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US idea of competency-based education is worth trying in Australia

This article was originally published in The Australian.

By: Swinburne Online's Kay Lipson, Director of Strategy and Matt Parker, General Manager (IT and Student Operations).

DURING a recent trip to the US, visiting several conferences, seeing numerous presentations on the future of, and emerging developments in, tertiary education, rarely was the acronym MOOCs uttered.

Has it left the academic vernacular as quickly as it swept in?

What did focus people’s attention is a real disruption to the higher education system as we know it — competency-based education.

The idea of CBE has been steadily gathering momentum in the US — it is the basis of the programs offered at Western Governors University and College for America. Last September, the University of Michigan, Purdue University and the University of Wisconsin System began offering degrees in this rising form of higher education. And adopters are growing.

But what is CBE and, more important, what does it mean for Australia?

As you would suspect, competency is the foundation of CBE. The notion of “seat time” becomes irrelevant in a model that measures outputs, not inputs.

The experience, knowledge and skills individuals have previously acquired through training, work and life are used to progress in qualification programs more rapidly.

The model acknowledges people are different: where for some one skill may take months to learn, for others it could take weeks. So this is a learner-focused model with methods that allow students to study at their own pace.

Assessments are a top priority in this model, as to demonstrate competency and move ­towards gaining qualification, ­students must be rigorously assessed on their mastery of the relevant skills and knowledge.

If students can demonstrate success in a competency, they move on to the next one until they reach their qualification, with no regard to lecture hours or set ­semester times.

In Australia, CBE is generally associated with vocational education. We are wedded to a delivery model in which a standard bachelor degree takes three years, a masters two and so on.

This is vastly different from where the US has taken CBE, as it is now being used to provide better access to qualifications from every level of education up to that of doctorate.

In the midst of the deregulation debate, perhaps it is time to innovate and meet the needs of students through more learner-focused models, rather than trying to patch up an outdated system.

Last year, former Macquarie University head Steven Schwartz wrote in the Centre for Independent Studies’ Policy magazine of the growing acceptance of CBE and the need for Australia to get on board. He recommended: ­“Direct government funding should be provided to universities successful in fostering competencies.”

Throughout the piece Schwartz positioned CBE as a way to save spending on higher education, which in the current climate might provide a pathway the government could use to move forward.

But to embrace this change universities need the encouragement — and approval — of accrediting bodies and the government, which can lead the way or become an impediment to the next phase of higher education.

We are all here to ensure students reach their educational goals.

But as our society becomes more individualised and information becomes more easily available, we need to acknowledge how Australians are consuming knowledge and be agile in ­meeting their educational needs.

The truth is, those who come to university, especially mature-age students, bring experience that can and should be used for their benefit, not dismissed by a system locked into a very traditional approach to the credentialling of education.

Yes, CBE is a disrupter to the industry, but not in the way MOOCs was proclaimed to be.

This new approach to higher ­education is a model that can help universities cut costs while delivering qualifications that better serve students.