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That, says Bushway, is where the real teaching occurs. Faculty members are required to give what Capella calls “robust feedback” within 24 to 48 hours, telling students in detail what they’ve done right and what they’ve missed. “There’s not a lot of lectures in this model,” she said. “But there is still very active teaching going on.”
Adam Weller, a telecommunications executive from Savage, said he jumped at the chance to take the self-paced courses after two years in Capella’s bachelor’s degree program. “I honestly have always told people I wish that you could do college like this,” he said.
Weller, 33, took three business classes as part of the FlexPath pilot project and said they were “just as challenging, [and] definitely as time consuming, as the other courses that I’ve taken.”
At the same time, he said, “I could definitely see drawbacks for folks who are not extremely self-motivated.”
Amee Gullickson, of St. Paul, said she was able to complete her first FlexPath course, in business ethics, in just four weeks. “It was definitely a benefit, because I’m able to get through these classes faster,” she said.
“There’s not a lot of interaction, and quite honestly I like it that way,” she added. “I can just get in there [and] get my work done.”
Gullickson, 38, who works in the banking industry, says she’s “not someone that enjoys school.” But she wants the degree to help advance her career.
“Am I learning a ton of new information? Not really,” she admitted. “If you’ve been in the business world long enough, some of these things come naturally.” But when she’s done, she says, “I can say, ‘Yes, I have a bachelor’s degree.’ In today’s world, that matters.”
Changing the faculty’s role
So far, about 30 colleges and universities have experimented with similar programs, and many see this as just the beginning, said Kevin Corcoran of the Lumina Foundation in Indianapolis, which promotes innovation in higher education.
“It’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about education than the typical course model, where people are being talked at by a professor and maybe they’re learning, maybe they’re not,” said Corcoran. “It does result in changing the faculty role. But that’s not always a bad thing.”
Robert McMaster, vice provost of the University of Minnesota, is a bit more skeptical. “We would argue that students gain a great deal by coming to this campus, by sitting in a class with a world-renowned faculty member,” he said.
Schneider, of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, agrees. The danger, she said, is that the new models may end up replacing professors with a “vast number of people who do assessment for a living.”
American universities, she said, “are recognized as the best in the world, and they didn’t get there without faculty. And they won’t stay there without faculty.”
Kevin Kinser, an expert on higher education, says there’s no reason to panic. “Universities are not going away anytime soon,” said Kinser, chair of education administration and policy studies at State University of New York at Albany. At the same time, he says, the movement toward “competency-based” degree models, like Capella’s, is growing.
“We need to be able to have some way of demonstrating that learning has occurred,” he said. “Whether it is universally a better system, we don’t know yet.”
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384