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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2. Rethink Requirements

While the traditional approach to educating students in engineering sciences was to mix a few general education courses into a whole bunch of discipline-specific requirements, the new program intends to educate students in more than their specific major areas. That required letting go of the “huge database of things” the faculty felt it needed to teach students for their given programs.

“One of the drivers in our wanting to create a different degree is that we’re moving away from a knowledge-based economy to a ‘thinking’ economy,” said Mili. “You’re really hired for your ability to think through problems, to face something you’ve never seen before and know how to ask good questions, how to seek the resources, how to find the people that you need to work with.”

What we the faculty needed to accept, she added, was the idea that they shouldn’t fill up a student’s schedule with a concentrated dose of subject expertise. “It’s OK if they don’t get this concept from us, as long as they graduate having learned how to learn, having learned how to get information. Then they will be fine.”

Competency Advice: Expect variations in how a student moves through his or her degree. While a selling point of competency-based education is that students can go as fast as they want, they can also go as slowly as they need to, observes Mili. “What we are really trying to get away from is the factory model where if you get in this time, I can tell you exactly when you will be graduating.

3. Value Self-motivation

Purdue Polytech successfully recruited 35 students to come into its new program. One of the important criteria for acceptance was intrinsic motivation. Those students don’t need to be motivated with “rewards and punishments,” Mili said. “We are much more productive if we step back and let them be on the driver’s seat, let them  use whatever their passion is about to drive their learning.”

While students pursuing a specific discipline have set competencies–computer IT students, for example, are expected to learn programming–what’s happening in the Purdue Polytech is that students are crisscrossing competencies. “None of them is sticking to their own,” observed Mili. They’re “looking over the shoulder of the kid next to them and saying ‘Hmm, that looks cool, I want to learn that too.'”

As a result, they’re learning way more than they ever did, she added. During a press conference, one student stated that although he went  through high school getting top grades, he never “really worked. Whereas here, because I’m not told what to do, I’m given the freedom to do what I want to do, I’m working harder than I ever did.”

Competency Advice: Forget about building competencies around things you believe students will need to know for their future jobs. “If you backtrack 15 years from now, nobody had a clue what the jobs that exist today would be,” Mili said. Going forward, “We know that they will need to think, that they will need to innovate, that they will need to collaborate, to seek others and help others.” That’s where the specific degree program comes in: “You can’t learn in a vacuum. You learn to problem solve within a specific discipline.”

4. Knock Down Class Walls

Competency-based learning is enabled by a new structure for classes. Whereas the traditional credit-hour model dedicates a given period on a given day or days to a course, the Polytech schedule uses specific periods to cover requirements for multiple competencies that would normally surface in several courses.

As Mili explained, the week includes two big blocks of concurrent learning sessions lasting multiple hours. One is a “seminar” and the other is a “design lab;” for each, several faculty work together with students in the same classroom. For example, the seminar session brings together an instructor from communication, one from English, one from the libraries, and two from technology areas to guide students through team activities. The focus is on helping students refine all forms of communication.

The design lab tackles project-based work tied to addressing top challenges facing humanity. This semester, for example, the students are designing and building a garden in a box. “They get to design everything from the sensor that senses temperature and humidity [to]  determin[ing] how much water and how much light is needed. Or it’s something that somebody can have in their apartment that will help grow a small vegetable garden,” Mili said. “In the process they learn the electronics, the programming, the mechanics. They learn several aspects integrated within that project.”

Competency Advice: Emphasize learning just in time. As students work through problems and through design projects and come across something they need to understand, such as some technical component, “They go learn it and come back,” Mili noted. Where there are specific competencies required, students for the most part can decide the scheduling of those, in partnership with their program mentor.

5. Stress Collaboration over Competition

Despite protestations of believing in the value of teamwork in learning, the traditional approach to education is deeply predicated on the idea of competition. As Mili points out, “We judge students by seeing them perform in isolation. We give them tests and tell them, ‘You’re not allowed to use any device or talk to anybody.’ The whole system is built on showing us how you perform while alone. Then they go the job market and we’re surprised when they don’t always collaborate.”

To counteract that tendency, the Purdue Polytech structure is designed to emphasize collaboration over competition. That means helping students learn how to have trust, to understand that nobody knows everything, and that it’s OK to ask other people for help, she said.

While students picked up on that fairly quickly, what faculty didn’t expect was “seeing people walking around and offering help, which we found amazing,” Mili noted. It helps that students have diverse majors. Some are in mechanical engineering; others are in electrical engineering, or computing or computing graphics. That means they approach problems with different areas of knowledge and “inclinations.” Each of them “had something to offer to others. That was rewarding to see.”

Competency Advice:  Don’t panic about the emphasis on “soft skills–problem solving collaboration, communication, and so forth,” Mili said. “The challenges of the 21st century are not mono-disciplinary. None of them has a solution that is 100-percent technological. And therefore we have to provide an environment for the students to practice all of these skills. How do you become comfortable collaborating? By practicing it.”

Dian Schaffhauser is a journalist who reports on education technology. Follow her @schaffhauser.

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