A couple of articles this past summer by Paul Fain in Inside Higher Ed (www.insidehighered.com) brought to my attention with more clarity the promise and inevitable disruption of the trend toward competency-based higher education. He reports on pilot programs now underway at a growing number of for-profit institutions and at least 25 or so non-profit institutions, including Western Governors University. Typically delivered online, they allow students to progress at their own pace without formal course material and earn credit by successfully completing assessments that prove mastery in predetermined competencies or tasks. Many are programs without courses, teaching professors, grades, deadlines, or credit hour requirements, but which result in college credit, an approach that is called “direct assessment”.
Of course, one of the most dramatic aspects of this phenomenon is the need for new and better assessments, and a number of testing companies are rolling out the next generation of assessments to meet the new demand. To me, the most interesting new rollout will be an updated version of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+) by the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), which will include a work readiness component for employers and more student-level data, obviously tailored to the push for more direct pathways to workforce readiness. The anti-testing groups will just go crazy over the proliferation of all these new assessments!
Needless to say, there is considerable concern about this trend in several quarters, and I was struck by the following provocative quote on the CAE web site: “Perhaps the most dramatic, and recent, proposed adoption in the competency concept is in the alignment with another fundamental shift, the decline of the monopoly of knowledge and information held exclusively by colleges and universities and the corresponding decline in the monopoly of these same institutions in the transmission of knowledge and information directly to students.” Disruption indeed.
It occurs to me that competency-based education, particularly the approach called direct assessment, has the potential to be much more disruptive to the culture and delivery structure of higher education than the online revolution itself. But we had better get used to the idea, beginning with an overhaul of the traditional bachelors degree along with more leadership from higher education in improving K-12 teacher quality and making more seamless the transition from secondary to post-secondary work.