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

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

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

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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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