November/December 2014

Will Competency-Based Models Revolutionize Higher Ed?

Colleges and universities are finally seeing the market recoil from year-after-year tuition hikes for four-year bachelor’s programs. More employers are reporting that today’s college graduates are underskilled for the positions they have, which has left many college graduates out of work and deep in debt.

Online competency-based education may be the phenomenon that reverses this trend, according to Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution, a new mini-book by Clayton M. Christensen of Harvard Business School and Michelle R. Weise, senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute in San Mateo, California. In fact, Christensen and Weise believe that online competency-based education—which awards students course credit for skills they already possess and allows them to advance through their programs at their own pace as they demonstrate content mastery—could revolutionize the workforce and disrupt traditional higher education institutions.

“Students are inevitably beginning to question the return on their higher education investments because the costs of a college degree continue to rise and the gulf continues to widen between degree holders and the jobs available today,” the authors write.

At the same time, traditional institutions are reluctant to make the transition to shorter, more specialized learning experiences. But that reluctance could backfire, as the authors predict a growing need for targeted and affordable competency-based models that can be delivered to students independent of their educational background, income, or time zone.

“No other existing form of higher education shows such promise in making the cost of a high-quality education affordable to more people,” said Weise. “We see great disruptive potential in rigorous online competency-based models that offer flexibility, affordability, and faster completion times.”

In addition, employers and competency-based learning providers increasingly are collaborating to create these opportunities, she adds. If students emerge from these programs with the skills employers need, these employer-driven programs could override the importance of college rankings or even accreditation in the market.

The mini-book includes six chapters covering compelling topics such as disruptive innovation and academic inertia, the changing value proposition of a college education, the modularization of education through competency-based models, and the new learning formats becoming increasingly validated by employers. Its appendices describe innovative approaches at Western Governors University, UniversityNow’s Patten University, and Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, as well as Northern Arizona University’s personalized learning pathway and the University of Wisconsin’s UW Flex program.

Hire Education is available at Follow or join the conversation about its findings on Twitter by using the hashtags #HireEd and #competencybased.

Startups and Tech Licenses on the Rise

Startup activity and new technology patenting and licensing in the U.S. were particularly robust in the 2013 fiscal year, according to the annual “Licensing Activity Survey” from the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM).

Respondents to the survey, which included 202 U.S. academic and research institutions, reported 6,554 executed licenses and options and 719 new commercial products introduced last year, all up from FY2012. The Startups and Tech Licenses on the Rise sales revenue from these activities totaled US$22.8 billion. In addition, technology transfer activity at universities launched 818 new companies—16 percent more than in the previous year.

While this growth is encouraging, it happened at a time when federal research dollars remained relatively flat. The report emphasizes that reductions in federal research funding could hamper the future growth of academic technology commercialization.

“We need strong support for research funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation,” says Jane Muir, president of AUTM and director of the Florida Innovation Hub at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “And we need Congress to maintain the strength of the U.S. patent system by avoiding roadblocks to patent holders who need to enforce their patents against infringement.”

With federal dollars in question, many universities have turned to industry partnerships to support their tech commercialization efforts. In 2013, industry contributed $4.5 billion to technology transfer activity, up 11 percent over 2012.

To view highlights or purchase the full report, visit

Schools Experiment with Virtual Tours

Many colleges and universities are eager to recruit international students, but often prospective students are unable to travel to campus for a visit before applying. A number of colleges and universities have at least partially solved this problem by using, a service that creates a virtual walking tour of college campuses and other destinations. virtual tours are currently offered through the company’s website, but YouVisit hopes to perfect the use of Oculus Rift, a headset for 3D gamers developed by virtual reality technology company Oculus VR. While wearing the headset, students will be able to virtually “step onto” a campus to walk around and experience it in three dimensions without having to schedule a trip.

Audencia Nantes School of Management in France recently purchased an Oculus Rift Development Kit so that it can begin experimenting with the technology by taking headsets to student recruitment fairs. The school also created an online YouVisit virtual campus tour as part of its fall recruitment.

U.S.-based was founded in 2009 by Abi Mandelbaum, Endri Tolka, and Taher Baderkhan, 2003 graduates of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. All three came to the U.S. as international students—Mandelbaum from Colombia, Tolka from Albania, and Baderkhan from Jordan. The entrepreneurs’ goal is to help other international candidates experience campuses around the world before they send in their applications.

Learn more at

Subscribing to Subscription-Based Courses

Educational providers at all levels are experimenting with new models for course delivery, and that’s no different for the New York Institute of Finance (NYIF) in New York City. This year, the NYIF, which is part of the Financial Times group of companies, launched a subscription-based model of executive training. For a yearly fee, financial professionals can access in-person and online courses on an ongoing basis.

NYIF offers 630 online courses, grouped into more than 150 learning modules, which are taught by practitioners. Users can mix and match to create their own programs, or take the courses in pre-selected groupings designed for their job titles.

The NYIF has adopted a subscription model because of the finance sector’s swiftly changing regulatory and legislative environment, says its CEO Lee Arthur. “For financial professionals, staying up to date is a job in itself. A subscription model is suited to that.”

ExecSense, another Financial Times group service, has been subscription-based for several years. Aimed at high-level executives, ExecSense charges executives a fee of US$1,000 a year, which gives them access to executive education, an online resource library, webcasts, and short-form education “alerts” that offer quick exposure to topics of interest. “This follows the idea that learning is something executives must do every month, not just once or twice a year,” says Arthur.

A subscription model also reflects an increasing demand for shorter learning experiences. The same demographic that could sit for three-day courses a few years ago is now looking for half-day sessions, says Arthur. “We’re being asked for ‘shorter and snappier,’” he adds. “These individuals are so busy, they want condensed, efficient learning experiences. We give them materials ahead of time and make the education as practical as possible, so that they can use what they learn the next day.”

Educational delivery will continue to evolve as students demand formats that fit their changing needs, Arthur emphasizes. “We have to stay close to our customers if we are going to pick up on what they want and give them what they need,” he says. Read more about NYIF at

New Space for Startups

In September, the University of Central Florida and its College of Business Administration opened a 5,000-square-foot facility in downtown Orlando for technology startups. Part of UCF’s Office of Research and Commercialization, the facility was created in conjunction with UCF’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy (FIEA). Housed at UCF’s Center for Emerging Media, the FIEA Ventures facility will support the city’s plan to launch a “Creative Village” in the downtown area.

UCF initially will open the facility to FIEA alumni, whose projects will vary from video games and simulations to mobile and web-based technologies. Entrepreneurs will be chosen based on their applications, in which they outline their concepts, technology and staffing needs, market analyses, and business plans. Those selected will be provided with offices, meeting space, and a 20-seat theater; access to faculty, staff, and mentors; and use of audio, motion capture, and film studios. They will be granted space in the facility for up to one year.

Starbucks Orders Up Education

In June, Starbucks announced its partnership with Arizona State University in Phoenix to provide tuition assistance for employees who pursue one of 40 bachelor’s degrees in the ASU Online program. Called the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, the initiative spurred a flurry of media coverage about what it meant for the school’s programs and whether other companies might replicate the model at other schools.

While Starbucks will provide some financial support to the partnership, the university will fund much of the program. Starbucks provided about $US2.9 million to help ASU hire additional staff and invest in necessary infrastructure, of which ASU will repay close to $1.3 million by June 2015. In addition, ASU will offer Starbucks employees tuition discounts.

Eligible for the program are part-time and full-time employees who work at any company-operated store under the Starbucks umbrella, which includes brands such as Teavana and Seattle’s Best Coffee. Those taking courses at the freshmen and sophomore levels will receive no reimbursements from Starbucks, but will receive about $6,500 in assistance from ASU as well as guidance in applying for federal aid. Those with prior college credits admitted as juniors and seniors will receive 58 percent tuition reimbursement from Starbucks, as well as tuition discounts from ASU and applicable federal aid. Employees who receive tuition reimbursement have no obligation to stay with the company post-graduation.

How will the partnership affect ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business? In a Starbucks survey of its workforce, about 70 percent of employees report an interest in studying business. That indicates a need for the Carey School to hire new faculty and expand its lineup of online courses, says Amy Hillman, dean of the Carey School. This fall, with Starbucks employees in mind, the school introduced an online bachelor of arts in business degree with a concentration in retail management.

The school also will introduce online versions of other undergraduate programs, including concentrations in global logistics, global leadership, and sustainability.

Employees must take 21 credits, which they can pay for with short-term loans, before receiving reimbursements. This requirement is designed to motivate students to commit to and complete the program, says ASU president Michael Crow. Students also will have access to coaches, counselors, networking opportunities, and adaptive learning services that allow them to progress at their own pace. Between reimbursements, discounts, and financial aid, students should graduate with no student loan debt.

To read more about the plan, visit