Support for competency-based education gaining momentum in Australia

It was great to see a discussion of competency-based education in The Australian Higher Education supplement this week. It mentions that this is a real disruption to the higher education system. The focus is on outputs (demonstrating competency) and not on inputs (the amount of hours a student is in class). It acknowledges that students are different (is learner focused) and has a heavy emphasis on rigorous assessment. We agree totally! This competency-based approach is at the heart of our venture.

We particularly like the last quote “CBE is a disrupter to the industry, but not in the way MOOCs was proclaimed to be. This new approach to higher education is a model that can help universities cut costs while delivering qualifications that better serve students”.


Competency based learning is (and should be) the Next Big Thing!

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been greatly hyped over the past couple of years, as having potential for disruptive innovation in the higher education sector. With hindsight it’s apparent that this disruptive innovation hasn’t been realised.

Michael B. Horn from the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation writes that online, competency-based programs have held far more disruptive potential. We wholeheartedly agree with this claim. In fact, that’s why an emphasis on competency-based learning lies at the heart of what we are developing for students at Acavista. We think that higher education shouldn’t be about how many hours you spend in class, or what prestigious or expensive institution you attend. Rather, we believe that it should be focused on what students can demonstrate they know and can do.

Horn argues that online, competency-based institutions represent the right learning model (focused on actual mastery of knowledge and skills), with the right technology of online learning, targeted at the right students (“non-consumers” of higher education who are over-served by current universities and are looking for an alternative that is aligned to their workforce needs), paired with a low cost, low-priced, sustainable offering.

We’re learning so much from going out and talking both to students and importantly, people who would like to undertake higher education but don’t feel able to because the current system is too expensive, too inflexible, and doesn’t always provide industry-relevant skills.

Who exactly is using MOOCs?

There’s lots of discussion around MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) these days. A recent article in the Scientific American claims that there are a number of reasons why MOOCs have become so popular. The first is that brick and mortar campuses are unlikely to keep up with the demand for higher education. It is estimated that there is a need to construct more than four new 30,000-student universities per week to accommodate the children who will reach enrolment age by 2025. MOOCs are considered to expand the reach of existing campuses. There is also increasing demand from mature learners who enter higher education to further their education and career prospects. Another major factor is the sky rocketing cost of tuition fees and student debt, particularly in the US, where student loans are estimated to exceed US $1 trillion.

So, who is using MOOCs? Coursera, the largest of three companies offering MOOCs has 2.9 million registered users from more than 220 countries. Students from the US are the highest users, followed by India. The Guardian reported this week that early analysis of MOOC students studying at the University of Edinburgh has found that most of them are mature learners who already hold one or two degrees. This is in line with other analysis of MOOC data which shows that the primary use of MOOCs has been adults seeking professional development or lifelong learning. It’s also in line with our own initial research which suggests that adult learners are actively seeking new ways of learning and engaging in higher education.

The traditional university student is changing

The higher education system has remained virtually unchanged for the past 1,000 years. At Acavista, we know that is all about to change. We aim to provide a solution to students and employers that meets their needs for more flexible higher education in a sector that has pre-dominantly offered a one-size-fits-all solution. We’re doing this by unbundling the teaching and learning so that students may choose how and when they learn, and how much they spend on learning (outside of Acavista) for their courses.
The higher education system is evolving quite rapidly at the moment. Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs as they are known) are getting a lot of attention. David Staley, Director of the Harvey Goldberg Center at Ohio State University speculates that MOOCs are helping to fulfill some of the needs of a growing segment of learners. He refers to these individuals as ‘autonomous learners’ who are a critical part of the emerging model of autonomous learning, where learners choose the courses that best fit a learning profile that they have devised. Autonomous learners work through courses at their own pace, and at a price they can afford. Acavista was devised with these sorts or learners in mind.
There is still a perception that the typical university student is straight from school and studying full-time whilst living at home. What in actual fact is happening is that the growth in the adult learner market is twice as great (42%) as the “traditional” student market (27%). If we look at the typical adult learner more closely, we find that in the US they are on average 38.8 years of age, have an average annual household income of of approximately $76k and are employed full-time. A majority are married, and one third have dependent children younger than 18 years of age living at home.
It is this group of students, the new “traditional” student that are inspiring many to think about ways of better servicing these students needs. Although it would be wrong to assume that autonomous learners are all adult learners, there is certainly a great deal of overlap. Our interviews with adult learners in the Australian market have validated our hypotheses that the current education system is not providing the flexibility which these students need, either to get started or to complete a degree course.