/ / / / MAE 2014 Volume 9 Issue 4 (May)

A Flexible Path to a Degree

  • Written by  Dr. Deborah Bushway and John Hayes
  • Published in Articles
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It’s an all-too-common scenario: A servicemember completes vocational training and is assigned to his duty station. There, he gains experience that, because it was not covered in his training, does not appear on his military transcript. Through a combination of operational exigency and personal interest, he expands his knowledge and abilities, becoming a true subject matter expert and applying his skills to a range of emerging problems. Then, he applies to college. The military-friendly school faithfully reviews his military record for applicable transfer credit, and he begins his program of study. Once in the classroom, though, he finds he already has a significant understanding of much of the curriculum because of his day-to-day work in the service. The class feels redundant, and he is unable to progress at his own pace, so he disengages. “I’m not going to college to learn what I already know,” he tells his advisor.

Much of the servicemember’s knowledge exists between the lines of a military transcript or outside the boxes of a DD214. Without a comprehensive prior learning assessment or portfolio review, it can be impossible for a school to translate the servicemember’s training and experience into academically articulated competencies. And since military and veteran education benefits only cover prior learning assessments in specific circumstances, the servicemember either pays out of pocket for a review or uses benefits to earn credit for what he already knows. This situation presents potential problems for servicemembers seeking to advance their education, but it also presents ample opportunities—for reducing restrictions, increasing access to education, and reining in inefficiencies in education funding.

Competency-based education is one answer to these challenges. More than an emerging trend, it is an approach to learning and measuring mastery that has positive disruptive potential and is seen by many in the higher education community as a standard of the future, especially for adults. Meeting President Obama’s education goals will require innovation and diverse delivery models.

Especially for working adult learners with other commitments in their lives, self-paced, competency-based online or hybrid-online models could greatly increase both the accessibility and affordability of higher education. In a regulatory environment conducive to such innovation, the expansion 
of the model, with the likelihood of higher completion rates, could have great ramifications for the country’s economy and standard of living.

With the promotion of the Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act (HR3136), Congress has recognized the great potential of this model. Competency-based education, and particularly direct assessment, supports flexibility and the ability of learners to move quickly through areas in which they already have significant competence, making it particularly promising for working adults seeking to fulfill their personal and professional potential without the constraints of weekly deadlines and attendance requirements, and without having to take foundational courses in topics they know inside out from their on-the-job or military experience.

Capella University, a mission-driven institution founded in 1993 to extend access to high-quality higher education for working adults, has developed a higher education model that attempts to deliver on these promises. Capella’s bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and certificate programs have been offered online through a learning-outcomes- and competency-based curriculum since 2002. The school’s self-paced competency-based option, FlexPath, was launched in 2013 with the approval of the Department of Education and its regional accreditor. FlexPath offers an innovative solution to problems facing our nation’s higher education system—rising tuition costs, low completion rates and low employer satisfaction with learning outcomes. By offering a flexible new degree delivery model, FlexPath offers a student the opportunity to earn a degree at his own pace while leveraging the knowledge gained through work experience. This pathway to a degree holds particular appeal for military learners, who typically have extensive work experience and areas of expertise that are not reflected on their transcripts and who are highly self-directed.

What Is Competency-Based Education?

In 2001, the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative published a report on competency-based learning which remains a seminal work for educators interested in leveraging this modality. They defined a competency as “a combination of skills, abilities and knowledge needed to perform a specific task.” The authors of this report identified a hierarchy of assessment, which culminates in the demonstration of competencies (skills, knowledge, and abilities) developed in the learning process and built on a foundation of each individual’s traits and characteristics.

Competency-based education depends on three key components: a curricular 
architecture, relevant and aligned assessments of defined competencies, and a committed faculty. The most relevant competency-based curricula integrate industry- and employer-desired outcomes with disciplinary and professional requirements—which becomes the assemblage of competencies students can demonstrate at the end of their programs. Curriculum development begins not with content but with the work of identifying existing relevant, agreed upon standards for the degree level, the discipline and the profession. With the input of external advisory councils, faculty and curriculum development teams synthesize these standards into clear, measurable outcomes and competencies at the academic program level, from which they then develop assessments. This framework is segmented into “courses,” or modules traditionally designed to align to credit-hour and seat-time rules to comply with federal regulations. Other universities are also responding to the emerging demand to offer alternatives to the traditional credit-based degree program, represented by recent entrants like Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin.

Having well-established, robust, reliable and valid methods of assessing a learner’s demonstration of competency is a lynchpin in competency-based models. Authentic assessment offers an alternative as well as a solution to some of the problems associated with standardized exams and objective tests. Authentic assessments result in a work product very similar to the type of work product that would be expected by an employer. For example, a student may be asked to analyze a balance sheet rather than answer a set of questions about components of balance sheets. Or a student will be asked to redesign a website based on his or her evaluation of its usability and accessibility, rather than take a multiple-choice test on effective website design. Each element of the assessment correlates with scoring criteria and sub-competencies, making the learning fully integrated with its assessment. These assessments are embedded in the learning process, scaffolded into increasingly complex levels of competency, and have well-defined, transparent expectations. Competency demonstrations are evaluated by a faculty member through the application of an established rubric addressing the level of competency and its constituent components. Consistent use of a standard rubric allows all stakeholders (the student, the faculty assessor, the employer, other institutions of higher education, funders and regulators) to genuinely know what competencies have been mastered during the learning experience. Faculty members also provide robust feedback, so that their assessment is both of and for learning.

The Benefits

Capella University’s direct assessment competency-based delivery options (currently available for the B.S. in business and MBA) serve as an alternate pathway to degrees that Capella is already accredited to offer. In the direct assessment model, graduation requirements are based solely on demonstrating all competencies rather than relying on “participation” and “extra credit” to round out poor performance. Adhering to a traditional credit-hour model as an indirect indication of learning presents a potential barrier to educational access and attainment, as course participation and the constraints of 
credit-hour requirements are generally not tailored to the self-paced learning needs of the working adult—and military—learner. FlexPath mitigates this issue for this population of learners, and in so doing also improves the accessibility, affordability, learning effectiveness and completion rates for bachelor’s and master’s degree students.

The FlexPath curricula, like Capella’s credit-based curricula, are aligned with professional success factors as defined by employers, professional organizations and standards, disciplinary standards or expectations, and specialized accrediting bodies.

Yet, the FlexPath way to a degree is personalized as each learner leverages his or her own prior learning, combining it with emergent learning to demonstrate a degree-level-appropriate integration of knowledge, skills, and abilities in an efficient and effective process of assessments. Even learners entering with strong competencies gain additional insight through the required self-reflection and robust formative feedback from scholar-practitioner faculty on each assignment. ♦

Dr. Deborah Bushway is the chief academic officer and vice president of academic innovation at Capella University. John Hayes is manager of specialized services at Capella University.


Last modified on Friday, 13 June 2014 12:07

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  • Issue: 4
  • Volume: 9
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