Massive survey highlights the elements of, and challenges experienced by, competency-based education in hundreds of institutions.
According to a new national survey of over 170 diverse institutions across the U.S., nothing is more important to a competency-based education (CBE) program than designing “measurable and meaningful assessments.” And nothing presents more of a challenge to these programs than needing data systems that are automated and compatible with one another.
These are just two findings from a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation-funded, and Public Agenda produced, report on what competency-based education programs look like across the country. The survey, which was completed by 179 individuals part of CBE programs in higher education during July and August 2015, gathered baseline data from CBE programs on CBE programs, gauged program levels of adoption of various CBE practices and design elements, and measured how important those elements and practices are to individual programs and how difficult they are to implement.
According to Public Agenda, it is the “largest-scale survey ever conducted on the state of practice of competency-based education in higher education in the U.S.”
“The emerging design elements and practices we’ve identified offer promising approaches to help CBE programs develop healthy, scalable CBE models,” said Alison Kadlec, senior vice president and director of Higher Education and Workforce Programs, Public Agenda, in a statement. “These findings are guideposts for institutions, policymakers, foundations and students about key features needed for successful and robust CBE programs.”
Survey respondents were asked a series of questions on their opinions about, and use of, the Shared Design Elements part of the Competency-Based Education Network’s website, which include 10 broad and diverse elements that should be part of any effective CBE program. Each design element (e.g. that the program uses “clear, cross-cutting and specialized competencies”) contains a catalog of ways CBE programs carry out that element.
(Next page: The report’s snapshot of higher ed competency-based education programs)
According to those surveyed, there was nearly universal agreement on four of the design elements for CBE programs: using clear, cross-cutting and specialized competencies; having measurable and meaningful assessments; creating proficient and prepared graduates; and being learner-centered.
The least agreed upon element was that the program have “flexible staffing roles & structures,” with only 67 percent of respondents agreeing that this design element was critical to an effective program.
The most single agreed-upon practice was in the “measurable and meaningful assessments” design element, with 94 percent of the respondents saying that a corresponding emerging practice (“assessments allow for learners to receive substantive, meaningful feedback that refines the learners’ competence”) was very important. The second most agreed upon practice (90 percent) was that CBE programs must be “equally accessible to anyone admitted to the program, regardless of race, income, or ability status.”
Yet, though many CBE program representatives saw practices related to “measurable and meaningful assessments” as very important, these practices are not uniformly fully adopted, notes the report. For example, although ensuring that “assessments allow for learners to receive substantive, meaningful feedback…” was deemed very important, only 69 percent had fully adopted such practices in their programs.
“This might indicate the difficulty of creating measurable and meaningful assessments, rather than a drop in perceived importance once a program is out of the starting phase,” says the report. “What we do see as elements and practices that have been fully adopted are those at the core of CBE, such as ensuring that ‘the credential awarded to learners is based on an appropriate level of mastery of selected competencies.’ Almost 9 out of 10 (87 percent) CBE program representatives report that their programs have fully adopted this practice, placing it at the top of the list of fully adopted practices.”
Following closely behind was making sure that the “program competencies are aligned to relevant industry and/or professional standards” (82 percent).
Barriers experienced in competency-based education programs
According to the report, the barrier most experienced was the need for “data systems [that] are automated and compatible with one another, eliminating unnecessary frustrations for faculty, staff, and learners” (39 percent).
Other major barriers encountered by many had to do with financial models. “When designing pricing models, financial aid requirements are prioritized so that learners can access these financial resources” was a more frequently experienced barrier for 23 percent of the respondents.
When examining “extremely challenging” areas, 35 percent of respondents noted that “learners enjoy dealing with the institution because of the sophisticated integration of technology into its business processes and systems” was a challenge. Also extremely challenging to 34 percent of the respondents was to ensure that “external stakeholders have a high degree of confidence that someone with the earned credential is ready for the next stage of education, work, and/or life.”
Other extremely challenging program factors were related to finances and assessments.
“These barriers are not necessarily surprising,” added Laurie Dodge, co-chair of the C-BEN Steering Committee and vice provost at Brandman University, in a statement. “They are rooted in the lack of technical solutions. When an institution seeks to eliminate the credit hour, all systems must change—from faculty structure to financial models and awarding student aid. Until solutions are more common, these barriers will continue to present challenges to institutions adopting CBE models.”
This report from Public Agenda is part of multi-pronged effort to better understand and support competency-based education programs in higher education. In fact, the organization just released a companion report, “The Competency-Based Education Ecosystem Framework,” summarizing and defining core relationships and activities—which it calls organizing frames—from the perspectives of learners and higher education professionals, as well as from within CBE programs.
The five organizing frames are:
1.Core People or Programs who administer or participate in CBE programs;
Settings or places where CBE is designed, delivered and demonstrated;
2.Higher Education Institutions and Communities that offer CBE programs;
3.Supporting Organizations or companies involved, but not offering or funding CBE programs; and
4.Funding and Governing Groups that set policies, fund and promote or prohibit CBE programs.
“Modern forms of CBE have emerged in higher education as viable and needed alternatives to traditional postsecondary credentialing programs where time and place are fixed,” said Stephanie Malia Krauss, lead coordinator of the Ecosystem Framework and senior fellow with the Forum for Youth Investment, in a statement. “While these frameworks provide a baseline understanding of the CBE ecosystem, we also know that these descriptions will change as the ecosystem evolves.”
For more information on the Shared Design Elements report, including methodology and data break downs by type of institution, read the full report, “A Research Brief on the Survey of the Shared Design Elements & Emerging Practices of Competency-Based Education Programs.”