Is this the “dark horse” of online education?

Disruptive innovation experts say online competency-based education is a quiet revolutionary

competency-online-higher“Disruptive innovation” is a catchphrase making the rounds in higher education circles, and is often applied liberally to many recent trends, such as MOOCs and blended learning. But according to the Institute that actually coined the phrase, there’s a movement that’s building momentum behind the scenes; the “dark horse of online education” that will change everything.

It’s a perfect storm of economic factors and available technology that’s making competency-cased online education the real disruptive innovation for colleges and universities, say Michelle Weise, senior research fellow of Higher Education for the Clayton Christensen Institute, and Clayton Christensen, co-founder of the Institute and the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School.

“Workforce training, competency-based learning, and online learning are clearly not new phenomena,” explains Weise. “But online competency-based education is revolutionary because it marks the critical convergence of multiple vectors: the right learning model, the right technologies, the right customers, and the right business model.”

Weise and Christensen note in their new mini-book, Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution, that unlike other trends like MOOCs that have received “tremendous fanfare,” online competency-based education stands out as the innovation to most likely disrupt higher education.

(Next page: Why online competency education has the most disruptive potential)

Because the economy is changing

According to Weise and Christensen, thanks to a perfect storm of soaring tuition, student loan debt surpassing credit card debt in the U.S., shrinking government dollars, the costs for colleges to stay competitive, employers demanding more academic credentials outside of traditional degrees, and student dissatisfaction with a lack of employable skills, an alternative education solution—one that focuses on specific skill-building—is poised to disrupt traditional four-year colleges and universities.

In a 2012 University of California Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute “American Freshman Survey,” Weise and Christensen reveal that 87.9 percent of college freshmen cited getting a better job as a vital reason for pursuing a college degree.

“Learning and work are becoming inseparable,” argued the authors of a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, “indeed one could argue that this is precisely what it means to have a knowledge economy or a learning society. It follows that if work is becoming learning, then learning needs to become work—and universities need to become alive to the possibilities.”

Watch Michelle Weise discuss the book:

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Why online competency education works better

The Institute report’s authors say that even though economic factors are shifting, a culture of “embedded inefficiencies” exist in most traditional four-year institutions, preventing colleges and universities from taking advantage of the multiple opportunities online competency education provides for students and employers.

“Overwrought with constraints, most colleges and universities are structurally incapable of facilitating innovations that deviate from the way they currently deliver education,” says the mini-book. “To complicate matters, shared governance between the various stakeholders on campus—faculty members, administrators, leaders, and boards of trustees—exacerbates the orchestration of so many moving parts. Time and precedence also tend to normalize processes that might have been jury-rigged in the past as workable solutions.”

“Each college or university inevitably builds a ‘culture’ around these processes that become reified with the passage of time and makes it even more difficult to effect change from within,” the book continues. “In turn, those within academia accept or become habituated to these constraints as the culture, or the way things have always been done at the institution. The result is a normalization of what we call embedded inefficiencies.”

According to the book, which goes into far greater detail, these are the ‘embedded inefficiencies’ and online competency education’s solutions to them:

1. Embedded inefficiency: Time is fixed.

Online Competency solution: Fixed student-learning outcomes.

2. Embedded inefficiency: Professor as the fount of knowledge.

Online Competency solution: Locus of teaching shifts dramatically.

3. Embedded inefficiency: Interdependent structures of academia.

Online Competency solution: The shift to modularization.

4. Embedded inefficiency: Knowledge separated from training.

Online Competency solution: Lifelong learning and direct ties to the workforce.

Why online competency education has the most potential

Weise and Christensen argue that the flexible nature of online competency education, which technology enhances, allows providers to “create and scale a wide variety of industries, all while simultaneously driving down the cost of educating students for the opportunities at hand.”

According to the author’s research, a full year at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America (CfA) is only $2,500 per year, meaning that even if it took the student four years to complete the program, a BA would cost $10k total, which is less than even most community colleges.

“The true disruptive potential of these online competency-based programs lies in the critical convergence of multiple vectors: the right learning model, the right technologies, the right customers, and the right business model” explain Weise and Christensen. “For a growing set of students who are looking for a different value proposition out of college—one that centers on affordable and targeted programs, tailored support, as well as identifiable skill sets that are portable and meaningful to employers—online competency-based education hits the mark.”

Though the authors say that it will take some time for online competency education to completely disrupt traditional higher education models, true disruption takes time, but the learning model is well on its way; especially as more direct partnerships are created that lead to employer-certified learning experiences, and more support comes from the U.S. Department of Education. [Read: “College: Federal sign up available for competency experiments.”]

The min-book also goes on to note why traditional four-year colleges and universities most likely will not be able to offer a similar competency-cased structure, how some community colleges are implementing branched-off programs and why, and the theory of disruption in general.

To download the full mini-book, click here.

To read a synopsis of the book, click here.

For more competency-related articles, read:

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