The University of Maryland University College has long been at the forefront of online continuing education and job training for its mostly adult student body, so a recent proposal by UMUC President Javier Miyares to tie the school's future more closely to the private sector and adopt a learning model that lets students progress at their own pace seems like a natural evolution of the institution's history of innovation. The plan is still in the preliminary stages, with many details left to be worked out. But overall it could represent a way forward for an institution with a worldwide student body that has experienced declining enrollments, staff cuts and increased competition from for-profit schools in recent years.
Mr. Miyares, who took UMUC's helm in 2012 and developed the proposal in consultation with members of the school's board of visitors and regional business leaders, is considering the feasibility of turning the school into a quasi-public nonprofit that would be able to partner with for-profit companies, something that currently is difficult for state institutions to do because of procurement and contract rules. The University System of Maryland Board of Regents would still retain oversight responsibility, but as a nonprofit UMUC could collaborate with private software companies to create new web learning platforms that would make it more competitive with other online schools.
The so-called competency based learning model Mr. Miyares is pursing is independent of the new business model; one does not require the other in order to be successful. But it too is aimed at making UMUC more competitive. Competency based learning is something the school has been looking at for some time as part of an ongoing effort to find better instructional strategies and teaching methods that improve student outcomes. The basic idea is to break traditional course materials — say, Accounting 101 — into specific areas of competencies that students must master, then let them learn those elements at their own pace.
For example, an adult student who is already familiar with basic book-keeping from having worked as a payroll clerk could move immediately on to the next topic without waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. That would save students time and money because they wouldn't get bogged down in material they already know and because they could advance as soon as they prove they are competent, no matter how much or little time that takes.
The university plans to offer at least four pilot courses structured around competency-based learning next spring in order to test the concept. Under a new federal law, schools will be allowed to experiment with nontraditional teaching and learning strategies if they can be shown to improve student outcomes. Previously, schools couldn't conduct such experiments because they didn't meet the requirements for federal student financial aid that most adult learners depend on. If UMUC's experiment is successful, however, the school will be able to expand the program to include a broad range of other courses that until now have been tied to traditional learning models.
The changes being contemplated chart a course for UMUC's future aimed at making the school competitive on a national level that can also turn out the highly educated workers Maryland needs in order to prosper in the 21st-century global marketplace. UMUC helped pioneer the concept of online learning, and with an enrollment of some 97,000 students worldwide at its peak in 2012, it remains one of the largest such institutions in the world.
But it can't rest on its laurels or expect to maintain its preeminent role forever if it doesn't learn to adapt to changing conditions and take advantage of the opportunities they offer. President Miyares seems to understand that, and school officials have the right idea when they say UMUC must continue to grow if it wants to survive. The changes the school is contemplating will need to be carefully considered — for example to determine exactly how much freedom from the rules that govern other state universities is appropriate and what courses or disciplines lend themselves to competency-based learning. More input from UMUC's faculty, students and other stakeholders is clearly needed. But the school's efforts to become a more nimble competitor and to improve its quality of instruction are steps in the right direction that deserve further exploration.