Washington, D.C. – After nearly two decades of operating as an experiment in competency-based learning, the accredited online university Western Governors University says it is now a “proof of concept” of an emerging type of higher education institution.

competency The claim was made by two WGU representatives speaking at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s annual conference during a session about competency-based education – a system of learning where student progress is not designed around semesters but around the mastering of concepts at a more personalized pace.

“WGU flips some aspects of higher education, and that’s really what competency-based learning is about,” said Sally Johnstone, vice president for academic advancement at the university. “We are trading the normal relationship between time and mastery.”

At traditional colleges and universities, a student works through material for the duration of a semester. At the end of the term, a student has either mastered enough material to pass a class, or failed.

This traditional model has been under intense scrutiny in online education circles.

There’s really no gray area, Johnstone said, and a student must repeat a course, even if she has already mastered fifty percent of it.

That can be discouraging for students, she said.

“We know from that different people learn things at different rates,” Johnstone said. “We also know that the same individual may learn different subjects at different rates. We can use competency-based education and online tools to accommodate that. We are no longer in a position where we have to ask all students to do the same thing at the same time at the same pacing.”

Competency-based education, while still not exactly mainstream, has found more acceptance in recent years.


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