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Lessons from an Academic Mountaineer: How to Surmount the Challenge and Find Your Pivot Point

The EvoLLLution | Lessons from an Academic Mountaineer: How to Surmount the Challenge and Find Your Pivot Point
As postsecondary institutions begin to emerge from the pandemic and plan the fall semester, they need to consider the diversity of individuals making up their student bodies, and as such, need to offer a diversity of learning modalities to accompany their different learning styles.

There have always been challenges in higher education; however, the current pandemic has exacerbated all of them at once, like an avalanche. Many of us at Western Governors University are called on to answer some of the tough questions about succeeding at online teaching and learning because of the positive outcomes our student body has achieved. WGU is in an optimal position—indeed, a vantage point—along the path to providing quality online education, so we can answer some of the questions circulating in these times of uncertainty and rapid change. Just as there are myriad reasons to engage in face-to-face/traditional brick-and-mortar education, there are equally as many reasons for the various types of online education to be made available. The purpose of this article is to establish online competency-based education (CBE) as one viable option for students and faculty, and to underscore its flexibility and high quality by explaining the methods for designing, delivering, assessing and improving the CBE experience. WGU can offer its own experience on the route as an academic mountaineer. It is important to note that the role of a mountain guide is not to design your journey or to tell you how to experience the climb but to offer expertise for you to maintain the quality of the climb.

The hills we need to climb

What has become clear is that traditional face-to-face instruction cannot be simply transferred to an online modality with the flick of a switch. This also is true for students who cannot become online learners simply because they have logged onto your institution’s learning platform. Delivery methods must be appropriately matched to BOTH the educational content and the learning styles appropriate for that content. Once that is done, we must examine how to support a variety of learners receiving the content. This is neither easy nor fast work; therefore, the whiplash transition to online learning that was necessary to protecting our community’s health is not to be lambasted or harshly criticized. Every person employed in education has done as much as possible to support individual students in their transitions. However, this under-preparedness should also serve as a learning tool so that our educational system is never this under-prepared again. We can anticipate other disruptions, but none of us can know how those disruptions will manifest. We do know, however, that future disruptions are likely.

The very first mountain to climb is that of translating time, for time has been the traditional unit of measure for student progress. Primary through secondary schools have traditionally been mandated to provide a certain number of hours and days for student learning, and students must attend a minimum number of or a percentage of those days in order to progress to the next class level. Postsecondary institutions allocate “credit hours” to indicate how many hours per week a class will meet over a term and how much time a student should expect to spend studying or participating in outside-the-class learning activities.

The false assumption that time equals learning has, due to the pandemic, been dragged out of the shadows of habit and routine. Marching in rhythm to the constant pace of traditional learning has not been shown to be most effective.[1] In an attempt to acknowledge differences in learner preparedness and pace of learning, traditional classes in elementary and middle schools have been “tracked” to a certain extent by “ability grouping” wherein students have been designated as either remedial, average, or gifted. But this system does not properly account  for students’ pacing needs, and its worth is still being debated after 70 years.[2] It is particularly noteworthy that experts appear to agree that the imposed pacing in “ability grouping” has significantly disadvantaged those who were designated as “at risk.”[3]

Many who should have been put in the gifted category were passed over due to the inherent biases at the root of measuring for that potential.[4]  The current pandemic has radically disrupted our “normal” and revealed the disparities in the traditional, time- and place-based learning models. We should be asking, “How do we make our school, education, and child-development systems more individually responsive to students’ needs? Why not construct a system that meets children where they are and gives them what they need inside and outside of school in order to be successful? Let’s take this opportunity to end the “one size fits all” factory model of education.”[5]

CBE, because it is decoupled from time, permits individual tailoring to a student’s demonstrated performance and pacing of coursework. It does not pigeonhole a student in a “track” and therefore avoids the problem of a “gifted” student being enrolled in a more challenging class that does not “fit” with his/her actual aptitude in that subject. Conversely, a student who may not have been traditionally recognized as “academically talented” may progress at an accelerated pace in a subject in which he/she demonstrates advanced competence. Freed from predeterminations, CBE allows students to accelerate in courses wherein their “talent” complements the subject matter and to slow down when another subject takes more time to master.

Competency-based education removes time as an indicator of learning because, in truth, it is not a good proxy measurement. Since 1906, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching questioned the credit hour’s effectiveness at accurately measuring learning. In 2013, the Carnegie Foundation formed a committee to “consider how a revised unit, based on competency rather than time, could improve teaching and learning in high schools, colleges and universities.”[6]  Founded in 1997, WGU has addressed this challenge because it was based on that very principle of measuring learning by directly assessing competency. Since then, WGU has sought continuous improvement through term-by-term reviews of course and student data. The Carnegie Report noted that “achieving this goal would require the development of rigorous standards, assessments, and accountability systems—difficult work, especially in the field of higher education, where educational aims are highly varied and faculty autonomy is deeply engrained.”[7]

However, higher education cannot remain entrenched in a system just because moving away from it poses challenges. Millennials and centennials (aka Gen Z)–those who have never known a world without technology integrated into their everyday lives–represent not only a social shift in a world that is now comfortable online but also the new balancing act they need to perform between work and school in order to demonstrate the direct application of their education to employers in the online world.

There are multiple models of online teaching currently being employed; WGU uses one of them. Technology has enabled us to do many things that were formerly only possible in physical proximity and restricted by strict time frames. Where textbooks and teachers were finite and geographically constrained, the quality of education could be predicted more or less by students’ socioeconomic status. However, as the pandemic has demonstrated, when you take time and place away, learning happens on many different schedules. Technology can provide synchronous or asynchronous delivery methods, simulations, game theory learning, chat rooms, forums for discussion posts, pop-up tutorials (with engaging backgrounds), peer group time and a host of other creative learning platforms that not only engage the learner but also demonstrate equivalent learning outcomes[8]

On our way up to the summit of excellence in self-paced online learning, there are rocky issues to overcome. Anecdotally, throughout the pandemic, instructors have seen the vast differences in work ethic, work production and work time needed to complete an assignment now that students are physically removed from their traditional learning environment. However, these outcomes have been influenced by other factors not directly tied to individual student learning but rather the inequities and barriers that students may be facing. The pandemic has exposed these access barriers and inequalities on a variety of scales; these obstacles can no longer be ignored. Students and teachers alike are struggling to acquire appropriate devices and reliable internet access, and some are struggling with their costs.[9]  It will take additional technology tools and training to address this myriad of variables, but it is an ethical imperative to do so now that the broad extent and pervasiveness of this “achievement gap” has been brought out into the open.[10]

Higher education’s promise to be a “great equalizer”[11] in providing a direct means to improve personal circumstances and open avenues for advancement has not been realized to its full potential. There is an educational “arms race” wherein those unable to attain a quality education are falling rapidly behind.[12] One of the greatest factors regarding access is not just tuition; it’s having to juggle life’s other requirements – employment and family are two of the biggest impediments for students needing to attend classes on the institution’s time and place requirements. So, what happens if we remove these restrictions using online CBE to soften the edges of this rocky terrain?

Finding practical solutions

So far, we have identified the problems encountered on the climb to the CBE solution, but practically speaking, how does an institution create CBE programs and, more importantly, accredited[13] CBE programs? It starts with an examination of each and every competency (an identifiable piece of knowledge or skill) that would be expected of a functioning professional, practitioner or graduate in each field of study. In other words, what does the graduate of this program need to know or be able to do? This exercise breaks down traditional student learning outcomes for programs and courses into insular learning objectives that can be assessed individually. The exact number will vary depending on the size and scope of the credential in question. Each objective is then weighted on a conventional taxonomy scale to accurately assign the level of difficulty to the task. For example, the lower end of the scale represents the ability of the student to know (“identify” or “explain”) while the higher end requires the student to demonstrate mastery (“analyze” or “create”). An algorithm is applied to each course, and the number of competency units represented in that course can be calculated.[14]

Now we have groups of competencies allocated appropriately into individual courses. To determine whether students have mastered them, our assessment designers need to create psychometrically sound testing. Our disaggregated faculty model also identifies distinct roles for course, learning resource, and assessment designers, again to play to our experts’ strengths. This is possible at WGU’s scale of operations and may not be adoptable wholesale; however, some disaggregation may be worth considering to optimize your faculty’s talents and interests. These assessment designers align each testing item—objective- or performance-based—to each competency. The assessments can take many forms, and each is accompanied by a detailed rubric for the evaluation faculty to use. Evaluation faculty are trained to provide inter-rater reliability and an objective eye when giving feedback. (Course instructors do not evaluate assessments in order to eliminate bias[15]).

Data regarding each assessment is collected for quality review. This means that each assessment item can be reviewed for rigor and relevancy and can therefore be updated or replaced to address the market’s changing needs. Analysis of the assessment results is made available to faculty and staff in quarterly reviews–a much shorter timescale than most traditional coursework gets. This is another benefit of WGU’s CBE model; we start a new cohort of students every month, data is updated continuously, any corrective action can be pinpointed quickly, and assessments and/or learning resources can be modified accordingly. This kind of data-driven design and decision-making has the potential to take much of the variability out of learning outcomes and ultimately better serve students, instructors, and potential employers. While it may be difficult to reproduce this comprehensive and relatively short cycle of continuous improvement without great effort and, potentially, scale, we are presenting it here as a model. Many institutions may have some capacity through their learning management systems to deploy uniform assessments supported by detailed rubrics for the evaluation and collection of results.

Leading with this service mentality has also made another WGU difference: eliminating rankings of students by their ability to score well on tests and exams on the first attempt. WGU’s mission is to improve quality and expand postsecondary educational opportunities to those for whom traditional education is impractical or undesirable. In keeping the focus on achievement, we can support non-traditional students in multiple ways to attain degrees or credential goals. WGU supports a system that sets a functional competency level that students either do or do not meet, as determined by the psychometrically designed assessments. Students accustomed to more traditional scoring may want an explanation for a passing score; the equivalent letter grade is a traditional “B,” so all WGU students hold a GPA of 3.0 for courses and degrees completed successfully.

A traditional grading and/or ranking system merely demonstrates a student’s capacity to score well at that singular point in time. WGU’s goal is to produce a set of graduates, each of whom has demonstrated mastery of every competency that they will need to succeed in their chosen field. Traditional grades may permit excellence in one area of coursework while another area is lacking. WGU graduates are all at least equally competent in all areas[16]—no hierarchy is established; rather, graduates are able to rise to the level they set for themselves as they ascend in their fields of practice. This system of evaluation echoes many of the professional-entry exams that require candidates to demonstrate competency by surpassing a psychometrically set cut-score.

Moving forward

The current pandemic has disrupted lives, livelihoods and entire industries– and higher education has not been spared. The “ivory tower” cannot protect against such an insidious, albeit tiny, foe. We each are operating outside of our comfort zone, but disruption does not always end in discomfort. We can use this situation to address some of the challenges that higher education has been facing and will continue to face in both the short and long term. Each institution will need to discover which modalities are most appropriate to deliver on their individual missions. Higher education has long stated that the diversity in institutions’ visions and academic community are vital to keeping American education vibrant; this is perhaps the moment to pivot to relevancy and access.

Evidenced on a variety of social and traditional media, there is a shared call for educational institutions to reflect on current practices and avoid a return to the status quo. Institutions preparing to return to their normal without applying any significant changes towards preparedness, quality, access and “future-proofing” have lost the vision and mission of higher education. “Strategic planning can be a challenging exercise, and many universities often encounter a disconnect between strategy and innovation—they assume that their current business model can extend into the future with only incremental improvements, or they remain uncommitted to a variety of visions for the future, many of which are impractical.”[17]

It is higher education’s duty to evolve and serve all of those who wish to attain a relevant learning credential in whatever form that takes. All aspects of higher education can benefit from transformation, whether a “teaching-forward,” research, or clinical/technical institution. Accreditors will need to learn how to evaluate institutional and program effectiveness to assure students and their families that the quality of academic offerings is held to the same standards as traditional contact hour classes. This health crisis has forced students to become distance learners and institutions to becomes distance education providers, but the lesson it teaches us is that some students and some programs are better suited to this modality.[18] It behooves higher education, then, to become well-suited to it too.

The challenge to be surmounted is to create a practical vision for the future—what does your institution need to look like in the next six months for you, your students, your instructors and your stakeholders? What does long-term success look like for your institution? Is CBE the solution to all barriers to providing quality education? Not at all. But what we have learned from the pandemic is that viable options need to be put in place, and the provision of education needs to flex according to students’ needs. How can you adapt your current strengths to new, upcoming modalities/realities? Can you build flexibility into your five-year plan to account for contingencies? [19] As a dedicated educator and administrator here at WGU, I have  offered my  viewpoint that WGU’s model can serve as an academic guide for those who would like to climb this transformational mountain and reach their pivot point. [20]


Disclaimer: Embedded links in articles don’t represent author endorsement, but aim to provide readers with additional context and service.


[1] Homeschooling, which permits for personalized learning pace, has been shown to improve certain learning outcomes.  Michael Cogan, Exploring Academic Outcomes of Homeschooled Students (Summer 2010). Journal of College Admission, n208 p.18-25.

[2] Linda B. Stroud, To Group or Not to Group: A Qualitative Study of Middle School Principals’ Decision Making Processes Concerning Ability Level Grouping, (2002). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 640.

[3] Id.

[4] Ronald F. Ferguson , Aiming Higher Together: Strategizing Better Educational Outcomes for Boys and Young Men of Color, Urban Institute (May 2016).

[5] Liz Mineo, “Time to Fix American Education With Race-For-Space Resolve”, The Harvard Gazette (April 10, 2020)

[6] Elena Silva , Taylor White, and Thomas Toch, THE CARNEGIE UNIT A CENTURY-OLD STANDARD IN A CHANGING EDUCATION LANDSCAPE, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (January 2015)

[7] Id. Introduction,

[8] For an example, recorded webcasts (asynchronous learning) can actually be beneficial to students as they are able to review the lecture for information they may have missed the first time around. This is not possible in traditional, unrecorded face-to-face lectures. See, Jean-Philippe Vaccani, Hedyeh Javidnia, and Susan Humphrey-Murto, The effectiveness of webcast compared to live lectures as a teaching tool in medical school, Medical Teacher (2016), 38:1, 59-63, DOI: 10.3109/0142159X.2014.970990

[9] Rebecca Winthrop, “Top 10 Risks and Opportunities for Education in the Face of COVID-19”. Brookings (April 10, 2020)

[10] See, Katie Reilly, “The Achievement Gap is ‘More Glaring Than Ever’ for Students Dealing with School Closures”, Time (March 26, 2020); Nicholas Casey, “College Made Them Feel Equal. The Virus Exposed How Unequal Their Lives Are.”  New York Times (April 4, 2020, updated May 5, 2020); Dana Goldstein, Adam Popescu and Nikole Hannah-Jones, “As School Moves Online, Many Students Stay Logged Out”, New York Times (April 8, 2020).

[11] “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.” Horace Mann, American educational reformer and founding editor of “The Common School Journal”, 1838.

[12] David Rhode, Kristina Cooke, and Himanshu-Ojha, The Decline of the Great Equalizer’.”, The Atlantic (December 19, 2012)

[13] Western Governors University is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), and many of its individual programs are accredited by discipline-specific accrediting bodies: CAEP (Council for the Accreditation for Educator Preparation), AAQEP (Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation), CCNE (Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education), CAHIIM (Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education), and ACBSP (Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs)

[14] In order to better serve our students who may wish to transfer, WGU allocates ~3 credits per course in its design process so the translation to the credit hour measurement is approximated.

[15] The need for “rigorous, externally validated assessments” to avoid reliance on “individual teacher or professor judgment” was also noted in the Carnegie Report, supra, at p. 27. As noted before, WGU disaggregates its faculty into multiple roles (including design, delivery, and evaluation) in order to capitalize on each faculty member’s strengths; the best designers create the course(s), the best teachers instruct and mentor, and the best evaluators provide feedback to the student.)

[16] Students do receive exact scores for their assessments to gauge their progress (not competent, approaching competency, competent, and exemplary). Excellence awards are given for exceptional work.

[17] Mark W. Johnson, and Roy N. Davis, “A Future-Back Approach to Creating Your Growth Strategy,” Innosight: Strategy and Innovation at Huron (February 2014).

[18] Admittedly, distance and online learning cannot be the answer to all educational requirements. There is a need for some in-person teaching and learning for certain fields of practice and professions. A revival of apprenticeships and other mentorship models could fill the gaps that hands-on education needs.

[19] Huron Consulting: COVID-19-and-American-Higher-Education-White-Paper.pdf

[20] Kindly note that the comments made herein are my own and not necessarily a reflection/an opinion/stance of Western Governors University.

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