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Arizona colleges among few moving toward ‘competency-based’ learning

WASHINGTON — Rio Salado Community College and Arizona State
University were cited Thursday as schools that are taking tentative steps
toward “competency-based education,” which recognizes student mastery
of subjects rather than the number of hours spent in a classroom.

Supporters of competency-based learning — which focuses on the
outcomes of learning and what students need to know in the workplace —
argue that it would be more efficient than the current system of credit
hours.

“There are more actors recognizing that we need a system that produces
more degrees, faster degrees and cheaper degrees — but, most
importantly, better degrees and credentials,” said Amy Laitinen, deputy
director for higher education for New America Foundation.

“All of these different efforts are basically recognizing that competency is
going to be key to helping us get there,” said Laitinen, at a Center for
American Progress meeting on the issue Thursday.

But others worry that the idea, while intriguing, might not apply to all
subjects and that shifting from the current system could be a massive and
disruptive undertaking.

“It’s not that this is an entirely new phenomenon; there have been many
programs that have been competency based in many different sectors,”
said Michael Tanner, vice president of the Association of Public and Land-
Grant Universities. “The challenge is taking it to a national scale.”

But Laitinen said discussions about competencies are growing within higher
education because of concerns about educational quality.

The credit hour has long been the standard for measuring and counting
student progress at colleges and universities, but there are inherent
problems in measuring learning by “seat time” and credit hours, she said.

While the credit hour has helped determine faculty workloads, class
schedules and federal student aid, the problem is that it is based around
time and not learning.

“If it were really an accurate measure of learning, it would be able to be
used like a currency,” Laitinen said. “But everyone knows that as students
who are trying to transfer from one institution to another, a credit hour
isn’t a credit hour. It’s fundamentally divorced from learning.”

Rio Salado is trying to recognize the experiences and courses students
bring to them to the college, even those experiences in a non-traditional
academic setting, said spokeswoman Delynn Bodine.

“Receiving credit for prior learning reduces the costs to complete a degree,
it impacts time to completion and it gives students a boost when they are
entering college,” she said.

That type of innovation needs to be fostered to raise productivity, but it
also needs to be done in an environment that maintains quality, said
Eduardo Ochoa, assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S.
Department of Education.

Competency-based education is one potentially important step in that
direction, he said.

“One of the things we clearly need is an expanded capacity in our education
system, but we also need to maintain quality,” Ochoa said. “We need to find
ways to reduce time to degree and to innovate the core learning and
teaching activities.”

With its focus on interdisciplinary learning, Arizona State University has
been successful in preparing students for the social aspects of learning as
well as giving them a broad knowledge base, said Ralph Wolff, president of
the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

ASU President “Michael Crow and ASU are trying to develop new approaches
to expand its competency,” Wolff said Thursday.

But Wolff said there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, noting that
competency-based education may not be applicable to every field.

Tanner said advocates of any change will have their work cut out for them.

“If you think about the richness and diversity of American higher education
that has existed to this point, I suspect there will be a lot of contention
around the definition of a competency before this is going to be smooth
sailing,” Tanner said.