CAEL Explains Competency-Based Education and PLA

I was thrilled to see that someone has finally taken up the challenge of trying to illustrate the relationship between prior learning assessment (PLA) and competency-based education (CBE).  Both terms have a long history in the field of higher education, and many people use them in ways that I find problematic (see Obstacles for Competency-Based Education Programs of the Future and What the DOE doesn’t understand about PLA and CBE.)  Luckily, CAEL is on hand with a helpful explainer that will at least start the conversation over this contentious issue.

Overall, I think CAEL did a wonderful job trying to articulate the interplay between these concepts.  They define both approaches pretty effectively, and digress into a discussion of the ways in which both PLA and CBE share a common understanding of what learning is, and how it should be valued and accredited (e.g. “that higher education needs to value and reward what a student knows and is able to do, regardless of how the student learned, where the student learned, and how long it took the student to learn—as long as the learning is at the college level.”)

Where this article falls apart for me, however, is with their idea of a continuum, and the conception of PLA and CBE as separate entities.

CAEL Continuum

CAEL has attempted to describe the intersection of PLA and CBE by describing programs that embody different configurations of both concepts, and lining those programs up against one another.  Further, they use the methods of assessment to differentiate what goes into the CBE bucket, vs what goes into the PLA bucket (Portfolio, Program Evaluations, Credit-by-Exam programs are all PLA, while Direct Assessment programs are squarely CBE).  While it may be useful to see how these concepts are deployed on the ground, it doesn’t help us to come to a better understanding about the relationship between the concepts themselves.

At its core, prior learning assessment is the measure of college-level learning that a student has acquired, but for which they have not received a formal credential.  Competency-based education is the measurement of student learning against a set of standards, without regard for time or location.  Assuming that students come to college not as empty vessels waiting to be filled, but as actors with their own set of unique experiences, any effort to measure learning in a competency-based format will also essentially be an assessment of prior learning.  As such, the two concepts cannot be easily separated by the modalities with which we assess them.

I imagine that the main reason for CAEL’s differentiation here goes back to the Department of Education and their flawed understanding of the relationship between CBE and PLA.  The federal government offers no financial aid for prior learning assessment.  Therefore, Direct Assessment programs must distance themselves from anything that appears to resemble the traditional methods of assessing prior learning, if they hope to access Title IV funding.  However, as CAEL aptly notes “… in these [direct assessment] programs, the assessment of prior learning is incorporated into the overall design of the program.”  In doing so, they artificially delay the progress of student to create the illusion that they have learned everything necessary to demonstrate mastery from the college’s instruction.  This pretense prevents CBE from ever reaching its full and logical potential as an alternative system to the traditional credit hour model.

That is why this is such a vital conversation, and why it’s critical that we strive for nuance in our interpretations of these concepts.  In discussing the relationship between CBE and PLA, we must continually point out the artificial distinction that the DOE has made between the two.  Otherwise, we help to perpetuate the Department’s flawed understanding, to the detriment of students everywhere.

Obstacles for Competency-Based Education Programs of the Future

Competency-based education is not a new idea; however, it has only recently grabbed widespread attention as a viable alternative to traditional education.  This model offers students an opportunity to earn a degree at their own pace, while effectively leveraging what they have learned in and out of the classroom.  As competency-based education has gained exposure, there has been no shortage of articles forecasting its transformative potential. Educators see competency-based education as a way to provide a personalized form of education, accompanied by a more transparent and meaningful credential.  Politicians and policymakers celebrate it as solution to both the student debt crisis and the achievement gap.  While competency-based education has made great strides towards earning acceptance on Capitol Hill and among institutions, its future is by no means secure.  Not only is the Carnegie Credit Hour still deeply entrenched in the way we think about higher education, but proponents of CBE face other cultural and regulatory challenges.  This article looks at three of the most pressing barriers that CBE advocates must overcome in the near future, if they hope to make this model a permanent fixture in the American higher education landscape.


Working Towards a Common Standard

At this point, less than half a dozen schools have received approval from both their accreditors and the Department of Education to offer a competency-based education (CBE) program.  Meanwhile, according to a recent Lumina Foundation survey, over 350 schools are either considering, or in the process of developing a CBE program.[1]  While this shows considerable enthusiasm in the field, it potentially gives rise to some serious issues.  With a few exceptions, schools are developing their programs in a vacuum, without a standard framework or nomenclature.  Competencies vary from school to school and frameworks range from a dozen competencies, to hundreds.  Schools also differ on the hierarchy of their competencies, constructing a variety of levels nested beneath one another.

This diversity of models is problematic for a number of reasons.  First, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, for students to transfer from one CBE program to another.  Studies show that nearly a third of all undergraduates in a traditional education model transfer schools before graduation.  The default solution has been to simply map all of the competencies back to the Carnegie Credit Hour.  However, the validity of such maps is dubious and the uniformity of their estimations is contradictory to the personalized nature of competency-based education.  Worst of all, it enthralls this new model to the credit hour and prevents us from eventually outgrowing its limitations.

Another issue arises when we are introducing competency-based education to the rest of the world.  For most students, parents, and employers, competency-based education is new and not easily understood.  Having 350 different explanations of competency based education will only prove to make this translation more difficult.  One of the purported benefits of CBE is that a competency-based transcript will be easier for employers to understand, and will more accurately reflect what students know and can do.  However, most employers spend just six seconds reviewing a resume.[2]  Will employers invest the resources to train their HR department on understanding 350 different versions of the same competencies?  Even if a school forms a direct workforce pathway for its CBE students, what happens when that student wants to move to another employer?  Without a uniform way of defining and communicating CBE, students are left trying to explain their seemingly bizarre new qualifications to future employers, or find themselves undeservingly eliminated from consideration.

While the above mentioned issues are concerning, there is some important work being done to resolve them.  The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) is developing a program called the Interstate Passport Initiative.  This program seeks to create a framework of transfer-level proficiency criteria, which will facilitate the mapping and transfer of student’s competencies across member schools. [3]   The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) is working on a similar effort that will integrate their VALUE rubrics to create a standardized set of criteria for general education requirements. [4]   We must continue to support these initiatives and others like them to ensure the sustainability of competency-based education.

The Difference between Education and Training

There is a longstanding belief among many Americans that there in stark division between what can be considered vocational training, and what is ‘true’ liberal education.  Vocational training is often seen as lacking in the same high-minded attributes such as critical thinking, information literacy, or civic engagement that a liberal education would provide.  It is believed that instead, training simply focuses on the discrete skills an employee must learn to perform in the workplace.  Harvard historian Hal Hansen traced these attitudes back to the passage of the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act of 1917, which separated the oversight and funding for vocational programs from that of traditional colleges and universities.[5]  Many have compared CBE’s focus on observable behaviors to vocational training regimens. [6]   While these critiques may be based on a skewed or incomplete understanding of modern competency-based education, they have the potential to unfairly and permanently color the public perception of CBE.

To stymie the spread of these ideas, we can employ two strategies.  First, we must ensure that as we develop our CBE programs, we do not lose sight of the core values of a liberal education.  Competency frameworks designed specifically around employers’ needs that lack the integration of abilities such as critical thinking, decision making, and information literacy, invite the kinds of negative assessments noted earlier.  It is also important that we give students the opportunity to practice using their competencies in a variety of contexts.  This transference prevents atomization that can be common in vocational training and gives students a chance to think about how they are applying what they have learned.  The second strategy involves effectively communicating to our colleagues not only the benefits of a competency-based education, but also the speciousness of the division between training and education.  This is a fight that experiential learning supporters have been fighting for the past forty years.  We must add our voices to theirs and assert that simply because vocational training and liberal education have been divided in the past, there is no pedagogical reason why they need to be in the future.

Paying for Prior Learning Assessment

Exceptional learning experiences are meaningless if students cannot afford to participate in them, and the Department of Education’s (DOE) stance on providing aid for prior learning assessment is especially problematic for the emergence of a dynamic competency-based model.  According to the Department of Education, 86% of full-time undergraduate students at 4-year degree-granting institutions are receiving some form of financial aid.[7]  Unfortunately, 0% of undergraduate students are receiving any financial aid to cover the assessment of their prior learning.  While the department has shown some leniency recently with the authorization of the Experimental Sites Initiatives – which admittedly would provide some financial relief for students participating in CBE program – they have shown a fundamental misunderstanding of how prior learning and mastery-based assessment interact with one another.

The guidance documents the DOE has published are littered with phrases which suggest that Title IV aid cannot be used for prior learning assessment where the learning was not based on instruction provided during a particular payment period.[8]  Learning, however, is not limited to a specific payment period, and students in a competency-based program should be encouraged to integrate what they know, with what they are learning.  Indeed, one of the foundational principles of competency-based education is that it does not matter where or when you learned something, as long as you can demonstrate that you know it, that’s what counts.

Institutions are left with two options.  First, they can separate out the prior learning assessment process from the rest of the competency-based program – potentially in the form of an intake interview, or other diagnostic testing – and require students to pay for that on their own.  Alternatively, they can artificially delay students as they progress through competency-modules.  This creates the illusion that they have learned everything required during the appointed payment period.  Neither option, however, allows students to exercise the true potential of a CBE program.  The first unfairly burdens the student with the cost of assessing their prior learning, while the second bars students from advancing at their own pace.  If competency-based education is to become a true alternative to the traditional model, it needs to have an equitable financial aid infrastructure in place. The DOE has shown a willingness to listen to institutions engaged in this work.  It is up to CBE educators to lobby for the kind of backing that students need to participate effectively in these programs.

Competency-based education has the potential to radically transform higher education, and give millions of students the opportunity to positively change their lives.  However, the benefits are not clearly evident to all stakeholders, nor are the pathways to its ascendancy.  As a field we must continue to confront the challenges detailed above so that we don’t lose this opportunity to positively affect the future.


[1] Fain, P. (2014, July 23). Competency-based education gets a boost from the Education Department. Retrieved May 15, 2015, from

[2] Stenerson, K. (n.d.). Job Resume: How Long Do Recruiters Spend Looking At Your Career Summary? Retrieved May 15, 2015, from

[3] Interstate Passport Initiative. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from

[4] General Education Maps and Markers: Quality Assurance Group. (2014, August 6). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from

[5] Hansen, H. (1999, April 22). Work, Schools, Educational Governance, and the State: German Vocationalism and the Recasting of American Educational History. Retrieved May 15, 2015, from

[6] Nelson, C. B. (2014, 2 December). What competency-based education cannot do: part I. Sign-Posts for Liberal Education. Nelson, C. B. (2014, 4 December). What competency-based education cannot do: part II. Sign-Posts for Liberal Education.

[7] Fast Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from

[8] IFAP – Federal Registers. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from Notice Inviting Postsecondary Educational Institutions To Participate in Experiments Under the Experimental Sites Initiative; Federal Student Financial Assistance Programs Under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as Amended. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from

What the DOE doesn’t understand about PLA and CBE

Despite what some may say, there is an undeniable relationship between prior learning assessment and competency-based education.  Prior learning assessment (PLA) is the measurement of what someone knows and can do based on their previous experiences and learning.  Competency-based education (CBE) is an educational methodology which credentials students in what they know and can do, and provides them with the tools they need to learn and demonstrate mastery of what they don’t yet understand.  Both methodologies are focused on providing students with a performative opportunity to demonstrate they possess college level learning.

The perceived differences lie in two areas – with target of the assessment, and the students’ temporal relationship with their learning.  PLA came about in an era when the field of higher education was firmly tethered to the credit hour.  Students performing prior learning assessments are generally doing so to gain traditional credit.  Modern CBE programs, meanwhile, have brought the sanctity of the credit hour into question, and instead attempt to credential students around a particular set of skills or abilities (competencies).  The CBE assessments are not designed to ensure that a student understands three credits of material, but that they can successful perform a particular action or task.  The other ostensible difference comes out of the ‘prior’ piece of prior learning assessment.  Whether a student is assembling a portfolio or completing a challenge exam, they are attempting to earn credit for what they already know.  In a CBE program, meanwhile, students are provided with instructional opportunities to learn mastery of competencies they can’t yet demonstrate.

But, when you look critically at what a CBE curriculum should be doing, you see that it’s providing students with an opportunity to learn, but more importantly, it’s also providing students with an assessment through which they can demonstrate mastery of a competency.  If a very experienced student comes to an institution, it’s likely that they would succeed in some assessments even without relying on the instructional materials.  Then the question arises – if a student has earned credit for their prior learning in a competency-based format, is it useful to differentiate between the two processes?

This implicit connection is lost on many of CBE’s supposed advocates.  The Department of Education, for instance, has introduced a number of experimental sites programs with the goal of ostensibly fostering innovation around competency-based education.  There are three experiments allowing some form of financial aid to go to students who enroll in prior learning assessment, competency-based, or limited direct assessment programs.  Unfortunately, at least two of these efforts are profoundly misguided.  For example, in the PLA ex site, students are limited to adding the cost of three credits of PLA to their total cost of attendance.  While this will help defray their assessment costs somewhat, the majority of students who participate in PLA earn far more than three credits, and will continue to receive no aid to cover those additional assessment costs.  Moreover, this experiment is restricted to course-based prior learning assessment, and cannot be used in conjunction with a CBE program.

The CBE ex site meanwhile expressly forbids the use of aid to pay for the assessment of learning that did not transpire within the CBE program (read: PLA).  So if a student comes to a CBE program and can satisfy a competency right from the outset, they are either barred from receiving financial aid for the cost of that assessment, or they need to wait a few weeks after enrolling to take the assessment.  This creates the illusion that students have learned the material at the institution, rather than through the life experience, and is apparently an acceptable loophole to the DOE.

Not only does this betray a misunderstanding of the core concepts behind CBE, but also how students learn.  The average college student is not an empty vessel that colleges fill with knowledge.  They are a unique individual who brings with them their own set of experiences and knowledge.  The goal of a good CBE program is to empower students to leverage that learning towards their degree.  Unfortunately, by holding financial aid hostage behind these bizarre stipulations, these experimental sites will encourage institutions to design their programs in a way that isn’t consistent with pedagogical best practices.  The focus of a CBE program can’t simply be new and emergent learning, but the interplay between prior and present.  And without new policies that take this relationship into account, ultimately students will be the ones who suffer the most.

The Problem with Snowflakes

This winter, many Americans became reacquainted with snowflakes in a big way.  Violent storms dropped as many as 120 inches of snow on some cities.  The vast amount of these tiny, uniquely shaped frozen water droplets was overwhelming.  Similarly, colleges and universities throughout the country were also recently overwhelmed by another kind of tiny, and uniquely shaped entities: competencies.

snowed in

Competency-Based Education has become one of the most popular buzzwords in higher education conversations at the institutional, state, and national levels.  Even President Barack Obama has taken an opportunity to preach the virtues of competency-based education.

But what is competency-based education?

That answer can be found in dozens of blog posts and articles so I’ll just briefly summarize it here:

Competency-Based Education is the notion that students should receive credit for what they know rather than how long they sit in a classroom.  What they know should be classified in a way that is easy for employers to understand and value, so that students can leverage their education more effectively in their job search.  The whole experience should be self-paced, allowing students to advance as quickly or as slowly as they need to, to properly understand different topics.

So far four schools have received approval from both their accreditors and the Department of Education to offer a competency-based program.  Apart from them, about two dozen schools are currently claiming to offer some form of competency-based program.  And on top of that, according to a recent Lumina survey, over 350 schools are working towards the development of a competency-based program.

This is a serious problem.  And it’s a problem that no one wants to deal with.

Why is this problematic? Institutions all over the country have vastly different requirements for different majors.  There is no one standard Bachelor’s degree.  Every college puts their own unique spin on it, between Gen Ed, electives and required courses.

However, what brings them all together is the Carnegie Unit.  Students need approximately 60 credits for an associate’s degree, and 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree.  No matter what combination of courses a particular institution assigns, the output is always the same.  A competency-based program, however, could and should be different.

We aren’t trying to decide which 40 courses Johnny should take before we hand him a slip of paper. We are trying to decide what Johnny should actually be capable of doing once he leaves our institution.  That is a profoundly different question, and a question that schools aren’t going about answering in the same way.

This issue was highlighted for me at a recent Lumina-funded Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) event.  Here the lack of a consensus model was not only accepted, it was lauded as one of the strengths of the CBE model.  Some schools have a dozen competencies, while others have hundreds.  Some folks have various levels of competencies nested beneath their “core competencies.”  Others have simply substituted the words “course objectives” for “competencies” and gone to lunch.  Each individual model is treated as its own special snowflake.  But the lack of consistency in the way we slice up the college degree pie is going to have serious ramifications down the road.

For instance – how will students transfer competencies from one school to another if competencies are all different sizes and fit into different hierarchies?  One solution (and the one that normally comes up in conversation) would be to map everything back to the Carnegie Unit and use that as the medium of exchange between schools.  While this is currently required by most regional accreditors and the Department of Education, it is not only unwieldy from a back-end administration standpoint, but it forces us to make rather sketchy equivalencies to a model that doesn’t focus on student learning.  Worst of all, it binds us into perpetuating the Carnegie Unit, and prevents us from moving past what should be an outdated relic.

Another issue arises when we talk about explaining competency-based education to the rest of the world.  For most students, parents, and employers, this idea of competency-based education is a new one.  How successful do you imagine we will be at getting those unique stakeholders to understand what competency-based education is, when we have 350 different explanations?

One of the purported benefits of CBE is that a competency-based transcript will be easier for employers to understand, and a more accurate reflection of what students know and can do.  However, most employers spend just six seconds reviewing each resume.  What employer is going to spend the resources to train their HR department on how to read 350 different versions of the same competencies?

Even if a school forms a direct workforce pathway for its CBE students (like Southern New Hampshire’s College for America), what happens when that student wants to move on to another employer?  Without a uniform way of communicating what CBE is, and how it works in practice, students are going to be left trying to explain their bizarre new qualifications to future employers, or find themselves undeservingly eliminated from consideration.

Finally, the lack of a consensus model opens the door to people outside of higher education to come up with one for us.  Education technology companies, for instance, know that there are potentially billions of dollars to be made with an LMS that caters to the competency-based format.  The problem for them is deciding which competency-based format to use.  Without a coherent vision from institutional innovators, we’re going to be left with whatever they decide, and find ourselves designing to technology, rather than allowing the technology to build around what’s best for the students.

To a certain extent, regulators are already starting to make some of these decisions.  During a recent webinar about the Department of Education’s new Experimental Sites (which include an experiment that grants credit for competency-based education programs), DOE Analyst Michael Cagle rightly pointed out that there is no one definition for competency-based education.  Each school that they are speaking with is going about CBE in a slightly different way, which is why it has been so difficult for them to write coherent regulations for their experiment.  So instead, they developed a set of waivers and conditions that confused many, and didn’t provide effective support to students.

Despite all of this, I’m not advocating for a uniform set of competencies across institutions.  I think that the unique style and content of America’s higher education system is one of its great strengths.

What I am saying is that if we want competency-based education to flourish and succeed in a way that is sustainable, and in a way that gives students the best opportunities, we need to confront the growth of these diverse models.  We need to, as a community, develop a set of standards in the way we divide the college degree, and the way we scaffold competencies.  Otherwise we risk being buried by all the unique little snowflakes.

A New Year, a New Blog

So here we are – 2015, and without hoverboards or self-lacing shoes.  I guess it was too much to hope that Robert Zemeckis could accurately predict the future. Although I guess Nike is working on the shoes.  Thank god.

Much more exciting than MOOCs
Much more exciting than MOOCs

Speaking of the future, the new year has given me an excuse to reflect on this blog, what my goals for where, and how I’d like to use it going forward.

This blog was initially created to serve as a forum for me to tell you about new open education programs we are working on at Thomas Edison State College, and for you to give me your feedback.  The thought was, “What works at my school, might just work at yours, and vice versa.”  Unfortunately, limitations of time and life got in the way of writing more than I would have liked, and so this space lay fallow for months.

My role at Thomas Edison has also changed slightly over the past few months.  Rather than looking solely at Open Education and how it can be leveraged at our school, I’ve been given the freedom to look at innovating more broadly.  The aim is ensure that we are continuing to offer our students an educational experience that effectively prepares them to meaningfully interact with the world. I hope to use this blog as a sounding board for those ideas.

A New Kind of OER Course

Open Education has made great strides over the past few years.  Despite being conflated with MOOCs in the media, the good folks at OpenStax College, Lumen Learning, and organizations like them, have saved students millions in the cost of textbooks.  Not only that, they’ve improved student outcomes, as finally, every student in the class has access to the necessary course materials.  The open education movement has even gotten the attention of legislators in the form of the Affordable College Textbook Act, which would provide for the creation and review of a host of new open resources and textbook.  These efforts have done, and will continue to do, much to lower the cost of attending college for students.


I, however, have a different idea.


When students get to one of these classes where the professor or the administrator has decided to swap in OER for commercial resources, they are delighted to find that they don’t have to pay for a textbook.  However, the discussion of what open means, of what they can do with open, or how they could find open resources on their own, never happens.  They never have an opportunity to develop a personal connection with the idea of open education, or to think about how it can apply to their life outside of the context of their current course.  To them, it’s just a new textbook, and *bonus* it’s free.


What if we gave students an opportunity to form that connection?


When I came to Thomas Edison State College, one of the discussions we had early on was “how do we encourage students to use OER? How can they use it to make a degree more affordable?”  Well we could map it to our curriculum and swap out our current crop of commercial texts.  Or we could find specific sets of OER (like the Saylor courses) and design challenge exams around them.  But why would we want to restrict students to certain open textbooks, or certain collections of open courseware?  Learning is valid no matter where it comes from, right?  That’s at least the basis of our prior learning assessment programs.

It’s from that vantage point that we started exploring competency-based education.  With this model, we could set up modular assessments and let students bring their learning in from anywhere.  Students would be free to leverage all of the exceptional OER content on the web, either as a supplement to what they already know, or simply self-study of a new topic.  All of the education would be on their terms.  We would merely exist to measure and to guide.

And while competency-based education is a direction we are pursuing as a college, this conversation continued in another direction.  Is there a way we can give students the ability to forge their own pathway under our current model, grounded in the Carnegie Credit Hour?  Can we teach students to develop these educational pathways without a professor, or an advisor?  Can we encourage them to work together outside of the classroom and build a learning community? Presumably if given the right tools, the answer to all of these questions is yes.


So how can we equip our students with those tools?  Well, we’ll build a course, naturally.


So this is my idea for a new kind of course.  We teach open education and its application at the student level.  We show them how to evaluate open resources for bias, and for quality.  We explain learning outcomes, and where they come from, and how open resources can be used to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to master them in any course context.  We show students how they can collaborate with each other; learn from each other, without having to rely on a faculty member to have all the answers.  To think critically about ideas, have those ideas challenged, and challenge the ideas of their peers.  Finally, we teach them how everything they’ve learned can be applied within the current higher education system, and outside of it.  This last component opens the door for not only lifelong learning, but to fundamentally reduce the price of a college education for anyone with the interest and drive to pursue truly self-directed learning.

Why is it so hard for Open Ed professions to talk to each other?

As many of you know, this week was the Open Courseware Consortium’s “Open Education Week;” which according to their website is “a series of events to increase awareness of open education movement.” This is the third year they’ve put this program together, and they generally have a good turnout. Last year I presented with Tina Grant, who was then the director of the National College Credit Recommendation Service about their review of the Saylor Foundation’s open courses. (Although I guess it’s the Saylor Academy now)

This year I submitted a proposal to talk about getting open educators together to collaborate. For all of our talk about openness, it doesn’t seem to transfer to an open dialogue. At many schools, there is only one or two people working on open initiatives and the lack of community can have a deleterious effect on your sanity as well as the quality of your ideas. Yes there are conferences, which are nice, but they are infrequent and it can be difficult to justify the cost to attend them. And yes, to a greater or lesser degree you can start a dialogue on twitter.  However, it can be very difficult to break into those conversations, especially if you aren’t a member of the expert’s club.

To remedy this situation, I’ve been working with Amy McQuigge from SUNY Empire State College since last June, to put together a discussion group of open educators. Over the past few months we’ve grown to nine regular members that attend our monthly conference calls and participate on our discussion board. We were hoping to use our Open Ed Week presentation as a place to share our stories, discuss these difficulties, and recruit new members. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.

As if the universe sought to emphasize our point about the difficulty of open educators to communicate with one another, a glitch with Open Ed Week’s calendar of events caused many sessions to appear at the wrong time. In our case, our 3pm EDT session was listed at 4pm. And unfortunately for the group of us who were scheduled to present, our schedule didn’t allow for us to present at the later time. Not only that, Twitter was down for scheduled maintenance, leaving us with no way to reach out to folks and tell them to tune in.

This left us with a webinar full of presenters, and no audience. No audience for us to interact with or to present to. So we did the next best thing, we presented anyway and recorded the session. If you are interested, you can view it here.

And then there were none...
And then there were none…

So I’ll ask you – the followers of this blog and of my twitter – the questions we wanted to ask our webinar audience

  • What can we do to foster more of an open dialogue among open education professionals?
  • What successes have you had starting a dialogue about open ed at your institution?
  • Do you belong to any communities with a similar goal?
  • Would you like to join our efforts?

Thomas Edison State College’s Open Course Option

Since their inception, MOOCs have been touted as the answer to the ever-rising cost of college tuition.  However, while their enrollments have soared, many people have wondered what their real impact on tuition, and higher education, has been.  Some are already calling MOOCs a failed experiment as Udacity and Coursera turn away from higher ed to focus on workplace training. Not only have very few MOOCs been reviewed by the American Council on Education (ACE) for college credit, but schemes to set up MOOC-for-credit opportunities have failed miserably.  Colorado State University-Global Campus offered a MOOC-for-credit program, and didn’t manage to attract a single student.  San Jose State University bailed on its partnership with Udacity to provide remedial math classes to students after only one semester.  California’s bill to open the door to MOOCs for credit stalled in the face of grumpy faculty unions.

So have MOOCs failed on their promise? Looking at that list of evidence, you might be compelled to think so.  However, Thomas Edison State College is not those schools, and our students are not those students.  Since 1972, we have been committed to the idea that it doesn’t matter where you learned something, as long as you can demonstrate that you know it, you can earn credit.  We don’t care about seat time, we don’t care about attendance.  For decades, we’ve been granting credit for students who acquired college-level learning through workplace training, professional certifications, and military service.  MOOCs and open courses are simply a new avenue for students to educate themselves outside of a traditional college experience.

And our students are not those who crave a traditional college experience.  Our average student is 36 years old, and has been out in the workforce for over a decade.  They are realistic about what they expect from their educational experience, and assume personal responsibility for their learning goals.  More than anything though, these students are looking to improve their lives without bankrupting their future.  It is this population that, more than any other, is in desperate need of a solution for the rising cost of tuition; and it is this population that is in the best position to utilize new program we have developed.

So what is this new program?

It’s called the Thomas Edison State College Open Course Option, and it offers a new twist on an old model.  We’ve partnered with the Saylor Foundation – a DC-based non-profit committed to driving down the cost of education – to provide students with an affordable pathway to an Associates of Science in Business Administration degree.  That’s right; we aren’t talking about a single class here.  This is an entire degree program.  Go to and take their free online courses (which, unlike Udacity and Coursera’s courses, are available any time) and then come to Thomas Edison State College we’ll assess you on what you learned using our vast array of prior learning assessments.

Are you a good test-taker, who thrives under pressure?  Come participate in our TECEP credit-by-exam program.  Would you rather a more self-reflective process that allows you to connect with what you learned and articulate it in writing?  We can have a subject matter expert evaluate your portfolio assessment and your learning narrative.  Maybe you’d like to do some combination?  It is entirely up to you.  More than anything, this program emphasizes flexibility.  Not only can you choose your form of assessment, but the Open Course Option is entirely self-paced, which means that students are able to complete their studies entirely on their own schedule, completely independent from semesters and deadlines.

But, the best part of this program is the price.  According to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing Report, the average two-year Associates Degree costs $17,310 for in-state students and $21,706 for out-of-state students.  The Open Course Option on the other hand, costs approximately $3,700 for in-state students and $5,300 for out-of-state students, assuming they complete it in one year.  That’s a savings of 79%.

MOOCs may have failed on their promise to students, but at Thomas Edison State College we are committed to keeping ours.

MOOCs are not the Bad Guy

Ben Affleck's not the bad guy either
Ben Affleck’s not the bad guy either

Sebastian Thrun announced last week that Udacity was going to be pivoting away from higher education to pursue corporate education partnerships.  And then the internet exploded.

What has ensued has been a lot of football spiking and endzone dancing by people who felt that MOOCs were not the answer.  For instance, Jonathan Rees says

I would argue that Sebastian Thrun’s most famous educational innovation is already dead. In fact, it was pretty much dead on arrival.” 

Meanwhile, Rebecca Schuman added this colorful analogy,

Sebastian Thrun, godfather of the massive open online course, has quietly spread a plastic tarp on the floor, nudged his most famous educational invention into the center, and is about to pull the trigger.”

MOOCs are dead, ya’ll.  We can go back to whatever it was we were doing before they showed up. Right?

No. no I don’t think we can.  Humbly, I would suggest that Drs. Schuman and Rees are missing the point.  Much of what I’ll call the “bad feelings” around MOOCs are not the fault of MOOCs at all.  They are the fault of xMOOC founders.

MOOCs did not say there were disruptive, and they did not say that they were going to replace higher education as we knew it.  MOOCs did not say that there would only be ten universities in 50 years or that they had uncovered the super-secret magic sauce of online education.  How could they?  MOOCs are courses.  Massive Open Online Courses.  They are things, much like a textbook, or a video, or a collection of free and open courseware.  Things do not make audacious statements; people do.

Instead of coming in and putting themselves above traditional faculty by making pompous pronouncements like “I try to think of what’s best for students, and then I do that*” (as opposed to normal college faculty who what…don’t do that?), xMOOC founders could have had a real dialogue with educational reformers and innovators.  By bashing the public, and policy makers, and administrators over the head with the idea that “Hey guys, education is broken, completely, but don’t worry here is the answer,” (with a little help from the Silicon Valley trade presses, and irresponsible journalists everywhere), MOOCs were elevated to a messianic status they did not deserve.  This brought criticism from BOTH reformers who pushed for pedagogical improvements to make MOOCs actually open, actually engaging and actually connective, as well as crotchety curmudgeons who feared for their job and expatiated at great length about the inherent value of “face to face instruction.”

But guess what?  MOOCs do something that you can’t do in a traditional classroom.  They provide structured information to anyone with an internet connection, for free.  Yes, you can argue that they could be better.  They could rely less on canned lectures, and less on objective testing.  Their discussion boards could be less of a swamp of sadness, and more of a useful community building tool.  They aren’t perfect (definitely, definitely not perfect), but they do open students to knowledge and experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have.

You know what students can do with that knowledge?  They can get real live college credit, through the form of a prior learning assessment.  If a student was so motivated, they could take several MOOCs, come to a school like Thomas Edison State College, and through a combination of direct, high stakes testing and portfolio assessment, get a real live college degree.  So while you all have been busy cheerleading the destruction of MOOCs, we’ve been building a way to use MOOCs to provide students with a regionally accredited degree without sacrificing our college’s academic rigor, or wasting student’s time.  MOOCs are not the bad guy, and sometimes, they can even save the day.

Tune in next time when I talk more about Thomas Edison State College’s Associates of Science Degree, and how you can get one using free online resources.


*See every Andrew Ng presentation ever.

The Great Missed Opportunity


A lot has been said about Massive Open Online Courses over the past two years or so.  Thousands of academics, administrators, and policy makers have struggled to determine their value and efficacy, millions of students enrolled, and many, many education commentators and journalists held them up as the salvation or destruction of higher education.  I missed out on participating in the early fights, grumpily sitting at my desk at the Saylor Foundation, attempting to build better courses, courses that were actually free and open (read: openly licensed), and wondering why Coursera and Udacity were getting all the press, while our efforts had netted barely a half of million views over four years.  They were flashier, sure.  They had a better interface, and they only partnered with the highest caliber schools.  But we were actually trying to do what they were just playing at.

That was an earlier time.  Now MOOCs have fallen out of favor, and 2013 has by some been called the year of the MOOC Backlash.  Some of the criticisms against them (poor completion rates, unreliable assessments, etc.) I can wave away as merely folks not truly understanding the purpose and possibilities of an open course.  Part of that is actually the fault of the founders of these companies who propped up their products as the equivalent of traditional brick and mortar classrooms.  However, other criticism (lack of an open license, lack of privacy standards, lack of the ability to have your learning assessed elsewhere for college credit – looking at you Coursera) are much more justified.  As George Siemens noted in his blog today about Udacity’s pivot –which I’ll get to later – xMOOCs “delivered to us something along the lines of a 1990′s corporate elearning program.”

In this new world, where people are finally starting to acknowledge that MOOCs are not the disruptive innovation we deserve, nor the one we need right now, MOOC providers are changing tactics.  Coursera is opening classrooms in cities around the world.  Udacity, meanwhile is partnering with corporations to provide job readiness training.  They are shifting away from really disrupting anything, and instead using their status and hype to entrenching themselves in sectors that already exist, in order to pay back anxious venture capitalist.

What’s more disappointing however is the missed opportunity to work with those in the Open Ed sector that are actually trying to revolutionize education, and make it better.  Just last week, Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera gave one of the keynote presentations at the Open Education Conference in Park City, Utah.  In attendance were many of the early innovators in open education, people who have been wrestling with the issues of student engagement, personalized learning goals, and assessment in an open environment.  Having realized the flaws and the issues with the traditional xMOOC model, this was an opportunity to engage with that community; to combine the student numbers, the hype, and the venture capital money with the experience and expertise of the founders of this movement.  Unfortunately, what we got was the standard Coursera shtick, which many of us had heard before.

But there is hope!  More so, I think for the open education community to learn from the mistakes of these early MOOCers, than for the Coursera and Udacity’s of the world.  Selling your principles to venture capitalists may make headlines, but it doesn’t necessarily make good learnin’.  However, creating a flashy yet simple interface, and making it easy for students to understand what they are supposed to do are two really important components that I think we should take away from this.  One of the great problems that the new competency-based programs springing up all around the country are facing is getting students, molded into thinking about education in terms of semesters, courses and lectures, to understand something new.  And that’s really what we are trying to do with open education – get students to understand something new.