Competency-based learning catching on at Washington state community colleges

Innovation can occur in many areas of education, said keynote speaker Frans Johansson.

They are known as two-year colleges, but soon some of their students likely will receive degrees without regard to how much time was spent earning them.

Taking a page from a popular online university, some of Washington’s community colleges plan next year to let students earn a degree at their own pace and get credit for what they already know.

The all-online degrees will be available to students at a growing number of schools, including Pierce College, with Tacoma Community College expected to join the list. At first, the new kind of degree will go only to students earning associate degrees in business that prepare them for transfer to a four-year business school.

But the trend toward what is called “competency-based” education looks likely to spread to more programs and degrees, as two-year schools try to appeal to older students working around careers and busy schedules.

“There’s no turning back for us now. I mean, the students want it,” Bellevue College instructor Suzanne Marks said.

Marks teaches students working to be certified on computer software including Microsoft Excel.

Bellevue is one of four Washington schools that have been using competency to award such professional credentials earned by taking a single course. They are using money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and training from Western Governors University — the nonprofit school on the forefront of the move toward measuring competency.

Students get credit for prior learning. “For example,” Marks said, “in an Excel class, why should you start re-learning how to type data into an Excel spreadsheet in a cell, when you probably already know how to do that?”

Enrollment has exceeded expectations, she said.

Now schools are expected to apply the same techniques to an entire degree program. To pass each class on the way to a business transfer degree, students will have to master at least 80 percent of what they are supposed to know. The only grades possible will be A, B or incomplete.

The community college system plans to spend an estimated $1.4 million in start-up costs to get ready for the new program, starting in January.

In the long run, it might seem like the online classes would save the colleges money. They don’t require classrooms, for example. But college officials caution that competency-based courses do require instructors to individually assess each student’s performance, and advisers to guide students through the process.

A union official says those ongoing costs are coming at a time when colleges have yet to reverse budget cuts.

Karen Strickland, president of the Washington chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the money could be spent to hold on to existing students, by, for example, restoring counselor jobs.

But the college system says it’s trying an innovative approach to break barriers of time and distance for working adults who might not be able to show up in a classroom at a set time every week.

“I think it gives access to students who otherwise wouldn’t attend at all,” said Marty Brown, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

“Would that they would put this kind of energy into getting kids that are graduating from high school but never make it to the doors of college,” Strickland counters.

(Next page: How Western Governors University is the model)

The community colleges are learning from WGU, a Utah nonprofit whose enrollment in Washington has soared more than fivefold since an endorsement from the state Legislature in 2011 allowed it to advertise as an in-state school. Now its students are eligible for state financial aid, too.

The community college system took note as its own graduates transferred to WGU in increasing numbers, exceeding transfers to all other private schools and some of the state’s public universities.

The colleges are not adopting the WGU model wholesale. WGU has an unusual division of labor among faculty that separates teaching from the design of curriculum and both of those from the design and analysis of tests. Much of the work of creating lessons and tests is outsourced.

The community college system considered but decided against separating responsibilities among faculty. But putting together the curriculum will involve some contracting, while also using the community college system’s online library that is open to the public.

“We’re going to use open resources. Students won’t have textbook costs, and the content will be freely available to others to use,” said Connie Broughton, who is heading up the project at the community-college system.

Avoiding textbook costs saves students $800 to $1,200 a year, the system says.

Otherwise, students will pay full freight while they are enrolled — $2,666 for a six-month term, the equivalent of taking 15 credits for each of two quarters. Local colleges might add more fees. But students could save money by finishing faster than in two years.

To move ahead, the state board is expected to approve next month a change to tuition policy.

Spearheaded by Columbia Basin College in Pasco, eight schools have committed to offering the new program, including Pierce, Olympic, Centralia and Bellevue colleges and North Seattle, South Seattle and Shoreline community colleges.

Pierce College also is looking at adding competency-based certifications targeting veterans moving into the civilian workforce.

Those future programs might help a medic use what he knows to become a nurse or a military investigator become a police officer, said Debra Gilchrist, vice president for learning and student success at Pierce College Fort Steilacoom.

“We think it’s also a perfect environment for those soldiers and airmen … to take those skills and really put them to work,” Gilchrist said.

Copyright the News-Tribune. Distributed by MCT Information Services. 

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