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Tech-Enabled Alternatives Must Be Part of Education Reform, Report Says

David Bergeron, far right, leads a panel discussion on competency-based education at the Center for American Progress on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013.

David A. Bergeron (right) of the Center for American Progress leads a panel discussion on competency-based education, which he notes is an idea that dates back decades. (Photo by Megan O’Neil)

Washington — The U.S. Education Department must experiment with alternative models, such as stackable credentials and competency-based programs, as part of broader reforms of the nation’s postsecondary-education system, according to a report published on Wednesday by the Center for American Progress.

Written by David A. Bergeron, vice president for postsecondary education at the nonpartisan policy-research center and a longtime official at the Education Department, the report is titled “A Path Forward.” It calls for the development of standards and measures—based on job placement, earnings, and other factors—to assess the productivity of such alternative models. It also advocates engaging employers in order to better align higher education with workplace needs.

“One of the things that really enables competency-based learning is the ability to use technology to keep track of what people have learned and can do with what they have learned,” Mr. Bergeron said, noting that the idea of competency-based education dates back decades. His comments followed a panel discussion at the center’s headquarters here.

The call for reform comes two weeks after the Education Department announced it would accept proposals for experiments to test alternative ways of administering student-aid programs, with special interest in ideas that would allow “students to advance through educational courses and programs at their own pace by demonstrating academic achievement.” The solicitation for proposals aligns with President Obama’s goals of combating rising costs in higher education and clearing the way for innovation, department officials said.

Competency-based education also received special attention from the department in March, when it said that it would award federal student aid for competency-based programs, throwing open the doors for learning credited by demonstrated knowledge and skills rather than hours spent in a class. Mr. Bergeron, then an official at the department, played a significant role in the decision. Among the most prominent competency-based programs are those offered by Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University.

According to the report released on Wednesday, the current quality-assurance system in higher education—accreditation—is poorly aligned with work-force needs. Employers draw candidates with certain majors but may not know much about their actual workplace skills.

“Providing employers with information about a graduate’s demonstrated knowledge, skills, and abilities through a portfolio or competency-based transcript could make the human-capital system operate more efficiently,” the report says.

Existing technology systems are part of the problem, according to the report. They buttress a higher-education system that continues to deliver instruction by in-person and online classes held two or three times a week for up to 15 weeks.

“These systems will need to be modified significantly to record credits earned not in a classroom but through any number of learning activities, with credit ultimately awarded based on an assessment,” the report says.

Even bigger changes will need to take place at the organizational level of postsecondary-education institutions, according to the report, with entirely new roles for administrators and faculty members. Some will specialize in the technology used to deliver content, and some will focus on assessment, but both will have little responsibility for instruction. Others will be instructional coaches, helping students through particularly difficult learning modules and competencies.

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