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Federal government needs to experiment with competency-based education (essay)

Seeking Answers on 'Competency'
January 30, 2014

Matt Reed’s recent column on experimental sites and competency-based education (CBE) offers just the kind of thoughtful analysis we’ve come to expect of his columns. He raises important questions about the role of faculty, the efficacy of approaches that include less instructional interaction, the viability of pay-for-performance aid models, and more.  The answers to those questions today?  We don’t know.  And that’s why we need to support the Department of Education’s experimental sites proposal, to create safe places in which to explore the kind of thoughtful and constructive questions that Matt poses.

Last year saw the dizzying ascendency of the massive open online course, driven by some combination of their blue chip provenance, their creators’ triumphant claims, and the smitten embrace of popular media outlets (especially The New York Times). 

To the satisfaction and relief of some, MOOCs have come back to earth.  Still in search of a purpose (the job they are “hired to do,” to use a Clay Christensen phrase), a business model, and an ideal user scenario, MOOCs are entering a more useful and realistic phase of their development. A lot of smart, mission-driven people are working on MOOC 3.0 (everyone forgets about MOOC 1.0 that came before Coursera and edX put MOOCs on the map) and we’ll see if MOOCs are 21st-century content, a platform innovation, or a powerful new disruptive presence in the educational landscape.

Competency-based education is the hot new innovation, at least in its latest incarnation, largely untethered to the structure of courses and credits, the basic building blocks of curriculums and thus learning.  In truth, CBE has been around for decades and pioneered by accredited nonprofits like Excelsior, Charter Oaks, and Western Governors University.  They have been joined by a growing number of new providers including the University of Wisconsin System, Northern Arizona University, Brandman University, Capella University, Lipscomb University, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, and my own Southern New Hampshire University.  Another 30 or more institutions are working on their own CBE offerings.

The Department of Education is exercising its authority to create experimental sites and has invited proposals for administering federal financial aid funds in new ways that support CBE models, and the White House is calling for more innovation and putting its weight behind CBE.  The leading higher education associations – including EDUCAUSE, CAEL, AAC&U, and ACE – are joining in and announcing new initiatives, webinars, and meetings. 

Accreditors are releasing new guidelines for CBE programs and the administration continues to pressure them by raising the possibility of new validation systems better suited to support innovative new delivery models.  Think tanks and foundations have added their intellectual and financial backing to the effort.  The hope, one I share, is that CBE can deliver on the holy triad of quality, cost (access), and completion.

This is a very different set of circumstances than those that have characterized the MOOC movement.  CBE has an actual track record of success in its earlier iterations, is being embraced by powerful stakeholders, is being developed by institutions with deep understanding of the students they seek to serve, and is being tied into the established financial system of funding. 

More importantly, CBE offers a fundamental change at the core of our higher education “system”: making learning non-negotiable and the claims for learning clear while making time variable.  This is a profound change and stands to reverse the long slow erosion of quality in higher education.  It is so fundamental a change that we hardly yet know all its implications for our world.  For example:

  • If the claims we make for student learning really are non-negotiable, we will likely see a drop in completion rates, at least for some length of time;
  • We will have a lot of work to do around assessment, still difficult terrain in higher education;
  • The Department of Education, entrusted to protect billions of taxpayer dollars, will need reassurance that we have in place measures that guard against fraud;
  • If competencies are a new “currency” replacing credit hours, we will need to work out the “exchange rates” if we are to have a system that does not replicate the waste and inefficiencies of the current credit hour and transfer system.
  • Faculty roles are likely to be redefined, at least in some models, and a profession long in transition, and some would say under siege, will be further impacted;
  • Student information and learning management systems are not designed for these new models, yet form the administrative backbone that supports everything from registration to transcripts to billing to financial aid to... well, almost everything we do.
  • Accreditation standards, even new ones, will be tested and will have to evolve to reflect the lessons we learn over time.

In other words, if CBE is finally a movement, it is like many new movements still in search of the basics.  It lacks a taxonomy, an agreed-upon nomenclature, the aforementioned exchange rate, a widely accepted form of documentation (what is the right form of CBE transcript?), the supporting systems, and experience with a wide variety of students. 

This is why the Department of Education’s proposed experimental sites are so important.  The key word here is experiment.  Institutions need safe spaces in which to try new things, new rules by which to operate, the ability to rethink fundamental assumptions about how we deliver learning and support students, trying new models for costing and paying, and tolerance for mistakes. If we are not making mistakes, it isn’t really innovation that’s going on.  

We need a range of approaches to see what works best for what students in what settings.  In return, institutions engaged in the work have to do their part.  That includes collecting and providing data with a level of transparency that our industry has historically resisted (higher education is a culture that innately resists accountability outside of student grades), putting aside underlying competitive impulses to share what we learn, and finding ways to support students and quickly address the mistakes we must inevitably make (remembering that we never “play” with student welfare).

Experimental sites are important for what they allow, but also for what they (should) fend off.  We should beware a premature setting of standards or guidelines.  We should beware a premature overturn of the credit hour, flawed as it is, before we have worked out its substitute (or more likely, complementary system).  We should beware an opening of the gates like the one that attended online learning, when unscrupulous players entered the market and abused the system for enormous gains at enormous costs for students and the federal government. 

In other words, we need just the kind of good questions that Matt Reed poses in his recent column.  We need leading thinkers like CAEL and AAC&U to help us think through the big questions before us.  We need EDUCAUSE to help us spec out new systems and technologies.  And we need to try various models, collect data, and work through the significant questions still in front of us so we can better inform policy-making and the reauthorization discussion now getting under way. 

 Traditional higher education is not going away any time soon, but CBE has the potential to both provide new affordable, high-quality pathways to students and to challenge our incumbent delivery models to better identify the claims they make for learning and how they know.  Those demands, whatever CBE turns out to be, are not going away either and CBE can function like the industry’s R&D lab.  The proposed experimental sites align with that very useful role and deserve our collective support.

Bio

Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University.

 

 

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