Competency-based learning: a proven concept?

WGU now has more than 40,000 students, and the university is working with colleges and universities in 11 different states to launch their own competency-based learning institutions. In August, similar programs at Southern New Hampshire University received a shout out from President Obama.

But when WGU was first created by 19 governors in 1997, it was a hard pill for many accrediting bodies to swallow.

Phillip Schmidt, associate provost for compliance and accreditation, recalled just how difficult it was to get WGU’s teaching college accredited 13 years ago. Schmidt is also that college’s dean.

When seeking accreditation just from the state of Utah, Schmidt was asked how students would participate in labs. He explained how the students would use labs sent directly to their homes, he said, but the accrediting board was incredulous, asking the university to prove the labs were as good as the physical campuses’ in the state.

Schmidt decided to tour as many Utah campus labs as possible, and said he found that many of them would be at home in the 1940s and 50s.

“I had to argue that our home-delivered labs of the highest possible quality were as good as these,” he said. “I was mesmerized by the whole experience.”

Schmidt argued that accrediting bodies should not base their decisions on comparisons between competency-based, usually online, programs and traditional universities.

 Instead, he said, they should ask three questions.

“Don’t ask us what percentage of our faculty have doctoral degrees, or to show you all the publications our faculty have generated,” Schmidt said. “Ask yourself: do the competencies make sense? Are you satisfied that the learning resources align with those competencies? And do you believe our assessments align with those competencies? That’s what you have to do.”

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