Learning more about personalized and competency-based learning in CFHE12

Here are a few musings based about the webinar entitled: Walking the talk AND NAU: Personalized Learning.

There were two speakers.

The first provided a brief introduction to the Southern New Hampshire University model by Yvonne Simon, Chief Learning Architect at SNHU.

The second was Fred Hurst, Senior VP of Extended Campuses at NAU. He shared a bit of the vision for a new series of what they hope to be personalized learning programs.

Both of these models embrace personalized and competency-based learning as key elements. Going into this, I had three goals.

1) Get a better understanding of each school’s model.
2) Understand how this model impacts the mentoring relationship between students and instructors.
3) This was a very practical question. I wanted to understand whether or not these programs are categorized, according to HLC and the DOE as distance education or correspondence programs.

Given that those were my goals, here is what I learned.

1) Get a better understanding of each school’s model.

The presentations were short…only 20 minutes each with minimal time for questions and answers. However, they were long enough to give a quick snapshot for the vision of the model being pursued by each school. If you want a more detailed description of the SNHU vision, I strongly suggest the book, Saving Higher Education: The Integrated, Competency-based Three-year Bachelor’s Degree Program. While I am painting with broad strokes and risk overgeneralizing, here are some of the attributes.

Instead of measuring learning by seat time, learners are assessed based upon what they do or do not know. Instead of handing out grades on assignments and moving on, when learners do not reach a competency, they are given opportunity to continue their study until they can demonstrate that competency. Instead of lectures and planned traditional lesson plans, there are resources and activities that allow one to progress toward mastery of a given competency. Instead of breaking up content by courses and units, they are instead broken up by competency. Instead of a model driven by courses, credits, and semesters; the focus is upon learners and their competency. Instead of having a single role called instructor, there is opportunity to, in the words from the webinar, “unbundle the instructor.” So, you can have separate roles like reviewers, peers, and mentors who are outside of the formal learning environment (alumni, people from business, etc.). Instead of charging by credit and course, you can charge by time periods, sort of like a subscription (a flat rate for 6 months, for example…and you can progress as quickly as you can demonstrate competency). There is much more that I want to understand about this model, as I hope to build a competency-based program in the near future.

2) Understand how this model impacts the mentoring relationship between students and instructors.

I asked a question about this during the webinar and I got a typed answer from the Chief Learning Architect at SNHU, noting that these mentoring relationships, based upon the early pilot, seem quite positive. In fact, students and mentors from the summer were still staying in contact. This is part of what I am seeking in an emerging model of higher education. I see deep value, especially for the undergraduates, but also graduate students, in the higher education experience involving deep, substantive, and lasting mentoring relationships. It appears that this personalized learning model, when done well and deliberately, is quite capable of cultivating such relationships. That is very promising! This presence of deep and lasting mentoring relationships is, in my opinion, higher education at its best, and my eyes and ears are wide open when I see new models that are capable of not only maintaining, but expanding on the power of mentoring.

3) This was a very practical question. I wanted to understand whether or not these programs are categorized, according to HLC and the DOE as distance education or correspondence programs.

I asked this question and discovered from Fred Hurst that the two programs are being labeled as neither correspondence nor distance learning, but a third category called direct assessment. That makes great sense, and I hope to find/see some formal documentation about this from HLC, the DOE, and/or other key stakeholders as well. I value the accountability of accreditation and other outside bodies, but only when they avoid overly rigid definitions that inhibit promising practices, emerging pedagogies and designs, and calculated educational innovation. This news about a third category is a good sign.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.