Herbert London: Basic Competencies and The MOOC Surge

Apr 10, 2013

It is difficult to know if MOOC’s (Massive Open On-line Courses) are a conspiracy to undermine the Academy or mankind’s final redemption, a way to open the avenues of higher education. However one sees it, millions of people are already taking on-line courses. There is a revolution taking place driven by technology and cost controls. Where it will end up is anyone’s guess, but ultimately the success of this innovation will depend on measured competencies.

There is a sign that even the U.S. Department of Education gets it. According to a missive sent by the department to college officials, federal student aid can now be awarded on the basis of “competencies,” not credit hours accumulated. An application by Southern New Hampshire University to award aid based on the direct assessment of student learning is poised for approval. SNHU has been the canary in the mine on this matter. While this option has existed since 2005, it hasn’t been employed until now.

By clarifying this matter the Education Department is encouraging the “direct assessment” provision and most significantly, it goes beyond “time spent in a classroom.” Clearly programs will have to map competencies to credit hours and accreditors will have to agree with the equivalencies that emerge from the assessment.

As I see it, this is a major step forward. If competency based education catches on for student aid, it may well have application across the board. After all, a college degree at the moment is the accumulation of 128 credits or something on this order. Consider, however, a different paradigm in which recognition of a degree were predicated on demonstrated competencies. Not only would this reinforce the legitimacy of degrees; it also has the potential to remove those accreditation barriers that stand in the way of actual achievement instead of “seat time.” Why should the student taking on-line courses be denied a degree when he has mastered the equivalent of basic competencies in his studies? There is nothing magical about time spent in a classroom when there isn’t evidence that this time is comparable to knowledge and cognitive skill.

Moreover, when MOOC’s are even more widespread than they are at the moment, college students will have the option of taking courses on-line or in a classroom and non-college students might gain admission into a college program by displaying basic competencies required in a traditional program. Talk about opening up the university system to genuine innovation.

The MOOC option may not be desirable for everyone, but it should be available to all if it opens horizons for students at a fraction of the cost of in-person instruction. At the moment, the MOOC surge has been driven by the warm glow associated with elite colleges, such as Stanford. But this is surely not where this innovation ends. Free on-line courses shatter elitism and the closed doors at American institutions reinforced by the accreditation bodies. In time – I suspect – these courses could become as important to higher education as the traditional markers of exclusivity and prestige. When basic competencies are recognized as the real symbols of achievement, the labeling effect of many institutions will be ignored and the accrediting bodies will emerge as an anachronism on the landscape of higher education. 

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).

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