FLEX Path: Capella University's Innovative Pathway to a Degree

FLEX Path: Capella University's Innovative Pathway to a Degree

Kimberly Pearce (Capella University, USA) and Brian Worden (Capella University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0932-5.ch017
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Abstract

Capella University was founded in 1993 to serve adults who wanted access to high-quality higher education to maximize their personal and professional potential. In the early 2000s, to better serve its mission, Capella extended its online education focus and begin offering competency-based curriculum. Already a leader in online, adult-serving higher education, Capella responded to the external pressures of access and completion, affordability, and filling the gap between employers' hiring needs and satisfaction with recent graduates. The response was the development of FlexPath, a competency-based education and direct assessment option to pursue a degree that signifies clear demonstration of professionally relevant competencies. In 2013 FlexPath was the first direct assessment option to receive approval by a regional accreditor (the Higher Learning Commission) and the Department of Education for federal financial aid eligibility at the bachelor's and master's levels.
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Introduction

To begin to address the question of competency-based education’s potential for a broad population of students, let’s consider a common scenario for a non-traditional student: a single mother with a bachelor’s degree has been working for the past 10 years in project management for a large corporation; she has been promoted several times, but she has greater ambitions and feels that if she had an MBA, she might be considered for a leadership position at one of the nonprofit organizations she values in her community. She applies to traditional MBA programs, gets in, and hopes she’ll be able to manage the course schedule on top of her already busy life. Once in the classroom, though, she finds she already has a significant understanding of much of the curriculum because of her day-to-day work. The courses feel redundant, and she is unable to progress at her own pace, so she disengages. “I’m not going to class to learn what I already know,” she tells her advisor.

Competency-based education (CBE) and, more specifically, self-paced direct assessment pathways to degrees, is one answer to these challenges. The direct assessment approach bases both the evaluation of student achievement and the award of a degree or credential solely on the demonstration of competencies (C-RAC, 2015, p.1) (see the list of terms at the chapter’s end). This means the measurement of learning has no direct relation to “seat time,” the credit hour, credits, textbooks, course “material,” or grades. Direct assessment’s flexibility and the ability of students to move quickly through areas in which they already have significant competence, makes it particularly promising for working adults seeking to fulfill their personal and professional potential without the constraints of weekly deadlines and attendance requirements, and without having to take foundational courses in topics they know inside out from their on-the-job or military experience.

In 2001, the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (NPEC) published a report on competency-based learning which remains a foundational work for educators interested in leveraging this modality. NPEC defined a competency as “a combination of skills, abilities, and knowledge needed to perform a specific task” (U.S. Department of Education, 2001, p. 1). CBE has become a respected approach to learning and measuring mastery which has positive disruptive potential and is seen by many in the higher education community as a standard of the future, especially for non-traditional students. Indeed, the current higher education model—for how we measure learning and assign credit, administer financial aid, and engage faculty expertise and gain value from their instruction—needs to be disrupted if we are truly to expand access to and success in higher education. Especially for working adult learners with other commitments in their lives, self-paced, competency-based online or hybrid-online models could greatly increase both the accessibility and affordability of higher education. When supported by a regulatory environment conducive to innovation, the expansion of the model, with the likelihood of higher completion rates, could have great ramifications for the country’s economy and standard of living. With the passage of the Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act (HR3136) in 2014, Congress has recognized the great potential of this model.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Credit-Bearing, Credit-Hour-Based, or Credit-Based: Educational framework in which a passing grade and credits are given for satisfactorily completing all assignments and course-participation requirements within the parameters of the academic calendar. The number of credits determines “seat time” (i.e., student learning time) and the duration of a program.

Credit Hour: The federal definition of a credit hour is as follows: 1) A credit hour is an amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that is an institutionally established equivalency that reasonably approximates not less than: a) One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit, or ten to twelve weeks for one quarter hour of credit, or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time; or b) At least an equivalent amount of work as required in paragraph (1) of this definition for other academic activities as established by the institution including laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, and other academic work leading to the award of credit hours (Federal Regulation 34B Part 600 Subpart A §600.2).

Self-Paced Learning: Learning model in which students progress as they are ready and able to, and not according to the academic calendar; the learning is not structured by weekly deadlines for assignments and course participation.

Competency: A combination of skills, abilities, and knowledge needed to perform a specific task in a specific context.

Competency-Based Education (CBE): An educational model in which practical and cognitive learning is measured by the demonstration of competency (e.g., in an assignment in which a learner shows his or her knowledge and skills in practical applications); may use grades and have credit-hour fulfillment requirements OR be self-paced and rely on direct assessment.

Direct Assessment: An educational model that bases both the evaluation of student achievement and the award of a degree or credential solely on the demonstration of competencies, without including non-assessed coursework and without correlating learning with credits or seat time.

Authentic Assessment: An activity or assignment that resembles a real-world work product and is used to measure the demonstration of competency.

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