Published on 2013/05/30
Co-written with Mika Hoffman | Executive Director of the Center for Educational Measurement, Excelsior College

Focusing on the Needs of Post-Traditional Students
The busy schedules of adults can sometimes close doors on potential higher education opportunities. However, asynchronous online programming such as MOOCs can provide adults greater accessibility to higher education.

Two recent trends separate learning from the traditional classroom and have raised concerns among educators: a rapid proliferation of online learning and the rise, albeit at a slower pace, of competency-based educational programs.

The convergence of these two alternative educational formats stems from the national goals for postsecondary credentialing and state-specific degree completion agendas.

However, both competency assessment and one specific type of online learning, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) — characterized by little to no contact between student and instructor — carry their share of controversy, particularly as they apply to college credit.

While these non-traditional forms may be accepted more easily by higher education institutions as contributing to transfer credits adult students bring when returning to college, even in those circumstances assumptions are based on the needs of traditional undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 22. We need to recognize older students have different learning needs and styles that may be very well suited to these emerging models.

The issue has come to a head as we have seen companies such as Coursera, Udacity and edX develop systems allowing for automatically-scored comprehension checks and massive peer review of assignments, enabling hundreds of thousands of learners to take the same course together. These MOOCs have generated considerable controversy because, at that scale, individual interaction between instructors and students is essentially impossible, and because completion rates are often in the single digits.

In addition to MOOCs, independent, competency-based assessment is gaining momentum in higher education as an accessible, affordable and efficient means for students, particularly post-traditional students, to earn a postsecondary credential. This model relies on assessing defined knowledge and competencies, regardless of how they were acquired. It is not new — universities in the United Kingdom have been relying on assessment independent of instruction for centuries — but is now gaining more attention.

Excelsior College has offered assessments for academic credit since 1971 as part of its mission to serve adult students who are independent learners. A key aspect of Excelsior’s program is the independence of assessment from learning: learners are responsible for knowing the subject, not for learning an instructor’s preferences. More recently, new programs have been attracting attention: Western Governors University, which currently operates in four states (Indiana, Missouri, Texas and Washington), with a fifth on the way (Tennessee), and Southern New Hampshire University offer programs based on competency assessment.

One of the newest innovations in competency-based programs is Lipscomb University’s Customized, Outcome-based, Relevant Evaluation (CORE) program, with the Bachelor of Professional Studies in Organizational Leadership in Fall 2013, pending approval by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Additional competency offerings will include customized credit and non-credit options for employers as well as competency assessment and courses at the graduate level.

CORE’s assessments are innovative in format: group and individual activities observed by trained assessors, for a personalized behavioral assessment. Rather than relying completely on self-study, students in the program engage in competency development with faculty coaches.

What all of these programs have in common is the idea that the assessment of learning is at the center of educational credentialing, and that learning can occur in many different ways, from MOOCs to reading alone to professional experience.

One concern often voiced with assessment as a route to credit is higher education should be about more than just learning — it’s about interacting with peers, learning how to be an adult and so forth. Here is where it is crucial to distinguish “traditional” higher education, with the vision of a 19-year-old living in a dorm, engaging in campus-centered social activities and being guided through learning, from higher education for the growing number of students who are adults with jobs, families and experience applying knowledge. Those who are employed cannot often fit daytime classes into their schedules, and those who are unemployed cannot afford college. Even if classes can fit into a schedule, finding time to meet with instructors during office hours or work on a group project can be impossible, especially if the student has children to take care of.

Post-traditional students know how to work independently, or at least identify when they need help and what questions they have. For them, participating in an asynchronous learning opportunity such as a MOOC, which allows them to carve out time whenever their schedules permit, may be the only way they can take a class. In addition, competency assessment helps post-traditional students identify areas in which they excel and those in which they possess gaps, honoring the knowledge, skills and abilities they bring to the table and granting credit for course equivalency.

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Readers Comments

John G. Karmen 2013/05/30 at 11:52 am

We are slowly moving in the direction of separating learning from assessment. This is abundantly clear as some institutions begin to consider offering credit for completed MOOCs. Granted, most of the institutions having these conversations also have a hand in developing the MOOCs they are considering giving credit for. However, I believe the growth of online education in the next few years will force al institutions, even the ones that don’t offer MOOCs, to begin accepting these as credits.

Tawna Regehr 2013/05/30 at 3:05 pm

It is important to note the difference between traditional-aged and adult students and their needs before judging which learning formats/strategies are effective. Clark and Hoffman rightly point out that online courses are a format particularly useful for adult students, who may need to balance school with other priorities such as family and full-time jobs. Traditional-aged students are considerably less likely to face this struggle. Institutions need to learn to accept the reality that all students learn differently, and therefore need different pathways to pursue higher education.

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