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When Michael Dukakis ran for President, his slogan of “competence, not ideology” didn’t exactly stir the blood.  But I saw competency stir the blood of some smart people on Monday, and it gave me hope.  NEBHE - the New England Board of Higher Education - hosted a conference in Boston on Competency-Based Education, and it was one of the best I’ve attended in years.

Competency-Based Education doesn’t have a standard definition yet -- which several speakers noted over the course of the day -- but it generally refers to programs in which student learning is measured in accomplishments, rather than time.  The idea is to invert the credit hour.  Under a credit hour system, time on task is fixed, and learning is variable.  Under a CBE system, learning is fixed and time is variable. 

CBE has existed in various guises for decades, but has hit its stride only in the last few years.  Many colleges allow students to “test out” of certain courses, whether through CLEP, AP, or departmental exams, for example.  Clinicals, in Nursing, are largely competency-based, as are co-ops.  Self-paced developmental classes are a variation on competency-based, as are practicum courses.  Licensing exams, such as the bar exam or the NCLEX, function as a competency-based form of quality control.  For that matter, outcomes assessment is a close cousin to CBE.  So the basic idea isn’t new.

The new twist is remaking entire programs without reference to seat time.  Online education makes that much easier, since it eliminates the need for classroom scheduling.  (Try making a schedule without any reference to time, and you’ll see the challenge.)  By allowing students to move at the speed their talent and drive will take them, we can remove the barriers that slow down the highest-achieving students artificially. 

From a policymaker’s standpoint, the shiny promise of CBE is that, under the right circumstances, it promises good, fast, and cheap education.  (Readers of a certain age will recognize the old joke about home contractors: “Good, fast, and cheap: pick any two.”)  If students are able to blaze past the stuff they already know, or which come easily, then they can finish more quickly.  Baumol’s cost disease can be vanquished, the opportunity cost of education can be reduced, and everybody wins.

And that actually happens for the top tier of students.  As several speakers noted, though, the more common case is the student who moves more slowly.  As Paul LeBlanc of SNHU put it, in traditional classes, it’s possible to pass even while remaining weak on certain topics.  Requiring a student to show strength in every topic before moving on may take longer upfront, but will position the student better for success in later courses (and eventual employment).

The “slow success” model will probably create some legislative panic, as the savings from fast finishers are more than consumed by the added expense of gradual completers.  At that point, the seeming “win-win” will show itself as a more complicated choice.  But we’re not there yet.

I was heartened by the candor and thoughtfulness of most of the presentations.  The opening panel, of which I missed the first few minutes due to Mass Pike traffic of Biblical proportions, was one of the best I’ve seen since Kay McClenney retired.  Amy Laitinen, of the New America Foundation, was characteristically nuanced in her description of the political drivers of CBE, as well as the likely abuses that would follow a too-abrupt opening of the financial aid rules.  Paul Fain, from Inside Higher Ed, set a positive, thoughtful tone, and kept the discussion moving.  But the breakout star was Alison Kadlec, of Public Agenda.  In the context of noting that “shared standards of quality and practice” haven’t emerged yet, she moved fluently from political critique to detailed implementation tips to a rousing bit of democratic theory and back again, all while cracking jokes.  Color me impressed.

Paul LeBlanc gave the keynote, offering an update on College for America’s version of CBE.  I was struck by the stronger focus on peer mentoring than I’ve heard before; either I just didn’t notice previously, or it’s evolving as a more important part of the College.  I had to smile at his discussion of the question he usually asks at employer advisory boards: “Show of hands: how many of you have hired someone with a bachelor’s degree who has horrible writing skills?”  He made the point that insisting on hitting every competency, including writing, will ultimately result in fewer hands going up when he asks that question.  As degrees gain greater credibility, he argued, some of the more pointed questions about cost will have less resonance.  I hope he’s right.  To his credit, he also acknowledged that some faculty fears about the “unbundling” of the faculty role in a CBE setting are well-founded, and that advocates of CBE should stop dancing around the issue and address it directly.  My guess is that the truth is far less scary than some folks’ imaginations.  He also noted the frustrating reality that current financial aid rules allow for all-CBE programs or all-credit-hour programs, but don’t allow for hybrids.  It’ll be hard to make progress on back-office systems if the only option is to jump in with both feet.

CBE has shown promise in small programs; its next challenge will be to perform at scale.  I don’t know if it will succeed, but it strikes me as one of the most promising avenues we have.  If the caliber of discussion can remain this high, and this thoughtful, I like our chances.  Well done, NEBHE.

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