Competency-Based Learning at Northern Arizona University (& New USDOE Rules)

We had planned this blog to run today, but did not know that the U.S. Department of Education would choose March 19 to release its new “Dear Colleague” letter on “Applying for Title IV Eligibility for Direct Assessment (Competency-Based) Programs.”  In the letter, the Department says: “This letter provides guidance to institutions that wish to have direct assessment (competency-based) programs considered for title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA) program eligibility. The letter outlines how institutions can have competency-based programs approved under the current regulations on direct assessment programs.” 

While you are absorbing that new guidance, we welcome Fred Hurst as our guest blogger.  He shares with us the vision and lessons learned in Northern Arizona University’s pursuit of “personalized learning” through competency-based programs.

Photo of Fred Hurst
Fred Hurst, Northern Arizona University

We continue to move forward to implement our Personalized Learning initiative this spring.  For those of you who may not be familiar with it, Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning enables motivated students to earn a high quality degree more efficiently and at a lower cost by customizing coursework to fit individual learning styles and previously acquired knowledge.

What is Personalized Learning?

Our education system, from Kindergarten through college, is designed like an assembly line – every student is treated the same.  The problem is that every student is different.  For example, even in Kindergarten, some children can read, others can’t read at all.  The gaps in ability only get worse over time and they vary for every student.  In high school, I didn’t understand grammar but I was a math whiz.

Using technology to create self-paced online programs allows education to be personalized to each student in a way that would be prohibitively expensive in our current faculty-led model.  Competency-based education can ensure that each student gains true competency, not just squeaking by with a “D.”  Research tells us that most students are turned off to learning by middle school.  Competency-based education can bring back the joy of learning to many students.

We designed our Personalized Learning program from the ground up.  We threw out all our current approaches to pedagogy, student support and business processes and reinvented them using the latest techniques and technologies.  Students have multiple instructional options to help them master the material: video lectures and documentaries, simulations, games, and even textbooks.  Each student has a faculty mentor to tutor them to ensure they master the material. Additionally, we want to utilize adaptive learning powered by big data to steer students to the learning options – and developmental and supplemental materials – which will most efficiently allow them to be successful.

Personalized Learning is based on a subscription model.  Like Netflix, the student pays for time, not by the credit hour.  The flat $2,500 cost per six months is all-inclusive for all the courses the student can master – no extra charges for textbooks/materials, IT or climbing walls.  Can you imagine going on and having a long list of the costs that make up the price of an item you want to buy:  $14 for manufacturing, $10 shipping from China to the U.S., $4 for marketing, etc.?  The student may start any day of the year and their personalized semester is six months long, regardless of when they start.

Implementation Challenges We Faced

Sounds great, huh?  Well, being a change agent isn’t always easy.  We had originally hoped to implement Personalized Learning on January 2nd of this year.  A number of factors have slowed us down including campus discussion, technology glitches and regulatory requirements.

Discussions with campus offices and departments about why and how Personalized Learning can work are ongoing and not without some controversy.  This was expected, and, in the end, we have the support to move forward.

Technological issues include how do we fit an innovative program with 365 semesters per year (366 in leap years) into a student information system that is designed for three semesters per year?  How do you provide federal financial aid to students when they are not enrolled in a specific number of courses in a semester?  If a student is in the middle of a course when their subscription/semester ends, how do you assess their progress for financial aid and how do you transcript their work?  These sorts of questions are difficult to answer and even more difficult to implement in a rigid student information system.

The North Central Association’s Higher Learning Commission has a pilot program in place to assess five institutions including Northern Arizona University to authorize the offering of competency-based programs.  The first programs will be considered for approval in May.  When approved by our accrediting body, Northern Arizona University will apply to the U.S. Department of Education for authorization to offer Title IV federal financial aid.  As of this writing, the first and only institution to apply, Southern New Hampshire University, believes their approval is imminent.

Northern Arizona University is in the process of final quality assurance on the degree programs – Computer Information Technology, Small Business Administration, and Liberal Arts.  The business processes and the user interface will be in place in April.  We will implement this spring after the Higher Learning Commission approves us to offer the three degree programs.  Personalized Learning students will not have federal financial aid available until later in the year when it is anticipated that the Department of Education will authorize us to offer it.

I close with the following quote by Victor Hugo, “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.”

Fred Hurst
Senior Vice President of Extended Campuses
Northern Arizona University

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Executive Director WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies)

11 thoughts on “Competency-Based Learning at Northern Arizona University (& New USDOE Rules)

    1. I do not work for WGU. However, I was involved with one of the boards that accredited some of WGU’s first educator preparation programs. Competency-based education has always made so much sense to me.

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