Notes from “Becoming Competent in Competency-Based Education” keynote panel #qmconf2015

panel presenters Notes from the “Becoming Competent in Competency-Based Education: What Is It and What Is Driving This Growing Movement?”, the opening keynote presentation at the 2015 Quality Matters (QM) conference. The panel includes Laurie Dodge, chair of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), Richard Garrett, Chief Research Officer of Eduventures, and Charla Long, Lipscomb University, and is facilitated by Alison Kadlec, Public Agenda.

Interest in Competency-Based Education (CBE) is exploding. From 20 institutions with full CBE programs in September 2012, the total grew 10-fold to over 200 in September 2013. Currently (2015), Public Agenda’s field scan has found over 586 institutions. However, what CBE means and how it will impact higher ed (HE) is still up for debate.

CBE defined: CBE is focused on actual student learning, and the application of that learning, rather than time spent in class or on material. Learners’ progress is measured when they demonstrate their competence through a system of rigorous assessments, meaning they prove they have mastered the knowledge and skills required for a particular competency or area of study.

CBE is a flexible way for students to get credit for what they know, build on their knowledge and skills, by learning more at their own pace, and earn high-quality degrees, certificates, and other credentials that help them in their lives and careers. Students in these programs show what they know and how well they know it by participating in multiple ways of evaluating learning. (according to C-BEN: consortium of institutions engaged in CBE)

CBE is not viewed as a replacement for traditional higher ed, but rather as a choice or alternative model for those students for whom traditional degrees are not a good fit (particularly adult learners who have begun but not completed degrees).

CRAC (pronounced c-rac) Definition: A program will be considered to be competency-based when all of the courses (for the program, for general education, for the major) have learning goals expressed as competencies approved at the program level (i.e., any instructor teaching a course will teach it as a competency-based course) and each student is required to demonstrate of every competency in a course to earn credit…for such course. Learn more

Why CBE?

Charla Long: For Lipscomb, it was about connecting with employers. Employers say 83% of graduates of HE are not prepared for the workforce. CBE helps Lipscomb ensure they are producing graduates who are actually demonstrating the competencies needed by employers. They were able to work with employers to identify those skills, particularly in areas where their state/region has workforce deficiencies.

Laurie Dodge: Iron triangle – increase access, decrease cost, increase quality. CBE is part of a strategy to target the rising expense of cost of HE, demonstrate cost-effectiveness, and match competencies to employer needs. CBE is also able to serve students who are not met by traditional distance learning programs. Brandman University’s CBE program is 1/3 the cost of traditional programs.

Richard Garrett: Rise of CBE is reflective of the imitations of HE overall, but particularly online education. Online has been seen as the ultimate innovation in higher ed, to increase access to education, but it did not have sufficient impact on outcomes for students (such as graduation rates, etc.). Prospective students are asking more for cheaper, faster, and higher quality instead of the social elements of traditional learning (like interaction with faculty and other students).

CBE is an assessment model, contrasted with online learning which is more of a delivery model. This doesn’t allow us to neglect the student experience, however, because there is still a rich experience between beginning and achieving a competency.

If you read anything about CBE, Laurie Dodge recommends Cracking the Credit Hour by Amy Laitinen

How is it Being Done?

C-BEN: comprised of 30 institutions and 4 systems (85 campuses), member institutions at all levels, who are deeply working with CBE. C-BEN is focused on building quality CBE programs. One of the biggest challenges is the change in business-process, such as financial aid, registration, transcripts. Other area is program design. How to write competencies, how to design assessments, etc.

Not a lot of proof yet for what is the “right” way to do CBE. Every institution is creating their own model. C-BEN Landscape project reviewed institutions and models to begin to determine effectiveness. C-BEN developed a CBE Design Planner to help get started.

Note: Having 1 CBE course does not mean your institution is engaged in CBE!

Traditional courses award credit based on some belief that students have learned and demonstrated that knowledge (not actually seat time, as we like to say), but competencies and assessments are not as well defined as in CBE.

If you are preventing students from graduating based on your assessment, you had better be sure that your assessments are valid and truly measure that students have the required competency. CBE programs spend a great deal of time and effort to validate their assessments more rigorously than traditional courses.

Shared Design Elements of Quality CBE

  • Learner Centered
  • Proficient and Prepared Graduates
  • CBE components:
    • Clear, Cross-Cutting and Specialized Competencies
    • Measurable and Meaningful Assessments
    • Coherent, Competency Driven Program & Curriculum Design
  • Faculty roles:
    • Engaged Faculty and External Partners
    • Flexible Staffing Roles and Structures
  • Institutional Business Issues
    • Enabling Aligned Business Processes & Systems
    • New or Adjusted Financial Models
    • Embedded Process for Continuous Improvement

Faculty Role in CBE

Alison Kadlec: no longer does faculty subject-matter-expertise also qualify faculty as instructional designers, pedagogical experts, and curriculum designers. CBE unbundles this a bit. Faculty report that it can be hard to give up the control over areas of teaching they thought they were their right to control. CBE conversations should be about separating labor issues and faculty rights from student learning.

Charla Long: CBE allows faculty to engage with CBE according to their strengths. Those who like or are good at grading and providing feedback focus on assessments, those who like working with students become coaches, etc. Engage faculty early as you gather employers and students to begin your redesign for CBE.

Richard Garrett: CBE often looks like standardization to faculty, and there is a line between standardization for student success and uniformity. We don’t know where that line is, yet. We don’t want to take away the personalization faculty can give to their courses, but we also can’t allow faculty whim or lack of preparation in teaching to negatively impact students. Allowing faculty to specialize enhances the faculty role instead of diminishing it.

Laurie Dodge: Instead of focusing on unbundling, help faculty rebundle. It is an institution-specific decision.

C-BEN releasing a report in December on faculty roles and research on what the re-designed faculty role looks like.

Business Processes

Charla: Our institutions are entirely based on credit hour structures. The #1 barrier to adopting CBE is enabling aligned business processes. Continuous improvement is one of the most important aspects of cBE

Laurie: One piece of advice is simultaneously have faculty working on the program design while others work on business process revisions. Get the student support services together to discuss these challenges directlly. Admissions, financial aid, registrar, records, advising, learning management system, student record system, etc. Get these systems talking to each other. Develop a consistent language so that we can talk to each other.

What Does the Future Look Like?

Richard: Today’s version of CBE is the first stage on a longer journey. In the future CBE will prove to be not as powerful as we think because the focus on decreasing costs will deliver a lower quality product. However, this will begin a broader dialogue for incorporating other strategies like cohorts with CBE, and will create a richer understanding of what CBE can be and do

Laurie: This is a great time to be innovators in ed, and interest in CBE is an example of the innovations we are all looking for.

Charla: There is great promise, but the risks are real. Big issues like quality, institutional culture, and federal/state policymakers are struggles institutions have to fight. Ultimately, though, CBE has the power to really change the landscape and the students we serve.


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