All-You-Can-Learn—For One Flat Fee—U: But To Go Slower, Not Faster

On November 18, admissions opened for the University of Wisconsin system’s new “Flexible Option.” The beautifully crafted web site tells prospective students that they will be able to, “earn credit for what you know,” “advance at your own pace,” and “start when you want, at the beginning of any month and that they can choose the “All-You-Can-Learn Option …[which] allows you to master as many competency (skill) sets and pass as many assessments as you can within a three-month period for a flat tuition rate of $2,250.” Welcome to the brave new world of Competency Based Education (CBE).

Quick Rorschach test: Are you rolling your eyes with snark? Groaning with dread? Or is your heart beating faster and your face flushing with wide-eyed wonder?

Ideally, you would have all these reactions. Unfortunately, most people talking about CBE are either tech/market cheerleaders, who rave about lower costs and quicker degree completion, or traditionalist luddites, who rant, without evidence, about lower standards and intangibles.  Meanwhile most educated, policy-engaged people haven’t even heard of CBE. And this is eight months after the Obama administration solicited proposals for CBE programs to become financial aid eligible, unleashing a flurry of new and planned programs.

The tragedy is that this limited debate misses CBE’s true potential: allowing students to spend more time so that they could actually learn and ensuring that only students who have truly learned gain credentials. (Quick: Think of some college graduate who can’t write or correctly interpret simple tables of numbers.) To address our real educational problem—frighteningly low skills in our adult workforce, we need skeptical, patient cheerleaders who focus on making CBE slower and (at least initially) more expensive.

CBE is a major bullet in the Obama administration’s plans for higher ed. Under CBE, the credit hour, the (absurd) idea that the amount of learning is based on hours in the classroom, is gone. Instead, you get your degree only by proving, through tests, papers and other “deliverables,” that you have mastered the required “competencies.” Time in classroom and just doing stuff don’t count.

Bits and pieces of CBE have long existed, like testing out of specific courses, Advanced Placement exams and credits for life experiences. But until this Fall, fully CBE degree-granting was basically limited to Western Governors’ University (WGU), founded in 1997, and praised by Obama administration. WGU has only four program areas: nursing, business, information technology and teacher training.

Why am I wide-eyed with wonder about CBE? Consider an anecdote from my life as a professor. Me to master’s student taking my statistics class, in my office after I have broken down an example into tiny steps: “So, what percentage is a quarter, one fourth?” Student, in a confessing tone: “I’m not really clear on what a percentage is… I didn’t pay attention in high school—or earlier. By the time I started studying in community college, it was all about trig.” This, now hard working, student was failed by the stupid system we have, which graduated her without the basics. Admittedly, that was an exceptionally bad case, but in my experience appalling holes are everywhere, including Columbia and Harvard.

Even when students want to catch up, they have to go at the same pace as everyone else in the class. Many students to me: “I worked really hard and I am still getting a [C+, B, F…].” Me: “But you have to give yourself credit and remember where you started from. It’s really hard to make up all that material in just one semester.” Why the hell can’t the students who need it get more than one semester to make up a lifetime’s worth of deficits? With CBE, they could.

CBE would also eliminate shopping for the easiest instructor. If you don’t know this from your own college experiences, take my word for it that standards vary enormously among ostensibly the same classes in the same universities.

So why am I also snarky and filled with dread about CBE? It starts with the chasm between my vision of CBE and its advertising and advocacy. Here is the for-profit Capella University advertising their new CBE business degrees: “A key advantage of this approach allows you to move quickly through subjects in which you are already proficient and skip re-learning things you already know.” Here is the information sheet for a Senate bill scheduled to be proposed next month, promoting CBE: “education that lowers the cost and reduces the time for completing a degree.”

But our real problem is not students who can go fast, although efficiency for them is great. Our problem is the students who need to be able to go slow.

Apparently, some want CBE for the student equivalent of low-hanging fruit. The University of Wisconsin system program describes students who are right for the Flexible Option: as “motivated, disciplined self-starters who can work independently” However, the students the US needs to help, those who are being left behind and who we as a society need to be productive—need hand-holding, tutoring and even micromanagement. (See what worked for the ASAP program at City University of New York.)

Worst of all, though, is that the emphasis on quick and cheap undermines getting the resources to do CBE right. Just think about the size of the task. The “competencies” have to be relevant and important—and they have to be assessed in a secure, valid and reliable manner. So far, most CBE programs focus on comparatively easy to define competencies, like IT and nursing. I don’t want to dismiss the importance of doing those well: those are great jobs for people who get them and important for society. But much of what we need from undergraduate education is much harder to define, much less assess. Look at the rubric from the Association of American Colleges and Universities and consider just one of its myriad competencies (not their term): “Evidence: Selecting and using information to investigate a point of view or conclusion” in the critical thinking section. Defining, teaching and assessing skills like that take a lot of resources. Believe me, after years designing questions to assess analytical thinking in real world contexts, it’s not easy. Doing it right means that the upfront investment is not small, even if eventually it’s cheaper.

Happily, some insiders do seem to recognize part of what it takes to do this right, even for professional undergraduate degrees. At a November 18 conferenceSally Johnstone of WGU described  just how much it takes to create CBE, particularly what it takes to do assessment.

My final words to you, dear reader, depend on your Rorschach score. If you scored “wide-eyed wonder,” go slow, don’t ignore evidence of problems, expect higher costs and advocate CBE allowing more time to learn, not less. If you scored “snark,” don’t ignore CBE and remind yourself, and others, how, if done right, it could help the disadvantaged and boost our economy. And if you scored “dread,” don’t fight CBE, join it—and make it better.

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