This is part two in a series detailing a potential competency-based learning design project in higher education. You can read part one here.
A college degree is more essential now than at any other time in history. Entry level jobs in most industries require one. But not every student is ready for the rigors of college education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 41 percent of first-time, full-time college students earn their degrees in four years. Financial pressure adds significant strain to students, compounding the difficulties many of these students face.
The Problem: Too many students are unable to graduate from college given the way higher education is traditionally structured.
The Opportunity: Competency-based education can help more students receive a college education.
Competency-based education is a potential solution to this problem. This model allows students to learn at their own pace. Students demonstrate mastery of a subject via tests, projects, or portfolios when they feel they have sufficiently grasped the material. These classes can be taken online, at a fraction of the cost of attending university full-time.
The Pros and Cons of Competency-Based Education
Competency-based education has seen a surge in popularity since the rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses) in 2012. Online education was quickly seen as a way to reach nontraditional and underserved students in the US and around the world. Organizations such as Udacity and Udemy quickly rose to prominence, threatening to upend the world of higher education. But the dream proved elusive: although courses through these programs were much cheaper and easily accessible, persistence rates were extremely low. Udacity found that only 10% of its students would complete their courses, and of those, only half would pass.
Organizations changed course. Some shifted their focus toward corporate education, while others partnered with universities to offer a hybridized approach between traditional and online education models.
At the same time, competency-based education has grown more popular among educators. Particularly at the higher education level, the opportunity for combining the flexibility and accessibility of online classes with a go-at-your-own-pace competency-based approach has attracted significant attention. Universities such as Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University have proven successful with their models, incorporating mentors and other support systems to help improve student persistence. Many schools now offer options to earn online degrees.
- Online classes
- Individually paced
- Mentor support
- Low cost
- Self-motivation required
- Lack of physical community
- Technology requirements
A tool to provide visualization of course progress and foster greater support and community for students would help address the cons identified above. This will be our design space, guiding our direction as we work to improve the competency-based education experience and increase the course success rate.
The Design Space: Research, Insights, Prototype
The design process will involve three stages: research, insights, and prototyping.
Research: Research is conducted via contextual inquiry, an ethnographic method in which interviews are paired with close first-hand observation of contextual process. In this case, it will involve watching students attend class sessions and mentor meetings, as well as any online student support group interaction. It will involve probing how students think about their work and the methods they employ to stay motivated. It will also involve watching instructors interact with students and their behaviors toward student engagement.
Insights: Research leads to insights into students’ and teachers’ attitudes and behaviors. By examining patterns of behavior, I will come to an understanding of how students succeed. Often participants are unable to articulate the true motivations behind their actions and may be completely unaware of them. Insights aim to capture these blind spots. With this information, I will create design criteria that act upon the opportunity. This will lead to concept definition, setting the parameters for prototype development.
Prototype: Having established the design criteria and defined the concept of the design approach, I will develop a tool to assist students with motivation and support. The tool will be prototyped and tested for usability and benefit. The fidelity of the tool will not be prepared for public adoption. However, it will be interactive and will provide the information needed to create a confident blueprint for a final iteration. Instructions for how to create the finished product will be drafted and delivered at the completion of the project.
Timeline and Deliverables
The project will unfold according to the timeline above. Deliverables will be provided at the end of each stage, in tandem with a check-in to assess progress. Deliverables include the following:
Logistics: alignment and planning workshop, research plan
Research: research report incorporating primary and secondary research, stakeholder interviews, and completed student journey maps
Insights: service models demonstrating existing use of services and areas of opportunity, storyboard illustrating design criteria and concept definition
Prototype: interactive digital interface created for testability and to demonstrate proof of concept (not a final product), instructional user guide
Test & Iterate: finalized prototype (not a final product) and recommendations for commercial tool development, revised instructional user guide
Final: final research report and recommended next steps
The project will be completed April 14, 2020.
I look forward to working on this project and developing this tool. As the competency-based education model is further refined, the opportunity exists to help greater numbers of underserved students obtain the education they need to succeed. It is my hope that this project will help make that goal possible.