Need-to-Know-News: Competency-Based Transcripts, a Profitable Online Education Company & Ed Tech Tool ‘Vittle’

In this ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series my aim is to share noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

Vittle app for iPad

In this post I review BIG news for higher education—competency-based degrees, specifically Northern Arizona University’s [NAU] program. This week NAU provided a further glimpse into its program with the release of a version of its competency-based transcript; the first of it kind for public degree granting institution. Also I’ve profiled a company that provides online education to thousands of students worldwide, and is [very] profitable at doing so. Finally I share a new and nifty ed tech tool, Vittle, that is user-friendly, with great potential to support educators in face-to-face and online classrooms.

1. Competency Based Degrees and Transcripts
There’s been little coverage in the news of Northern Arizona University’s [NAU] ground-breaking online degree completion program launched earlier this year. NAU’s program,  Personalized Learning, offered through its Extended Campus, is not based on credit hours, but on students demonstrating mastery of identified competencies defined as skills and/or knowledge; where NAU defines knowledge as “conceptual understanding”.

The program, developed with a grant from EDUCAUSE and the Gates Foundation is the first public university in the United States to use competencies rather than the traditional credit-hour to grant degrees (Bolkan, 2013). Two other schools have entered into the competency arena, College for America at Southern New Hampshire University [a private, non-profit institution] whose program was also developed with a similar grant, and for-profit Capella University. When NAU’s degree program launched in May 2013, I thought it would be big news, yet it slipped under the radar, no doubt due to the preoccupation with MOOCs. Yet this competency-based online degree program, is a revolutionary concept, and has the potential to disrupt traditional higher education in a way that MOOCs have not.  NAU’s website gives a comprehensive overview of the program which is quite different from the traditional college experience. The most remarkable difference is the tuition structure. Students pay a subscription fee in six-month increments to access coursework instead of tuition calculated by credit hour; a significantly less expensive option for a college degree.

NAU was spotlight this week with the release of a version of the competency transcript for its degree program, yet again with little news coverage except for a comprehensive article in Inside Higher Ed.  For now, students will receive two transcripts from NAU as a record of their work—a traditional transcript and a competency-based one. Likely this will ease the transition to competency-based higher education, allowing time for employers and other institutions to become comfortable with the concept.

Screen Shot 2013-08-09 at 5.21.57 PM
Scoring legend on first page of NAU’s two-page sample transcript

InsightsCompetency-based education is just getting started. As [U.S.] institutions look for ways to harness technology effectively, lower costs and remain financially viable, many will explore competency-based programs. Making it even more feasible, is the The US Department of Education’s move to provide federal financial aid to students enrolled in competency programs. They are even encouraging education institutions to explore and implement such programs (, U.S. Department of Education). This gives competency-based education serious clout.  Given the programs lower costs and flexibility for students, competency-based education can be a game-changer for education.

“Watch. Listen. Practice. Learn.”

2. What a Profitable Company that delivers Online Education Looks Like
Though the online education provider doesn’t offer higher education credit courses, it has a vibrant business model worth examining. It has been profitable for over fifteen years. was one of the first companies to provide online instruction in Microsoft Office Excel, Word, etc, and now offers instruction in “software, business and creative skills”  (

“Subscribers pay $25 a month, or $250 a year, to access 3- to 20-minute courses on Web design, 3-D animation, Photoshop, Excel and CAD, among others, adding up to $100 million in revenue last year. All that has helped build a huge fan base and a library of 100,000 videos”. Forbes

Insight: The market is becoming saturated with online skill training courses with the proliferation of free courses such as tech-specific MOOCs, fee-based online courses offered through platforms such as Yet as the market continues to evolve at its rapid pace, for-profit organizations need to be adaptable and progressive to remain viable. Even is vulnerable, yet it’s apparent that a strategic plan and an adaptable management team are essential for sustainability.

3. Ed Tech Tool – Vittle
This application could be a useful tool for educators wanting to create short videos with an iPad to reinforce key concepts for students. The iPad becomes a whiteboard. It may even be more useful for students to create their own videos to explain concepts learned. Videos can be posted on Facebook, YouTube, Tweeted or played on a iPad or device. Looks  nifty.

Need-to-Know-News: One HUGE Step Forward for Competency Learning, NEW Open2Study, and More

In this ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series my goal is to share noteworthy stories with readers that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform the traditional model of education.

Open Universities Australia
Open Universities Australia launches Open2Study Platform offering open courses to anyone

There are several interesting developments this week in education, three in particular which I’ll cover in this post: 1) The newly launched learning platform, Open2Study to rival the likes of Coursera 2) Competency based learning, which gets a boost in the US with Prior learning Assessments (PLAs) and 3) more MOOC news to ponder.

1)  Open Universities Australia launches Open2Study
This week Australia’s own Open University launched a learning platform Open2Study, which is similar in some ways to Coursera, but at Open2Study courses focus on career exploration and life skills, in addition to those for intellectual development. Like other xMOOC platforms, its courses are free but all participants receive a certificate of completion, “If you complete at least three of the four assessments and average at least 60% for your subject, you’ll receive a Certificate of Achievement” (

“Open2Study isn’t a me-too MOOC; its objective is not merely attracting massive enrolments. It’s the next evolution in online learning, centred on student success,” says Paul Wappett, OUA CEO.

Open2Study provides an engaging and compelling education based on a comprehensive pedagogical model that recognises online learners behave differently, and have different needs from on-campus learners. (PR Newswire)

And, Open2Study does appear to differentiate itself from other MOOC providers; the practical approach will likely appeal to a narrower market, which is a positive move from a sustainability perspective. There is a vocational focus—each course includes a “Where could this take me? section that gives learners information on related careers.

2) US Department of Education [DOE] “Encourages” Higher Education to Adopt Competency Based Programs [also known as Prior Learning Assessments]
The DOE appears [very] anxious to communicate its support available to higher education institutions for programs that promote alternative paths to degree completion as per its press release from last week. The DOE encourages higher ed institutions to expand competency based programs as alternatives to traditional programs [based upon credit hours or seat time], and stresses the guidance available to institutions when accessing title IV financial aid.

“This [competency-based programs in which students learn at their own pace] is a key step forward in expanding access to affordable higher education,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “We know many students and adult learners across the country need the flexibility to fit their education into their lives or work through a class on their own pace, and these competency-based programs offer those features – and they are often accessible to students anytime, anywhere. By being able to access title IV aid for these programs, many students may now be able to afford higher education.” [Press Release, March 19,  DOE]

This approach is a tough-sell to universities—implementing competency programs implies its acceptance of a learning philosophy that differs from traditional education programming. Yet some institutions are embracing it, including the State University of New York (SUNY), which is implementing a program based on Prior Learning Assessments [the concept of PLA is described further in this post]. No doubt, we will likely see more of PLA programs in the future—this is bigger news than MOOCs. PLA is already an approved and funded alternative to time-to-degree programs, and results are impressive for adults receiving credit from PLA programs.

3) MOOC News
This week a professor teaching through the edX platform put forth a unique request, he asked prior students [graduates] to help in his MOOC. He invited interested students to be mentors to students within his Ancient Greek Hero course, though on a volunteer basis. This is an interesting idea—actually a very good idea. And, Cousera continues to grow. This week I received an email from Coursera with the following news:

“Over 3 million students have joined the Coursera community since we began our journey in April last year. Today, Courserians hail from over 210 countries and have signed up for a staggering 10 million courses. As a company barely a year old, we’re truly grateful to have you as part of our growing community. From the Coursera Team” [personal email].

Finally, today I read via Stephen Downes daily newsletter OLDaily, about a MOOC Manifesto published through Connecta13. I agree with Stephen, this MOOC Manifesto contradicts just about everything that MOOCs are, or have the potential to be. It’s another example of how some educators view a new and different learning model through the lens of the old :(.

Closing Thoughts
Never a dull moment in the world of higher education. Have a Happy Easter weekend. Stay tuned for more developments on Twitter @OnlinelineI

Need-to-Know News of the Week: The ‘Student Cliff’, Coursera’s Signature Track and More

In this ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series, I aim to share noteworthy stories with readers that speak of developments within higher education and K-12 that have potential to influence, challenge and/or transform the traditional model of education.

The year has started off with a bang, barely half-way through January, we’ve got three significant developments in higher education that will likely set the tone for 2013. On Tuesday, Coursera presented its money-making proposition, soon after two reports were released with news of declining enrollment numbers, one dubbed the ‘student cliff’, and there was this meeting of numerous education minds to discuss California’s crisis in public higher education.

Coursera’s Verified Certificate,

1) Coursera: Wants to Make Money in 2013
Coursera has been coy about how it plans to make money; co-founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng have not shared a business strategy despite the $22 million invested by venture capitalists (Empson, TechCrunch). This changed on Tuesday; the model starts to take shape.  Coursera revealed Signature Track, a program that will offer Verified Certificates to interested students for a fee [between $30 and $100 per course]. The Signature Track program is a novel concept, outlined in detail on Coursera’s Blog. Here’s an excerpt.

Today, we’re excited to announce Signature Track, a new option that will give students in select classes the opportunity to earn a Verified Certificate for completing their Coursera course. Signature Track securely links your coursework to your identity, allowing you to confidently show the world what you’ve achieved on Coursera.

Signature Track offers:

  • Identity Verification. Create a special profile to link your coursework to your real identity using your photo ID and unique typing pattern.
  • Verified Certificates. Earn official recognition from Universities and Coursera for your accomplishment with a verifiable electronic certificate.
  • Sharable Course Records. Share your electronic course records with employers, educational institutions, or anyone else through a unique, secure URL. 

I find the point about ‘sharable records’ most significant. It appears the student will be able to develop a portfolio of the work completed. This appears similar to the idea of competency-based education models.  Not all Courersa’s university partners have signed up for the program, so far only, Georgia Tech, UCSF, Duke University and University of Illinois.

Further Reading: Coursera and Universities to Offer ‘Verified Certificates’ to Extend Credential Options for Students, Marketwire, Paying for Proof, by Paul Fain, Inside Higher Ed and Would You Pay $100 for a Free Online Course, by Bill Oremus, Slate.

2)  The Student Cliff
Move over fiscal cliff, we’ve got another big problem, fewer college bound students, less tuition dollars which leads us to the ‘student cliff’ (Kiley, Inside Higher Ed).  According to the report released Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, there is a demographic shift, fewer students within the demographic group that have traditionally gone to college is declining. This change “will force states and institutions to rethink how they do business, putting a greater emphasis on recruitment, retention, and serving new segments of the population”. Click here for article which includes a link to the report.

The U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics released “Projections of Education Statistics Through 2021 on Wednesday which shared different projections, but does tell a similar story. Post secondary enrolments will grow by 15 percent between 2010 and 2021, but this is far lower than the 46 percent increase that occurred between 1996 and 2010.  This will lead to more pressure on institutions in light of the increasing number of options for degree seeking students. More competition, putting pressure on schools to specialize, show value, and focus on strengths.

3) California Higher Ed Needs a Re:Boot:
California is in crisis mode, at least the Cal State higher education public universities are. The problem is money [at least that appears to be the problem], students can’t get classes to graduate, there is less money from public funds, all causing much angst among students, academic leaders and politicians. This week there was a day long event, a panel discussion, Rebooting California Higher Education sponsored by the Twenty Million Minds Foundation. The purpose of the event was “to raise the awareness and discuss key issues regarding the potential for online education to lower the costs for higher education in California.”

Twenty+Million+Minds+FoundationThe problem is complex, which was apparent by the panel discussion at re:boot event. Though consensus was not the goal, there appears to have been much discussion that was unproductive, as values and ideas about the purpose of education differed greatly. Audrey Watters gives a good overview of the event. Other good reading about the event, Re-booting CA Higher Education: My First Thoughts, Michael Feldstein, e-literate, and Re:Booting California Higher Education – Transcript of Darrell Steinberg Introduction, Phil Hill, e-literate. One of the biggest problems with this issue as I see it, is that online education appears to be the quick fix to the cost problem, and seems to be viewed as a compromise. What is the real problem with higher ed in California? Does anyone really know? It doesn’t seem so.

We will no doubt be hearing more about these developments and stories over the next few weeks – stay tuned!

Three Trends in Higher Education That Defy the Status Quo

There are three trends on the horizon in higher education and though I’ve some idea of what they might be, this past week confirmed it. I participated in a series of webinars in week two of the open online course, Current/Future State of Higher Education (CFHE12#).  Leading educators shared their insights and innovative programs – three dominant themes emerged, 1) competency based learning, 2) personalized student learning and 3) the changing role of the instructor. Each presenter shared extensive research in an area of his or her expertise and details of an innovative educational program; programs that provide a non-traditional education that defy the status quo. The summary of the trends follow, with a ‘takeaway’ for each designed to provide readers with practical ideas for application to their own area of study or work.

1. Competency Learning vs. Seat Time
Western Governors University introduced the radical idea of competency based learning in 1997 and was one of the first fully online university’s that did not require classroom attendance; fast forward to 2012 and competency based learning appears to be in the future of higher education. Learning that focuses on measurable outcomes is becoming a reality as technology facilitates self-paced and adaptive learning platforms, and employers lament about the skill gap that recent college graduates cannot fill. Responsive companies are partnering with education start-ups to create competency learning programs that address the skills needed for 21st century employees. The idea of ‘seat time’ is in peril.  Key highlights below:

  • Yvonne Smith of Innovation U: Slide from webinar on ‘College for America @ SNHU’, October 17

    Employers are coming up with innovative ways to address the skill gap. Companies including Google and Microsoft have partnered with Udacity to create classes in 3D graphics, app development and more – needed skills they cannot find even in recent college graduates (Ripley, 2012).

  • Southern New Hampshire University’s [SNHU] Innovations U program puts the student in the center of the learning model. Programs focus on competency clusters, developed in conjunction with employers. A binary rubric with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ evaluates learning. The goal of SNHU is provide affordable quality education, “to reduce costs, increase access and provide transformational experiences for students who have been marginalized by traditional higher education”.
  • Colleges are partnering with employers to create programs that not only provide academic preparation but career skills. The New Community College at CUNY opened its doors this fall with an innovative program designed to link classroom learning to career experiences in the community. The school is an open admissions college located in the heart of Manhattan, New York.
  • Another new university that looks promising is University Now. Its learning platform allows students to progress through course work at their own pace. Students learn by spending as little or as much time as needed to master the content. The school’s goal is to provide affordable education to anyone, anywhere.

Takeaway: Consider incorporating competency based learning within a current course or program by  including one or two competencies in the learning outcomes. Another option is to create partnerships with businesses in the community, either creating a community advisory panel where business leaders can have input into the curriculum or academic program development, and/or by creating internship programs for students from academic majors to gain experience in the work world.

2. Personalized Student Learning
‘Learning, your way’ is the new motto for numerous higher education institutions across the country, and significant ones at that. I wrote a post this past week about the University of Central Florida [UCF] that allows students to choose between five learning modalities, customizing their learning based upon their needs. Students expect to be able to learn anytime and anywhere in their chosen institutions, and numerous schools including UCF are responding.

  • At UCF students customize their schedule from a choice of five learning modalities under the school’s distributed learning model.
  • University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (UWM) is student focused giving students a choice by offering several programs. The school’s web page features the options for learning,  “Flexible & Convenient Online, evening, weekend and hybrid classes to accommodate any schedule.”
  • Research suggests that ‘learning is learning’ to students regardless of modality. To students, “a course, is a course, modality makes no difference” (Cavanaugh, 2012).

Take away:  Colleges will need to address the needs of the life-long learner, not just the college student where schools have traditionally told students when and where they need to go to learn. Students of all ages want to be able to learn anytime and anywhere at times convenient for them. Think of all students as life-long learners, and offer students choices of learning when, how and where they want.

3. The Changing Role Of the Instructor
The professor is no longer the only source of knowledge for students. The traditional method of knowledge transfer – the lecture, where the course instructor transfers knowledge [content] to student, is being augmented or replaced by other ‘nodes’ of information. Nodes are content sources, and might be a video, website, textbook, subject matter expert, or e-resource. Subsequently the teaching paradigm is shifting, students can access content, can learn from a variety of sources (Downes, 2012). The instructor role is thus changing, and in some institutions, the instructor role is being replaced with a mentor or advisor. Students in this model tend to take charge of their learning and use mentors, peers and study groups as support mechanisms for their learning goals.

  • University Now,Peer-to-peer learning communities where students share their knowledge and skills, and help each other obtain recognized degrees and credentials“.
  • The program at SNHU’s Innovation U, “won’t have instructors in the traditional sense… Pathways [program at Innovation U] will employ advisors to help students establish goals and set their learning pace“.

Takeaway: Higher education still needs experts, and students need role models, leaders and mentors. Acknowledging that students can access content and expertise from a variety of sources is necessary, which suggests that the course instructor is no less important. Now the instructor’s role shifts to one of guide or mentor, influencing, shaping and inspiring students to become educated, life-long learners.

It’s likely these trends are of no great surprise to readers of this blog.  Prior to this week’s session of Current/Future State of Higher Education, I’d read or written about, and discussed each of these trends to great lengths. Yet after hearing from the experts this week, and reviewing their innovative and progressive education programs I realized these are not just trends, fads or a phase – no these are here and now, this is the future.

Photo Credit: Horizons, Dopamind’s photostream, Flickr

References: Cavanagh, T. The Postmodality Era: How “Online Learning” Is Becoming “Learning,”  Chapter 16 in Game Changers (Diana Oblinger, ed.), EDUCAUSE Publications, May 2012.

Ripley, A. College is Dead. Long Live College!, (October, 2012). Time Magazine.