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Competency in 2015: The Edtech Innovator’s Wish List

Dean Florez

President, Balance Inc.

This piece is the second article in a two-part series. Check out part one here.

In 2015, higher education innovations will continue to modernize learning; challenge, and append, higher education’s legacy systems; each innovation will effectively demonstrate an ability to break the constraints of the “course” with next-generation online platforms that support stackable, competency-based educational outcomes that employers value.

In short, expect a competency-based framework to drive innovation—not only from edtech entrepreneurs but also from government officials, colleges and willing faculty members. SPT Malan best outlined this framework, and it will be the blueprint for successful ventures this year if built around these principles:

1. Explicit learning outcomes with respect to the required skills and concomitant proficiency (standards for assessment)
2. A flexible time frame to master these skills
3. A variety of instructional activities to facilitate learning
4. Criterion-referenced testing of the required outcomes
5. Certification based on demonstrated learning outcomes
6. Adaptable programs to ensure optimum learner guidance

Given the “year of competency,” for reasons mentioned in Part 1, I see five innovations destined to dominate the higher education agenda this year. Interestingly, all revolve around outcomes tied to job skills or employment demands. All innovations are online platform based, and all center on a “competencies matter” philosophy.

Innovation 1: MOOCs Become Competent and Confident

In 2011, an Ambient Insight report told us that the number of college students taking traditional face-to-face classes would plummet from 14.4 million in 2010 to 4.1 million in 2015. In comparison, the population of “only-online” students TRIPLED during that period—which brings traditional learning to an even level with online learning. Clearly, online delivery platforms will be foundation for the innovations that define 2015.

Thought MOOCs were dead? Consider that in 2014, the number of universities offering MOOCs doubled. Moreover, they are being implemented in over 400 universities, with 22 of the top 25 U.S. universities now offering these courses online for free.

It is important to note that the furor surrounding MOOCs was not that college courses could be delivered outside universities walls (distance learning had been around since AOL reigned). Rather, it was that these online courses and their owners had the audacity to reach for the Holy Grail: the academic credit, owned and assiduously defended by traditional colleges and their faculty.

In 2015, I see MOOCs surrendering their quest to formally participate in the academic tradition. Instead, they will continue with their seemingly successful, competency-based pivot toward creating their own currency, which is valued at much higher rates by employers.

This currency has employers’ attention and comes with a sustainable business model. Class Central’s Dhawal Shah studiously pointed out that the largest online MOOC providers enter 2015 boasting their own valued credentials: Udacity’s Nanodegrees, Coursera’s Specializations and edX’s Xseries.

Look for further innovations along this path even outside the MOOC realm, such as the certificates offered by Purdue’s Polytechnic Institute. Other similar efforts include Allison, an online provider pushing over 600 free, on-demand, certified learning courses to a growing base of more than 4 million learners, or Mozilla’s Open Badges program now being implemented alongside universities with employers now evaluating their merit as they proceed through the curriculum

Innovation 2: Online Ed will Pivot toward Stackable Competencies

Allowing students to proceed through their education by picking up and bringing to the table past and earned competencies, able to build upon each other or be “bundled” along with other skill sets, is likely to provide a more flexible learning environment for the future. So how will large, state-funded public colleges or research-based private universities respond?

California Governor Jerry Brown began 2013 alongside Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, kicking off what was described by the media—in the midst of vociferous opposition by faculty and their allies—as an unsuccessful online MOOC experiment. As is often the case with open online courses, completion rates were used as the index of failure, and Udacity was seen as encroaching on faculty “turf.” In the next round, however, the governor is likely to leverage the faculty’s sense of ownership to advance innovation in the form of competency-based online education. He has asked California’s public universities to provide more opportunities for students to use alternatives to “seat time” to demonstrate their competencies. They could do this by utilizing an often ignored or scantly offered tool: the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) which is the most widely accepted credit-by-examination program, available at more than 2,900 colleges and universities but underutilized in California.

The new approach would allow students to stack core college competencies, even if learned outside the granting institution, and allow them to demonstrate their competencies by testing out of lower division subjects, saving them time and money.

In addition, expect similar online innovations in Florida, Texas and Washington in 2015. A pilot by the American Council on Education in these states secured a historic agreement between 25 colleges and universities to accept transfer credit sought by students who successfully complete general education courses from a selected pool of outside edtech providers.

Innovation 3: Competency-Based LMS Delivery Platforms Detach from Courses

Traditional universities’ ability to unlock the promise of competency-based education hinges upon one thing: the infrastructure to deliver sequential learning materials that can be stacked up for credit based on mastered concepts, rather than built upon a defined-schedule course. Most online courses offered in the university space—via learning management systems such as Blackboard and Canvas—are uncontroversial as long as they remain “faculty owned” and sanctioned by the university. At the same time, MOOCs offered via Udacity, Coursera and EdX are delivered on proprietary platforms whose core design shares many of the same assumptions as the traditional LMS.

However, these platforms continue to be designed around the construct of the course itself. As a result, both approaches still lack the innovative capacity to achieve the promise of competency-based education. To date, neither MOOCs nor university-owned LMSs have been able to deliver learning materials “on-demand,” based on a learner’s own schedule and his or her demonstrated ability to master pre-defined skills or concepts. With a true competency-based platform, the design must center on the construct of learners, rather than courses.

In late 2013, the Helix LMS entered the market aiming to do just that. It sought to provide a unique learning platform with CBE capabilities, such as embedded learning outcomes throughout a course and flexible time frames for mastery. These innovations allowed the system to work well outside the core design assumptions of a traditional LMS. However, just last month Helix was surprisingly put up for sale, which prompted LMS expert Phil Hill to postulate this action as (Helix) “getting pushback from schools that insist on keeping their institutional LMS, even with the new CBE programs.”

However, Hill notes that “Helix Education was not the only company building CBE-specific learning platforms to replace the traditional LMS. FlatWorld Knowledge built a platform that is being used at Brandman University.” This trend appears to be based on custom platforms with different design assumptions than traditional course-based platforms.

Overall, the innovation needed in 2015 is a learning platform truly organized around learners, presenting them with sequential learning blocks and competence or mastery credits—and devoid of the course itself.

Innovation 4: Government Accepts New Accreditors Focused on Innovative Ed Tech Offerings

Savvy, competency-based ed-tech entrepreneurs should expect some long overdue “government policy” innovation in 2015.

Since 2005, several competency-based programs such as those offered by StraighterLine, Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University have struggled to get the majority of mainstream colleges to recognize their products or offerings as valid outcomes for college credit. These innovators argue that their approaches can help students cut down on tuition costs if other colleges recognize academic credit for students who prove competence in certain subjects, even if they learned those subjects outside the university itself.

The innovative solution needed in 2015 is embedded in the decision to provide students with the ability to choose to lower the cost of their degrees themselves. Formally dislodging these decisions from the grasp of traditional accreditors will be the key.

The answer may come this year as Congress works through the re-authorization of the 1965 Higher Education Act.  It appears many in Washington seek to break the hold of today’s accrediting agencies, giving states new powers to offer alternative accreditation—a nod toward promising new, high-tech approaches in higher education.

The legislation falls into the hands of a new Republican-dominated Congress, but it is already garnering strong bi-partisan support.  Utah Senator Mike Lee has plans to take tech innovation even further, calling for new accrediting organizations that would rate individual courses rather than universities as a whole. This would allow students to affordably piece together their educations à la carte, as if they were ordering off a pedagogical tapas menu.

Even President Barack Obama has weighed in, asking Congress to establish “a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal aid based on performance and results.” Note that  the Center for American Progress and The Federalist—in a meeting of ideological extremes—have both given ink space to those calling for long-overdue actions that would give new competency-based online programs a path to federal recognition.

5. Code Academies Go Online

Over 48 months ago, there were no learn-to-code schools as we know them. 2014 saw an explosion of media attention and ed-tech funding for this industry, which has evolved in record time. In just two years, we’ve seen the launch of 75 boot camps, 10,000 graduated students and a new educational model that blends a project-based curriculum with employer-approved apprenticeships.

Starting in early 2015, I foresee new advocacy organizations, including 100kin10 and Reskill USA, creating a coding “on-ramp” participation structure that cohesively combines exposure programs such as Code.Org’s “Hour of Code” or the Michelson 20 Million Minds Foundation/General Assembly’s “Code Truck” initiative with other immersion programs, such as UrbanTXT or Girls Who Code, providing a pathway for students that is seamless.

However, the biggest innovation this year will be large vocational code players launching remote online delivery platforms.

Consider the 2015 launch of Hack Reactor’s Remote Beta, an online version of its in-person curriculum. The early online version appears limiting, however, given its “Skype-like” seat requirement that requires users to be present for in-person sessions. Dev Bootcamp launched a similar effort with its Localhost platform, which offers remote online connectivity arranged within a 19-week program. Not to be left out, General Assembly likely will expand its Front Row video series that already allows for an “anytime, anyplace” online learning experience.

Yet, the biggest innovator in online coding space could come from a little-known startup known as Thinkful, which announced a $4.25 million funding round earlier this week.  This startup offers the only true competency-based, online coding platform in the market today. Thinkful facilitates the students’ own pace learning with “on-demand” curated course material and live mentorship—all woven into stackable learning modules. One Month, Bloc and Treehouse are other new startups providing competency-based stackable coding platforms to look for in 2015. These new business models are likely to bring more affordable coding opportunities to the masses and provide considerable scale if others follow their online path.

Overall 2015 will be driven around outcomes tied to job skills and competency-based online platforms will be the likely mechanism utilized to scale these endeavors. If successful, expect momentous displacement of the traditional college degree and a sudden welcome from colleges attempting to beat obsolesce with new Internet-driven delivery mechanisms.

Dean Florez

President, Balance Inc.

Dean Florez is the president and CEO of Balance, Inc. and has 20 years of legislative & policymaking experience in the higher education field.