Isn’t competency-based education just skills certifications or is it the next step of blended learning targeted for adult higher education and workplace education?

Three Big Ten-affiliated institutions (University of Michigan, Purdue, and the University of Wisconsin System) recently announced they will be offering a new competency-based bachelor’s degree. This degree is specifically targeting “adults with some college credits but no degree.” One goal for this offering is to give businesses concrete proof that these students have specific skillsets (competencies) that has real-world application rather than just theoretical ones.

These degrees are flexible online offerings. Users set their own pace and participants can test out of some skills based on what they already know. Students will have mentors and “each student’s experience and learning are reviewed by a “competency assessment panel,” which assigns credit for existing competencies.” Degrees will be earned by satisfactory credit completions along with performance reviews of sample works from the student’s portfolio. Learners will “learn through doing relevant, education-related activities and not by sitting through a series of lectures.” The process “affirms the emphasis on student learning outcomes,” said Michelle R. Weise, a senior research fellow with the Clayton Christensen Institute.

What’s interesting is that this type of learning has been around for decades. It’s a common practice in certain professional industries to get vendor certifications. In information technology, it was and still is a method for individuals to get Microsoft, Cisco, Solaris, etc. certification as a way to demonstrate to potential employers that they have the appropriate knowledge to advance their careers. However, what is unique is that competency-based degree is being adopted by three Big Ten-affiliated institutions. Their initiative is worth keeping an eye on as they are re-imagining and tinkering with existing models (degree accreditation and financial aid, to name two) to integrate this type of offering targeted towards adult higher education.

Fain, Paul. “Big Ten and the Next Big Thing”, October 28, 2014.