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Learning for the Long Haul: A Response to Alternative Educational Options

The EvoLLLution | Learning for the Long Haul: A Response to Alternative Educational Options
The emergence and growing popularity of competency-based approaches to degree attainment is beneficial for the non-traditional student demographic, who need highly accessible and relevant programming that leads to the workforce.

This is an amazing moment in time for change and innovation in education, much of which has been spawned by technology.  The learning models that were so familiar to us in the past are giving way to pioneering new solutions. As anyone who has attended SXSWedu or EDUCAUSE can attest, the marketplace is brimming with new solutions to “massify” and, at the same time, personalize learning.

Just think of what has happened in the last five years: groundbreaking advancements in online learning, blended or hybrid learning, personalized learning, and flipped classroom models have now become deeply embedded in mainstream consciousness.

While it’s an exhilarating time—buttressed by traditional, educational institutions and enhanced by alternative providers—it’s also the period in which higher education is most important to the fabric of our nation. Our evolving, 21st-century economy has caused skills gaps in industries across the nation. Core competencies required for many jobs have transformed and new positions have been created that didn’t exist even a decade ago. The demands of the workplace are more sophisticated than ever, requiring ongoing education to keep current.

Now, unless the number of Americans with postsecondary educations increases substantially, our nation could lose its competitive position in the global marketplace. And, because change is happening so quickly, the need for a more skilled and knowledgeable workforce has (in part) created a marketplace for alternative education providers, such as MOOCs, SPOCs and bootcamps. One demographic driving the demand for non-traditional options are midcareer professionals who are eager to open opportunities for themselves, but lack the flexibility to follow the traditional pathways.

While researchers work to define the various developing categories of educational attainment, the US Census Bureau estimates a quarter of Americans hold an alternative credential, including educational certificates, professional certifications or licenses. And millions more participate in non-credit courses, on-the-job training or apprenticeships.

The people who have recognized that learning is a lifelong pursuit and sought alternative credentials should be applauded. Certainly, the results of those non-traditional pathways are proven to create new career opportunities, supplement existing skillsets, and strengthen the workforce. However, for many employers, the bachelor’s degree is still the credential of choice.  Many employees who have chosen alternative education options in lieu of degree-granting programs have found that, in time, they need the degree for career progression.

Evidence continues to support the long-term value of college and university degrees. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) says, on average, people with bachelor’s degrees make $1 million more over their careers than people with only a high school diploma. Furthermore, STEM and Business graduates earn, on average, three to four times that amount over their lifetime.

In general, a degree from a college or university increases the chances of a fuller, more comfortable life.

So, what instructional model can traditional, degree-granting institutions utilize that takes advantage of current technology, addresses an immediate need for added capacity, meets the demands and expectations of modern learners, and allows for the delivery of high-quality programs?

The answer: competency-based education.

Competency-based education, or CBE, meets the requirements and expectations of focused, self-starting students and provides a viable pathway for obtaining a degree. CBE takes into consideration other learning students have attained, included through alternative pathways or on-the-job experience, often accelerating students’ progress toward a degree.

CBE is innovative because it is truly student-focused. The model measures individual progress by what a student knows and can do, rather than by credit hours. It recognizes knowledge gained via outside sources, including alternative pathways or on-the-job experience. That makes CBE ideal for adult learners.

The model recognizes students enroll with different levels of knowledge, as well as a wide variety of learning styles. It allows them to move quickly through material they already know, so they can focus on what they need to learn. In many cases, representatives from industry and academia define what students are evaluated on, meaning curricula—bolstered by a strong general education foundation—are career-focused and relevant.

The advantages of CBE to students are many. The model is inherently flexible; students work on their own time and at their own pace. They are often able to accelerate their progress, allowing them to save time and tuition costs.

And when they graduate, they’ve proven their mastery of the course content. Employers can be assured career-focused graduates who have gone through CBE programs are well prepared to excel in the workplace.

For faculty, they are free to work with students individually, providing one-on-one guidance and support. The modality allows for detailed analysis of an individual student’s progress through the course material. No longer do instructors have to “teach to the middle.” Faculty can use analytics to identify areas in which a student is struggling and proactively provide targeted support and content.

During this wonderful era of innovation and opportunity, it has been demonstrated that education is not one-size-fits-all. The rise of alternative education providers confirms that. Colleges and universities can personalize learning, as well as address the demand for increased degree production, by adopting CBE.

With CBE among their offerings, colleges and universities will make education more accessible for working adults—a population requiring a new approach and a population we need to reach in order to meet our communities’ needs for an educated workforce.

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