The Jesuit Distance Education Network (JesuitNET), part of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, is a collaborative effort of 26 U.S. Jesuit colleges and universities to develop, share and deliver a broad range of online academic programs and services. Of these, two regionally-accredited institutions constituted the JesuitNET Distance Education Demonstration Program Consortium: Loyola University Chicago and Georgetown University. They jointly developed and delivered competency-based courses in bioethics as part of a Loyola University Chicago online master's degree program.
The JesuitNET demonstration project sought to test new methodologies and technologies to support rigorous student competency assessment and true on-demand course delivery as alternatives to the traditional contact time and standard term methods for determining aid eligibility.
The Consortium used a competency-based model for the online courses as an alternative to measuring student progress and achievement based on seat time. This model was built around an evidence-centered course design process, which identified the competencies for students to master, the evidence needed to indicate student mastery, and the instructional tasks needed to reveal the evidence. To support on-demand course delivery, course management software would continuously track, prompt, and record student progress through a course and periodically compose students into teams for assigned discussions and projects.
The Consortium began offering the master's degree in bioethics in fall 2002 for which waivers would be needed. Loyola University Chicago, the offering institution, was granted waivers of requirements for a minimum number of weeks of instruction for an academic year and an eligible program, and the definition of a week of instruction (which together comprise the 12 hour rule); and the Satisfactory Academic Progress waiver, which relieved them of the requirement to consistently apply Satisfactory Academic Progress standards to all students within categories of students.
Financial Aid Issues/Alternatives
The entirely online, competency-based Master of Arts in Bioethics degree offered by Loyola University Chicago was designated to test the financial aid eligibility and on-demand delivery aspects of the project. The demonstration project's on-demand feature was designed to provide the bioethics students with the option of completing some degree courses on a fast track (10 weeks), a regular (full-semester) track (15 weeks), or a slow track (20 weeks). Those on the fast track could "test out" of redundant course content and study more individualized topic sequences appropriate to their backgrounds. The plan was to provide a special "bridge" course for the fast track students that would run from week 12 of the fall semester to the start of the following spring semester.
During the 2003-04 academic year, Loyola Chicago was offering three online bioethics courses per semester, with average enrollments of eleven students per course section. But the program's part-time adult students had expressed little interest in completing their courses in less than the full 15-week semester. Typically, only one student per course believed that the benefits of completing a course in 10 weeks exceeded the consequent loss of continued course contact and discussions with the professor and fellow students.
In the students' minds, taking more time to complete a course is typically handled by incomplete grades. Very few students have needed "incomplete" grades and these were generally changed to an earned letter grade within two-three weeks. Hence the demand for 20-week courses was nonexistent.
Among the many challenges the project's model for on-demand delivery presents for financial aid administration are: determining living expenses, which are typically based on a set period of time; figuring out when subsequent loan disbursements can be made; determining enrollment status; and determining whether the documented achievement of competencies can be substituted for seat time as a measure of academic progress.
Additional Goals for Participation
The project sought to demonstrate the equivalence of student performance in online and face-to-face courses based on the attainment of competencies. Since fall 2002, the Consortium has offered online design workshops to over 120 faculty members to create their own competency-based courses. An evaluation was conducted of the quality of students' learning experiences in eight competency-based courses taught in fall 2003. Analyses of student learning based on course discussions, assignments and assessments provided specific evidence to justify ratings (e.g., nature of activities, use of questions, specific use of instructional strategies). Overall student learning experience scores for the eight courses were rated as high, with an aggregate mean of 4.1 (out of a possible 5).
A Middle States Commission on Higher Education report, conducted as part of their review of the demonstration project, stated that the JesuitNET competency-based model "could produce outcomes of a profoundly important nature to the growth of distance learning."
Other Relevant Information
The Association of Jesuit College and Universities received two substantial grants from the Department of Education. The Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships (LAAP) grant provided $1,049,558 over a three-year period (September 2000-August 2003) for the development of a model for competency-based assessment. A Congressional Grant provided $1,225,000 over a 39-month period (April 2001-June 2004) to explore the use of multimedia and on-demand technologies for competency-based distance learning.
Demonstration Program Cohort
The JesuitNET Consortium joined the Distance Education Demonstration Program in July 2001 as part of the second cohort.