Monday, September 14, 2015

CBE, PLA, and Residency Requirements

How do residency requirements work for competency-based programs?

Modern States' recent announcements got me thinking about that.  

The Modern States template is a blend of Prior Learning Assessment and Competency Based Education.  It appears to be a set of MOOCs leading up to exams.  The exams are AP or CLEP, so many colleges already recognize them for credit.  Modern States is talking about building in a student support piece, but it hasn't specified what that would look like.

That's a bit like South Park's "underpants gnomes."  Step two is ???.  Step three is profit!

Since Modern States is focusing largely on introductory gen ed classes, it isn't bumping up against residency requirements for degrees yet.  At this point, a student could take up to 30 credits' worth of exams, prepped by Modern States' MOOCs, and transfer them into an existing college.  Since degrees are either 60 or 120 credits, that shouldn't run afoul of the residency requirements of most places.

Residency requirements are the number or percentage of degree credits that have to be taken at the institution awarding the degree.  Regional accreditors often set minimum residency requirements; member colleges are able to be stricter than that, if they want, but not looser.  The idea -- other than protectionism -- is that if you transfer 95 percent of your credits to Hypothetical State, then saying your degree is from Hypothetical State is a bit of a stretch.  If you have to take at least, say, 25 percent of your credits at Hypothetical State, then there's some sort of basis in reality for saying your degree is from there.

In a pure CBE system, of course, there's no such thing as credits.  And because assessment and instruction have been separated, you might never get "instruction" from the CBE institution.  In that context, specifying a residency requirement takes some work.  College for America, as I understand it, does it by mapping competencies to courses and credits in a sort of backwards compatibility exercise.  Modern States comes closer to a “test prep” model at this point, with the tests modeled on existing credit courses.

I don’t imagine Modern States being any sort of significant short-term threat.  Until it can award degrees on its own, it will be hemmed in by the residency requirements of colleges that can.  And until it solves the cohort problem -- how to get online students to feel like they’re a part of something, so they keep coming back -- it’ll have a hard time maintaining whatever enrollments it generates.  (CfA solves the cohort problem by enrolling groups of employees through their employers, who foot the bill. An individual can’t sign up for it.)  The prospect of sitting through a battery of MOOCs for the privilege of taking tests isn’t exactly enticing.  A robust support mechanism could make a difference, but it’s not obvious how that would work.  (I’m still trying to crack that nut myself.)  

In the meantime, though, I could see something like Modern States making sense as a partner for colleges with “degree completion” programs aimed at working adults who already have some college credits.  To the extent that it functions as a sort of sherpa for the mountains of free online material out there for students who are motivated to cram for exams, it could have value.  But until it figures out the cohort piece, I’d be surprised to see it grow much beyond that.