Where's the teacher? Online college debuts self-paced courses

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 5, 2013 - 9:59 PM

Adam Weller worked on a paper while his son John, 5, played with his cars at home in Savage, Minn., on Tuesday, September 25, 2013. Weller is one of the first students at Capella University to take one of its new brand of FlexPath courses. He says the self-paced courses work well with his busy schedule, but "I could definitely see drawbacks for folks who are not extremely self-motivated and disciplined." ] (RENEE JONES SCHNEIDER • reneejones@startribune.com)

Photo: RENÉE JONES SCHNEIDER • Star Tribune,

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Imagine a college program where there’s no required reading or weekly assignments. Where teachers no longer teach class or hand out grades.

Welcome to FlexPath, a new twist in online education, which is making its debut in October at Capella University in Minneapolis.

The program, one of the first of its kind in the country, is built entirely around the idea that people should be able to earn a degree by proving what they know, not by sitting in class.

It’s part of a trend called “competency-based” education, which is putting a provocative new spin on what it means to go to college.

In the new Capella program, it doesn’t matter how students acquire their knowledge — whether it’s on the job or in textbooks or online, says Deb Bushway, the chief academic officer. All that matters is that they can pass a series of “assessments,” designed by the faculty, to show that they know the material well enough to earn a degree.

“This insists that you’re demonstrating a basic level of competency,” said Bushway. “We are agnostic as to the source of the learning.”

Supporters say it’s the kind of innovation that can save time and money in the pursuit of a college degree.

But skeptics wonder what kind of education it will be, especially if it marginalizes the role of teachers.

“There is reason to worry when you presume that the future of learning does not depend on a well-qualified faculty,” said Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Capella, a for-profit university with more than 35,000 online students and 1,500 faculty members, says its new “self-paced learning option” merely changes the role of teachers.

“It’s more like coaching,” said Rod Hagedorn, of Burnsville, who has been teaching FlexPath courses since January as part of a pilot project. “They’re guiding you through this learning process.”

Federal rules loosen up

The idea of “competency-based” programs isn’t new. But until now, they were hamstrung by a long list of federal rules. To qualify for federal financial aid, online courses had to run for a full term — at Capella, 10 to 12 weeks — and follow a set curriculum, complete with virtual classroom discussions.

All that changed in August, when the U.S. Department of Education agreed to waive the rules for Capella — only the second university in the country, after Southern New Hampshire University, to get the go-ahead for such a program.

Hagedorn, a business instructor, was asked to adapt his courses on organizational structure and leadership to the new model.

It is not, he readily agrees, for everyone. “FlexPath courses are designed for learners that are a lot more independent and self-directed,” he said. But that fits right in at Capella, he noted, where most students are working adults.

From the outset, students are given a list of so-called “competencies” that they have to demonstrate to pass the course: such as preparing a profit-or-loss statement or designing a business plan for a hypothetical company.

Instead of required textbooks or assigned readings, all of the study materials are optional. There are no deadlines. Students set their own timelines and take the assessments when they feel they’re ready.

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  • John Weller, 5, played while dad Adam did schoolwork. Weller found his self-paced Capella courses “just as challenging” as others he’d taken.

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