In 2011, when Gov. Rick Perry issued an executive order establishing WGU Texas, a state-approved subsidiary of Western Governors University, a national, nonprofit online university, many of the state's top higher education officials heralded its competency-based approach to student advancement.
Now that approach, in which students advance after proving their mastery of a concept rather than after a predetermined amount of time in a class, is poised to move from the internet to the physical campuses. "There is nothing magic about online and competency-based," said Mark Milliron, the chancellor of WGU Texas.
WGU Texas and three community colleges — Sinclair Community College in Ohio, Broward College in Florida and Texas' own Austin Community College — have received a shared $12 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to develop curricula for key technology fields that allow students to move at their own pace in courses that aren't purely internet based.
About $2 million of the grant will go to ACC, which will focus its efforts on computer programming courses. It is expected that students will be able to enroll in go-at-your-own-speed programming courses as early as the fall of 2013. Once they have earned an associate's degree, through an agreement between the schools, they will be able to continue on to WGU Texas and earn a bachelor's degree.
The goal of the grant is to get people into the workforce more quickly. "ACC and WGU Texas are doing exactly what Central Texas needs," Drew Scheberle, senior vice president of education and talent development for the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. "By moving qualified workers into jobs faster, we will be growing a talent pool that makes Austin more attractive to tech companies."
ACC President Richard Rhodes said the school would begin working with WGU and its team this fall to iron out some of the kinks associated with translating their model from an online approach to one that also includes classroom instruction.
"How do you charge for it? How do you register students for it?" Rhodes offered as examples of questions yet to be answered. WGU Texas allows students to pay a flat fee for a certain amount of time during which they can learn as much and advance as far as possible. But ACC currently uses a more traditional approach that charges per credit hour. He said ACC must also communicate the value of the competency-based courses to other institutions in addition to WGU Texas, in case students decide they want to transfer.
Rhodes said using "competency units" rather than credit hours would allow the school to be more responsive to the region's workforce needs. If, for example, a company wanted employees to acquire certain skills quickly, they might be able to "invert the degree" by teaching the requested skills first and then later adding general education requirements necessary for an associate's degree.
Milliron said students could earn a number of credentials through the curriculum that WGU and ACC are designing.
"By the time they get done with this pathway, they could easily have an associate's degree, a bachelor's degree and 11 industry certifications," he said. "That is powerful for those students."
Rhodes indicated that once a workable model is designed and launched for programming courses, it is possible that the competency-based approach could expand to more courses at ACC. He had anticipated that the possible change could lead generate pushback from faculty, he said, but that has not happened.
"I think once they get that it's about learning, that learning really is what matters in this model, faculty really value that," Milliron said, noting that their assessment methods are rigorous and tend to be writing intensive — not simply multiple choice tests.
Depending on how the partnership works, competency-based education could expand further. Some institutions have already begun moving in that direction. This fall, the University of Texas at Arlington moved much of its algebra instruction into a large computer "emporium" that allows students to move at their own pace. ACC plans to open a similar facility in 2014.
Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes said that much of the state is likely headed in the same direction. Since the creation of WGU Texas, he said, "we have seen a groundswell of interest and support for this approach."
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