized by the assembly line, focus on common processes. They are time-based and fixed in length. In education, this translates into a common four-year undergraduate program, preceded by 12 years of schooling, semester-long courses, credit hours, and Carnegie units. Industrial education systems are rooted in seat time, the amount of instruction students receive. The programs assume that all students can learn the same things in the same period of time.

In contrast, information economies focus on outcomes; process and time are variable. In education, this shifts the focus from teaching to learning. The emphasis is on the skills and knowledge that students must master in order to graduate rather than on the number of courses and credits they have to accumulate. Programs are individualized, and the length of instruction varies with student mastery. Competency-based education reflects this shift and heralds the coming transformation of education.

Second, the number of higher-education providers is booming: Libraries, museums, symphony orchestras, corporations, community groups, think tanks, and other knowledge-producing organizations offer an astounding variety of classes online, in person, and in combinations of the two.

They vary from massive open online courses, enrolling tens of thousands of students, to apprenticeships involving a handful. They offer instruction 24/7, anyplace. The classes vary in length from a few hours to several years. They do not fit the current academic accounting system of credits and course hours, and the only way to measure them is by what their students learned. The result is the creation of lifelong transcripts of the skills and knowledge that the students have gained.

Third, as brain research has progressed, we have found both that people learn best in different ways and that the length of time necessary for learning varies widely. One-size-fits-all education has become an anachronism. Digital technologies offer unprecedented opportunities to individualize education to meet each student’s learning needs. Once again, the loss of common-length courses will require a new academic currency.

This wave of experimentation marks the beginning of the transition, but these are not the first experiments in competency. In 1973, Alverno College, in Milwaukee, created a competency-based undergraduate program that attracted visitors from around the world. But it was not replicated. It came too early — at the dawn of the economic shift, before the proliferation of providers, and before recent advances in research on learning. But today the timing is right.

These experiments need to be watched, assessed, and supported so that institutions can create and expand the infrastructure for competency-based education, including an alternative to the time-based Carnegie unit. This is merely the most visible aspect of a revolution occurring in education at all levels: the shift to learning outcomes and learner-centered education.

Every institution of higher education will have to make this shift, and the time to plan for it is now. History shows that the future of institutions that fail to act will be determined for them by policy makers and by pioneering competitors — inside and outside traditional higher education.

Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. He served as president of Teachers College of Columbia University from 1994 to 2006.