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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 23, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Columns2013-2014

Flex education is not for everyone

For some college students, a traditional classroom setting can be drab and the workload overwhelming. As tuition increases, students and some education reformers wonder if credit hour–based learning is worth the time and money.

Rather than focusing on how or when students learn material, the concept of “credit hour–based learning” focuses on what students learn. Supporters of “competency learning programs,” primarily online programs with a flexible education philosophy, believe college degrees should be earned based on competency and understanding of course material, as opposed to passing classes and reaching a number of credits to graduate.

According to a New York Times article, Excelsior College, Thomas Edison State College and Empire State College have offered performance-based programs since the 1970s that gauge learning through hands-on assessments. It wasn’t until 1997, when Western Governors University developed degree programs dedicated to competency programs, that students could complete coursework online and at their own paces.

This method allows students to absorb information without a time limit and is much cheaper than attending a traditional college or university — costing less than $6,000 per year. Its increasing popularity has led institutions such as the University of Wisconsin and Northern Arizona University to offer online competency-based programs, called “flex degrees,” as an alternative to traditional education. This reflects the Planned Studies major offered at Ithaca College where students can design their own majors.

Despite perceived advantages such as affordability and learning flexibility, the style has its critics. Amy E. Slaton, a history professor at Drexel University, told The New York Times that while this option is more affordable, it does not necessarily offer the same quality of education. Another disadvantage to competency programs is a lack of face-to-face contact with students. There may be options for interactions, such as chat rooms, but this cannot replace in-person exchanges.

Traditional colleges and universities are still dominant in the realm of higher education, but these alternative programs are slowly expanding. Of course, competency-based education shouldn’t be seen as stiff competition to traditional education. Though competency-based education may be a good alternative, it is not a system that works for every student.