Bring Back The Joy Of Learning

 Implementing competency-based education and personalized learning.   

GUEST COLUMN | by Fred Hurst

CREDIT Northern Arizona UniversityEvery student has taken a class that was easy, either because the material was easily understood or they already knew it. Every individual has different capabilities and experiences that help or hinder their progress.  Even in Kindergarten, some students can read and others cannot read at all.  The disparities only increase with age.  It is no wonder that so many students are turned off to learning by the time they reach middle school.

Since the late 1800s, our educational system has taught “to the middle.” Today’s teachers work conscientiously to teach concepts (often prescribed by standardized tests) to classrooms full of unique students with unique backgrounds.  Some students are bored, while others struggle to understand.

What Is Competency-Based Education?

In fourth grade, I attended a small country school with multi-grade classrooms. I learned what I needed in the fourth grade and then listened to the fifth graders’ lessons.  I customized my own education and I loved it.

We now have the technology to do this for every student. Computers can provide customized online learning experiences and pacing to fit each student. Teaching faculty can then provide individualized support, and students can advance quickly or at a slower pace without as their motivation, interest and abilities allow.

At its core, this is what competency-based education is about.

If a college student already understands a subject, why insist he or she sit through a semester-long course? To prove they can stand being bored?  Similarly, it makes no sense to require an adult learner who’s been working as a bookkeeper for years to sit through—and pay for—an entire accounting course.

A Revolution in Higher Education

At Northern Arizona University, for our Personalized Learning online degrees, students receive credit by objectively proving they know the subject matter, not by sitting through a 16-week course.

Before Personalized Learning students start a lesson, they take a pre-assessment and can test out of some or (in rare cases) all of a lesson’s content.  After their baseline knowledge has been established, they can move at their own pace, slow or fast, in an environment personalized to their needs.

Adaptive learning technologies provide multiple ways for a student to learn every concept on their path to subject matter mastery. When they get stuck, their assigned faculty mentor proactively contacts them or the student may request help. You can’t get more personalized than one-to-one learning.

Personalized Learning students control the entire educational experience:

  • When and where they learn.
  • How fast and in what order they complete lessons and assignments.
  • How much they pay for their degree.

That last point is often the most compelling for prospective students.

Students pay for a six-month subscription and may master as many competencies as they are able in that time which motivates them to advance quickly.  The faster they advance, the more affordable their education.

Taking the Pain Out of Learning

Another unique aspect of Personalized Learning is that a student cannot fail which can be a deterrent. Students must achieve a minimum of 86% on the post-assessments. If 86% isn’t reached, they simply go back and study the sections they didn’t master.  No repetition. No boredom.

And the cost to the student, as well as to the university, is lower than repeating an entire course would be.

When designing this program, our top priority was to make learning exciting again by offering multiple ways to learn. Where a reading assignment may be engaging and interesting for one student, a video lecture may be better for another.

The joy of learning is an innate part of each of us.  My daughter literally jumped out of bed in the morning, she was so excited about first grade. Let’s make earning a college degree just as enjoyable.

Higher education is the key to our prosperity. The competency-based movement allows motivated adults to earn a degree that honors their prior learning, reduces their costs and speeds their time to graduation.

The least we can do is make it enjoyable.

Fred Hurst is senior vice president for The Extended Campuses of Northern Arizona University (NAU). Under his leadership, NAU recently introduced ‘Personalized Learning’, offering competency-based, online bachelor’s degrees in Computer Information Technology, Liberal Arts and Small Business Administration.


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