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A Mobile-First Approach to Competency-Based Education

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley recently launched a new competency-based Biomedical Sciences degree program delivered via iPad.

Although competency-based education is not a new concept, the University of Texas System (UTS) is taking it to a new level with its recently launched "TEx," a mobile-first application designed by UTS's Institute for Transformational Learning (ITL) to boost student engagement and retention.

The Institute for Transformational Learning began in 2012, in response to the growing popularity of MOOCs. "We realized that MOOCs were not the only answer," said Amy Shackelford, director of strategic partnerships for ITL. "We asked ourselves how else we could be innovative? How do we serve the students? And, especially, how do we help more of them to be successful? We felt we could help make big improvements in that area."

With a mandate to drive student success and access through the innovative use of technology, ITL launched its first all-digital degree program at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV). The competency-based Biomedical Sciences degree program uses the TEx – Total Educational Experience – platform to give students anytime, anywhere access to personalized and interactive educational content, as well as real-time support from faculty and personal coaches. Students progress through learning modules and units, building their knowledge and skills step-by-step, at a pace they can manage.

"It was the right opportunity at the right time," said Shackelford. "We were looking in those areas where students struggle the most, and where there is more opportunity for careers. These students have and want a strong connection with industry. They want to connect with the world of work or, in this case, with the medical profession."

Designed for Mobility and Flexibility

A key component of the TEx platform is flexibility. Courses are delivered in a hybrid format — a combination of online, classroom, laboratory or clinical time — and all course content can be accessed via iPad. "We made the decision to use iPads because of the timing," said Shackelford. "We started working on the program in November of 2014, and launched in August of this year. We wanted mobile-first, and also offline capability. Many of our students have issues with connectivity; there are some students in areas where there is no cellular service. iPads were the way to go initially." A per-semester program fee covers the cost of the iPad and content for all courses.

TEx provides students with online support from faculty, instructional facilitators (TAs) and student success coaches, who help monitor their progress and keep them on pace to achieve their educational and career goals. Students can communicate with both classmates and faculty online anytime. The success coach is non-academic: His or her purpose is to watch the progress of the student in the course, reach out if the student is struggling, and answer questions the students may have. "It's too late when a student fails," Shackelford asserted. "That's why we have this robust system of support."

The focus on flexibility and continuous improvement extends to the TEx platform itself. "To set up the program, we brought in multiple vendors," noted Shackelford. "We created our own custom-user interface, took control of the user experience, and pulled in those parts of the technology we needed from vendors such as Salesforce and Instructure's Canvas in order to provide the experience." Next year, TEx will introduce a new version for all mobile devices, with a Web app. "This year's version of TEx is the 'crawl' version," Shackelford added, "as in 'crawl, walk, run.' TEx will always iterate and always improve. What we have now is amazing, but we'll continue to improve."

Shackelford and her associates have been watching the program's performance throughout its first semester, gathering feedback through surveys, town hall meetings and weekly updates. In addition, a 13-student advisory board provides the student perspective.

Expanding to Other Programs

There are 125 students in the first cohort of the Biomedical Sciences degree program, selected from close to 700 applicants. "Scale is a major component in our program," said Shackelford. "We had to limit the number accepted because of limitation with faculty, space on campus, etc. It was a highly selective process." While all 700 students were admitted to the university, only 175 were accepted for the mobile-based program. Due to normal attrition, that enrollment count is now at 125.

Many UT students are first generation, and low income. About 25 percent are non-native speakers. "It's a tough degree program," said Shackelford. "That's why we provide a large portion of the didactic and introductory content in Spanish. Our goal is to have the entire program available in Spanish, to help non-native speakers with the more challenging material. It also gives them an opportunity to share their work with their parents."

The cost of the TEx program currently is the same as for any other student at UTRGV. But as TEx expands to other degrees on other UT campuses, the degrees will likely be modulized and potentially priced differently than the entire degree program, said Shackelford. "It will equate with being more affordable. With high school credits from dual enrollment, prior learning experience, and because of the way in which the material is presented, the majority of students can follow an accelerated path, so that they can complete the degree program in three years."

Self-Paced Learning

When asked if self-paced learning is the future of higher ed, Shackelford responded with a resounding "Yes." She explained that students want what they want when they want it. "They're out in the working world. They have a lot of experience and knowledge. They're the type of students who can complete their education in a reasonable amount of time." The competency-based approach allows the TEx program to educate more students in fields where there is a need.

"The best recommendation I would make to other schools trying to do something similar," Shackelford concluded, "is to not expect a silver bullet solution from one vendor, because there is no product on the market right now that truly serves a competency-based model that is not time-bound. Do the research on newer, potentially smaller ed tech companies that could provide parts of a greater solution. Also, it has worked well for us to approach new models as experimental sites so that we can learn and iterate on the model, constantly improving it and growing the programs over time."

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