You earn your degree through demonstration of skills and knowledge in required subject areas through a series of carefully designed assessments. You’ll take tests; write papers and complete assignments. But rather than focus on seat time or credit hours, we make sure you graduate as a highly competent professional.
Our unique approach offers you many advantages:
Properly selected and well-defined competencies are the foundation of a competency-based degree program. Competencies are the knowledge and skills a student must be able to demonstrate to pass a course, and ultimately, to earn a degree. At UNC, they are identified in collaboration with program councils, which include representatives from employers and other universities. By working with industry leaders to define competencies, UNC ensures that students acquire the skills they need to be prepared for their careers. Once competencies have been established, program councils continue to meet regularly to review them, ensuring that they stay relevant and up-to-date.
UNC faculty members develop courses that map to the competencies identified by program councils. With CBE at UNC, there are no instructor-led classes. Course titles and content are much the same as those found in traditional settings, but all of the materials, which UNC calls learning resources, are available to students online 24/7. And, all of the course materials are designed and selected to help students develop required competencies.
For each course at UNC, students use course materials and other study materials designed to ensure that they acquire the knowledge and skills they need to demonstrate competence. In addition to textbooks (most provided as e-books at no additional charge), students have access to practice tests, interactive exercises, simulations, and videos. UNC provides a variety of different learning resources to accommodate the different learning styles and preferences of students. Rather than creating learning resources, UNC acquires them from the best external sources, ensuring that they are up-to-date and relevant.
Because competency-based learning is based on demonstrating knowledge, high-quality, accurate assessments are vital. Using the competencies identified for each course, UNC faculty members develop assessments—either objective exams or performance assessments (papers, presentations, case studies, etc.). Objective assessments, which are multiple choice, true/false, etc., are always proctored and can be taken from home using online proctoring. Many assessments are created by third parties as well.
Competency-based learning changes the role of faculty from that of a “sage on a stage” to one of a “guide on the side.” Courses don't require set meeting times, and the majority of UNC faculty members, called Mentors, work with students one-on-one to guide, coach, and instruct. Their sole focus is on helping students learn and progress. Student Mentors, who hold master’s degrees and have relevant work experience, work with students individually from enrollment through graduation, helping them plan their studies and offering ongoing encouragement and motivational support. Course Mentors, who typically hold PhDs in their fields, are the “professors” for each course, working with students while they are engaged in particular courses, leading discussion groups and as well as providing individualized instruction as needed.
Other UNC faculty members, Program Managers and Curriculum Developers, are responsible for developing new programs, courses, and curriculum as well as ensuring that existing programs are relevant and up to date. They collaborate with Program Councils as well as Mentors to ensure that degree programs are helping students acquire the competencies they need to succeed in their fields.
A separate group of Evaluators, all with master’s degrees or PhDs in their respective disciplines, review and evaluate performance assessments—the papers and presentations students submit to demonstrate competency in some courses. Evaluators and students submitting assessments are anonymous to each other, which maximizes the objectivity of the evaluations.
Because competency-based education allows students to learn at their own pace and on their own schedules, students can enroll at UNC on the first day of any month. Terms are six months long to accommodate the needs of busy adult students. Longer terms allow students the flexibility to take a few weeks away from studies as needed to take care of issues related to family, health, or job obligations.
On the first day of the term, the student and his or her Student Mentor work together to plan the coursework for the term. Together they will develop a Degree Plan, which maps out a schedule for completing courses, by the term, all the way to graduation. The Degree Plan, course materials, and other needed study tools all reside online on the Student Portal. Students who are able to complete courses faster are free to go faster than their original Degree Plan, and this allows many students to accelerate their time to degree and graduate sooner.
Once the student has established a Degree Plan, she can begin her coursework immediately. The learning resources, including e-texts, are available online 24/7. For many courses, students have the opportunity to take a pre-assessment, an exam that determines what they already know and identifies competencies they still need to master. Students who do well on their pre-assessments often elect to take the final assessment for the course quickly. If they pass (they need to earn the equivalent of a B grade or better to pass), they have completed the course and can move on to the next course. If the pre-assessment identifies areas students still need to learn, the student can focus her studies on those specific areas rather than spending time studying material she has already mastered. When the student and her Mentor agree that she is ready, she can take the assessment, and when she passes, she is ready to move on to the next course. If the course requires a paper, case study, or presentation, the student submits them for evaluation and receives feedback through the Portal.
Note: At UNC, all objective assessments are proctored, most using online, remote proctors.
Competency-based education, while rigorous and challenging, does not mean that students “go it alone.” Each student has individual support from their Student Mentor, meeting by telephone weekly, and emailing and communicating as often as needed. For each course, the student will connect with a Course Mentor, as well as other students taking the course. Course Mentors help students work through course subject matter as well as providing online discussions aimed at enriching the learning experience.
UNC hosts communities for students to provide an online gathering place for them to discuss course topics, ask questions, and offer each other advice and support. These communities are hosted and monitored by faculty members.
CBE allows students to take or turn in assessments on a schedule that works for them, and as a result, students complete courses at UNC—and graduate—every day. While all students may attend commencement in person (or online), graduates receive their diplomas as soon as they complete their degree requirements, regardless of the date.
Competency-based education is gaining widespread acceptance and positive recognition from the White House, Congress, many states, and throughout the higher education community. CBE programs have been featured in the recent “Ready to Work” report prepared by Vice President Biden and in President Obama’s plan and fact sheet for higher education as a potential solution to higher education’s rising costs. With bipartisan support, the U.S. House of Representatives also recently unanimously passed H.R. 3136, the Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act of 2014, which will allow colleges and universities to experiment with competency-based learning models.
Employers are increasingly seeing the benefits of competency-based education because it assures them that the graduates they hire have mastered the knowledge and skills they need. And, more and more colleges and universities are developing their own competency-based programs. While most are online, competency-based learning can take place on campuses, in person, as well. As the U.S. continues to look for ways to grow and sustain a well-trained and educated workforce, we need to continue to expand the options for earning a college degree. Competency-based education, with its focus on measuring and ensuring learning, is an innovation that works for the 21st century.