5 lessons for launching your first competency-based degree

Can you innovate from within your existing institution? Purdue U decided it needed a different approach for its new competency-based institute

competency-degreeAbandon all notions that you can draw from existing degree models for CBE.

So say administrators at Purdue University, which, in implementing a new competency-based education (CBE) degree program, realized that looking to the past for best practices in curriculum design, discipline requirements, and even implementation first-steps is not going to work for competencies.

When Purdue University announced in 2013 that it intended to introduce a new technology school built on the “competency” model, it joined a field with few other players. Delaware County Community College, Southern New Hampshire U, Western Governors U, Excelsior College and a handful of other institutions have pursued a similar path in developing educational programs that put the emphasis on helping their graduates master specific competencies vs. counting the number of hours they sit in classrooms.

The new Purdue Polytechnic Institute was intended to be a “bold experiment in educational transformation,” according to its founding dean, Gary Bertoline. But rather than attempting to launch the Institute from within the traditional confines of the existing university, the founders drew up plans starting with a blank sheet of paper.

Here, Fatma Mili, a Purdue associate dean and professor who proposed the institute along with Bertoline, shares five key lessons learned in their launch of the new school:

1. Put Aside Action and Dream Big

The original faculty members who made up the Purdue Polytech Research and Development team agreed to a few operating principles by which they’d approach their work. First, they would spend the initial four months delaying design of anything. That was tough for faculty “who are used to doing things, to solving problems, delivering solutions, creating artifacts,” recalled Mili.

Second, while an early inclination was to understand what limitations the team had to adhere to in the development of curriculum, they were virtually ordered to “forget about constraints” and just to dream about what they “would like to do.”

Instead of doing, those early participants spent that time talking. All they really knew was that they needed to design a curriculum that would help students prepare for jobs–without knowing what those jobs would be. Having liberal arts faculty on the team mixing with the engineering faculty helped, Mili reported. “They were much more comfortable with the process than we were. Many of the things we wanted to do that sounded revolutionary for us, they would say, ‘Yes, that’s how we teach.'”

Competency Advice: In creating an innovative program, rather than trying to transform an existing degree and convince the faculty who own it to drastically change it, Mili recommended creating a new independent pilot with people “willing to take risks” and create something new. “We started out with 15–and I say this fondly–of the most interesting people around. I have enjoyed every single moment of working with these faculty.”

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