Published on 2013/09/19
AUDIO | Finding the Right Degree Pathway
Traditional degree programs do not necessarily provide students with a more cohesive learning pathway than a mosaic approach would.

The following interview is with Mark Milliron, co-founder and chief learning officer of Civitas Learning and former founding chancellor of Western Governor’s University Texas. Milliron, who also served as the deputy director for postsecondary improvement with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has significant experience in bringing competency-based learning to the forefront of higher education. In this interview, Milliron discusses the value of the mosaic approach to a degree for adults, and what they may miss when pursuing this option.

1. Prior learning assessment is still, in many respects, on the fringes of higher education. Why have higher education institutions been so slow in facilitating the growth of prior learning?

Well, I think you have to make sure, conceptually, the terminology that we bring to bear makes sense. Assessment of prior learning has its own history and tends to also include things like getting credit for work experience or life experience. That’s somewhat distinct from competency-based learning. Where most of the competency-based learning advocates absolutely see value in prior learning you might see from a résumé or life experience; but competency-based learning advocates will say there are few ways you can document that learning and then weave it into the mosaic.

The first way is if you’ve achieved … some of that learning at other institutions that have been accredited, and achieved credits, how do you weave those together into the pathway? Two, if you’ve done industry certifications that have validated the learning, that are recognized on that curriculum pathway; that could be woven in. …

So, part of the challenge is the terminology. Some of the pushback is the assumption that you’re going to give somebody 30 percent of their curriculum credit because of a resume and there’s no way to validate the learning that’s been on there; That’s been part of the challenge with the assessment of prior learning, is some of that has crept into the conversation, sometimes fairly, often unfairly.

2. Looking at the converse side, what are the most significant advantages of allowing adults to put past courses and experiences toward earning a degree?

Here’s part of the challenge: our current higher education system is really designed for 18-year-olds coming right out of high school to go full-time and achieve a four-year credential. …

The current modal student in higher education today is not that 18- to 22-year-old going through that four-year pathway; in fact, that’s only about 20 percent of the students. It is that adult learner who’s cycling back, changing careers or advancing down their existing career path. And, so, part of the opportunity with competency-based learning and the mosaic approach … is the ability to take people with very complicated lives, who have a lot of different learning experiences, and to not force them to go through a bureaucratic lockstep pathway that makes them repeat learning they’ve already mastered.

Nothing is more frustrating than somebody feeling like they’re being forced to spend hours and hours, days and days, weeks and weeks, months and months on learning they’ve already mastered. They lose money, they lose time, they lose momentum toward that credential.

For adults with busy lives — often with kids, often with lots of other complications — it slows them down and costs a lot of money.

So, one is it brings people, validates learning that’s already there, allows you to bring it in, understand where they are … and then to chart a course that is probably the most compelling and the most cogent for that learner and then help them get across the finish line in a way that makes sense for them, especially if they’re an adult learner with more complicated lives.

3. What do adult students miss when they approach their degree in a mosaic fashion rather than earning it through the traditional pathway laid out by the institution?

I want to make sure we define mosaic in the right way. This isn’t “random acts of learning” thrown together with a degree at the end. Almost all of these competency-based pathways are put together much like curriculum pathways in any university or community college where an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree is put together as a series of courses — that, by the way, are often not deeply synced — but is a collection of courses that progress somebody through a learning path that prepares them for higher-order work in that discipline.

The same is true for competency-based learning or the others; the thing you probably lose is deep coherence of the curriculum if you’re in a very specific program pathway at an on-ground institution, if they’ve really done the deep work of linking and syncing that curricular pathway. A lot of places haven’t done that deep work; they’ve actually put together the courses into a sequence that makes sense, but there really isn’t a lot of sync between the math you learn in your freshman year versus the engineering you’re doing in your junior year. And you have to have a lot of conversations about how that’s been put together. So, some people would assume that you lose coherence in the curricular path. I think it’s probably a false assumption in many places, but probably a fair point to bring up. [Institutions must] make sure that, as a student progresses on that pathway to a competency-based model, that there has to be some competencies that are capstone competencies or synthesis competencies that will allow [students] to pull the pieces and parts of that curricular pathway together in way where [they] can apply a higher-order kind of thinking and progression to it.

One of the reasons why Western Governors University, for example, does a lot of writing — especially at the highest levels — [is] trying ensure that students can pull together learning from other sources and pull it together to the final stages of that curricular program.

So, I think the biggest issue is coherence and, truthfully, just to be blunt, if a competency-based pathway is put together in a way where you atomize the curriculum — where it is literally not connected in any way, shape or form — that would be dangerous. It really could add some challenges to learners who are coming through and it probably might not be as valuable. But from what I’ve seen at places like Western Governors and others is a deep understanding of that and a lot of work to make sure that there is coherence in the curricular pathway.

4. Ultimately, which approach do you think is better for adult students — the mosaic approach or the traditional approach to a degree?

To me, it’s really not about “better than;” it’s about “better with.”

I actually think the ecosystem of higher education is better served by having conversations about how we’re better with different models and serve different kinds of students at different ages and stages. If you’re a working learner that needs flexibility because you’re taking care of two kids and you’re working full-time, the competency-based model … might be incredibly helpful to you in terms of being able to actually attend and go after your degree, and so you’re going to definitely want that. However, if you want a local experience and want to have that on-ground connection, there are other models that make sense. A good example: Collin [County] Community College in North Texas has a weekend college program where students meet face-to-face on Friday nights [and] Saturday during the day, and the rest of the time they learn online and, so, for you, the blended model might be perfect because you get some deep face-to-face time on the weekends and you get to blend the flexibility in online.

The probably more fruitful conversation is figuring out how a regional educational ecosystem can have a variety of models that make sense for different kinds of students. If you’re an 18-year-old that wants to go full-time and be on a campus, absolutely, that’s the model that’s right for you. Going to a more traditional university or community college is absolutely the first place you should go, and I think what’s great about places like Western Governors University is they’re not shy about saying that. They’ll say, “We are the wrong model for you.” But if you are a returning adult who needs more flexibility and is willing to do the work — because it is not easy; it absolutely requires purpose, engagement and tenacity to be successful on these pathways — if that’s what you’re willing to sign up for, then that’s fantastic.

I think part of the challenge, just to be blunt, is some people assume that these new models are somehow easier, and I think that is a dangerous assumption that we probably need to disabuse people of pretty quickly. …

It is dangerous to get into reductionist arguments of the one best way. We’re not talking about high schools, here, with a fixed system across the country. This is a diverse set of providers in the higher education space trying to prepare students for industry certifications, academic certificates, associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees. Of course there are a variety of models, given the different ages and stages of the students that are coming through.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of the mosaic approach to a degree to adults, especially when considering their financial circumstances?

Yeah, I think one of the most important things that we’re going to be doing in this kind of work — and this is in some ways the work of Civitas and others — is actually diving into data to understand a few things, to really understand for whom these models work best. And then, two, we need to work on enabling the infrastructure because these models work well if students can get regular feedback about where they are and how they’re progressing.

One of the most important things is to figure out how you build the right infrastructure to get the right data to the right people in the right way so that students can tune and guide their own learning journey. By the way, I think that’s a challenge for traditional higher education as well. We can’t leave that off the table; it’s got to be part of the conversation.

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Readers Comments

Ryan Loche 2013/09/19 at 9:57 am

I’m glad Milliron corrected the misperception the mosaic degree is made up of a bunch of courses thrown haphazardly together. In fact, traditional degree pathways can be quite arbitrary themselves. The key isn’t to focus on whether a degree pathway looks like a cohesive effort, but to work with the individual student to develop a curriculum that addresses his or her interests, learning gaps and career goals. That way, the curriculum will always be relevant to the student, who will then feel confident to explain the various course pairings and demonstrate his or her competence to employers.

    Madison Riley 2013/09/19 at 1:09 pm

    I’m more inclined to agree with Milliron that there still need to be several “capstone” competencies built into all degree pathways. How each institution identifies these competencies should be a discussion between not only traditional degree instructors and course designers, but one that includes adult learning experts as well. That way, the institution will either develop competencies relevant to both traditional-aged and adult students or reach the conclusion that a different set of competencies should be highlighted for each group.

Jessica Prince 2013/09/19 at 3:52 pm

Milliron is really promoting an individualized education — finding the right pathway for the right student. In theory, offering different degree pathways should be a priority for all institutions as a way to increase enrolment and broaden access to higher education. In practice, however, I wonder how feasible this is, considering that many institutions today are under-resourced and overworked.

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