Ray Henderson captured the changing trend of the past two EDUCAUSE conferences quite well.
The #Edu14 drinking game: sure inebriation in 13 from vendor claims of "mooc" "cloud" or "disrupting edu". In 2014: "competency based."
— Ray Henderson (@readmeray) October 3, 2014
The #Edu14 drinking game: sure inebriation in 13 from vendor claims of “mooc” “cloud” or “disrupting edu”. In 2014: “competency based.”
Two years ago, the best-known competency-based education (CBE) initiatives were at Western Governors University (WGU), Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America (CfA), and SUNY’s Excelsior College. In an article this past summer describing the US Department of Education’s focus on CBE, Paul Fain noted [emphasis added]:
The U.S. Department of Education will give its blessing — and grant federal aid eligibility — to colleges’ experimentation with competency-based education and prior learning assessment.
On Tuesday the department announced a new round of its “experimental sites” initiative, which waives certain rules for federal aid programs so institutions can test new approaches without losing their aid eligibility. Many colleges may ramp up their experiments with competency-based programs — and sources said more than 350 institutions currently offer or are seeking to create such degree tracks.
One issue I’ve noticed, however, is that many schools are looking to duplicate the solution of CBE without understanding the the problems and context that allowed WGU, CfA and Excelsior to thrive. By looking at the three main CBE initiatives, it is important to note at least three lessons that are significant factors in their success to date, and these lessons are readily available but perhaps not well-understood.
Lesson 1: CBE as means to address specific student population
None of the main CBE programs were designed to target a general student population or to offer just another modality. In all three cases, their first consideration was how to provide education to working adults looking to finish a degree, change a career, or advance a career.
As described by WGU’s website:
Western Governors University is specifically designed to help adult learners like you fit college into your already busy lives. Returning to college is a challenge. Yet, tens of thousands of working adults are doing it. There’s no reason you can’t be one of them.
As described by College for America’s website:
We are a nonprofit college that partners with employers nationwide to make a college degree possible for their employees. We help employers develop their workforce by offering frontline workers a competency-based degree program built on project-based learning that is uniquely applicable in the workplace, flexibly scheduled to fit in busy lives, and extraordinarily affordable.
As described by Excelsior’s website:
Excelsior’s famously-flexible online degree programs are created for working adults.
SNHU’s ubiquitous president Paul Leblanc described the challenge of not understanding the target for CBE at last year’s WCET conference (from my conference notes):
One of the things that muddies our own internal debates and policy maker debates is that we say things about higher education as if it’s monolithic. We say that ‘competency-based education is going to ruin the experience of 18-year-olds’. Well, that’s a different higher ed than the people we serve in College for America. There are multiple types of higher ed with different missions.
The one CfA is interested in is the world of working adults – this represent the majority of college students today. Working adults need credentials that are useful in the workplace, they need low cost, they need me short completion time, and they need convenience. Education has to compete with work and family requirements.
CfA targets the bottom 10% of wage earners in large companies – these are the people not earning sustainable wages. They need stability and advancement opportunities.
CfA has two primary customers – the students and the employers who want to develop their people. In fact, CfA does not have a retail offering, and they directly work with employers to help employees get their degrees.
Lesson 2: Separate organizations to run CBE
In all three cases the use of CBE to serve working adults necessitated entirely new organizations that were designed to provide the proper support and structure based on this model.
WGU was conceived as a separate non-profit organization in 1995 and incorporated in 1997 specifically to design and enable the new programs. College for America was spun out of SNHU in 2012. Excelsior College started 40 years ago as Regents College, focused on both mastery and competency-based programs. The CBE nursing program was founded in 1975.
CBE has some unique characteristics that do not fit well within traditional educational organizations. From a CBE primer I wrote in 2012 and updated in 2013:
I would add that the integration of self-paced programs not tied to credit hours into existing higher education models presents an enormous challenge. Colleges and universities have built up large bureaucracies – expensive administrative systems, complex business processes, large departments – to address financial aid and accreditation compliance, all based on fixed academic terms and credit hours. Registration systems, and even state funding models, are tied to the fixed semester, quarter or academic year – largely defined by numbers of credit hours.
It is not an easy task to allow transfer credits coming from a self-paced program, especially if a student is taking both CBE courses and credit-hour courses at the same time. The systems and processes often cannot handle this dichotomy.
Beyond the self-paced student-centered scheduling issues, there are also different mentoring roles required to support students, and these roles are not typically understood or available at traditional institutions. Consider the mentoring roles at WGU as described in EvoLLLutions:
Faculty mentors (each of whom have at least a master’s degree) are assigned a student caseload and their full-time role is to provide student support. They may use a variety of communication methods that, depending on student preferences,include calling — but also Skype, email and even snail mail for encouraging notes.
Course mentors are the second type of WGU mentor. These full-time faculty members hold their Ph.D. and serve as content experts. They are also assigned a student caseload. Responsibilities of course mentors include creating a social community among students currently enrolled in their courses and teaching webinars focused specifically on competencies students typically find difficult. Finally, they support students one-on-one based on requests from the student or referral from the student’s faculty mentor.
Lesson 3: Competency is not the same as mastery
John Ebersole, the president of Excelsior College, called out the distinction between competency and mastery in an essay this summer at Inside Higher Ed.
On close examination, one might ask if competency-based education (or CBE) programs are really about “competency,” or are they concerned with something else? Perhaps what is being measured is more closely akin to subject matter “mastery.” The latter can be determined in a relatively straightforward manner, using various forms of examinations, projects and other forms of assessment.
However, an understanding of theories, concepts and terms tells us little about an individual’s ability to apply any of these in practice, let alone doing so with the skill and proficiency which would be associated with competence.
Deeming someone competent, in a professional sense, is a task that few competency-based education programs address. While doing an excellent job, in many instances, of determining mastery of a body of knowledge, most fall short in the assessment of true competence.
Ebersole goes on to describe the need for true competency measuring, and his observation that I share about programs confusing the two concepts..
A focus on learning independent of time, while welcome, is not the only consideration here. We also need to be more precise in our terminology. The appropriateness of the word competency is questioned when there is no assessment of the use of the learning achieved through a CBE program. Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire, and Excelsior offer programs that do assess true competency.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the newly created CBE programs do not. This conflation of terms needs to be addressed if employers are to see value in what is being sold. A determination of “competency” that does not include an assessment of one’s ability to apply theories and concepts cannot be considered a “competency-based” program.
Whither the Bandwagon
I don’t think that the potential of CBE is limited only to the existing models nor do I think WGU, CfA, and Excelsior are automatically the best initiatives. But an aphorism variously attributed to Pablo Picasso, Dalai Lama XIV or bassist Jeff Berlin might provide guidance to the new programs:
Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively
How many new CBE programs are being attempted that target the same student population as the parent institutions? How many new CBE programs are being attempted in the same organization structure? And how many new CBE programs are actually based on testing only of masteries and not competencies?
Judging by media reports and observations at EDUCAUSE, I think there are far too many programs attempting this new educational model of CBE as a silver bullet. They are moving beyond the model and lessons from WGU, College for America and Excelsior without first understanding why those initiatives have been successful. I don’t intend to name names here but just to note that the 350 new programs cited in Paul Fain’s article would do well to ground themselves in a solid foundation that understands and builds off of successful models.