Community colleges to offer online, at-your-pace degrees

Competency-based learning catching on at Washington state community colleges

Innovation can occur in many areas of education, said keynote speaker Frans Johansson.

They are known as two-year colleges, but soon some of their students likely will receive degrees without regard to how much time was spent earning them.

Taking a page from a popular online university, some of Washington’s community colleges plan next year to let students earn a degree at their own pace and get credit for what they already know.

The all-online degrees will be available to students at a growing number of schools, including Pierce College, with Tacoma Community College expected to join the list. At first, the new kind of degree will go only to students earning associate degrees in business that prepare them for transfer to a four-year business school.

But the trend toward what is called “competency-based” education looks likely to spread to more programs and degrees, as two-year schools try to appeal to older students working around careers and busy schedules.

“There’s no turning back for us now. I mean, the students want it,” Bellevue College instructor Suzanne Marks said.

Marks teaches students working to be certified on computer software including Microsoft Excel.

Bellevue is one of four Washington schools that have been using competency to award such professional credentials earned by taking a single course. They are using money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and training from Western Governors University — the nonprofit school on the forefront of the move toward measuring competency.

Students get credit for prior learning. “For example,” Marks said, “in an Excel class, why should you start re-learning how to type data into an Excel spreadsheet in a cell, when you probably already know how to do that?”

Enrollment has exceeded expectations, she said.

Now schools are expected to apply the same techniques to an entire degree program. To pass each class on the way to a business transfer degree, students will have to master at least 80 percent of what they are supposed to know. The only grades possible will be A, B or incomplete.

The community college system plans to spend an estimated $1.4 million in start-up costs to get ready for the new program, starting in January.

In the long run, it might seem like the online classes would save the colleges money. They don’t require classrooms, for example. But college officials caution that competency-based courses do require instructors to individually assess each student’s performance, and advisers to guide students through the process.

A union official says those ongoing costs are coming at a time when colleges have yet to reverse budget cuts.

Karen Strickland, president of the Washington chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the money could be spent to hold on to existing students, by, for example, restoring counselor jobs.

But the college system says it’s trying an innovative approach to break barriers of time and distance for working adults who might not be able to show up in a classroom at a set time every week.

“I think it gives access to students who otherwise wouldn’t attend at all,” said Marty Brown, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

“Would that they would put this kind of energy into getting kids that are graduating from high school but never make it to the doors of college,” Strickland counters.

(Next page: How Western Governors University is the model)

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