Yesterday Arne’s crew threw a 1-2 combo at the credit hour, approving SNHU’s direct-assessment, competency-based College for America program and issuing a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter effectively saying ‘bring it on’ to other higher ed institutions that want to follow in SNHU’s path. The latter represents a big change from a previous letter the Feds had issued two years before that seemed to reinforce the credit hour as the backbone of any Title IV-eligible program. The College for America program will offer degrees in a way that has exactly zero relationship to the credit hour or seat time.
The news attracted some attention, though not nearly as much as it deserves. As others have argued, the real incipient revolution in higher ed is not the much-ballyhooed MOOC explosion but the quieter dawn of competency-based education (CBE). Given all the attention to higher ed these days, this could have been a front-page NYT story.
Commentators have rightly focused on one major implication of CBE: it will put the focus on skill and knowledge acquisition rather than arbitrary seat-time requirements and thereby enable improvements in effectiveness and efficiency. Our friends at Innosight have laid out a helpful analogy in talking about this shift, relating a story from Toyota’s manufacturing operations about the difference between fixed time and fixed skill-acquisition goals. University Ventures has suggested that “in time, the shift from ‘clock hours’ or ‘seat time’ to competency-based education will significantly reduce time-to-completion and increase completion rates and return on investment.”
But in all the focus on this aspect of yesterday’s news, many are missing another big implication. This full-monty version of CBE–ie, direct assessment–is another huge step in the unbundling of higher ed: it unbundles the degree itself.
What we’re doing at Kepler helps illustrate. Our students–initially in Rwanda and eventually in more countries–will work toward direct-assessment degrees from US university partners but not by taking courses from those US universities. We create the college experience ourselves. We run the campus, hire the teachers, design the curriculum, and so forth. The US university partner will set the goalposts (in the form of a skills pyramid/rubric and a set of performance tasks & assessments tied to the rubric) and supplies the referees who decide when the ball has crossed the line. But because the credit hour and seat time at the US university are irrelevant, we will have total curricular and instructional flexibility.
So you now have two institutions in the mix — Kepler running the teaching college, and a US university running assessments and conferring degrees.
Of course, we’re further unbundling by choosing not to hire any research professors or PhD lecturers, and instead relying on MOOCs and other online offerings for lecture content. We’ll use online textbook materials as well. Wherever possible, we want to start incorporating promising adaptive learning software. But we will directly manage what we think is most essential to learning: designing the curriculum and creating the active learning experiences that ultimately matter much more than passively watching lectures; hiring/training/coaching teachers and tutors; selecting and supporting students; and developing partnerships with employers to enable students to learn on the job. In that sense we haven’t unbundled everything. Still, Kepler will be one of the most unbundled higher ed programs in the world resulting in an accredited U.S. degree.
Interestingly, the unbundling opens a potential pathway to regulatory clearance for Kepler as we expand into new countries. Since Kepler is not the degree-granting institution, we may not need to jump through all the usual hoops that are imposed on new universities. As we’ve written before, these hoops are often pretty ridiculous. Though it looks and feels like a college from a student’s perspective, Kepler can position itself as a coaching service for official registration / regulation purposes, helping students work toward an (effectively online) degree from a different institution that isn’t operating a local campus in the country in question.
Competency-based degrees don’t solve the quality problem in higher ed. Ultimately, the extent to which they help with quality will depend in turn on the rigor and thoughtfulness of the competency pyramids and the assessments used as the gating mechanisms for degrees. But CBE is a long-overdue enabler of quality improvement. It shifts the focus from what shouldn’t matter (time) to what should (competencies), and by unbundling it makes the playing field much more accessible for innovative entrants like Kepler.