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Will competency-based degree programs come to Canada?

Programs based on independent study are cheaper and allow students to progress at their own rate.


When Shelly Redman, a 41-year-old nurse practitioner and clinical manager at the Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, Ontario, decided to pursue an MBA to further her career, she found that most programs required her to take a year off work. Even many online programs required some in-class instruction, which would have made it difficult for her to juggle work and home responsibilities. Then she discovered Western Governors University, a private, online institution based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

For a flat fee of $3,250 (U.S.) per six-month term, Ms. Redman could take as many courses as she wanted and work at her own pace. She breezed through courses on leadership and human resources because she had experience in those areas. The financial courses took more time. She worked on her studies for an hour each morning before heading off to her job. “It’s very much in line with my style of studying,” she said. “I do better when I don’t have to sit in front of a lecture or be online with my colleagues at a certain time.”

Ms. Redman expects to complete her MBA in healthcare management in July at a cost of about $6,500 (U.S.), a fraction of what a degree at a traditional university in Canada or the United States would have cost. “I’m so impressed with the program and the university,” she said. “It’s been an amazing experience.”

WGU, a non-profit institution, provides competency-based degrees, a model of education that is being adopted by more institutions in the U.S. Unlike traditional degree programs, competency-based education, or CBE, isn’t based on time spent in a classroom or in front of a professor. Students work independently to attain certain skills and competencies and must demonstrate their proficiency in them by competing final assessments such as exams or research papers. The assessments can be completed at any time, allowing students to progress as quickly or slowly as they like. Those who complete them quickly can reduce their tuition costs significantly. Some CBE programs also give students credit for their prior experience and learning. Because of its flexibility, CBE is especially attractive for working adults looking to upgrade or acquire new credentials.

Although it isn’t a new concept, CBE got a big boost last year when U.S. President Barack Obama, in a major policy announcement, challenged colleges and universities to make postsecondary education more affordable. “If you can show competency, if you know your subject matter, it shouldn’t matter how many hours in a classroom you work,” he told a crowd at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Several U.S. colleges and universities have recently begun to offer CBE programs, including Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America and the University of Wisconsin system’s Flex Option program. But Western Governors was one of the early adopters.

The university was established in 1997 by the governors of 19 U.S. states to respond to workforce needs. It was designed to be accessible, cost-effective and competency based. It offers degrees in teacher education, business, information technology and health professions. Today, WGU has more than 40,000 students, mainly working adults. (Canadian students like Ms. Redman are an exception.) The average time to complete a bachelor’s degree is about three years.

One of the distinguishing features of competency-based education is that degrees are not tied to credit-hours. “Students are working at their own rate to gain the skills and knowledge they need to be proficient,” explained Sally Johnstone, WGU’s vice-president for academic advancement. “What it does is flip the notion of time and mastery.”

WGU doesn’t assign grades; students either pass or don’t. Those who don’t pass have the opportunity to review the material they didn’t initially master and complete another assessment. All learners are assigned a “student mentor” – a faculty member who provides one-on-one advice and helps keep students on-track. If students have difficulties with the course material, they can consult a “course mentor,” usually a faculty member with a PhD who acts as a sort of academic tutor.

Dr. Johnstone says one reason why competency-based education is gaining momentum in the U.S. is because of the growing concern over the high cost of postsecondary education and rising student debt levels. It also reflects concern often expressed by employers that graduates aren’t properly trained for today’s workforce. In addition, CBE is seen as a cost-effective way of providing a greater share of American working adults with postsecondary training.

“There’s a larger pool of working adults [in the U.S. than in Canada] who have not had any postsecondary” education, said Brian Abner, economics professor at York University in Toronto. That may be one reason why CBE hasn’t taken hold in Canada, he added. According to the OECD, 50 percent of Canadian adults have postsecondary training compared to 40 percent in the U.S. Dr. Abner and Charles Ungerleider, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and a former deputy minister of education in B.C., have co-authored a report about CBE for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, set to be released in June.

The comparatively lower cost of postsecondary education in Canada may be another reason why the concept has been slow to catch on. The U.S. also has significantly more students and institutions, fostering greater competition and experimentation, said Dr. Ungerleider.

Competency-based education has its share of detractors. Some faculty members in the U.S. have publicly questioned the academic rigour of such programs. The involvement of industry experts in setting competencies also rankles some in the traditional academy. And, to be sure, some of the cost savings associated with CBE results from less contact time between students and faculty members.

Dianne Conrad, who just retired as director of the Centre for Learning Accreditation at Athabasca University, dismisses such criticism. “CBE opens pathways to quicker and cheaper learning for students,” she said.

Dr. Conrad suspects the reason why CBE hasn’t been embraced by traditional Canadian universities (and some U.S. ones as well) is because “it smacks too much of training,” as opposed to traditional postsecondary education. With few exceptions, universities tend to “balk at talk of competencies and learning outcomes.” But, she added, CBE – like the prior learning assessment and recognition process that Athabasca’s centre provides – is a way of making the traditional learning model more flexible and of giving people the skills they need to enter or advance in the workforce: “It challenges the traditional belief that the professor holds all of the knowledge and that it must be disseminated in the classroom.”

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  1. Todd / June 13, 2014 at 04:14

    Academia hates anything that smacks of training? That is ironic since that what undergraduates are suppose to do in the first two years of their educations.

    Learn the basic theory of their discipline and display that they have learned in some fashion such as tests, or writing assignments. Know original thought allowed until you have displayed an understanding of the discipline’s fundamentals. Sounds like training to me.

  2. Ebenezer Sackey / October 13, 2017 at 12:26

    CBE has its place in the educational system. It’s certainly not for everybody. I am just not sure why it’s called “competency-based education” when the definition and assessment of competency are not clear. How is the assessment of competence demonstrably superior to that of classroom teaching? The concept is good but its practice may need some tightening.

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