Innovative Direct Assessment Programs Show Promise

By Rebecca Strong
Posted August 23, 2014 11:00 AM

Driving innovation in higher ed: Direct assessment programs show promise.
Driving innovation in higher ed: Direct assessment programs show promise.

No two students learn at the same pace, so why should they have to rack up the same number of credits? That's one of the primary philosophies behind direct competency-based education, a personalized approach that has been gaining increasing attention from innovative educators in recent years.

Among the most aggressive forms of emerging educational method are direct assessment programs. Rather than evaluating a student's knowledge and learning capacity through traditional credit hour standards, this approach enables students to work in whatever way they feel is best for them. The goal? To make quality higher education more accessible by reducing the time and costs involved in acquiring a degree. In the process, these measures can help develop certain skills, expertise in a particular subject area, and any other creative or analytical talents that are relevant to the program in question.

For the majority of schools, acquiring a degree means that students must conform to the one-size-fits-all curricula. The concept of competency-based education is looking to change all that.

There's just one problem: Institutions interested in this approach need the blessing of the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and their accreditor to qualify for federal financial aid.

Getting the Stamp of Approval

The revolution began in spring 2013, when the Higher Learning Commission approved four institutions to initiate the first direct assessment competency-based initiatives after conducting a successful pilot program. These initiatives spanned a diverse range of disciplines, from liberal arts to nursing.

Despite the fact that these programs don't adhere to the standard expectations for credit hour-based instruction, the ED gave the green light. In an exciting turn of events, it then announced that it would waive certain federal aid requirements so that institutions could test these new educational strategies without compromising aid eligibility.

Now, more than 350 institutions either already offer competency-based degree tracks or are gearing up to develop them, according to Inside Higher Ed, and many with existing experiments are seeking to expand their efforts. While they are merely that - experiments - supporters of this new educational model say that the federally-backed program could lead to legislation and regulation that makes competency-based learning a feasible reality in the future.

Still, while the ED issued an optimistic letter last March on direct assessment with guidelines for interested institutions, Inside Higher Ed noted that very few have met the outlined requirements. Only two schools - Southern New Hampshire University's College for America and Capella University - have secured approval from the department and their accrediting agencies for these programs thus far.

Capella University in particular has seen significant wins with its efforts to embrace competency-based learning. In July, the school announced the launch of five new specializations in its FlexPath direct-assessment degree delivery programs. These include a Bachelor of Science in business, Master of Business Administration specializations in human resource management and project management, and additionally, a Master of Science specialization in industrial and organizational psychology, according to a press release.

Others schools haven't been so successful.

The University of Wisconsin-Extension, for example, designed direct assessment degree tracks only to hit a snag in regard to federal aid, Inside Higher Ed reported. Meanwhile, Northern Arizona University applied for self-paced, competency-based online degree tracks last year, but in the end, department officials switched their stance on whether the program actually fit the definition for direct assessment.

Laying the Groundwork for Innovation

Fortunately, the future looks promising for these flexible learning paths. Last month, the department announced the establishment of experimental sites, which will conduct further testing of these competency-based practices.

"At a time when a college degree matters more than ever, we have to provide a flexible, innovative experience that can meet the needs of every American," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a press release. "This initiative will enable institutions to try some of their best ideas and most promising practices to provide more students with the opportunity to pursue a higher education and become equipped for success in today's workforce."

Laurie Dodge, co-chairman of the Competency-Based Education Network, explained in a news release that these experiments will also enable institutions as well as the federal government to engage in "responsible innovation," ultimately determining which programs work best, and which financial aid methods are most effective for funding competency-based degree programs. More importantly, she noted that the experiments could offer insight into how these programs impact other policy goals, including increasing student retention rates, as well as improving college affordability overall.

"We believe competency-based models have the potential to meet the needs of students from all backgrounds," David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach, and e-learning at University of Wisconsin-Extension and co-chairman of C-BEN, said in the press release. "We hope these experiments will allow the department, institutions and policymakers to see the benefits for better, more personalized pathways for students while at the same time working to mitigate potential pitfalls."

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