Bringing quality to competency

John Haeger

By John D. Haeger, President

Learning theory suggests that students today may learn more effectively in a technology-enhanced environment. So as we witness the concurrent rise of innovative online degree programs and competency-based learning, it becomes increasingly clear that this is not coincidence at work.

Many of the same questions drive both developments. What are the most effective ways to measure and assure student learning? How do we increase retention and graduation rates? What responses can we offer to rising student costs and falling state support?

Coming up with answers takes technology—as a tool, not the full solution—whether in blended courses, mathematics labs or strictly online settings. Assessment, mentoring and efficient, engaging course delivery all benefit from the burgeoning technology toolkit. We can get more information to more students—and receive more detailed feedback from them—in less time.

These developments bring competency-based learning into a sphere of legitimacy and relevance for higher education. But it’s not just because we can sift through more data and reach more informed decisions about what students know, or that we can get them to a degree in less time or with less cost. We can do all this, but we also can use technology to fulfill one more category: quality.

By designing courses as truly interdisciplinary explorations, keeping faculty closely attuned to student progress and constructing assessments that demand critical thinking, we can employ technology to ensure that the foundational aspects of a liberal arts education underpin our online ventures.

This is the basis upon which Northern Arizona University has launched Personalized Learning. As a major public university, we are now prepared to credit incoming students for what they already know—in part, because we can do a much better job of assessing them, and in part because the time has come for public institutions of higher education to manage the shift into a new era of degree attainment.

Those who cringe at the mere mention of “competency-based,” usually clinging to outdated memories of diploma mill credit-for-life schemes, are not much comforted by the seeming anonymity of online degree programs. Certainly there are legitimate concerns, which is why we and other pioneering institutions are working so hard to ensure the value of all our degrees obtained by any means.

To focus criticism on online learning, or even a competency-based approach, is to miss the point that all of higher education is under scrutiny today to demonstrate the quality and value of a college degree. We are being asked to justify our role as students face stunning levels of debt and employers point to ongoing gaps between what we produce and what they need.

Innovation is our best hope. Technology is our most promising tool. No one has the single best solution, but throughout higher education we are witnessing bold attempts at transformation. Some of them ultimately will point the way to lasting, meaningful change.


Editor’s note: The above blog first appeared in the Huffington Post on May 28, 2013