In March of last year, the US Department of Education decided that students undergoing competency-based college degrees could be eligible for financial aid. A competency-based degree is one focused on a person’s mastery of a skill instead of just the “credit hours” they’ve logged taking a class. In other words, if you’re majoring in business, but you’re already a whiz at statistics, marketing, and branding, you might be able to speed through those required courses by answering test questions correctly.
By allowing students undergoing such degrees to be eligible for federal financial aid, the US Department of Education was giving its tacit approval for this new type of educational model.
As one might imagine, a competency-based degree works best through edtech platforms, where the technology can automatically gauge a student’s proficiency as they work, measuring everything from how quickly they move through a section, to how many assessment questions they answer correctly.
The program will adapt to each student, essentially providing a personalized degree, one that goes more in depth on certain subjects when the student is struggling, or skips over them if the student already understands.
Pando has written about this type of technology before, and I remain by and large a skeptic. To have a program that could practically replace the role of teachers seems too good to be true. We’re good, but we’re not that good yet.
Chris Etesse, CEO of edtech company Flat World Knowledge, agrees. To Etesse, the edtech platform is no silver bullet. It’s there to help facilitate the professor’s job, flagging students who are struggling so they can receive special attention.
Etesse has spent a lot of time thinking about this recently, because Flat World has just expanded its offerings in the space. It previously dominated certain e-textbook niches and is adding learning management systems to the mix. As its first project, it has built an online degree platform for Brandman University, a third of which is competency-based. Furthermore, it’s optimized for mobile.
That’s a lot of buzz words I just threw at you. What it boils down to is this: Students who sign up for Brandman’s Business Administration program can earn their entire bachelor’s degree from their mobile phone. A third of that program they’ll be able to pass through quickly if they already know the skills. Of course, it’s unlikely any students will choose to do the degree on their phone — it’s more likely they’ll work off a tablet instead.
“We’re tracking every touch, every correct and incorrect answer, we’re able to say Johnny is moving at a good pace, or Johnny has slowed down, let’s have Johnny speak to a faculty member,” Etesse says. “Using the technology we’re able to see when a student needs assistance and then engage that student.”
Adaptive learning is a big trend in education recently, and it’s one that edtech companies are uniquely well-suited to tackling. Universities are realized that the traditional degree programs must be rejiggered. Many students can’t afford to go four years full-time without working. Others have families and need to work around their schedules. Furthermore, in an age of shrinking budgets and expanding classroom size, educators are trying new ways to make sure that each student’s need is being met. Adaptive online degrees allow for a greater amount of flexibility.
Flat World has built a platform with that goal for Brandman’s Business Administration degree, but it can be licensed out to other schools and adapted for other content. That is, of course, what the company is hoping for down the line.
“It’s centrally about helping universities that are now willing to think about fundamentally different ways to help students succeed,” Bessemer Venture Partners’ Chris Gabrieli, a Flat World investor, says.
The trial run of the first batch starts in May. Look for the students in cafes. They’ll be the ones carrying their entire college degree in their iPad smirking at the rest of us shmucks who had to wake up for 8 am lectures for four years lugging giant textbooks.
[images via thinkstock]