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Are you educated if you are competent?

Are you educated if you are competent?

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For a university that pioneered distance learning, Northern Arizona University’s foray into online, self-paced degree programs seems like a natural fit.

But on the Mountain Campus and elsewhere, competency-based education uncoupled from the credit hour is raising questions fundamental to higher education: What is a college? What does it mean to be educated at one? And how does a college work to accomplish that goal?

As the host community to a bricks-and-mortar campus of 20,000 students, Flagstaff has a big stake in how those questions shake out. The Internet has proved to be a disruptive technology in many fields, and using its interactivity to eliminate “seat time” in class and semester-long course modules has wide ramifications for a residential college campus.


As we report today on the front page, NAU’s program, called Personalized Learning, has started slowly with just three degree programs: liberal arts, computer information technology and small business administration. It breaks down course syllabi into dozens of goals that show mastery of certain skills, with clusters like “critical and creative thinking” and “digital fluency and information literacy.” Students in competency programs have reading and writing assignments, but they also are encouraged to attend plays, help low-income families fill out tax forms or intern at a computer repair shop.

Most of the initial students in Personalized Learning – there are 390 so far – are older and have had jobs and other life experiences. Instead of paying by the credit hour, students pay a flat rate of $2,500 every six months for as many competencies as they can master. Mentors check in by phone or email on their progress, and subject-matter experts grade papers and tests. By 2020, NAU hopes to have enrolled 8,000 students in Personalized Learning and be generating net revenue by that year of $19 million.

Proportionally speaking, that’s not an insignificant number of students compared with the Mountain Campus. But if these are students who would otherwise not complete a degree, then Personalized Learning would seem to be serving a new and important niche. NAU as a whole struggles to graduate even a majority of its enrollees after six years, so a self-paced degree program free of any residential or credit-hour requirements might help to improve those numbers.


Yet it is fair to ask, as the New York Times reports some educators are doing, whether young adults really are qualified to essentially teach themselves the lessons of the Great Books or do business case studies absent rigorous teaching and peer-group discussion. Faculty at NAU and elsewhere also chafe at a course-development system that takes their classroom syllabi without consulting them and deconstructs it into disaggregated competencies, sometimes in ways they would never have taught.

Meanwhile, residential colleges and universities are beginning to dig deeper into what constitutes a high-quality learning experience apart from big financial endowments and students with higher entering test scores. The National Survey of Student Engagement, bolstered by a test called the College Learning Assessment, found again this year that students cited two indicators of a high-quality education. The first was student-faculty interaction outside class on not just course topics but also career plans and other issues. The second was effective teaching: how well an instructor organized material, gave useful examples about difficult points and offered quality feedback.

The results found that some smaller, regional universities -- including NAU -- that are not considered wealthy or high status scored as well or better for faculty interaction and effective teaching than highly selective colleges like Bryn Mawr and Harvey Mudd. Further, the most effective instructors, according to students, were spending less time on lecturing and more time on discussions, small-group activities, student presentations and experiential learning opportunities, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Another study found that students who rated their teachers as organized and effective scored higher on a standardized test of critical thinking, a measure that many colleges as well as employers believe is better at defining educational quality than most others.

So how does quality student engagement with faculty and an effective classroom setting relate to the solo learner plugging away in a competency-based program? The answer, as noted above, is that Personalized Learning will not be for everyone – indeed, probably for very few. Whether its degrees deserve an asterisk compared with the traditional credit-hour degree seems a fair question. At the least, we would hope NAU devotes extra resources to protecting and enhancing the learning experience of students in what is a pilot program that defies many of the pedagogical norms of higher education.

And who knows, the Mountain Campus might even benefit from a competency-based approach to certain courses and disciplines – it is, after all, what self-paced, lifelong learning is all about.


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