What is faculty’s role in competency-based education?

Educators implementing CBE programs must consciously build models with both students and faculty in mind

Imagine you’re a student.

You walk into a classroom on the first day of the semester. You approach your chosen desk and there sits a thick sealed envelope. Looking around, you see that each desk has its own thick sealed envelope.

Your professor approaches the podium and speaks.

“On your desks, in the envelope, you will find your syllabus along with all materials and assignments for the term. In it, you will even find your final exam. Since many of you are adult learners, we respect the fact that you are bringing a meaningful amount of life and workplace experience to this classroom. As such, you are free to begin these assignments whenever you’d like. We’ll be meeting for classroom learning and discussion each week so you can ask the big questions and collaborate with peers. You’ll also have access to videos and other media to help you learn more whenever you’d like. Some may finish all of your work within a few weeks; for others, it may take you the whole term. In this class, we prioritize your learning and how it’s measured more than time. Show what you know as soon as you know it.”

This is competency-based education (CBE). At least one form of it.

A quick guide to CBE models
Right now in the United States, there are several types of CBE models. Some programs are known as direct assessment, which are programs absent of courses or, in some cases, academic terms and are designed around competencies, e.g, discrete knowledge or skills. Others, like Rasmussen College’s Flex Choice® CBE program model, are credit- and course-based CBE within academic terms.

All CBE programs share one major element: They are increasingly time-fluid and prioritize student learning and the assessment of its demonstration. Show what you know as soon as you know it—not when the designated due date arrives or when the calendar dictates. Instead, share when you, the learner, are ready.

Student-faculty interaction
Now, imagine you’re a faculty member.

All this sounds great for the learner, but now imagine you are the faculty member in this CBE class? How can you present new content, engage in rich group dialogue, and assess learning when students are moving at their own pace? What if half your class moves faster than the other half?

These are all tricky questions that faculty members face. It’s unsurprising that student-faculty interaction is the most criticized component of the CBE concept.

As the Competency-Based Education Network’s Quality Principles and Standards for Competency-Based Education Programs state, CBE programs:

• Must be “sufficiently resourced with faculty and staff to meet the needs of the learner. Faculty and staff roles are designed to provide differentiated support to a diverse range of learners that leverages the individual talents, strengths, and competence of the faculty and staff.”
• Must provide “opportunities for engagement with peers, faculty, staff, and employers, who reflect the diversity of the learner population.”
• “Learners [must] have meaningful access to faculty subject-matter experts who play an active, central role in the design and delivery of the program.”
Using these parameters, schools are faced with implementing an effective program that serves the needs of students.

Student feedback on the CBE experience
When Rasmussen College first launched its CBE program model in 2016, we saw the potential benefits this format could afford students, but were also aware of how important faculty preparedness would be. Now, a year later, we have the student feedback that confirms this potential and can guide future program development.

A Rasmussen College learner focus group provided feedback regarding its CBE experience. Notably, students saw great value in faculty involvements, as evidenced by the following:

• All students identified live faculty classrooms as the most valuable tool in their CBEs.
• All students were satisfied with their level of interaction, citing availability of faculty, quality of ONL+ (online courses that have a live classroom component embedded within the curriculum), and open discussion space.
• All students reported emailing, calling, or texting faculty; all generally received responses within 48 hours, and typically within 24 hours. One said, “Teachers are always available.”

An unbundled faculty model
The positive student feedback is attributed to our amazing faculty and to careful consideration of how the faculty role will actually operate day-to-day, combined with continual dialogue, feedback and implementation.

Many CBE programs, including Rasmussen College’s Flex Choice ® programs, feature what is typically called an unbundled faculty model. This means that the job of instruction and dialogue—that is, the presentation of new material and conversation surrounding it—is held by one faculty member. The job of assessing student learning and grading assignments is held by another faculty member. The reason for this model in CBE is twofold:

• Given the self-paced nature of CBE, the instructional faculty will almost certainly have more time lecturing and facilitating dialogue since students will not follow a prescribed pace. Not being responsible for grading and assessment allows more time for student interaction.
• Since assessment faculty don’t have interaction with students beyond feedback on their assignment, this reduces the possibility of personality bias and increases objectivity in grading learners’ projects.

At Rasmussen College, we began this extended dialogue with faculty two years before our CBE programs began enrolling students. To this day, we hold an open CBE faculty meeting every Monday morning to discuss CBE in an open and safe space. Attendees may include curious faculty members, veteran CBE faculty, skeptics, and administrators who are still unsure about this movement. Continuous feedback and implementation based on this feedback has been critical.

Additional resources for learning more about CBE
As Congress looks to rewrite the federal Higher Education Act this year, CBE program leaders must recognize the required tenants of these quality programs and advocate for their inclusion in all CBE programs. This will help protect the current and future concept of academic innovation and ensure students of all backgrounds receive the faculty interaction they need to be successful.

Now is the time to begin your own dialogue with CBE. Read Amy Laitinen’s pivotal Cracking the Credit Hour; check out any of the materials on the Competency-Based Education Network’s robust CBE bibliography. Learn more about C-BEN’s Quality Standards. Peruse the great research that is happening through the Journal of Competency-Based Education. The more we understand what CBE is trying to accomplish, the richer the dialogue to come.

CBE is intended to be a high-quality pathway to higher learning for some college students, particularly adult learners. The more we candidly discuss how quality CBE programs change learning and assessment, the better we can guide our students and respect the knowledge they bring to our classrooms.

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