Will competency replace traditional “seat time” qualifications?

“It’s scary for faculty,” Dr. Reilly says. “There’s a continuing sense that students can and do draw on so many sources of information that are now available at their fingertips. They don’t need to come to the monastery for four years and sit at the feet of the monks.”

“Now, I’m an old English professor who taught the Joyce course here at Madison two years ago,” he says. “The idea that you can’t understand Joyce unless you take it from Reilly three hours a week — that we faculty own the knowledge and anyone who’s going to be well educated has to get it from us — the world has changed so much that that’s no longer true.”

I’ve been following one of the leading innovators in Competency-Base education: Western Governors University. WGU was founded by a consortium of 19 states in 1997, offering a complete degree program based on assessments (not seat-time). Incoming students can have any accumulated credit hours evaluated for equivalency credit at WGU. At the time of writing of this NYT article there are now five US institutions offering Competency-Based degrees.

And it obsessively tracks metrics like this one: 95% of employers say WGU grads are as good as or better than those from anywhere else.

On average American teacher training programs are unspeakably bad. They serve as cash cows to subsidize the rest of the host school (US teachers must have a ‘ticket’ from one of these places). And they produce teachers who have had no training in the craft of teaching. But WGU appears to be an exception:

The best preparation program in the country for future high school teachers, according to new US News and World Report rankings, happens at an online university you probably haven’t heard of where students don’t take any classes.

The Western Governors University’s number-one spot surprised even the National Council on Teacher Quality, the advocacy group that worked with US News on the rankings. The high marks are not, however, a surprise to the nonprofit online university’s many fans — one of whom is President Obama.

Stanford’s Open Learning Initiative receives Gates Foundation grant


OLI Instructor Learning Dashboard [one of class level panels]

Thille explained that she considered three main resources through OLI: “What a student can do with their computer, what they can do with their peers, and what a student can do with an expert.” She also highlighted what she believes to be the key question in developing the program.

“What are the affordances and limitations of each of those resources and how can we blend them to create the best learning environment for that student at that point and time?” Thille said.

Very interesting — the Carnegie Mellon-developed Open Learning Initiative (OLI) has expanded to Stanford. Candace Thille, who founded OLI at CMU in 2002, has moved to Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. The Stanford project “is one of seven educational technology programs to split a $20 million fund from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.” The Foundation has published an excellent 7 minute video that explains how OLI works for both instructors and students: Gates Foundation-The Open Learning Initiative.

Excerpts from the Stanford announcement:

OLI is an online educational platform that enhances classroom learning through digital modules that provide feedback to instructors. Students use the modules to learn and engage with material in an interactive online environment, while activities examine each student’s understanding of key concepts. The instructor uses the data from the platform to design the class and focus on important areas.

(…snip…) Originally, OLI focused mostly on assessing the cognitive process of learning. Since it has come to Stanford, the goal has been to build on its foundation while also exploring theoretical models and psychological assessments. Teams of disciplinary experts, learning researchers and software engineers build environments that can support classrooms anywhere that aim to provide the same experience as a top institution.

“The team designs these interactive environments, and the environments both support the learners but also collect the data to refine the learning environment,” Thille said.

The grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will specifically go towards a module for an introductory statistics course, chosen for its high-enrollment and high-variability. Thille and her colleagues are building upon an existing statistics course and are integrating OLI into another online platform called edX. They will also be enhancing the environments with social-psychological interventions. Ultimately, the module will be used in thousands of classrooms across the nation.

Partners at other institutions offer faculty expertise for content development and use trial modules to gather data and improve strategies. These institutions include universities and community colleges in Maryland, North Carolina and California. The platform is designed to assess students’ specific sub-skills pertaining to larger concepts that they learn in the class, and design teams pool data to focus on refining less effective aspects of the online courses.

OLI also emphasizes the openness of every education environment it develops: Anyone can access its content. The program aims to lead the way in integrating technology into education. The enhanced statistics course which is already being taught at Stanford, and more courses will soon follow.

When Will Liberal Arts Colleges Take Advantage of the Open Learning Initiative?

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(…snip…) In a recent study by Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group, about half of liberal arts professors said blended learning was inferior to the purely face-to-face kind; only 11 percent said it was superior. At the same time, more than a third said blended education was of equivalent quality to face-to-face. So, technically, the majority of liberal arts professors thought the blended version was as good as or better than the kind they have been delivering for centuries.

The good news is that 11% of liberal arts profs appreciate that advances like OLI can dramatically enhance learning. The not-so-good news is the 89% who think the status quo is OK. However, the better news is that the focus on learning is sharpening. Example: the encouraging news that Stanford has joined with CMU to advance both OLI content and technology.

So far I’m not having much success identifying the US liberal arts colleges that are making good use of the OLI work or similar learning technologies. Though the article is two years out of date, this Inside Higher Ed survey looks at what a couple of high visibility colleges are doing.

Online learning is no longer foreign to traditional universities, where courses formerly held in large lecture halls are migrating to the Web. But at residential liberal arts colleges, whose appeal often lies in the promise of small classes and regular face time with professors, online education has had a harder time gaining a foothold.

That could soon change. Several top-rated liberal arts colleges have begun experimenting with online course modules. Professors at those colleges hope the technology, which tutors students in certain concepts via artificially intelligent tutoring software in lieu of static textbooks or human lecturers, will help level the playing field for academically underprepared students while giving instructors more flexibility in planning their syllabuses.

(…snip…)

“It is not our model — we’re more into human interaction,” says Cassidy, the Bryn Mawr provost. “But the data were persuasive.”

The “data” include multiple studies by researchers at Carnegie Mellon suggesting that when students are taught an introductory statistics using OLI course, in concert with human instruction, they learn the material as well or better than in a normal lecture course — but in half the time. More recently, researchers at the nonprofit Ithaka S+R found that a socioeconomically diverse sample of students at six public universities performed as well via a “blended” model of statistics education that replaced some seat time with independent work on the OLI platform.

The goal at Bryn Mawr is not to shorten the semester, as might be the case at a community college looking to speed the rotation of the academic calendar for revenue purposes, or to satisfy a completion-agenda push to increase graduation rates. And the college has no plans to build a large online operation on top of its bricks-and-mortar campus. “Fundamentally, we’re secure with our model” of small-scale residential education, says Cassidy.

But Bryn Mawr’s foray into using online course modules hints at the online learning tools that might have a place in the liberal arts. Joey King, the president of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, had not heard of any cases where liberal arts professors were integrating OLI modules or similar technology into their syllabuses. But he said that Bryn Mawr’s leadership and pledge to support similar projects at peer colleges might catalyze the spread of new, “blended” approaches in that sector.

“In this community it’s kind of the norm that somebody will take the lead and just do it,” says King, “and, once it’s easy, people find it more compelling as far as picking it up at other institutions.”

Faculty at liberal arts colleges might be more amenable to accepting help from robo-tutors than instructors at other types of institutions, King added. Such technology often spurs anxieties among instructors that the institution is gradually supplanting them with teaching machines. But the liberal arts colleges’ value proposition still hinges on the presence of human professors. According to Spohrer, 100 percent of Bryn Mawr faculty members who used the technology said they plan to use it again.

Please let me know if you have references/studies of liberal arts colleges that have made significant progress modernizing their learning processes.