Competency-based learning

Association wants to create portable, competency-based general education framework

Liberal education group wants to redesign general education around competencies, and gets $2.3 million from the Gates Foundation for the project.

UC Davis's groundbreaking digital badge system for new sustainable agriculture program

A digital badging project at UC Davis is drawing notice, but the innovation looks more like competency-based education than a form of alternative credentials.

Koch Foundation and Others Fund ASU's Higher Ed 'Redesign'

Arizona State University last week announced that the Charles Koch Foundation and a group of other philanthropies will give the university $12 million for an initiative aimed at driving innovations across higher education in the U.S.

ASU's University Design Institute is coordinating the effort to support other universities in "culture change initiatives" that are designed to broaden access to high-quality postsecondary education, in part with technological innovations that seek to be more responsive to student needs.

The project also plans to accelerate the development of a stackable credential system, initially aimed at ASU, where smaller credentials will more smoothly add up to more comprehensive ones, presumably including degrees. It also will focus on developing technological components for the world's first "Trusted Learner Network," which seeks to replace college transcripts with a verifiable, learner-owned record system. This new approach would feature competency-based credentials that the learner would have more control over than current transcripts.

"The work advanced through this partnership will drive a culture change and the commitment to redesign and restructure higher education that we embrace at ASU and that is critical to the success of students across the country," Michael Crow, ASU's president, said in a statement. "The public health pandemic that has swept the globe and the stress it has placed on our education system has exposed weaknesses that have existed for years. Universities are being forced to adapt right now and so we're saying, 'let's take advantage of this opportunity' and let's build things in a way that serves the learner in a new world that doesn't look anything like the one that existed when most of America's institutions of higher learning were designed."

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Ed Dept. Issues Final Distance Learning Rule

The U.S. Department of Education has released its final rule on distance learning, which it said would modernize regulations.

“The Department’s regulations regarding distance learning had not kept pace with advances in technology and they created tremendous uncertainty for institutions about what kinds of innovations were permissible, including innovations in team-approaches to instruction,” said a fact sheet about the rule, which will not go into effect until July 1, 2021.

The product of months of negotiations by a panel of experts, the final rule would among other things allow more flexibility to “emphasize demonstration of learning rather than seat time when measuring student outcomes,” the fact sheet said.

It was praised by Steve Gunderson, president of the for-profit college industry group Career Education Colleges and Universities. "This is a huge victory for veterans and others who have learned career skills during an earlier period of their life and now want to convert such knowledge into a recognized credential," he said.

While the department in March granted temporary waivers to give colleges more regulatory flexibility as they were forced by the pandemic to move classes online, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the new rule goes further.

“While we moved quickly at the start of the pandemic to provide temporary distance learning flexibilities for students, these new regulations provide a permanent upgrade to online and competency-based education,” DeVos said in a news release. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that a video call is not enough, and our outdated rules did not comport with 21st-century realities. These regulations are a true ‘rethink’ of what is possible for students so that they can learn in the ways and places that work best for them.”

For instance, the rule allows for more asynchronous online delivery of courses, or portions of courses, in traditional “clock-hour” hands-on programs.

However, some experts, including Clare McCann, New America’s deputy director for federal higher education policy, raised concerns. “Picture a student in a phlebotomy program, gaining their instruction entirely online and without even learning it directly from a teacher but rather from a YouTube-like video they're watching. Is that the person you want drawing your blood?”

The biggest change is clarifying the term "regular and substantive" in the nation's main higher education law, said James Murphy, senior policy analyst with Education Reform Now. The federal Higher Education Act requires online programs receiving federal financial aid to include “regular and substantive interaction” between the instructor and students, but it doesn’t define the term, confusing institutions that want to create online programs

The new rule defines the interaction as meeting the standard if it satisfies at least two of five conditions: providing direct instruction; assessing or providing feedback on a student’s course work; providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency; facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; or other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.

But Murphy worries the definition is a “pretty low bar.” The last requirement “leaves it up to the institution or agency to determine whether an activity is substantive,” he said. “Making room for innovation in distance learning is important, which is what this criterion is intended to do, but it should not also open the door to abuse.”

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Using Stimulus Funds to Improve Credit Transfer

A new paper calls for the next federal stimulus to fund programs aimed at industry-valued skills, effectively creating a parallel higher education system with seamless credit transfer, the ability to pay for student learning outcomes and a competency-based system untethered from the credit hour.

First-time college students who transfer to another institution lose 43 percent of their credits on average, which increases their time to degree, tuition costs, debt load and opportunity costs, write Michael B. Horn, co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute and currently a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions, and Richard Price, a research fellow at the Christensen Institute.

To create a parallel system with credit interoperability, Horn and Price said third-party organizations must take on the role of certifying learning. These third-party credentialing organizations would need to be able to offer standards that are specifiable, verifiable and predictable.

"The most likely way forward is for industry-valued credentials to emerge that third-party credentialing and licensing organizations assess and validate when students demonstrate mastery and for which the Department of Education will pay," they wrote. "For this to occur, institutions, businesses, organizations and the military would need to adopt skills-based standards with aligned mastery-based assessments as part of their hiring and promotion and then strongly back those standards."

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Essay on need for better data on what works in competency-based education

College and university leaders continue to show great enthusiasm for competency-based learning. They believe it can address some of higher education’s most pernicious challenges: rising costs, shifting demographics and a tenuous connection between education and career. So it’s no surprise that a recent national survey found that a majority of institutions were interested in or adopting competency-based education.

Nevertheless, in practice, the approach remains isolated and limited in scope, with just one in 10 of the institutions surveyed meeting the threshold for actually offering a competency-based education (CBE) program. Nationwide, that equates to just 600 colleges and universities offering some form of CBE. But even those numbers belie the fact that far fewer institutions offer the most progressive form -- direct assessment -- which completely separates learning from the arbitrary constraints of seat time.

The reason for the disconnect, all too often, is uncertainty.

Institutional leaders see CBE, especially programs that are untethered from time, as risky. Perhaps with good reason: the field has precious little evidence about best practices and student outcomes with CBE programs. That lack of data not only stymies the efforts of “intrapreneurs,” but also chills support from policy makers who want to know whether CBE is working and are -- with good reason -- guarded in their efforts to shift policy or funding dynamics in the absence of better evidence.

Now is an especially critical time, as Congress, through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and the U.S. Department of Education are rethinking a host of policies and regulations that have a direct impact on the structure and growth of CBE. A negotiated rule-making panel brought together by the Education Department, for example, has recommended changes to the federal financial aid process and other regulations that would potentially expand access to CBE programs. Notably, the panel recommended that the department allow institutions to offer hybrid programs that let students combine CBE with credit-hour courses -- potentially dramatically expanding the pool of students for whom CBE would work.

Amid such possible shifts, we need far more information about what works in order to inform both institutional practice and federal policy. That starts with creating transparency for students, faculty members and policy makers -- but it also requires an embrace of standards that can provide higher education stakeholders with a common yardstick.

In August, an early pioneer in competency-based learning added to that body of evidence, releasing one of the field’s first reports on the outcomes and implications of their work.

Capella University was the first institution approved by the U.S. Department of Education to offer financial aid for direct assessment programs at the bachelor’s and master's levels. It also is the first to embrace such a framework for measurement -- which offers the field an unprecedented insight into not just outcomes, but also critical lessons learned from the first five years of offering direct assessment through its model (called FlexPath).

Specifically, the university’s report shows that direct assessment bachelor’s and master’s programs are delivering on many of the promises of CBE -- speeding time to degree, reducing cost and increasing flexibility for students, all without sacrificing quality. It also shares challenges and critical lessons that other institutions can learn from.

To my mind, the most heartening news is that Capella University’s direct assessment programs have produced 5,000 graduates in just five years, and 7,000 students are currently enrolled. Those graduates, on average, moved more quickly through their programs, were charged less in tuition and borrowed less than those in similar credit-hour programs. Many of those learners would have never made their way to -- and through -- higher education if they did not have the flexibility that direct assessment provides. This shows that, with the right structure, CBE programs can grow beyond a niche to expand access for a relatively large number of students.

Other early findings from a handful of institutions -- such as Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio -- are also promising. Students in competency-based education programs at Sinclair earn credentials at a rate 15 percent higher and 35 percent faster than their counterparts in traditional programs.

The Competency-Based Education Network has developed a quality framework for CBE programs, which ensures that quality academics go hand in hand with improved outcomes around completion, speed and cost. Our organization has conducted a number of quality-assurance reviews using this framework, and insights from those reviews and from high-quality pioneers, like Capella, are helping to identify replicable best practices for the field, which are shared at conferences such as CBExchange. A demonstration project, which is being considered as part of the Higher Education Act reauthorization, would allow us to gather even more data and refine our framework.

As Congress and the Education Department consider how to reshape our higher education system for the future, it is essential that those debates, and the ultimate policy changes, be informed by robust information on student outcomes.

We need far more information about what works and what doesn’t in competency-based education. We have the tools, and in many cases the data already exist. The challenge is getting more institutions to share. Doing so is essential to achieving educational excellence -- and ultimately helping thousands, even millions, more Americans succeed.

Charla Long is executive director of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), a national consortium of higher education institutions and statewide systems dedicated to designing, developing and scaling new models of competency-based student learning.

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Students move faster and spend less in direct-assessment programs, Capella says

Students in the aggressive form of competency-based program typically complete faster, spend less and have better retention rates than their peers, Capella says after five years of offering the so-called direct-assessment programs.

AACC puts focus on building apprenticeships and work-force relationships

AACC is helping community colleges answer President Trump's call for more apprenticeship programs and partnerships with businesses.

Experts discuss uses of labor market data in postsecondary training

A growing number of colleges and employers are working together to better use labor-market data in postsecondary training. Two experts discuss what's possible and what's needed.

Personalized learning should replace higher education's unfair fixation on speed (opinion)

Faster students are smarter students. So declared Edward Thorndike of Columbia University’s Teachers College a century ago.

You would think we are more enlightened today. Unless you looked at Mingus Union High School in Cottonwood, Ariz., where students are required to wear a red badge that “publicly identifies and shames underperforming students.” (The policy has since been dropped.)

It is patently true that “Society rewards rapid thinkers!” as my high school humanities teacher, Mr. Sabo, said many times, usually as I searched my suddenly blank mind for an answer. But faster is not always right, and it is rarely an equitable measure of performance -- or potential. Like racism and sexism, speedism (the belief that faster is better) is a contemptuous conceit that eviscerates our colleges and the souls of our most needy students.

During a recent training to develop online instruction for students with disabilities, our instructor, who was blind, demonstrated how a screen reader worked. Eyes closed, we listened and were challenged to follow the stilted robotic voice and to keep (literally) in mind where on the page we were and in what context the words were falling. After less than a minute, most of us admitted we were hopelessly lost.

“You were listening at about 80 words a minute,” our instructor said. “Seems pretty fast, doesn’t it? Well, I work at about 150 words a minute. Here’s what that sounds like.” Then he cranked up the speed to what sounded like somewhere between that old FedEx commercial and a squawking modem handshake.

You get the point. Tables turned. Now we were the slow learners. Fortunately, our instructor did not judge us.

Judgements like Thorndike’s can seem out of touch with modern sensibilities, much as the speeches of supporters of segregation in the 1940s and ’50s are cringe-worthy today. But unlike a civil rights or Me Too movement to illuminate the blind, education has not had its movement to identify and change the hegemony of speedism. But it’s time to start.

In his excellent book The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Standardization, Todd Rose provides a chilling narrative of Frederick Taylor’s fight to eliminate inefficiency in business by developing a new science of work -- with a core belief that individuality no longer mattered. However, to efficiently employ its human components, employers needed to differentiate applicants between who should be manager and who should be workers.

Enter Edward Thorndike, for whom the purpose of schools was not to educate all students to the same level, but to sort them according to their innate level of talent so they could be assigned efficiently to their proper station in life, whether eminent leader (manager) or worker or disposable outcast, and so that educational resources could be allocated accordingly. Thorndike’s guiding axiom was “Quality is more important than equality.”

Because Thorndike equated faster than average with smarter than average, he presumed the smart students would perform better when given an average allotment of time. Thus, he argued, by standardizing time for classes, homework and tests, students could be sorted and ranked based on how long it took the average student to complete a task.

Just as academic calendars still hew to our agrarian past, our teaching model is still decidedly and disturbingly based on these speedist, Taylor/Thorndike hypotheses. Those who learn best (the fastest) are rewarded. Those who muddle through can continue. Those who lag get the help we can afford until they leave or are gated out.

While time equity is essential to slow learners, it is also an issue for fast learners. How could that be? Our current educational system was designed by fast learners to advantage fast learners because, well, they are the smart ones. Right? But when fast learners are enrolled in palletized courses with peers of all learning speeds, their progress is slowed, which is frustrating and wasteful. Indeed, in top-level programs and time-critical disciplines (think emergency medicine), speed is a valid expectation and criteria. But freshman composition, what we in Georgia call a “catapult course” that dramatically impacts success in future courses, proficiency is more important than speed.

Yet speedism is most insidious for slow learners.

And, like racism and sexism, speedism is so embedded in our educational systems as to be almost unrecognizable. Consider this 2018 incident in Texas: former Texas Supreme Court justice Scott Brister, chair of a commission appointed to find ways to fund a federal mandate to improve instruction for young people with disabilities, asked members if the state should be spending education dollars “on the brightest kids or the slow learners?” He later apologized for the comment.

Even when academia tries to get it right, it can get it wrong. In its 2015 report, “The Carnegie Unit: A Century-Old Standard in a Changing Education Landscape,” the Carnegie Foundation argues that moving from the Carnegie unit as a proxy for learning to measuring actual competency is too fraught with issues to consider changing either quickly or completely. While they may be right on some points, they misstep when they note that by staying put, “at a minimum, the Carnegie unit ensures students equal time to learn.” Hopefully you can see the speedism in that statement. Equal time is not equality. Giving all students the time to achieve proficiency is equality.

Our current Taylor/Thorndike industrial, palletized, time-based, one-speed-fits-all model is unfair for any speed of learner. Fortunately, alternative models of teaching and learning are on the ascendancy. The Great Schools Partnership is leveraging proficiency-based learning, flexible learning pathways and learner-centered accountability to ensure high-quality teaching and learning is every student’s right. In this model students are held to high expectations and work until they meet them, every day. In addition, progress in K-12 is being informed by work from Competency Works and iNACOL.

In postsecondary education, the recognition is coming more slowly. But networking and guidance from projects including the Competency-Based Education Network, Every Learner Everywhere and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities are building a critical mass of innovative models that address and replace speedist hegemony with individualized, adaptive and guided learning models where failure is not an option.

In the past the system set the speed and measured students against the average. In the (not too distant) future the speed of the individual learner will be first, and no learner will be last.

Myk Garn

Myk Garn is assistant vice chancellor for new learning models at the University System of Georgia.

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