Learning How to Bring New Models Into the Mix

September 30, 2013

Competency-based education is not new. Not even close. At its core, it is basically trying to bring what we had in the pre-industrialized education era back to life: more personalized learning progression. Indeed, if somebody presented our current model as a slick new innovation to make higher education more efficient and effective—"hey, let's switch to a time-based, structured model using an industrial strategy from factories to fix our education challenges"—one can only imagine the backlash from thoughtful academics. But this system is what we grew up with, were hired into, and helped run for more than a century.

I'm not trying to disparage our modal models; they work well for some students and clearly helped make public higher education more accessible. However, competency-based models, known by lots of different names, are trying to bring personalization, flexibility, and learning-centered progression back more prominently into the mix. By building on a foundation of clear learning expectations, well-designed curricular resources and assessments, and more personally focused instructional and advising support, these models break from our now-traditional time-based progression. They adapt to a broader range of changing students with diverse learning needs, and help answer some key challenges—in particular, meeting the needs of striving older and working students.

Of course, some on-ground institutions have always leveraged this strategy, including Goddard College, which has offered a version of this model for decades. More recently, online institutions like Western Governors University are using high-tech infrastructures and personalized support by mentors to bring a more scalable version of competency-based education to life. However, we are only just starting to see such innovations take shape. The efforts of Austin Community College, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Southern New Hampshire University, New Charter University, Northern Arizona University, and Texas Southmost College are only a few of the other larger-scale projects in progress or on the horizon.

We have a lot to learn about how these models fit in the mix. We need solid data to understand how they can best be adopted in stand-alone institutions or as specialized programs in existing institutions. Moreover, we need to explore for whom they are best suited. We also need better tools to help bring the right data at the right moment in the right way to students and faculty so they can effectively navigate the journey through competency acquisition to degree completion. Indeed, early learning from competency-based-learning innovators shows us that motivated and independent learners, who seem to do best with these models, want and need more frequent feedback.

In short, we should "re-embrace" these innovations, welcome them into the mix, and learn how to make the most of them. Competency-based learning is neither new nor novel, but it can be brought to life in new ways with today's technologies and become an important addition to the ecosystem of higher education.

Mark David Milliron is co-founder and chief learning officer of Civitas Learning, and was formerly chancellor of Western Governors University-Texas.