Competency-based education (CBE), continues to experience a resurgence in interest, as well as popularity. Attention to accountability in higher education, student learning outcomes and a related focus on outcomes-based assessment has brought new energy into the CBE movement, or perhaps, vice versa.

Other factors, including the rise of for-profit universities, the increasing numbers of non-traditional students, the desire to move students to degree completion more quickly and even to provide a more transparent and personalized learning experience all contribute to this growing movement.

The Biggest CBE Challenge

One of the challenges in the world of competency-based education is the “c.” Defining competency, measuring competency, ensuring equivalent competency is, on the surface, the toughest nut to crack. To achieve this, faculty must discuss their expectations of student knowledge, behavior and disposition as well as the expectations for the ‘newly minted’ professional. What do working professionals expect from a recent graduate?

Fortunately, many professional organizations provide those expectations, identified as learning outcomes. Those learning outcomes describe the skills, knowledge and dispositions required for a recent graduate to achieve success in the working world.

Sounds simple, right? Not so much. The convoluted and layered bureaucracies of higher education mean that there are multiple levels of oversight and many, many stakeholders. Federal, state and local governments, foundations, taxpayers, students, faculty, employers, and more, all have an investment in higher education.

Where Faculty Come In

One of the highest hurdles is the more than 100 years of use of the Carnegie Unit. Originally designed to standardize educational experiences within and across institutions, and more importantly, faculty workloads for the purposes of pension determination, the 120-hour “contact” model is the cornerstone of the 4,000 colleges and universities in North America. The Carnegie Unit is used for everything from curriculum design, the planning of daily schedules, to evaluating faculty efficiency, calculating financial aid and budgeting.

Aside from its original faculty pension intention, there are benefits to the Carnegie Unit. It allows students to easily transfer from one institution to another, provides a mechanism for institutions to compare courses as well as quickly evaluate the preparation of prospective students. But most importantly, it provides a well-known context and language for instruction.

It is, indeed, the currency of higher education.

So, how to meld that with, arguably, the more fluid and adaptable environment of competency-based education–a world in which seat time may mean little or nothing?

(Next page: Faculty as the make-or-break key to competency education’s success)

About the Author:

Geoff Irvine is the CEO of Chalk & Wire.


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