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Robert Mendenhall of Utah's Western Governors University runs an online curriculum that works with industry to give students credit for the skills they already have and allow them to complete their education faster than traditional universities.

Time in the classroom accumulating credit hours does not matter as much as the knowledge that students acquire.

That's how Robert Mendenhall has fashioned his online institution, Western Governors University based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The catchphrase he uses is competency-based education, which allows students to earn their degrees by demonstrating a mastery of the subject matter rather than spending time in a classroom.

The university caters to adults who are holding jobs at the same time, but the concepts it has adopted could be relevant to any university-age student.

Dr. Mendenhall explained that WGU was created to be more responsive to an employer's needs. It has program councils, for example, composed of industry and university officials to define competencies required for each degree.

For students, that makes a degree even more relevant. They are assigned mentors, who guide their learning, lead discussions and answer questions. Students pass over curriculum work they already know and spend time intensively learning new subjects. When they show competency in a particular area, they are one step closer to graduating. In fact, the average time to graduate at WGU is 36 months, as opposed to four years at a traditional university.

"Universities are steeped in tradition, and for the most part, continue to use a model that is focused on an instructor-led class," Dr. Mendenhall said. "Since students all learn in different ways and at different rates, this approach can hold some students back and leave others behind."

The new model at WGU, he said, shifts the focus. "If there's one thing we would change about traditional higher education, it would be to focus on learning rather than on time, to focus on outputs rather than on inputs, to actually measure what students know and can do rather than just how long they spend in a classroom."