Carol Geary Schneider had it right. In her Fall 2012 Liberal Education essay “Is It Finally Time to Kill the Credit Hour?” Schneider makes a persuasive case that we are very far from a coherent national plan for education. In light of that reality, taking the opportunity to review examples of existing competency-based learning programs is time well spent. “We need to take the time and learn from the assessment experiments that are going on all over higher education. We also need to build broad and compelling agreement on what twenty-first-century markers of student accomplishment actually look like. And, soberingly, that work is still in draft form.”
Models for Review and Consideration. Competency-based education is not new. Examining the development and attributes of programs currently in place will be critical to understanding their relationship to emerging online education, curricular development, and the roles of faculty and learner. Most important, such a review will provide context for making informed strategic decisions about digital scholarship and online education at your campus.
Some interesting models include the Western Governors University, founded in 1997 by nineteen state governors, which has been steadily developing and extending a program of online degree offerings for over a decade; Southern New Hampshire University, which more recently made significant strides in implementing new models accommodating the needs and academic ambitions of contemporary learners; and—fully a quarter century before the founding of WGU—Alverno College and Empire State College, which began developing bold approaches to ability-based learning assessment. In order to properly study the question of whether or not, or to what extent, to implement competency-based programs, we need to review established ones, including their intellectual, pedagogical, technical, and policy frameworks. The following review of examples highlight what can be accomplished after hard and honest evaluation of institutional strategy and educational opportunity.
Alverno College. The roots of competency-based education stem from traditional face-to-face learning in brick-and-mortar campuses. In 1973, after nine years of focused development, Alverno College launched its Competence Based Learning program. The new program had at its core the idea of “teaching students to learn, internalize, and then externalize and apply knowledge gained in the classroom to their life and their workplace.” The genesis and development of the program is recounted in the July 1985 Alverno Magazine: “Beginning in 1964 and continuing through 1969, the Alverno administration recognized the impact that rapid changes in technology, the economy, politics and sociological shifts were having on the process of educating college students. The complexities of modern society were eroding away the effectiveness of traditional teaching techniques that had been used for centuries.”