In Trends in the Digital Learning Landscape Part I we examined trends in conventional online enrollment. Part II examines Emerging Learning Models.
As discussed in Part I, leading institutions are innovating online in order to do well in the overall environment of declining enrollments. Some institutions see this innovation as a way to adapt to the changing needs of learners, employers, and regulators. While no single dominant disruptor has emerged to date, we see a few approaches that are gaining traction.
Rise & Fall of MOOCs
MOOCs entered the digital learning landscape as an experiment in large scale engagement and unlimited student participation. Players such as Harvard, MIT, and Columbia led this experimentation by offering content for free, thus removing much of the experimental risk for enrollees. The excitement around MOOCs has since dwindled in no small part because MOOCs lack the vertical and horizontal engagement, the student support structures, and in some cases the academic credit, that contribute to success and retention. In our view, MOOCs will complement other education models but will not disrupt them.
Platforms that emerged from the MOOC framework (e.g., edX, Udacity, & Coursera) are competing by creating revenue generating partnerships with large universities. Among the examples gaining traction:
- Georgia Tech partnered with Udacity and ATT to offer an Online Master's in Computer Science for $7,000. Reports placed enrollment at more than 2,000 students in fall 2016. Now this program accounts for 20% of the national enrollments in master's level Computer Science programs.
- Coursera partnered with the University of Illinois to offer its modularized iMBA program for approximately $22,000. As of fall 2016, this program had attracted 270 new degree seeking students and an additional 80 enrolled in individual courses.
- edX is partnering with elite institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere to offer MicroMasters programs and credentials in cutting edge knowledge and skill areas. These programs are offered at a low price ($1,000 -$1,500) compared to the normal tuition at these institutions. The credentials are portable as transfer credit to full master's degree programs. Corporations such as IBM are endorsing these targeted programs as a way to secure needed employees.
Another innovation perhaps better viewed as a resuscitation is Competency Based Education (CBE). Among CBE’s most widely touted features are its potential to ensure mastery of program outcomes, ensure competency in skills and abilities required to meet workforce needs, accelerate the time to program completion, and conform to the time and schedule constraints of working students. To be clear, the devil of delivery lies in the detail of execution and these purported benefits are not unique to CBE.
As is the case with MOOCs, the potentially lower cost is an important factor driving interest in CBE. Tuition pricing models, such as subscription models used by several CBE providers, allow students to pay a set tuition and to earn as many credits as possible within a fixed period, thereby permitting students to complete more quickly and at a reduced cost. PLA is also more efficiently structured and managed under a CBE model. Send us a note if you are interested in detail on this point.
What Is CBE . . . Really?
The short answer is that the construct has devolved into a grand Hegelian model of increasingly questionable value. CBE models are nearly as varied as the number of institutions that offer them. C-BEN, a leading CBE community of practice organization sponsored by the Lumina Foundation and comprised of pioneering CBE institutions doing a lot of quality work in advancing best practices in CBE, provides the following attempt at a universal definition:
Competency-based education combines an intentional and transparent approach to curricular design with an academic model in which the time it takes to demonstrate competencies varies and the expectations about learning are held constant. Students acquire and demonstrate their knowledge and skills by engaging in learning exercises, activities, and experiences that align with clearly defined programmatic outcomes. Students receive proactive guidance and support from faculty and staff. Learners earn credentials by demonstrating mastery through multiple forms of assessment, often at a personalized pace.
Aside from the conceptual and empirical problems of attempting to define the demonstration of proficiency as a constant, the middle part of this definition sounds reasonable . . . until you reread it after substituting any of a number of other pedagogical models. The last sentence identifies what we think is another problem in that it sounds like adaptive programmed instruction devoid of contributions from horizontal learning components. Remember that?
To illustrate two common forms of CBE, we refer to the 34 colleges that enrolled students in some form of program labeled as CBE in 2014.
- Of these 34, 17 employed a variant of CBE to assess prior learning that occurred elsewhere by examination but reverted to the traditional model for the delivery and assessment of new material.
- The remaining 17 colleges delivered new skills and content via some form of CBE even though they varied significantly in their reliance on seat time and substantive interactions with faculty and other academic and student support personnel.
Although more CBE providers entered the market since 2014, not much else has changed. The majority of new CBE programs remain credit based, although the number of direct assessment CBE programs is also increasing.
Factors Suppressing the Expansion of CBE
Federal regulations and accrediting agencies have functioned as barriers to entry for CBE programs. Although several institutions have been selected to participate in the USDOE Experimental program that allows them to offer innovative CBE models outside of some of the current regulatory constraints, this experimentation is progressing slowly. In our view, CBE suffers from a lack of regulatory clarity.
Future Supply of CBE
Recent estimates identify more than 150 institutions offering some form of CBE program with over 400 additional institutions planning and developing CBE programs. Among these:
- Western Governors University (WGU) was founded with a mission to provide competency based education and has grown to serve over 70,000 students (up from 57,000 students in fall 2014 (NCES/IPEDS). This recent growth follows a robust 18% compound annual enrollment growth rate from 2012 to 2014 (BMO Capital Market Report, 2016).
- Capella University began offering select programs through CBE in 2014 and in just two years has grown enrollment in its seven programs to over 3,200 students, accounting for 12% of overall university bachelor and master degree enrollment (10Q Report, fall 2016).
- Enrollments are also increasing for other CBE providers such as Northern Arizona University, Southern New Hampshire University, University of Wisconsin-Extension, University of Texas System, University of Maryland University College, as well as several progressive community college systems such as the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.
As we have said before, MOOCs represent the digital equivalent of the correspondence school programs that those of us old enough to remember saw printed on the inside of matchbook covers. Like their US Post Office uncles, MOOCs deliver on their promise for students who are sufficiently motivated, skilled, and emotionally equipped to go it alone. Matchbook correspondence schools used to complete around 10% of their matriculates and the first generation of MOOCs turn in similar results.
While MOOCs fail to recognize that most learners benefit from skilled teachers and that horizontal learning components can increase the efficiency of instruction by 50% or more, there is no structural reason why MOOCs cannot adapt to embrace these components. Some MOOCs are moving in this direction through the clever exploitation of group interaction technologies and enhanced student support systems. If they master this - and we assume that they will - these new H-MOOCs have the potential to emerge as a central model on tomorrow's landscape.
Although CBE promises lower student costs, institutions considering offering CBE programs must recognize the substantial costs associated to developing the design and infrastructure required to execute CBE well. We believe the most “future proof” plan for most institutions will be the development of a new business model that embraces the modern learning and measurement sciences to deliver integrated horizontal and vertical learning with authentic assessment.
Reduce Tuition & Manage Margin
We see the long term intent of these two models as building and scaling low cost education that will disrupt mainstream higher education.
As we have advised our clients since 2010, schools that fail to develop models that allow them to cut tuition in half while maintaining margins and increasing learning outcomes and impact will soon be on the outside looking in.
Although in their infancy, the affiliations we are seeing between universities and corporations to provide academic programs at lower cost provide a fruitful context for large digital platforms. These partnerships have the potential to disrupt higher education.
Done poorly, MOOCs and CBE are not much better than the old correspondence models. In our view, the need for robust vertical engagement with faculty as well as horizontal engagement with other students is imperative for optimal learning and should be an integral part of any academic model for MOOCs or CBE. Institutions that can innovate and execute on these essential elements will be positioned to compete in the future. They need to get there sooner rather than later because leading institutions are already innovating and learning from their experiences. The pace will only increase.
In Part III of this briefing series we will explore ways in which institutions can remain relevant as the digital learning environment evolves. In the meantime please feel free to reach out to us for guidance.