Fast learners can now be fast graduates at Broward College.
That's the idea behind a new program changing the way students earn degrees. No longer must you sit in a class, or even log on to your computer, for a full semester to get college credit. If you already know some of the material being taught, or can learn it quickly, you can finish a class in a few weeks, rather than the typical four-month semester.
The approach, known as competency-based learning, could cut in half the time it takes some students to earn a two-year degree, said Roy Pocknee, dean of academic affairs at Broward College.
The college is piloting the program this semester for 50 students seeking an associate's of science degree in information technology. A similar approach is being used to help students deficient in math skills, and officials are considering expanding it to more students.
"If it's successful, there's no reason why it couldn't be an alternative for students," said Pocknee. "I don't think it's going to replace the traditional classroom, but it will be an option for students."
Few other colleges and universities now offer competency-based courses, but they may soon follow. The U.S. Department of Education recently began encouraging colleges and universities to offer these types of classes. The University of Florida's newly formed UF Online plans to conduct research on whether it is a good practice, spokesman Chris Moran said.
Each class in Broward College's fully online IT program has a syllabus divided into modules, or sections. As soon as students master one section, they can move on to the next, whether that takes them a few minutes or a couple of weeks. Students can use prior knowledge to test out of a section.
The college is targeting students who previously have been in the workforce.
"There may be people who have lost jobs or served in the military that already have skills," Pocknee said. "Instead of sitting in a classroom for 16 weeks, they can say, 'I know how to do that already.'"
The approach isn't limited to job training classes. Students in the IT program take all of their classes this way, including English, math, speech and ethics.
Jada Spicer, 23, of Miami Gardens, earned an associate of arts degree at Miami Dade College but decided to enroll in the program so she could get IT training. She said what's most appealing is she doesn't have to pass assignments on the first try.
"On one of my assignments I got a 61 on my first attempt, but on my second attempt I realized all the mistakes I made and received a 90," she said.
Spicer said the semester isn't half-over yet, but she's almost finished with a Microsoft Excel class, one of four she's taking this semester. She then plans to immediately move on to another class before the semester is over.
The model is based on one pioneered by the Salt Lake City-based Western Governors Association, a non-profit college founded by the governors of 19 states in the western United States.
Although few Florida colleges use competency-based learning, many allow students to skip required classes entirely by passing tests or compiling portfolios from their work or life experience.
Broward College used a $3.2 million U.S. Labor Department grant to develop the program. The online material is prepared by Broward College faculty, who interact with students through email, phone and user groups.
Nova Southeastern University in Davie, which has long experimented with non-traditional forms of learning, hasn't adopted the model yet, but likely will consider it in the future, said Ralph Rogers, the school's provost and executive vice president.
"I think for some students, it's going to be very valuable; those who have the self-discipline to work at their own pace," he said.
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