Jul 17, 201808:00 AMInside Wisconsin
with Tom Still
Competency-based education can help close Wisconsin’s workforce gap
(page 1 of 2)
You know you’ve entered a different kind of campus when a roadway sign at Nicolet Technical College warns motorists of an approaching crossway for both people and bears.
Bears aren’t signing up for classes at Nicolet, which is spread over a heavily forested site in north-central Wisconsin, but roughly 2,000 students are enrolled there and thousands more people attend events or courses during a typical year.
Part of what draws them to Nicolet is a flexible approach to learning and training that helps students along their diverse career paths while recognizing that employers need to know they’re hiring workers who understand the basics of their trade.
Nicolet is on the way to a broader adoption of “competency-based education,” an approach that awards college credit based on competency versus classroom time. It is a system that values demonstrated knowledge, skills, and abilities over “seat time,” and which allows for learning to take place online, in hands-on settings, or in the classroom at starting times outside a traditional semester structure.
Not only is competency-based education taking root at Nicolet, which began phasing in specific programs in January, but in other colleges and universities in Wisconsin.
“In our district, we have to find a way to upscale existing employees … and we have to find a way to do it without them feeling they need to leave their jobs to do so,” Nicolet President Richard Nelson told a July 10 meeting of the Wisconsin Technology Council.
Nelson noted the standard credit-hour approach to higher education was born of an early 20th century Carnegie Foundation movement to better track how professors were compensated. The so-called “Carnegie Unit” wasn’t driven by what educational methods worked best for students, but how to bring order to pay and retirement calculations.
Today, the needs of students and employers alike often call for learning and certification paths that recognize the balancing act of work, family, and education. At Nicolet, for example, competency-based education appears to be the right path for students engaged in trades such as automotive technology, welding, and culinary arts. It could spread to about 60% of the campus in time.
One returning student who benefited from Nicolet’s flexible approach to learning was Nancy Brekke-Jones of Rhinelander, who finished among the top 12 finalists in this year’s Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.