Designing Modular Learning for UT

This week, we were given the challenge to research competency-based learning to ultimately develop viable concepts for the University of Texas as they test modular learning. Our brief suggested:

“As the amount of student debt reaches extraordinary levels, and public funding diminishes, many students are questioning the value of the traditional college degree.  Many potential students simply can’t afford to dedicate four years exclusively to attaining a degree, and must instead somehow both work and study. Furthermore, the traditional model itself is not particularly successful. Less than forty percent of students that begin a four-year degree finish at all.”

With more than 70% of students being categorized as non-traditional, it’s vital for universities like UT to maintain relevance by providing solutions that can meet the needs of working students who may have dependents or schedules that are less flexible than a “traditional student. 

What is a non-traditional student?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nontraditional is not defined by age or other background characteristics but focuses on behavior. Three sets of criteria were used to identify nontraditional students:

  • Delayed enrollment. Students who delayed enrollment in postsecondary education by a year or more after high school or who attended part-time were considered nontraditional.
  • Financial and family status. Students who have dependents other than a spouse, being a single parent, working full time while enrolled, or being financially independent from parents.
  • High school graduation status. Students who did not receive a standard high school diploma but who earned some type of certificate of completion.

What is competency-based learning?

There has been a shift away from traditional learning towards more flexible, student-led learning that is focused on competency. Competency-based education has largely been popularized by MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that allow nearly unlimited participation on the web. 

CompetencyWorks updated their definition of competency-based education to include:

  1. Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning. 
  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence. 
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs. 
  4. Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.
  5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.
  6. Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems. 
  7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.

Major players for competency-based learning include Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, Udacity, and Khan Academy. Most of these MOOCs have traditional institutional partners like MIT, Harvard, or Berkeley, but are able to offer courses at a fraction of the price. 

According to the 2019 National Student Satisfaction Report, Online Learners report the highest level of student satisfaction, followed closely by Adult Undergrads. There’s clearly a trend of success in MOOCs, yet growth has slowed in the sector. In 2018, 29 new degrees were launched by key MOOC leaders, compared to only 11 new degrees in 2019

Questions and Ideas – Free Writing:

I’m excited by the potential of competency-based education, particularly it’s goals around equity. Competency-based learning aims to dismantle systemic barriers to opportunity (time, geographical access, funds, etc). It also breaks down seemingly nonsensical testing schedules and allows students to work at their own pace. 

Digital Readiness

However, the barriers to adoption are great as we have to adopt a new model for learning, and for some — learn digital tools entirely. In 2015, 52% of adults were relatively hesitant to use digital tools for learning. Only 17% of adults are considered digitally ready. So while MOOCs can encourage equity for some, these learning models can create even greater divides for those unprepared or cautious of digital learning. 


Because of the easy access to MOOCs, I fear that students will feel less invested and ultimately, less likely to finish. Traditional institutions with open admissions policies only graduate 25% of students within 6 years, but institutions with acceptance rates of 25% graduate 87% of students within 6 years

Without a significant level of investment, either emotionally or financially, I am concerned student churn rates will be too high. The most successful will likely be a model with a low barrier to entry and a high stickiness. If anyone will download your app — how do you keep them around? DuoLingo seems to be the most successful at this because they have gamified streaks so effectively.

Flow State

The second biggest challenge will be to get people in a flow state – matching their skills with their work perfectly, so they are not either too frustrated or too bored. Being able to test learners so that curriculum is well-matched is key. 

Additional questions as I continue researching:

  • How can you encourage students to adopt a growth mindset so they are inspired when they reach difficult concepts, rather than quit?
  • How can we bring celebration into the learning experience? 
  • Without traditional timing models like semesters, how should we design courses? Hours? Weeks? Months?
  • Do these models change based on a domain? Or can the apps and service models be interchangeable for an arts degree and a computer science degree? Most services are focused heavily on the popular tech skills of today. Is that based on demand, or are those topics better to learn in a competency-based model?