More institutions than ever are granting degrees that can be mostly to completely obtained online, and working adults in particular are seeking out online degrees.
Most online education and coursework, either consciously or not, is based on an educational model called “competency” that first came into practice in the 1970s, education experts say.
Competency in higher education is the idea that the student becomes proficient in a subject not by a particular number of hours spent learning about it, but instead by moving at his or her own pace to understand specific aspects of the subject. Generally, competency models also offer credit for what the student may already know, either from work or life experience.
“Let’s focus on what you don’t know, as opposed to what you already know,” said Brian Messer, vice president and dean for the school of professional and graduate studies at Baker University.
In addition to technological advances, many components of modern society are contributing to the competency concept being discussed with renewed interest.
“What is new now is a big push given the rising costs of higher education and given that students need to grasp new material, we should break down some of the requirements for what you already know,” said Rick Ginsberg, dean of education at Kansas University. “Part of it is giving people who have some skills but not all the skills some access to advanced training that won’t require them to go back to school for years.”
However, not all of the knowledge or skills that people have will necessarily translate to the coursework for their degree, said John Rury, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Kansas University, who has many years of experience in adult higher education programs at other universities.
“Many people have done a lot in their lives, so the idea that they can go to a competency-based program and get credit has appeal,” Rury said. “My experience is that people know less than they think they do, or they don’t know how it fits into the larger world.”
A popular buzzword in higher education in recent years is “excellence,” Rury said, so by definition, “competence” may not be what the students are striving for.
“Competence can run contrary to excellence — ‘competent’ means ‘OK.’ Nobody wants to produce ‘competent’ graduates; we want to produce leaders, people who want to change the world,” he said.
Also, educational research indicates that a liberal arts-type education that teaches critical thinking and other broadly applicable skills is what produces the biggest payoff for students once they enter the workforce. Competency-based education often does not have space for education in music or the humanities, which allow students to explore subject matters that they may or may not use in their jobs.
“The polishing of oral and written communication skills is still very important. Students need to be able to present ideas clearly and articulately,” Messer said.
Rury said that online education has not been around quite long enough for researchers to have a strong grasp on its effectiveness.
“In our efforts to make things relevant, it really runs the risk of undermining education altogether,” he said. “I worry about the competency focus and the online piece — I wonder at the end of the day what the outcome will be.”