Thursday, December 12, 2013

Competency vs. Credit Hours

Like MOOCs, the call for "competency-based" higher education is an effort to provide more flexibility around seat-time, which has been a mainstay of the nation's systems for adult learning. The notion is, if you know your stuff and you can pass the test quickly, why should you be required to put in a certain amount of hours? The idea is receiving increasing scrutiny and experimentation from both the U.S. Department of Education and foundations. Pioneers in this concept include non-traditional institutions such as Western Governor's University, Excelsior, and Capella, and Southern Hampshire University has become the first traditional higher education institution to decouple seat time ("the credit hour") from degree attainment. Assessment becomes the central indicator of competency, but not all assessments are created equal. Some tests focus on measuring how much terminology and facts someone knows. Some focus on the testing the skill of communicating and explaining connections among ideas. Others focus on applying concepts while solving problems. Some focus on hands-on skill and situational decision making. Many of the more complex skills are not easily or accurately captured by test formats that are easiest to administer and auto score; they require complex judgments based on multiple factors. Few people like to think about tests, but getting the metrics right offers a way out of proxies such as "seat time." The only way to do this well is to think about what few like to think about: assessment.