A personal experience left me longing for some competency-based learning.

Yesterday, as I listened to a webinar about the personalized and competency-based learning models explored at places like NAU and SNHU, I appreciated the chance to further consider the affordances and limitations of such models. Later that night, I had an experience that gave me new experiential understanding of the subject. As a professor and researcher in the area of digital learning environments, I am continually applying, registering, and taking online courses at different Universities. I have now studied at over twenty Universities. It is a wonderful, albeit a bit expensive, way to learn about different models for distance learning while gaining new knowledge in other disciplines (interdisciplinary problem solving is a passion of mine).

Toward that end, I am taking a couple of courses right now, one at a large Christian University and another at a very large for-profit. In one of the classes, I received the grade on my first paper. Prior to submission, the instructor noted that we should be careful to review the rubric as he is bound by the University to grade specifically and only by the criteria laid out in it. This rubric was a generic rubric for a graduate-level paper. It did not have anything in it about the specific instructions for this paper. When I received the grade, I was humbled to discover that I jut received the lowest grade in my last twenty years of graduate study (two masters, a doctorate, and those other 17+ schools). It was not as if it was a failing grade, but it was humbling. It was also completely fair, based entirely upon where my paper fell short with regard to the rubric. However, the rubric had nothing to say about my grasp of the concepts that were the required focus of the paper. There was no mentoring or feedback that would help me grow in my understanding of the discipline. While I do not think that it is essential for a University to move to an entirely personalized or competency-based model in order to address this limitation, it does speak to a persistent and prevalent limitation in the current state of affairs with some courses and campuses. The focus in many places remains upon grades and rubrics rich with points about form over substance. At minimum, traditional schools can benefit from taking a few tips from places like NAU, SNHU, Western Governor’s, etc. Such a personal experience left me longing for a bit more competency-based learning.

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.

Informal Interactions and Faculty / Student Mentoring

I just finished listening to a webinar about UCF’s blended and online learning efforts. It was a webinar entitled Net Pedagogies: New Models of Teaching and Learning, and it is part of one of the newest MOOCS (CFHE12). I appreciated the many specific and practical aspects that were shared, especially the different types of faculty training that they have designed in order to meet different needs (designing and teaching a new course, teaching a course that was designed by someone else, etc.). Many of the model and ideas that he shared speak directly to how I spend much of my time as an AVP of Academics for Continuing and Distance Education.

So, in the spirit of this blog (musings), I allowed myself to wander into another area. I continue to value the perspectives of faculty who are skeptical, cynical, or downright adversarial to online learning. There is much good that comes from listening to and learning from what is sometimes coined as neo-luddite perspectives on online learning. Given that I work/serve as a liberal arts University, one of the more compelling critiques and lamentations relates to faculty-student relationships. Some of our “best” face-to-face faculty are identified as such not simply on the quality of their courses and the extent to which the faculty member embodies Chickering and Gamson’s principles of effective teaching. “Best” also includes a wide variety of other activities:

  • spending time having informal conversations with that student who is feeling out whether or not this might be a discipline to which they want to devote much of their life
  • having informal chats at the coffee shop or pub
  • one-on-one assistance with the struggling student, blended with a good dose of encouragement
  • inviting students over to their house for optional book talks and discussions of “hot topics”
  • participating in community activities with / alongside the students

In essence, they lament the loss of what they consider to be a valuable mentoring relationship that thrives upon informal and spontaneous interactions. Can the students learn as much or more from an online course? That is not contested by some. What they lament is the loss of something that lured these professors into teaching at a liberal arts institution.

I often respond by noting that I am not advocating for removing such dynamics. Rather, I seek to increase access and opportunity to other learners by offering another type of learning environment. Some of those interactions will not happen with learners in online learning environments, but other benefits will come to these new online learners. There are affordances and limitations to all learning environments. The challenge is to discern which affordances are most critical for a given learner at a given time, and which limitations we can live with for the sake of the affordances. These is not a single decision, but a habit of thought that must be continually revisited by all stakeholders, especially the learners themselves.