Even before MIT released its 213-page report earlier this week on how the future of higher education hinges on modules of learning as opposed to courses, the Clayton Christensen Institute had issued a mini-book titled, Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization and the Workforce Revolution, which proffers that online competencies are best poised to modularize learning and help students skill up for very different industries.

Time-based courses are the main currency in traditional institutions—in massive open online courses (MOOCs) as well—and in general, it is nearly impossible to excise a week of learning from one class and insert it into another course in an unrelated field. In contrast, competencies have a unique architecture, as they break down learning into modules that are not inextricably tied to courses or topics.

In an online competency-based environment, all learning materials are tagged and mapped differently. Competencies are comprised of series of learning objectives and often involve a kind of can-do statement: this student can create a research-based argument; this student can use appropriate mathematical formulas to inform financial decisions; or this student can speak effectively in order to persuade or motivate. In many cases, students can draw on resources from various subject areas to achieve their learning objectives in order to master a competency.

An online competency-based provider can therefore easily combine and stack together learning modules for different students because learning is not broken down by subject matter. For example, a student in an MBA program and a student studying nursing might have similar learning objectives but draw on different content and materials to achieve those learning objectives. The powerful integration of robust technologies enhances the ability of competency-based providers to modularize the learning process.

This flexible architecture will enable providers to create a multitude of stackable credentials or programs and scale them for a wide variety of industries. These pathways will not only attend to the widening skills gap in the U.S. but will also simultaneously drive down the cost of educating students for the opportunities at hand. The savings to the students are dramatic: as an example, a full year at College for America is only $2,500, which means that even if it took four years to complete the program (and it could presumably take much less time because pacing is flexible in a competency-based program), a bachelor’s degree would cost $10,000 total—less than what it would cost at many community colleges.

Although onlookers tend to glom onto the cost-savings portion of this analysis, I want to pull back here and underscore a more crucial point: this is about a high-quality education. Students are not able to flunk or get away with a merely average understanding of the material; they must demonstrate mastery—and therefore dedicated work toward gaining mastery—in any competency. Online competency-based education has the potential to raise the bar for everyone seeking a postsecondary credential by prioritizing the demonstration of student-learning growth and outcomes. This learning pathway enables students to reach the farthest point possible in their learning experiences, regardless of their starting point, race, geographical location, or family income.


  • Michelle R. Weise, PhD
    Michelle R. Weise, PhD