A pioneer of competency-based education shares the key steps for developing a successful CBE program.
For competency-based education, it’s no longer a question of why but how. Once viewed as a Quixotic undertaking at best, CBE has shouldered its way into the mainstream, propelled by the knowledge that non-traditional students now represent a majority of the post-secondary population. While some schools are hiring vendors to help them jump onto the CBE bandwagon, others are turning for guidance to pioneering schools that have already made the leap.
One such exemplar is Brandman University, a nonprofit institution that focuses primarily on adult education. In 2014, Brandman launched its first CBE offering, known as MyPath: Bachelor of Business Administration degrees in four disciplines ranging from marketing to supply-chain management and logistics. “When we started, there wasn’t much out there on CBE,” said Gary Brahm, chancellor and CEO of Brandman University, which is part of the Chapman University System. “We spent a lot of time and effort doing research, talking to companies, and learning what we thought were the best practices.”
Looking back to the program’s beginning, Brahm identified several areas that were critical to its success. Then, as now, the driving impetus behind CBE was to equip adult learners with the skills needed to succeed in the job market.
1.Identify Skills From Both Sectors
In developing its CBE program, Brandman’s first task was to identify those skills and then use them as the framework for the entire program.
“We did what we call backwards design,” said Brahm, noting that the school started with the federal job database known as O*NET, which contains in-depth descriptions of the knowledge and skills associated with specific jobs and careers. The school also utilized the Degree Qualification Profile competencies from the Lumina Foundation, as well as the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) competencies developed by the Association of American Colleges & Universities.
In addition, Brandman worked closely with industry associations for each of the four BBA degrees. For the supply-chain management BBA, for instance, the school consulted with the Institute of Supply Chain Management to ensure its exam certification competencies were embedded into the assessments. “We then asked employers, ‘Are these the right competencies? Are these the right assessments to demonstrate mastery of these competencies?'” said Brahm.
2.Develop/Find a New LMS
Identifying the necessary skills was one thing. Structuring a degree program around them was a whole new challenge that involved significant changes in curriculum design, business operations, financial-aid processes, and the role of faculty. To accommodate all these changes, a new type of learning management system was also needed.
“Three years ago, there wasn’t an LMS that did all the things we thought were important—and we looked at all of them,” recalled Brahm. “But we identified Flat World as a company that could develop a system to capture the benefits of CBE.”
Flat World is a DC-based company that started as a developer of digital textbooks and courseware before creating its own CBE learning platform and academic services group. Flat World worked with Brandman to develop a checklist of LMS features that the school considered essential for CBE, including the ability to support adaptive learning.
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“We really felt it was important to have the content embedded in the platform,” said Brahm about the adaptive-learning component. “We wanted to see everything students did, both when they were successful and when they weren’t.”
In this respect, the needs of a CBE-optimized LMS run 180 degrees counter to the prevailing trend among traditional LMSs, which have been moving away from the concept of a walled garden for years. “When you have everything embedded, you have opportunities for continuous improvement that aren’t available when students leave the platform and you’re not sure what they’re doing,” said Brahm. “We thought having all of that content embedded was essential.”
Flat World’s experience as a digital textbook developer made this task much easier, and the company provided most of the content for Brandman’s BBA degrees. “There is a lot involved in being able to use adaptive learning in a way that makes it more efficient for the student,” said Brahm about the content, noting that a significant amount of tagging and meta-tagging was required at the sub-topic level.
The role of the faculty must also evolve. Brandman espouses an approach that Brahm calls the “unbundled faculty model.” While traditional faculty are still responsible for the curriculum, a whole new category of instructors called tutorial faculty use Flat World dashboards to monitor student progress. “When a student needs help, they contact the student,” said Brahm. “Their primary responsibility is helping and teaching students.”
Another group of faculty is responsible for grading, while yet another, non-faculty group known as coaches tracks student activity. “Tutorial faculty monitor the students for their academic success, but our coaches monitor students for their engagement,” said Brahm. “We find it helps students be successful and helps them prioritize their time. We think it’s really important.”
The shift in how learning and teaching take place in a CBE environment is significant, but it’s no less seismic than the changes in the underlying business operations. The move from a time- or seat-based model of education to one built around mastered competencies throws traditional student information systems and other administrative tools for a loop.
Brandman’s CBE program, for example, uses an all-you-can-learn subscription model: Students pay $2,700 every six months for everything, including content. “It’s an entirely different business model,” said Brahm. “Students can move as quickly as they like. The faster they move, the lower the cost for their degree. The typical student information system can’t handle that.”
To tackle the problem, Brandman worked with a software company called N2N Services to develop middleware for its Banner SIS. The middleware also allows the school to generate dual transcripts, based either on the old credit-hour model or the new CBE approach. While development work is not complete, Brahm hopes to make it available to other schools in the future.
4.Figure Out Financial Aid
The adoption of a subscription model was complicated by one other critical component: Many of Brandman’s adult learners qualify for Title IV federal financial aid, which has traditionally used the seat-based model of education. Starting in July 2014, the Department of Education approved a number of experimental CBE sites where financial aid was made available for programs charging tuition based on competencies. Then, in November 2015, the federal government expanded the experiment to include programs like Brandman’s that utilize a subscription model.
As with most federal programs, though, these experiments come with a host of compliance requirements that are intended to ensure tax dollars are not wasted. For example, schools are expected to track “regular and substantive faculty interactions [with students]” according to Brahm, who noted that this rule has become a hot topic in CBE. “Direct-assessment financial aid can’t be done by [traditional systems], especially with all of the compliance requirements. Instead, we use a combination of Flat World, the middleware that we developed, and Regent 8 financial-aid software.”
Recognizing that direct-assessment financial aid is a Gordian knot in which many institutions will become tangled, Flat World is touting its platform’s ability to help universities navigate the way—including tracking faculty-student interaction. “We have a soup-to-nuts implementation that’s approved by the Department of Education and by the accreditors,” said Chris Etesse, former CEO of Flat World. “We can make it really simple for them.”
Ultimately, though, the success of CBE is going to depend on whether students can earn degrees and certificates at an affordable price—and whether employers are happy with the skills they bring to the table. Early signs are encouraging. According to Etesse, Flat World-backed CBE programs are seeing retention rates of 70 percent, compared with traditional online retention rates that hover in the 25-35 percent range. And Brahm is confident that companies will be pleased by how well CBE graduates’ skills meet their needs.
“We think that employers are going to be the ones to say, ‘CBE is a great value, it’s great quality, and it really works,'” he said. “That’s the best place to receive validation, and it’s starting to happen already.”