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Student-Centered vs. Competency-Based Learning: What Makes Sense For Central Ohio Adults?

Franklin University Franklin University Student-Centered vs. Competency-Based Learning: What Makes Sense For Central Ohio Adults?Student-Centered vs. Competency-Based Learning: What Makes Sense For Central Ohio Adults?
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Central Ohio is poised for expansive growth, with one million additional residents expected by 2050. As Columbus grows, new startups and employers are likely to enter the market, drawing top talent to the city. For Columbus’ current workforce, the accelerating pace of technology also requires new skills and new ways of thinking.

This outlook has students begging the question: Do you really need a traditional four-year degree to be successful in today’s workforce? For many nontraditional students, the answer lies in if higher education institutions can adapt to their specific needs.

Changing realities in the workforce and student body puts competition in higher education at an all-time high. In fact, an October 2019 report from the American Council on Education (ACE), Huron and the Georgia Institute of Technology surveyed 495 leaders at four-year institutions. They found the vast majority – 86% – of higher ed leaders expect competition to intensify. This expectation is especially prominent due to new players, like national online universities and tech startups, entering the scene.

In the Columbus region—where 52 colleges and universities and over 130,000 students call home—this competition can either be daunting or a breeding ground for innovation. For Columbus universities looking to lead the charge, innovation starts with understanding the shifting dynamics driving the need for change.

The Changing Face of Higher Education

Student demographics are moving toward a more nontraditional and diverse student body than ever before. The 18 year-old, fresh-out-of-high-school graduates are no longer the primary target of admissions teams across the country. Increasingly, working adults over the age of 25 are returning to school, whether to finish a degree they started or to achieve the next level of education.

You can see this change most clearly represented in the demand for online degrees. In Columbus, distance offered programs saw degree completions grow by 43.5% between 2012 and 2018. On the other hand, non-distance offered programs experienced a decline of 7.9%.

What’s clear: The on-campus model of higher education simply doesn’t work for working professionals. That’s why we are seeing such a stark contrast in educational approaches in the current state of higher education.

The Status Quo: Traditional vs. Competency-Based Education

We’re at an inflection point where two education models—on opposite ends of the spectrum—are tipping the scale of the higher education landscape. Traditional instructor-led degree programs, which are built around inputs and the amount of instruction time, are clashing with competency-based learning, which is an autonomous, non-instructor led, self-paced learning experience.

In a traditional educational setting, courses are instructor-led and meet two to three times per week in a classroom setting. These courses often include long lectures and few graded assignments, other than midterm and final exams that often account for 70% of a student’s final grade. Your typical course conforms to the 15-week semester, with the number of credits earned based on the time you spend in the classroom. 

On the other hand, the competency-based education model takes an opposite approach: there is typically no instructor, courses are completely self-paced and completed at a distance. While credit hours are still earned in a competency-based model, another significant difference is how students progress through a program. You do not move on to your next course until you demonstrate mastery of a subject, typically measured through multiple assessments. 

So which is better—traditional or competency-based? Many students may find themselves seeking a middle ground. These dramatically different models create an opportunity for universities to find a model that better serves the needs of nontraditional students.

The Path Forward: Student-Centered Learning That Focuses on Outcomes

Franklin University is one of the higher education institutions in Columbus spearheading innovation to answer the call for a different approach. Franklin University calls its hybrid approach student-centered learning. As a university that was founded in 1902 and has offered online education since 1998, Franklin benefits from extensive experience teaching in the classroom and online. 

Today, Franklin University focuses on providing degrees that are flexible enough for working professionals, while also meeting the needs of employers.

“I’m in touch with Columbus employers on a weekly basis. What we hear too often is they aren’t getting what they need from employees and new college graduates—particularly with soft skills like written and oral communication, emotional intelligence, teamwork and leadership,” says Patrick Bennett, vice president for academic quality and planning at Franklin University. “It’s hard to test competency in these areas in a self-directed learning environment where there’s little interpersonal interaction. At the same time, simply attending class to earn credits doesn’t translate into professional skills. That’s why we take a student-centered approach to learning, bridging the gap between different learning methods to best prepare students for professional advancement in their industry.”

How does student-centered learning better prepare students? By developing courses that are focused on desired outcomes first, and methodology second.

“We aren’t focused on the inputs, we’re focused on the outcomes,” says Dr. Bennett. “We design courses based on what we want our students to know and be able to do at the end of a course—for a subject in particular as well as soft skills. Based on those outcomes, our instructional designers, subject matter experts and instructors weave together the essential knowledge and skills into one seamless, engaging online course. It’s an approach we take for our degree programs, as well as training and certificate programs we develop specifically for Central Ohio employers. We’ve dedicated an entire program, called FranklinWORKS, to provide targeted training opportunities for employers to meet the critical needs of evolving industries.”

According to Bennett, another big advantage of the student-centered model is the learning environment.

Unlike competency-based learning environments, where courses are taken alone, students at Franklin engage in collaborative, problem based-learning that moves them from theory to practice. 

It begins with direct access to their instructors.

“In our model, students interact directly with their professors who are practitioners with real-world experience,” Bennett says. “And because most of our students are also working adults, they bring their own work challenges and experience to the classroom. Unlike the competency-based approach and more traditional learning environments, this creates an effective feedback loop where problems are analyzed and solved with critical thinking. We call it 360-degree learning and we believe it’s an effective way to prepare students to become lifelong learners who can diagnose and solve problems.”

Defining Student-Centered Education for the 21st Century

As a leader in online education for working adults, Franklin University is defining the tenants of a truly student-centered approach that is relevant to the evolving needs of students and employers.

How to create a student-centered learning environment:

  • Allow students autonomy to complete learning and assignments on their own schedule, while providing deadlines to structure progress.
  • Offer both asynchronous and synchronous online learning to foster collaboration without limiting flexibility.
  • Provide instructor-led courses taught by industry professionals who have deep experience applying concepts to real-world situations.
  • Create a balanced learning format that spreads out coursework evenly across the length of the course, requiring approximately the same amount of per week to complete assignments. 
  • Tailor the length of the course to the subject matter and outcomes, as well as offer flexible course start dates (rather than adhering to a traditional semester schedule).
  • Interweave the mastery of hard and soft skills throughout a course using different modalities to meet the needs of students with different learning styles.
  • Utilize industry experts and advisory boards to craft and continually evolve curriculum to meet employers’ needs for relevant, in-demand skills. 
  • Provide in-time support to students through access to instructors, advisors, and educational resources.

“Through assignments, discussions and collaboration—we’re all learning from one another, myself included,” Bennett says. “That’s why students are the cornerstone of our approach to education. Instead of the linear approach you might find in traditional or competency-based education, ours is multifaceted because success is measured in much more than a degree.”

The Future of Education is All About Student Outcomes

Flexible, student-centered education will be essential to train the next generation of employees, as well as advance the skills of those already in the workforce.

The focus of higher education needs to focus on providing students with job-ready knowledge, technical skills and emotional intelligence they need to succeed. The future of high education will look different. However, if institutions can meet the needs of continuing learners, it will be bright.

This article is one installment of the Jobs & Education Outlook series, presented with paid support by Franklin University.

Franklin University is an accredited and nonprofit college in Columbus that has been dedicated to educating adults since 1902. The University offers flexible and affordable online college degree programs built for learners who need to balance their education with their busy lives.

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