cbe programs

5 questions to ask when starting a CBE program

Texas A&M CBE director details tips for a successful framework; lessons learned from the university’s successful online program.

The Texas Affordable Baccalaureate (TAB) Program at Texas A&M University-Commerce (TAMU-C) is an innovative, competency-based BAAS in Organizational Leadership. When we began developing the program in 2011, there were few models–particularly of CBE programs embedded in regional, public four-year institutions like ours–to guide us.

When I became head of the Institute for Competency-Based Education (ICBE) at TAMU-C, one priority was to create a framework to provide a roadmap for other institutions developing programs.

Designed in direct response to then-Governor Rick Perry’s 2011 challenge to all Texas institutions of higher education to create a $10,000 bachelor’s degree, the TAB program was created collaboratively by TAMU-C, South Texas College (STC), the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and the College for All Texans Foundation, with funding from an EDUCAUSE Next Generation Learning Challenges grant. We admitted our first class in January 2014, and in May 2015, the first students graduated.

The 3-Part Framework

The CBE BAAS in Organizational Leadership at TAMU-C is a fully online degree program consisting of 99 competencies (for the equivalent of 120 SCH) defined by both faculty and industry.  It is delivered via a subscription model; students can attempt as many competencies as possible in each seven-week term, with each term costing $750 for tuition and fees.

The three-part framework briefly outlined here is based on the development process for the TAB Program, with some additions from lessons learned post-program implementation. It also is informed by our work as a member of the Competency-Based Education Network (the ICBE has embraced their definition of CBE). Any institution/school is welcome to use, share, and adapt this framework, and it can (and should) be modified to suit the specific context in which it is used.

One caveat: These three parts and the steps within each part are not meant to be linear. Depending on the vision for your program, for example, you may be engaging in a step in the first part up to, and through, implementation; and you likely should be thinking of KPIs and program evaluation from the start.

Along the way, I suggest five key questions to ask for successful CBE program development.

5 Key Questions for a CBE Program

Inspiration & Investigation: A first step is to assess your institution’s readiness for innovation in general. This should include determining who can serve as your “bell cows” (the lead cow of a herd, with a bell on its neck)–your leaders and champions of innovation and CBE, as well as healthy skeptics. Then evaluate the readiness of such platforms as your LMS and SIS to support CBE delivery.

Key question 1: “What infrastructure/technology is lacking to engage in automated collection of data and provision of support services?” Obviously you must determine early on what program(s) to offer, considering what students the program will serve and/or what area/regional labor needs it might help fulfill.

(Next page: CBE program questions 2-5)

Key question 2: “To what problem will CBE provide a solution?” Here you also should identify funding sources and regulatory requirements, as well as create a timeline for program development and implementation, identifying key stakeholders for each milestone, which leads to:

Collaboration & Creation: Effective collaboration is vital to successful innovation; early on you should build a team of collaborators and stakeholders, involving faculty, key staff (e.g. financial aid, institutional effectiveness), and industry leaders from the start, as well as cultivating buy-in from upper-level administrators. With these stakeholders, begin to build the competencies at the heart of the program.

Key question 3: “What jobs do we expect our students to get? What skills are required for those jobs?” From the answers to these questions, reverse engineer the competencies. Then develop learning outcomes and assessments—carefully designed assessments are perhaps the most crucial element of a high quality CBE program.

Key question 4: “When students finish a course, what should they know and what should they be able to do? How do we assess mastery of that knowledge and those skills, and what should those assessments look like?” At this point a number of key decisions must be made, from creating and/or identifying learning materials to support the outcomes; to staffing models (to aggregate or disaggregate: that is the question!); to such processes as Prior Learning Assessment; transcription; awarding of financial aid; and delivery of modules, competencies, and courses.

Evaluation & Implementation: Again, plans to establish methods for learner feedback, programmatic evaluation, and processes for continuous improvement should be discussed from the outset.

Key question 5: “Who will be responsible for overseeing these processes?”

Finally, act: hire faculty and staff, conduct orientations, admit students, and launch the program! Don’t forget to celebrate your accomplishments.

We at the ICBE are more than willing to assist if we can. A copy of the complete CBE Program Development Framework is available here.  Good luck!

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