Dr. Michelle R. Weise is a Senior Research Fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute specializing in disruptive innovation in higher education. She co-authored a book with Clayton M. Christensen about how online competency-based education will revolutionize the workforce and disrupt higher education titled, Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution. Michelle’s commentaries and research have been featured in a number of publications such as The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Boston Globe, Inside HigherEd, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and USA Today. Prior to joining the Institute, Michelle served as the Vice President of Academic Affairs for Fidelis Education. She has also held instructional positions, serving as a professor at Skidmore College as well as an instructor at Stanford University. Michelle is a former Fulbright Scholar and graduate of Harvard and Stanford.Michelle Weise - Clayton Christensen Institute

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Q1. You recently co-authored a paper with Clayton Christensen, Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution that considered the potential of competency-based higher education. What is the key take-away of the paper? 

Our publication highlights online competency-based education (CBE) aligned to labor market needs as an early-stage threat that will strengthen over the years to become a significant workforce solution. These learning providers are hitting the mark by combining the right learning model, the right technologies, the right customers, and the right business model. There is a flexible architecture to competencies, which enables providers to stack together modules of learning easily and cost-effectively for a wide variety of industries and specializations. Although most of the innovation in CBE is currently occurring in traditional degree programs, online CBE is almost more powerful in the way that it can be used to build pathways that do not necessarily end in degrees.

Q2. The concept of “lifelong learning” has been around for at least a couple of decades. It underscores the idea that people need to continually recreate their professional lives through education. Setting aside the impact of an aging population in Western nations on the average age of learners, are we seeing a significant growth in demand for adult, lifelong learning? 

Yes, the four years of college at the front-end of a lifetime are simply no longer a guarantee for career. Particularly with rapid advancements in technologies, more and more working adults are seeing the need to skill up—simply to maintain their current jobs. McKinsey has this incredible statistic: between September 2009 and June 2012—in less than three years—the number of skillsets needed in the workforce increased from 178 to 924. We can only imagine how that number will increase with time. As a result, we’ll need more flexible and relevant lifelong learning mechanisms to help us move forward, re-tool, and advance our careers.

Q3. I’ve argued elsewhere that the growth of competency-based education will lead, in turn, to a greater lever of attention on measuring learning, for the simple reason that in order to facilitate students moving at different speeds through their programs, we need more accurate and frequent measures of mastery. What will it take for a critical mass of institutions to get to the point that they can offer this level of assessment? 

First off, it’s important to underscore that these online CBE programs that seek to facilitate a whole new value network for employers and students are not competing head-on with schools that deliver the traditional 18- to 22-year-old residential college experience. These pathways are and need to be driven by demand—not by accreditors or institutions. And this is what is truly disruptive: Because the employer truly is the ultimate consumer of the graduates in training, employers are really the main stakeholders that need to be persuaded. Many of these online CBE programs are therefore building unique distribution channels by partnering directly with employers and trying to skill up an existing workforce for the opportunities at hand. Employers are able to observe firsthand whether the quality of work or outputs of their employees are markedly different with these new programs in place.

Q4. To what extent do employers and educational institutions see the problem of employability differently? How will these differing perspectives impact the growth of CBE? 

Skeptics of CBE worry that employers will somehow end up dictating the requirements for student learning. In academia, there’s an intense territoriality over student learning as well as an undeniable scorn for vocational training. But those who disparage vocational training tend to get caught up in its connotations of career education, corporate training, and utility. Vocational training, however, doesn’t necessarily preclude the liberal arts or notions of effective citizenship, well roundedness, or artistry. In fact, as early as 1915, John Dewey argued “nothing could be more absurd than to try to educate individuals with an eye to only one line of activity.” Rather, these new competencies embody what Dewey called “a continuous activity having a purpose” with “an end in view.”

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Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value.