Experts offer new resources for competency-based education

EDUCAUSE panel talks CBE definition; keys to success

CBE-competency-EDUCAUSECompetency-based education (CBE) is making the rounds in higher education as colleges and universities eager to explore alternative pathways discuss the model’s potential. However, many initiatives have already laid extensive groundwork, offering multiple resources covering everything from CBE’s basic definition to implementation best practices.

According to Michael Offerman of Offerman Consulting, during an EDUCAUSE 2014 panel, a number of national initiatives dedicated specifically to CBE have partnered together to provide as many diverse resources as possible for institutions ranging from the simply curious to those in final implementation stages.

“In 2012, there were about 20 schools considering CBE, then the U.S. Department of Education became interested, which lead to interest and support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; this is when the CBE initiative really became scalable, ultimately leading to this year’s creation of C-BEN, the Competency-Based Education Network,” explained Offerman.

According to Offerman, there now seems to be a CBE initiative fatigue, which he attributed to a lack of clarity in defining CBE.

“It was important for C-BEN to partner with other initiatives like CAEL’s Jumpstart program, the EDUCAUSE Breakthrough Models Incubator, and Western Governor University’s (WGU) CBE collaboration with community colleges because we wanted to present a single, comprehensive definition of exactly what CBE does for higher education,” he said.

(Next page: Defining CBE; lessons learned)

National initiatives, like C-BEN, say they base the definition of CBE on iNACOL’s Competency Works design principles, said Stacey Clawson, senior program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Competency Works principles for high-quality competency education include:

1. Students advance upon demonstrated mastery: Students progress to more advanced work upon a demonstration of learning by applying specific skills and content.

2. Explicit and measurable learning objectives empower students: A course is organized into measurable learning objectives that are shared with students. Students take responsibility for their learning, thereby increasing their engagement and motivation.

3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students: Formative assessments are aligned with learning objectives and students receive immediate feedback when assessment occurs. This encourages students to return to difficult concepts and skills until they achieve mastery. Assessments must also be student-centered, in that students are assessed on material with which they are familiar.

4. Students receive rapid, differentiated support: Educators’ capacity, and students’ own capacity to seek out help, will be enhanced by technology-enabled solutions that incorporate predictive analytic tools, ensuring no inequities will be reproduced.

5. Learning outcomes emphasize application and creation of knowledge: Students are required to apply their skills and knowledge to new situations to demonstrate mastery and to create knowledge. Competencies will include academic standards as well as lifelong learning skills and dispositions.

“Once you have a good working definition for critical components of a CBE, you can start to consider implementation,” explained Anthony Scheffler, associate dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Valdosta State University (VSU).

Scheffler and Northwestern became involved with CBE through CAEL’s program, offering endorsements for K-5 teachers for math and science CBE pathways.

“We haven’t started full implementation yet,” he emphasized, “but our toe is in the water and we’ve already learned a lot.”

According to Scheffler, it’s critical that institutions interested in CBE:

  • Identify critical players in the program, beginning with administration and including student input.
  • Involve students from day-one, making sure that the program best suits their needs.
  • Be wary of vendors who want to start the program in full-throttle.
  • Describe the value and the need for CBE to the entire population of the university community.
  • Educate this community with facts instead of arguments. “It’s important to focus on what CBE does, not what it is.
  • Have a start-up model design of the program, allowing for tests and run-throughs to reveal any possible holes. Also, include a detailed business plan.
  • Consider a state-led platform, too.
  • Share ideas and lessons learned with other networks, initiatives and institutions.

For Linda Smarzik, dean of Computer Studies and Advanced Technology at Austin Community College District, thanks to a Department of Labor grant, she began implementing a CBE program in the fall of 2013. Now, the program has roughly 1,100 enrollments, with 79 percent of those enrolled successfully completing the program. 30 percent of those enrolled say the CBE program is better than distance learning programs.

Smarzik advises institutions to consider how they will track younger students [non-adult learners], as well as offer visual communication and competencies as part of the CBE.

“Try out the CBE in one small section and then scale-up what works from there,” she said. “Replicate and enhance for your next step instead of trying to overhaul an entire curriculum.”

Her other tips include:

  • Look into offering credit for prior learning.
  • Invest in a way to track students post-graduation.
  • Offer many student support specialists.
  • Hire a good instructional designer.
  • Reach out to industry. “It’s good to have more than 100 partners. You think it’s too much, but the more the better.”

Finally, for Laurie Dodge, vice chancellor of Institutional Assessment and Planning at Brandman University, even though having design principles is critical for a good CBE program, knowing the definition is flexible can be helpful, too.

“There’s no perfect definition for CBE and actual program design is myriad,” noted Dodge. “What’s important is keeping rigor and quality tight while realizing that business process and systems; such as transcripting, LMS, and financial aid, all work together.”

Dodge also described how Brandman changed not only the curriculum design for the CBE program, designing the assessments first, then the activities, but also how the University changed the advising and faculty model.

“Advising changed to coaches mostly monitoring student engagement, and faculty became unbundled,” she concluded. “Faculty became full-time tutors completely separated from assessments. This fundamentally changed our business model, too, meaning all departments really had to come together to make this work. Collaboration is key.”

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