Hey, Princeton: Consider Competencies

Author: Michelle R. Weise
Senior Research Fellow, Higher Education
Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation

With A’s doled out in almost half of all undergraduate courses—compared to only 15 percent in 1961— have grades become meaningless?

Ten years ago, Princeton University began limiting the A-range awards in each course to 35 percent. In recent news, the university is likely to reverse efforts to curb grade inflation and instead allow academic departments to set their own grading standards.

Such shifts in policy, however, appear to be solutions to the wrong question.

Grade inflation policies simply underscore the inadequacy of grades as proxies for student learning. With learning standards that are disparate and subjective from professor to professor across every single course in the approximately 4,700 degree-granting institutions in the U.S., it is no wonder that grades are poor indicators of student learning. With no agreed-upon standardized unit of learning, there is no useful metric that can translate across institutions, state borders, and employers.

Much of this comes down to the interdependent architecture of postsecondary institutions—the way each facet of a college is designed and made to work only within the brick-and-mortar campus itself. Credits are not easily transferable between institutions; moreover, the financial incentives are not in place for colleges to integrate innovations that would speed up degree completion and lessen the impact of students’ foregone wages in the pursuit of their degrees. The inability of traditional institutions to evolve from interdependence to modularization is no surprise; it’s a complicated transition with which companies in all industries grapple.

As an example, Apple computer—the most integrated company with a proprietary architecture—in its early years made the best desktop computers. They were easier to use and crashed much less often than competing products built around the open architecture led by IBM. Nevertheless, their market dominance began to unravel by the early 1990s when they found themselves making products that were too good for their customers. When people were no longer willing to pay premium prices for improvements that overshot their needs, modular personal computers dominated the industry. PC architecture changed the basis of competition and redefined quality in terms of customization and convenience.

The analogue is clear in higher education today: students’ priorities are changing, and the augmented, bundled services that traditional institutions provide are overshooting students’ needs. Both traditional and nontraditional college-going students are seeking affordable and flexible learning pathways in order to advance their careers—not to mention the ability to pick and choose their education from different institutions and outlets. They are becoming less willing to pay for what they will never use.

Institutions and learning providers will likely need to consider evolving toward openness and modularization to cater to a growing set of students who are looking for a different value proposition from higher education—one that centers on targeted and specific learning outcomes and tailored support, as well as identifiable skillsets that are portable and meaningful to employers.

In our recent mini-book, Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution, Clayton Christensen and I discuss how traditional institutions are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to building lifelong-learning pathways for a changing demographic of college-going students. Online competency-based education providers, on the other hand, show great disruptive potential because of their ability to modularize learning. By breaking down learning into portable segments or modules—not necessarily courses—that center on specific competencies, learning providers can stack these modules into different series and clusters for various disciplines.

For those unfamiliar with competencies, in an online competency-based environment, all learning materials are tagged and mapped differently. Competencies are comprised of series of learning objectives that often involve a kind of can-do statement: this student can create a research-based argument; this student can use appropriate mathematical formulas to inform financial decisions; or this student can speak effectively in order to persuade or motivate. A student in an MBA program and a student studying nursing might therefore have similar learning objectives but draw on different content and materials to achieve mastery in a specific competency.

For newer fields such as big data science, supply chain management, or design thinking that perhaps do not even exist at many traditional institutions, these learning providers could collaborate directly with employers to determine requisite competencies and build streamlined learning pathways for students looking to ‘skill up’ for or within the workforce. By fusing technology with mastery-based learning and the flexibility—not to mention, the cost savings—of modularization, online competency-based education providers can build tailored programs on demand that match the needs of a rapidly evolving labor market.


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