Class Dismissed

Is it time to question the traditional, expensive education models? Does education need to equate to decades of debt? Could education be acquired outside universities?

Is it time to question the traditional, expensive education models? Does education need to equate to decades of debt? Could education be acquired outside universities?

Throughout history, or at least the part I know about, students have sat through class, impatiently waiting for a bell to ring, a clock to tick enough ticks, enough sand to run through the hourglass, a teacher to utter the words, class dismissed. Well, that waiting may be over for good, at least for some university students.

On Monday, the US Department of Education approved Capella University’s FlexPath programs for bachelors and masters degrees. FlexPath allows students to get credit for classes by performing well on competency examinations, with no requirements on class attendance. In other words, as long as students can prove they have the knowledge, they can get credit for the class.

This is the first accredited program in the country to make such an offer. The implications are profound and affect several types of students. First, older students, who may have more experience in their particular field, can avoid spending time in classes on topics about which they are already familiar.

Second, bright, motivated students will also benefit. The Doogie Howsers of the world no longer need to sit through classes covering material that they already understand or could understand very easily by studying on their own. In such a competency-based program, these students could easily pass through lower level classes at a much more rapid pace than your average student.

Finally, and most importantly, this program will drive down prices. Universities can hardly justify their astronomically high fees when students work through material at their own pace, at home, with professors offering support but not serving as the centerpiece of the course. The university’s responsibility is as much evaluation as direct teaching.

We talk a lot in this blog about disruptive technologies, and thus far, computers and the internet have only had minimal effects on education, at least when compared to industries such as travel, music, and consumer retail. To see an example, just pass by your local bookstore, or at least the spot where it used to be.

The awarding of credits has complicated the transformation of education through technology. Students need personalized evaluations from their professors, gauging their participation in class and performance on homework as well as exams. Professors can only work with so many students, and their time is not cheap.

Shifting to a competency-based system of evaluation for credit opens many opportunities for students that have learned their skills through less traditional means, including non-credit online courses. For the universities, it offers opportunities to reduce costs. It also puts pressure on them to improve the value of their students’ experiences, in and out of the classroom.

I went to a four-year college and had an excellent time. I made many friends and gained much, not only from my time inside class but my time outside of class as well. With tuition prices soaring, however, today’s students are questioning whether those experiences are worth decades of student debt payments.  It is an important question, and universities will increasingly have to provide a satisfactory response.


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