competencyworks higher education blog

Adding “Modularization” to the Higher Education Vernacular

August 15, 2014 by
Michelle Weise

Michelle Weise

Originally appeared August 8, 2014 at the Christensen Institute

Even before MIT released its 213-page report earlier this week on how the future of higher education hinges on modules of learning as opposed to courses, the Clayton Christensen Institute had issued a mini-book titled, Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization and the Workforce Revolution, which proffers that online competencies are best poised to modularize learning and help students skill up for very different industries.

Time-based courses are the main currency in traditional institutions—in massive open online courses (MOOCs) as well—and in general, it is nearly impossible to excise a week of learning from one class and insert it into another course in an unrelated field. In contrast, competencies have a unique architecture, as they break down learning into modules that are not inextricably tied to courses or topics.

In an online competency-based environment, all learning materials are tagged and mapped differently. Competencies are comprised of series of learning objectives and often involve a kind of can-do statement: this student can create a research-based argument; this student can use appropriate mathematical formulas to inform financial decisions; or this student can speak effectively in order to persuade or motivate. In many cases, students can draw on resources from various subject areas to achieve their learning objectives in order to master a competency. (more…)

Rights-Sizing Higher Education

August 11, 2014 by
Jobs and freedom march on Washington

From Wikipedia


The word is tossed around these days, and I always have to think about why disruption is good for students, especially those that are underserved, rather than the companies that are grabbing a piece of the market through a new product or service.

In summarizing the new paper by Michelle R. Weise and Clayton Christensen, Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution, Michael Horn writes in his blog Move over MOOCs, it’s online, competency time:

As they argue, online, competency-based schools represent the right learning model—focused on actual mastery of knowledge, skills, and dispositions—with the right technology of online learning, targeted at the right customers—non-consumers who are over-served by the value proposition that traditional colleges and universities offer and searching for a new value proposition from college aligned around workforce needs—paired with the right business model that is low cost, low-priced, and sustainable. (more…)

Add Hire Education to Your Summer Reading List

August 6, 2014 by
Michelle Weiss

Michelle Weise

Leaders in higher education and K12 should take the time to read Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution by Michelle R. Weise and Clayton M. Christensen of the Christensen Institute. The paper explores how online, competency-based programs are disruptive to higher education. The paper is an easy way to get on top of the issue, including a great introduction to disruptive innovation, inefficiencies in the traditional system, and the basics of online, competency-based programs. Don’t skip the appendices – you’ll find a quick summary of public policy and descriptions of higher education innovators.

The authors argue that the combination of online learning and competency education – modularization and mastery – is where the real power for disruption lies by offering a new business model:

The vanguard of online competency-based learning providers is developing technology to ensure that time is truly the variable factor and learning is fixed: Assessments are built into the system to ensure students’ proficiency; students can take assessments as many times as necessary until they have mastered the competency; and instructors can rely on an analytics dashboard and cater to students’ needs like a personalized tutor when necessary. (more…)

New Networks: Competency Education in Higher Education

April 30, 2014 by

higher edCompetency education is a hot topic in higher education. (No worries about varied terminology in higher education. Leaders in higher education in every state call it competency education.) I’ve even seen some private universities using the phrase competency-based in their television advertisements.

Two initiatives are now working with colleges and universities to support the development of high quality competency-based programs – Competency-Based Education Network and Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL)’s Jumpstart program. (See below for the list of colleges.)  Both networks are funded by the Lumina Foundation.

For those of us focused on advancing competency education in K-12 systems, it is important to stay on top of these efforts because if there is a competency-based district and a competency-based college program in your neighborhood, we could start to see amazing advancements.  Competency-based dual credit? Tuning or calibrating what college and career readiness mean so proficiency-based diplomas lead directly into college courses without falling into the remediation quagmire? Creating new opportunities for over-age and under-credited to take advantage of competency-based multiple pathways into college? Share competency-based badging systems to allow students to build those skills no one can agree on a name for (non-cognitive, soft skills, deeper learning, higher order, 21st century) as well as occupation-specific industry skills? (more…)

Time’s Up: US Department of Education Approves First College to Ditch the Credit Hour

April 22, 2013 by


For more than 100 years, the time-based credit hour has been the currency of higher education. Originally created to calculate eligibility for Andrew Carnegie’s free faculty pension system, the credit hour evolved to become much more. Entire systems have been built around and upon the time-based credit hour, including the economic lifeblood of many colleges and universities—federal financial aid. But today, the U.S. Department of Education approved Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) College for America (CfA) to be the first program in the country to receive federal financial aid based on “direct assessment” of student learning, rather than the credit hour. This move from the federal government could signal a new era for higher education—one in which we value and pay for learning rather than time. (more…)

Department of Education Letter Could Put Cracks in the Credit Hour

March 21, 2013 by
Amy Laitinen picture from the New America Foundation

Amy Laitinen
picture from the New America Foundation

This post was originally published on March 19, 2013 by the New America Foundation.

The U.S. Department of Education took a critical step forward today in moving towards a more flexible and innovative financial aid system—one that privileges (and pays for) learning, rather than time. In a letter released this morning, the Education Department let the world know not only that schools can award federal financial aid based on competency rather than seat time, but that the Department wants them to do so.

Up until now, the entire multi-billion dollar federal aid system has run on the credit hour. And while credit hours are useful for administrative functions like scheduling classes and determining faculty workloads, they are not so useful for measuring learning. (See our report Cracking the Credit Hour for more on the curious birth and harmful legacy of this time-based unit).

This shift in the Department’s stance has been seven years in the making. In 2005, Congress created an alternative path allowing federal financial aid to be awarded to a program that “in lieu of credit hours or clock hours as the measure of student learning, utilizes direct assessment of student learning (emphasis added).” While Congress didn’t give much detail about what direct assessment would look like, the general idea was that federal financial aid could be awarded based on the amount of learning a student had achieved, rather than the amount of time she had spent in class. Congress created this provision in large part to help an innovative, growing, and politically-connected institution, Western Governor’s University (WGU), receive federal financial aid. (more…)

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