Competency as a Route to Personalized Learning

Northern Arizona University (NAU) recently entered the field of higher education institutions providing competency-based degrees via its Personalized Learning program. Students can now pursue degrees in small business administration, computer information technology, and liberal arts by starting with whichever modules that they select, demonstrating mastery via pre- and post-testing and documentation of experience, and choosing their preferred learning modalities as they study. They simply pay a flat fee of $2,500 every six months.

In designing the program, as senior vice president for NAU’s Extended Campuses Fred Hurst describes it, NAU “’threw out all our current approaches to pedagogy, student support and business processes and reinvented them using the latest techniques and technologies.’” That process involved “’taking existing courses and deconstructing them into outcomes and competencies’” and then rebuilding courses around outcomes.

It also involved partnering with Pearson to use its LearningStudio adaptive learning platform, for which the university will pay $875 per student every six months. The idea is for that platform to help guide students through their studies – in effect serving as a virtual learning agent – thereby targeting faculty time where students really need it. That efficient allocation of faculty time is one of the ways the program expects to control costs.

As detailed in an article in Inside Higher Ed, the expectation is that “’on average, a faculty members will be spending a half-hour per week with a student.’” But faculty will be available on demand “to not only help students understand material within the discipline they’re studying, but also help them deal with work-life balance, study skills, whatever is standing in the way of that student being successful.’”

Who are these faculty? The university is hiring them “as needed, mostly on an adjunct or part-time basis…. These new faculty will collaborate with current Northern Arizona professors and instructional designers employed by Pearson to design the courses, which will go through the university’s normal approval process.”

As detailed by EDUCAUSE, NAU’s Personalized Learning program involves four faculty roles:

  • Mentor faculty will “ensure student success by working directly with students on a one-to-one basis; will have content and/ or advising experience”
  • Discipline mentors will be “subject matter experts who tutor students in specific subjects”
  • Lead faculty will “publish and curate course content and lead assess¬ment efforts”
  • Evaluators will “provide feedback on student work and help support assessment efforts.”

This separation of course creation from subject-specific support from general support from assessment is in keeping with the ways in which other universities have re-created faculty, or learning agent, roles when designing new models of learning, whether competency-based or not.

Has it gone as expected? NAU originally expected to launch the program in January, but it went live on May 28. Fred Hurst wrote of the delay, “A number of factors have slowed us down including campus discussion, technology glitches and regulatory requirements.” Among those technology glitches? How to fit student-driven competency based learning that can start on any day of the year into the university’s existing student information system.

NAU’s experience highlights the complexity of designing for a new model of learning, all the way from the courses themselves to learning agent roles to basic infrastructure. Is it worth navigating such complexity? KnowledgeWorks’ Forecast 3.0 suggests that it is. As today’s learning providers reevaluate their value propositions in the face of a wide array of digital and social innovations, they will need to differentiate their offerings to attract students. At KnowledgeWorks, we think that competency education is one pathway for shifting today’s institutions toward the kind of learner-centered provision that can help open the way toward a vibrant learning ecosystem.

Katherine Prince

Written by: Katherine Prince

Katherine Prince is the Senior Director of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks. She is excited about the future of learning, transformative leadership, and building resilient solutions for a sustainable world.

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