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Business students at one for-profit college soon will have a new way to earn credits: by playing computer games.

Rasmussen College in Bloomington announced Thursday that beginning in July it will offer game-based courses — with no instructors — as part of its associate degree in business management.

And officials say the new option — known as Flex Choice — will do more than inject some fun into a sober subject. It could also save students as much as $14,000 in tuition — almost half the cost of the associate degree.

As part of the program, Rasmussen hired a gaming company, GarageGames, to help design several online business courses.

In some cases, students will play a series of simulation games to show how well they’ve mastered the course material, such as using PowerPoint or handling customer complaints. If they ace the games, they get credit for the course.

“We know that games are fun,” said Matthew Petz, vice president of academic affairs at Rasmussen. But research also suggests that they’re also a good way to motivate students and help them learn. “This is an innovative way to deliver the material.”

The move is part of a controversial trend, known as “competency-based education,” which focuses less on teaching and more on measuring “outcomes” — what, precisely, the students have learned.

The idea, said Petz, is to allow students to “show what they know,” and in some cases, complete their degrees more quickly.

But the gaming technology adds a new twist.

In one course, Customer Loyalty and Retention, students will play a computer game to test their ability to handle customer complaints. Faced with an unhappy caller, for example, they’re asked to choose from a list of possible responses: “We don’t do that, ma’am, we are a mega-corporation … ” or “I assure you we wouldn’t try to trick you” or “I understand it can be confusing. … ”

Depending on the answers, the game rates their performance and gives feedback, said Timothy Loatman, who directs technology-based education services for Rasmussen.

“Mastering the game is certainly a way to prove and hone the skills,” he said.

The Rasmussen plan, though, is likely to meet some skepticism, in part because it eliminates the role of teachers from some of the courses. Instead of teachers, students will be assigned “academic coaches” who are not experts in the subject matter, according to Petz, but can help support them in their independent study.

David Weerts, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Minnesota, said that gaming technology can be useful for teaching some skills. But he said he was wary of “this kind of robotized new system.” The risk, he said, is jumping into such a program without “proof of concept that people are gaining something from this.”

Nancy Black, an anthropology professor at Metro State University, was even more dubious. “It seems quite superficial,” said Black, who is president of a faculty union at the Minnesota state universities. “Where is the teaching in this?” She also questioned how a computer game could evaluate a student’s judgment skills, especially “with no faculty whatsoever.”

Rasmussen officials point out that students will have to take some “faculty-led” classes in order to earn their degree. They also say they tested the concept in pilot projects with 250 students, and that starting in July, it will be offered as an option in one program, the Associate Degree in Business Management.

But Petz says the timing is right for this innovation. “It really does cut time and money off a student’s program,” he said. “We want to make sure that we build in those job-based skills that employers want, students want, and we’ve got to do it in a way that students can afford.”

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384