May 30, 2016

Who has the most expensive higher education system for students?

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Tuition fees and student debt (source: Sutton Trust)

Tuition fees and student debt (source: Sutton Trust)

Kirby, P. (2016) Degrees of Debt: Funding and finance for undergraduates in Anglophone countries London, UK: The Sutton Trust

The answer, in a comparison between the major anglophone nations of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (NI), USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (NZ) is clearly: England. Graduates from English universities will leave with twice the debt of even private universities in the USA (£44,500 compared with the equivalent of £29,000 for for-profit universities in the USA and around £20,000 for public and private non-profits). Scotland will have the lowest average student debt (around £10,000), followed by Canada.

A good degree of caution is needed in interpreting these results. Tuition fees can vary considerably, both within countries (e.g. Canada) and between different kinds of institution in the same country (e.g. the USA). Student debt is influenced not just by the level of tuition fees but also by the availability of grants to students, parental contributions, and the availability of part-time work while studying. There are always problems with converting from several different currencies into one standard currency (in this case the U.K £). Debt also is influenced by the economic benefits following from graduation; debt is much more serious if there are few well-paying jobs after graduation. Canadian students may not feel this way, but they are fortunate in that within the first 10 years of graduating their annual income will average twice their total student debt, making repayment more manageable than in all the other countries except Scotland.

Main conclusions

Even allowing for understandable methodological difficulties, the differences are stark, and the consequences significant. These are best described by the report’s own main conclusions:

  • the average English student faces the highest levels of graduate debt within the major anglophone countries;   
  • however, the vast majority of English students’ study-related debt is held by the state, which has relatively clear repayment conditions compared to other Anglophone countries;
  • as a result [of the high tuition fees], the number  of  part-time  and  mature  students  enrolling  at  UK  institutions  across  recent years has dropped precipitously
  • while full-time undergraduate university enrolment [in England] has recovered since the imposition of £9,000 fees in 2012, university needs to remain a viable option for everyone, especially those from poorer backgrounds, who are   disproportionately under-represented across the UK professional landscape.

Comment

I am coming to the end of ten days spent in England, talking to friends who include an experienced primary school headmistress, and family who include two professors at English universities, two grandsons about to go to university, and two nieces who have recently completed their university studies. This is not a representative sample, but all week I have been hearing a tale of woe about public education in England.

The current Conservative government seems to be ideologically driven towards the privatisation of public education in England. Government funding for universities has been replaced by tuition fees, and the government wants to introduce market competition between schools and also between universities in the belief that this will drive up ‘quality’. Nevertheless there is no empirical evidence in the UK that shows that students from academies (which are replacing local government-run schools) or institutional competition through tuition pricing in universities is leading to better learning outcomes.

The Conservatives seem to have a completely wrong concept of education, based on set curricula, repeated testing of content, highly selective ‘weeding out’ of students who do not fit this paradigm, and governance by unelected trusts or corporations, a model of education that is clearly influenced by the British public boarding school system from which most of the Conservative government ministers have graduated. The current English education system is in a time warp that seems to belong more to the 1920s than the 2020s.

The results of these government policies have been high levels of stress and anxiety for school children in particular, a fundamental weakening (as intended) of the concept of public education, accompanied by a stagnant economy which is barely above the level following the economic recession of 2008. Could it be that English productivity and innovation are suffering as a result of these misguided educational policies?

Culture and effective online learning environments

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Learning environment 2

Figure A 1 from the original version of ‘Teaching at a Distance’

Over the last two months I have done a couple of workshops on building an effective learning environment, based on Appendix 1 of my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. I identified the following as critical components of an effective learning environment:

  • learner characteristics
  • content
  • skills
  • learner support
  • resources
  • assessment

These workshops have reinforced my feeling that I originally excluded a critical component.

The importance of culture

Within every learning environment there is a prevailing culture that influences all the other components. In most learning environments, culture is often taken for granted or may be even beyond the consciousness of learners or even teachers. I will try to show why faculty, instructors and teachers should pay special attention to cultural factors, so that they can make conscious decisions about how the different components of a learning environment are implemented. Although the concept of culture may seem a little abstract at this stage, I will show how critical it is for designing an effective online learning environment,

Defining culture

I define culture as

the dominant values and beliefs that influence decision-making.

The choice of content, the skills and attitudes that are promoted, the relationship between instructors and students, and many other aspects of a learning environment, will all be deeply influenced by the prevailing culture of an institution or class (used to mean any grouping of students and a teacher). Thus in a learning environment, every one of the components I described will be influenced by the dominant culture.

For instance, parents tend to place their children in schools that reflect their owns values and beliefs, and so the characteristics of learners in that school will also often be influenced by the culture not only of their parents but also of their school. This is one of the many ways that culture can be self-reinforcing.

Identifying cultures

I first noticed the impact of different cultures many years ago, when I was doing research in the U.K. on the administration of large comprehensive (high) schools. Given that these schools had deliberately been created by a left-of-centre government in Britain in the 1960s to provide equal access to secondary education for all, and that these schools had many things in common (their size, their curricula, the idea that every student should have the same educational opportunities) one would have expected that they all would have had a similar prevailing culture. However, I visited over 50 such schools to collect information on the how they were managed and the key issues they faced, and every one was different.

Some were created from formerly highly selective grammar schools, and operated on a strict system of sorting students by tests, so that successful students would go up a level and the weakest students would drop down a level, in order to identify the best prospects for university. Here the dominant value was academic excellence.

Some schools were single sex (I am still puzzled by how a school segregated by sex could be considered ‘comprehensive’). One of the key objectives of a girls’ school I visited was to teach girls about ‘poise’. (This led to a very confused miscommunication between me and the headmistress, as I thought she had said ‘boys’.) Here the dominant value was on developing  ‘ladylike qualities’.

Others were inner city schools, where the focus was often on bringing the best out of each child, whatever their abilities. In such schools, each class would contain children with as wide a range of abilities as possible, but they were often rowdy, raucous places in comparison to the more elite-oriented institutions. Here the emphasis was on inclusiveness and equal opportunity.

The differing cultures of each of these schools was so strong I could sometimes detect it just by walking in the door, by the way students reacted with staff and each other in the corridors, or even by the way the students walked (or ran).

Culture and learning environments

Whether you consider culture to be a good or bad influence in a learning environment will depend on whether you share or reject the underlying values and beliefs of the dominant culture. Residential schools in Canada into which aboriginal children were often forcibly placed are a prime example of how culture drives the way schools operate.

The main purpose of such schools was deliberately to destroy aboriginal cultures and replace them with a religious-influenced Western culture. In these schools children were punished for being what they were. In such schools, all the other components of their learning environment were used to reinforce the dominant culture that was being imposed.

Although the outcomes for most children that attended these schools have turned out to be disastrous, those responsible (state and church working together) truly believed they were doing the right thing. We are still struggling in Canada to ‘do the right thing’ for aboriginal education, but any successful solution must take into account aboriginal cultures, as well as the surrounding predominant ‘Western’ culture.

Culture is perhaps more nebulous in higher education institutions, but it is still a powerful influence, differing not just between institutions but often between academic departments within the same institution.

Culture and new learning environments

Because prevailing cultures are often so dominant, they are very difficult to change. It is particularly difficult for a single individual to change a dominant culture. Even charismatic leaders will struggle, as many university presidents have found.

However, as new technologies allow us to develop new learning environments, instructors now have a rare opportunity consciously to create a culture that can support those values and beliefs that they consider to be important for today’s learners.

For instance, in an online learning environment, I consciously attempt to create a culture that reflects the following:

  • mutual respect (between instructor and students, and especially between students)
  • open-ness to differing views and opinions
  • evidence-based argument and reasoning
  • making learning engaging and fun
  • making explicit and encouraging the underlying values and epistemology of a subject discipline
  • transparency in assessment (e.g. rubrics and criteria)
  • recognition of and respect for the personalities of each student in the class
  • collaboration and mutual support.

The above cultural elements of course reflect my beliefs and values; yours may well be different. However, it is important that you are aware of your beliefs and values, so that you can design the learning environment in a way that best supports them.

You may also consider these cultural elements to be more like learning outcomes but I disagree. These cultural elements are broader and more general, and reflect what I believe are really necessary conditions for building an effective learning environment in a digital age.

Lastly you may question the right of an instructor to impose their personal cultural conditions on a learning environment. For myself, I have no problems with this. As a subject expert or professional in teaching, you are usually in a better position than learners to know the learning requirements and the cultural elements that will best achieve these. In any case, if you believe that learners should have more say in determining the culture in which they learn, that too is your choice and could be accommodated within the culture.

Summary

Culture is a critical component of any learning environment. It is important to be aware of the influence of culture within any particular learning context, and to try and shape that culture as much as possible towards supporting the kind of learning environment that you believe will be most effective. However, changing a pre-existing, dominant culture is very difficult. Nevertheless, new technologies enable new learning environments to be developed, and thus provide an opportunity to develop the kind of culture within that learning environment that will best serve your learners.

However, in every learning environment there will be cultural elements that prevail through all components, which is why I have added culture as a background to all the components of a learning environment in the graphic below.

Slide15

Questions

  1. Do you agree with my definition of ‘culture’ as used in describing an effective learning environment? If not, how would you define it? Would you use another term for what I am discussing?
  2. Can you describe the culture of the institution in which you work? What are its prime characteristics or goals? Or are there many cultures?
  3. Can you describe the culture within your own class or classes? What do you ‘inherit’ and what can you create or change?
  4. Do you share my views on the importance of understanding the culture within a learning environment? Or is culture something a teacher should/can ignore?
  5. What would be the ideal culture for your classes/teaching? How could you foster or create such a culture?

Normal service will be resumed shortly

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The Atlantic - not much to see: one ship in 12 days!

The Atlantic – not much to see except a lot of water: one ship in 12 days!

I have done no blogging over the last month or so as my wife and I have been taking a long vacation which included a spell of 12 days without any Internet connection while I was sailing in a small ship across the Atlantic from San Juan in Puerto Rico to Malaga in Spain. The rest of the time has been spent in Seville in Spain, Paris, France, and ending in England, where I am visiting family.

I found to my astonishment that I could manage quite well without being on the Internet – and more astonishingly, that the world was even better able to manage without me. So I’m assuming you haven’t missed me. However, I am about to restart blogging, with a post about the importance of culture in building an effective learning environment immediately following this post.

In the meantime, as much for my pleasure as yours, here are a few illustrated highlights of the trip, which was a 70th birthday present for my wife.

Sea Dream II: 20 passengers on a repositioning cruise from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean

Sea Dream II: 20 passengers on a repositioning cruise from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean

 

Sailing past Castillo San Felipe del Morro, San Juan

Sailing past Castillo San Felipe del Morro, San Juan

 

Malaga, Spain

Malaga, Spain

 

Seville's cathedral, Santa Maria de la Sede

Seville’s cathedral, Santa Maria de la Sede

 

Ceramics for sale, Cordoba

Ceramics for sale, Cordoba

 

Gardes Republicaines, Paris

Gardes Republicaines, Paris

Ah, well, it was nice while it lasted. The next post will be much more serious, on culture and learning environments.

IMG_0756

A national survey of university online and distance learning in Canada

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February 22, 2016 – The Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Trade, today welcomes Canada’s new education brand, "EduCanada’. The new EduCanada logo will appear on branded materials produced by the Government of Canada, provincial and territorial governments and by institutions active in the international sphere, such as Canadian universities, colleges, CEGEPs

February 22, 2016 – The Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Trade, today welcomes Canada’s new education brand, “EduCanada”. The new EduCanada logo will appear on branded materials produced by the Government of Canada, provincial and territorial governments and by institutions active in the international sphere, such as Canadian universities, colleges, CEGEPs

Martel, C. (2015) Online and distance education capacity of Canadian universities Montreal QC: EduConsillium

At last we have a national survey of online learning in Canadian universities. This study was carried out on behalf of Global Affairs Canada by EduConsillium, a Montreal-based consultancy that specializes in the strategic deployment of education and training and events management.

Purpose of the study

The goal of this research is to investigate Canada’s use of and capacity in digital and online education, but since it was commissioned by Global Affairs Canada, its focus is primarily on the potential of online and distance learning for attracting international students. Nevertheless this report provides the most extensive data-based analysis to date of online and distance learning in Canadian universities.

I will provide an extensive summary and analysis of this report, but as always, you are recommended to read the full report, which can be accessed (for free) by writing to education@international.gc.ca.

Methodology

The consultants approached 93 universities. (There are 99 members of Universities Canada, but some are theological colleges attached to a larger university) and there were 73 responses for a 78% response rate.

Although the response rate is high, there are some significant omissions (for example, the University of Waterloo and the University of Saskatchewan, which have significant online programs, and the Universities of Alberta, Calgary and Mount Royal in Alberta, which have few or no distance programs). In particular, data for Alberta in the report are significantly skewed by Athabasca University, which is the main distance education provider in Alberta. There are no full universities in the three territories. For these reasons analysis by province/territories is not always reliable in the EduConsillium report.

The report never defines online learning or distance education. The terms seem to be used synonymously. In particular no distinction is made between blended, hybrid and fully online learning, but the assumption appears to be that the responses were for fully online courses.

It would have been preferable to have segmented the data between fully distance and dual-mode institutions, but this was not done.

Lastly, the method of counting online students leaves much to be desired. This is discussed in more detail in the comment section.

Results

Programs and courses

Of the 73 institutions responding, 68 (93%) offer online and distance courses. However, this may range from one to several hundred courses, and of course, some institutions will not have responded to the survey because they did not offer online or distance courses.

The survey identified a total of 12,728 online courses, of which 68% were undergraduate, and a total of 8% of all courses offered by Canadian universities.

The survey also identified a total of 809 online programs (72% of which are undergraduate).

However, the proportion of undergraduate online courses and programs is inflated by the large distance teaching universities, Athabasca, Royal Roads and TELUQ. The proportion of graduate online courses is likely then to be much higher for dual-mode institutions. Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan have the highest number of online courses.

Students

The report identified 360,000 students (29% of all Canadian university students) registered in online courses. Again, this figure needs careful interpretation as it does not indicate how many online courses students were taking.

The report does not give actual online enrolments by province, but the average number of online students per institution within each province, which again is highly misleading because of the effect of the large distance teaching universities in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. Averages are also not very helpful when institutions can vary from under 10,000 to over 60,000 students. Provinces with large universities will by definition have higher averages than for those provinces with mainly small institutions.

Over a third of those that responded to the survey provided no data on international students taking online courses. Of the two-thirds that did respond, 10% of the online enrolments were international students.

Policies and Strategies

The survey asked institutions what strategic purpose online learning served. No copy of the questionnaire is provided with the report, but it appears that a multiple choice question was offered with space for comment, so respondents were limited to the choices provided. However, in response to this question:

  • 68% of the institutions answered: to increase registration without adding infrastructure costs
  • 75% to widen the institution’s traditional catchment area
  • 5% to attract international students

However, it should be noted that many institutions offer individual online courses that can be taken instead of on-campus courses, so the main purpose of such courses is to provide more flexibility for learners. This option though was not apparently available for respondents.

In terms of how online learning is developed and delivered:

  • 61% of all surveyed institutions have a dedicated group responsible for development standards
  • 91% use an LMS
  • 21% use external contractors to develop online programs
  • 67% charge the same fees for online as for campus courses, while 22% charge more.

There is a section in the report on instructional strategies used for online learning, but again it appears to have been a multiple choice question, and the categories provided made little sense to me. One difficulty is that within an institution, there can be a wide variety of approaches to instructional design (even when there is a central unit responsible for development). This is not an area of enquiry that lends itself to multiple choice, single answer questions.

Main conclusions of the report

There is a very brief section setting out conclusions, mainly focused on the potential of online learning for attracting international students, which reflects the interest of the report’s sponsor.

The report recognizes that online learning is moving from a fringe to a mainstream activity and that there is potential for growth in the international market. It notes that Canada’s rate of expansion of online learning (roughly 8.75% per annum) is about the average for all countries worldwide. At one point it laments the slow growth in Canada, comparing it to growth rates of 30% or more in other countries such as Vietnam, Romania, India and China, and that Canada ‘cannot be considered a leader in this field as more than 20 countries invest about twice as much in their accredited online learning.’ However, no source is given for this statement, and without providing a base against which growth can be compared, it is pretty meaningless. For instance Canada has been offering online learning since 1995, while Romania is a relative newcomer. Canada therefore is a more mature market with less scope for growth, compared with Romania.

Finally the report notes that as there is no federal system of higher education in Canada, Canadian universities might need to go through some form of aggregating organization to provide a more visible international presence.

My comments

First, kudos to Global Affairs Canada for commissioning this study. It is the first national survey of Canadian online learning since, well when?

Methodological issues

However, I wish it had been a better study than it has turned out to be. There appear to be (I say ‘appear’ because I haven’t seen the actual questionnaire that was used) some serious methodological issues, not uncommon in attempts to measure online learning. In particular it is really important to distinguish between:

  • students as individuals
  • student/course enrolments
  • student FTEs (full-time equivalents).

It appears that the unit of measurement for students in this report is students as individuals. This means that it doesn’t matter how many online courses a student may take, it is counted as one student. Hence the figure of 360,000 individual students taking at least one online course.

However, a more accurate measurement of online learning activity would be the total number of enrolments in online courses. Thus if a student takes three online courses, that would be 3 student/course enrolments. This would measure better, for instance, the take-up of online courses, if the same students continue to add online courses to their workload.

But if we wish to compare online enrolments to ‘regular’ or campus-based enrolments, we need to look at the number of student FTEs taking online courses. This is more complicated since courses can vary in terms of the number of credits they count for, but to keep it simple, let’s assume that students need to take 10 three credit courses a year, then one student/course enrolment is one tenth of an FTE. Thus 360,000 student/course enrolments would be the equivalent of 36,000 FTEs. So either FTEs or student/course enrolments give a better picture than individual students of the impact of online learning.

One way to check the reliability or accuracy of the EduConsillium report would be by comparing it with similar studies. The problem is that there are very few similar studies, but one it should be compared with is the study conducted by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities in 2011. This was an actual census of all its universities (and colleges). The key figures from this report for the academic year 2009/2010 are as follows:

  • At the undergraduate university level, total [online] registrations amounted to 343,434 or 13% at 19 institutions which reported.
  • At the graduate university level, total [online] registrations amounted to 10,097 or 7% of total registration of 136,800 at 11 institutions which reported data
  • At the university undergraduate level, 21 institutions reported that 4,743 courses were available in an [online] format or 7% of a total of 64,590 courses.
  • In addition, at the graduate level (university only), 13 institutions reported 505 [online] courses which represented 3% of total reported graduate courses of 16,859 at these institutions.

This gives a total of 353,531 student/course registrations, or 12.68% of all course registrations, equivalent to approximately 35,350 FTEs. There was a total of 5,248 online courses, or 6.44% of all courses.

Unfortunately the EduConsillium report does not provide raw data, but provides the average number of online students per Ontario institution at 6,908.26, or 29% of all students. There are 21 responding Ontario institutions in the survey, which makes for a total of 145,073 students taking online courses. This would require those students recorded as taking an online course to take almost three online courses each on average to match the figures from the Ontario government.

There are similar problems comparing online courses in Ontario. The EduConsillium report gives only the average number of courses per institution, which again makes it difficult to calculate the actual total number of courses, but assuming the number of Ontario institutions in the EduConsillium survey to be 21, this would give a total of 2,589 online courses in 2015, compared with the Ontario government’s figure of 5,248 for 2010.

It should also be remembered that since 2009/2010, Ontario has rapidly increased its investment in online course development, so today there will be even more student/course registrations, and considerably more online courses. However, it is not possible to do a direct comparison between the Ontario and the EduConsillium data on online student enrolments or on online courses, which is a pity. Nevertheless it does suggest that the EduConsillium figures are considerably below those of the Ontario government.

This difficulty in validating the data is a direct result of the failure of EduConsillium to take into account what little research had previously been done on online learning in Canada. The EduConsillium report states:

It is difficult to estimate where the Canadian offering stands, as there has been no systematic review or analysis covering the Canadian offering. There are a few anecdotal studies about the online ventures of some Canadian post-secondary education institutions, but no real research looking into the general Canadian offering in online/distance education and the potential strategies used by Canadian institutions. This could become an issue as institutions focus on the lucrative international student market.

However, if it had first examined the Ontario government survey results, or looked at Contact North’s report (Jean-Louis, 2015), which estimated a total of 1.3 million online course enrolments (including one and two year colleges), or my book, Managing Technology in Higher Education, which did examine online learning strategies in three Canadian post-secondary institutions, or some of the articles in journals such as IRRODL that describe online learning strategies in Canadian institutions, and taken all this into consideration before designing its study, I would have had more confidence in the EduConsillium report.

Better than nothing?

Nevertheless, it is what it is. The report is probably better than nothing. It could provide a base against which further studies could be compared. However, I would not bet even my old socks on its accuracy. We need to be able to track accurately the growth and development of online learning in Canada. To do this, we need something more equivalent to the U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS annual survey or the Babson Reports that provide consistent year-on-year analysis of online enrolments and courses in Canadian universities. This is really a job for StatsCanada to do, in consultation with universities and colleges.

The potential of online learning for international students

With regard to the bigger picture, I agree with the consultants that Canadian online courses and programs have great potential for international students. When UBC launched its online Master in Educational Technology in 2003, over 30% of the students were international. However, that program when it began was deliberately designed to appeal to both domestic and international students. It is not enough to take existing courses and hope they will automatically meet the needs of students in other countries.

Also, too many international offices in Canadian universities fear that online learning will eat into the more lucrative market of on-campus international students. Again, this is a mistake. They are two very different markets. Online learning will appeal to those who cannot afford the time or money to move to another country. It will appeal to older and possibly even younger students overseas than on-campus programs. But universities need a strategy that focuses on an international online market and makes sure that the content, technology and teaching approach is appropriate for learners in very different cultural and economic circumstances than on campus students, whether domestic or international. To do this, though, universities will need to develop a strong business plan – but it will be worth it.

References

Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass

Jean-Louis, M. (2015) An Overview of Online Learning in Canada Thunder Bay ON: Contact North

Ontario (2011) Fact Sheet Summary of Ontario eLearning Surveys of Publicly Assisted PSE Institutions Toronto: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities

Technology and alienation: online learning and labour market needs

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Messi's penalty 'assist': originality has no limits; competency does

Messi’s penalty ‘assist’: originality has no limits; competency does (click on image to see video)

Introduction

This is the third in a series of posts on technology, alienation and online learning, and the first one that deals directly with online learning. The two previous posts were:

In this post I want to discuss the rhetoric and reality around labour market skills, and whether approaches such as competency-based learning may do more harm than good in the long run.

In these posts, it is important to understand that I am not attacking the use of online learning in general. There are many advantages to online learning. What I am questioning in these posts is some of the thinking and in particular some of the hype that surrounds what are otherwise valuable contributions to education. In particular, I want to be clear about the risks that are often ignored in the discourse about online learning, and about how to minimize these risks. If we don’t deal with these risks, then online learning could be yet another contribution to alienation.

Labour market needs and competency-based learning

Probably of all the developments in online learning at the moment, competency-based learning is the hottest. The U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan (2011), praised giving college credit for competency-based learning. President Barack Obama has also spoken in favour of competency-based programs in his proposals to reform higher education (White House Office of the Press Secretary 2013). The U.S. Department of Education is actively encouraging colleges and universities to offer competency-based programs (Field 2013). Many universities, particularly in the USA, are moving in this direction.

Competency-based learning identifies specific competencies or skills, and enables learners to develop mastery of each competency or skill at their own pace, usually working with a mentor. Learners can develop just the competencies or skills they feel they need, for which increasingly they may receive a ‘badge’ or some form of validated recognition, or can combine a whole set of competencies into a full qualification, such as a certificate, diploma or a full degree. A feature of most competency-based programs is a partnership between employers and educators in identifying the competencies required, and assessment based on clear learning outcomes.

There are several benefits in the competency-based learning approach:

  • it meets the immediate needs of businesses and professions;
  • students may receive advancement within a company associated with the program, or if unemployed, are more likely to be employed once qualified;
  • it enables learners with work or family commitments to study at their own pace;
  • for some students, it speeds up time to completion of a qualification by enabling them to take the assessment when ready;
  • students get individual support and help from their mentors;
  • tuition fees are affordable and programs can be self-funding from tuition fees alone;
  • competency-based education is being recognized as eligible for Federal loans and student aid in the USA.

For more on competency-based learning, see Chapter 4.5, Teaching in a Digital Age

Drivers of change

There are several key reasons for the growth in competency-based learning:

  • the high direct cost of post-secondary education, especially in the USA; competency-based learning is generally much cheaper
  • it meets the immediate job needs of both employers and students
  • it is much more flexible, particularly for working students, than conventional full-time campus-based education.

The main value proposition and who benefits

  • employers get workers with exactly the knowledge and skills that they need
  • students have more immediate success in finding jobs
  • it lowers the cost of post-secondary education (government and parents)

Risks and danger

The risks are more long-term than short-term. In the short term, competency-based learning is more likely to meet the immediate needs of employers, and students looking for immediate employment or better jobs. However, by definition, competency-based learning is focused not only on the immediate needs as defined by employers, but also on providing just the amount of education needed to meet immediate needs.

This leaves employees educated primarily through competency-based learning vulnerable to major shifts in the labour market. They may end up trained for jobs that no longer exist, and even worse, without the skills or knowledge to adapt to the changing market. Meanwhile, those students who have received a broader education, focused on more general, high level skills, will then have a long term market advantage. In such conditions, those with qualifications through competency-based learning could end up in the lower paid jobs or without work, a prime condition for alienation.

More fundamentally, the concept of competency is limiting. Competency-based learning requires setting learning outcomes that can be accurately measured according to pre-determined standards. Indeed, ‘mastery’, i.e. 95% or more in terms of measuring a competency, is often required. This is different from a skill. A skill has no limit. One continues to improve with learning and experience. This is true particularly of intellectual skills, such as critical thinking, originality, and decision-making, but also applies to even psycho-motor skills. Athletes such as Roger Federer and Lionel Messi never stop practicing, learning and developing. They only stop through the aging process, as their body becomes less strong or over-stressed. Thus measuring a skill that theoretically has no limit is not easy since it may well exceed pre-determined criteria.

What many learners will need in a volatile, uncertain,complex and ambiguous labour market are skills of entrepreneurship, adaptability and resourcefulness. Such skills require a different curriculum and different teaching methods from that of competency-based learning.

Conclusion

I am not arguing against the use of competency-based learning. For certain market conditions and for certain learners, this will be an improvement on traditional post-secondary or higher education. People need jobs now; who knows what the future will bring. Competency-based learning is a particularly valuable teaching method for those already in or recently removed from employment.

However, it will not meet all needs. Indeed, most learners will need, at least initially, an approach to education that allows for greater flexibility and range in the knowledge and skills they need to develop. In particular we should be teaching in such a way that enables learners to continue to learn, to deepen their knowledge, to improve continuously their skills. This should be  an education for all learners, not just for an elite few who go to Ivy League universities. Such an approach to education is necessary for all who want a secure and prosperous future. If we limit learners to just competency-based education, we are setting them up for alienation down the road. So we should think of competency-based learning as a supplement to rather than a replacement for a broader education.

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Personalized and adaptive learning.

References

Duncan, A. (2011) ‘Beyond the Iron Triangle: Containing the Cost of College and Student Debt.” Remarks of US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the annual Federal Student Aid conference, Las Vegas, November 29 http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/beyond-iron-triangle-containing-cost- college-and-student-debt.

Field, K. (2013) ‘Student Aid Can Be Awarded for Competencies, Not Just Credit Hours, U.S. Says.’ Chronicle of Higher Education, March 19 http://chronicle.com/article/Student-Aid-Can-Be-Awarded -for/137991

United States of America (2013) Fact sheet on the President’s Plan to Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class Washington DC: White House Office of the Press Secretary, August 22 http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/22/fact-sheet-president-s-plan-make-college-more-affordable-better-bargain-.