Competency-based learning

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

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.

Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University.

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Essay on the way administrators and faculty understand language

“It ain’t what I say, it’s the way that I say it. 
That’s all, brother, that’s all.”

--Mae West

Let us say there is a well-meaning administrator – in particular, a college president – who wants to be sure that students at her institution are benefiting as much as possible from their undergraduate educations. Clearly, this is a central concern for any college president, since that is presumably a major reason for taking the job. 

The president assumes that this is a goal shared by the faculty, since it is at the heart of their own vocation. Moreover, she has heard them speak of how their various disciplines teach not only specific subject matter, but important intellectual skills and habits of mind as well.  The president also assumes that, since her faculty colleagues are themselves scholars and scientists, they will have an interest in discovering whether or not their teaching is having the desired effects.  And is it not the case that true professionals wish to become better and better at their chosen work?

So, the president makes a carefully prepared presentation at a faculty meeting about “competencies” and “assessment.”

What result can be expected?

The outcome may be a positive one if the faculty community in question is already comfortable with these terms and their meanings; they may be willing, perhaps even eager, to consider how best to go about such a project or to improve an initiative already undertaken.

If, on the other hand, the faculty members have not been enculturated into the world of professional higher ed jargon, which is not the same as disciplinary jargon – or, if, for that matter, they have taken issue with some of it for well-considered reasons that require serious discussion – they will be sufficiently put off by the lingo not to bother attending to the message.

To be sure, there may be other reasons for opposition. Reports have surfaced from the higher education community about faculty members who are resistant to change and wish to go on doing things in the manner to which they have become accustomed.  Nonetheless, it is worth attending to the Mae West principle: it is not just the content of the message that is important, but also how that content is being communicated.

Which bring us to “competency” and “assessment.”

“Assessment” has actually been faring better among faculty members in recent years insofar as it avoids what we might call nudnik positivism (i.e., forgetting Einstein’s famous observation that “not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts”) and as long as it is clear that the main goal is to make teachers better at their work, as opposed to fulfilling some misconceived external rankings system obligation.  The term has thus been developing a more familiar, relatively congenial specific content, perhaps making it less necessary to use more elegant and traditional alternatives like “evaluation.”  Though one should never assume.

What about the neologism “competency,” which some of us (this writer included) have avoided up to this very day?  There is, to be sure, a persuasive grammatical justification for preferring “competency” to good old “competence”; this has to do with the distinction between mass nouns and count nouns. “Competence” -- like “water”, “butter”, or “common sense” -- is a mass noun, something you can have more or less of (or, in fact, none at all). “Competency,” on the other hand, operates as a count noun and is thus applicable to items you can have a specific number of – say, two, five, or 16, depending on how many you wish to list.  Moreover, “competency” may be preferred over such traditional count nouns as “skill” (which may sound too narrowly technical) or “capacity” (often used of qualities that are innate).
          
And yet, there are reasons to distrust this term.  Some have to do with the meanings it has been acquiring among change enthusiasts who seem to believe that the benefits of higher education can be achieved without significant interaction with actual, human, salaried teachers. 

But, even leaving these issues aside and returning to the well-meaning among us who seek to incorporate the benefits of online resources into the essential student/teacher relationship: the very use of the term “competency” may shut down the channel because of what it seems to say about the speaker.  Many inhabitants of the world of higher education – especially faculty members – are put off by professional higher ed jargon.  If they find such jargon rebarbative (now, that’s a word to conjure with), they may view those who utter it as Aliens from Planet Administration.

Which brings us to a distinction made by sociolinguists and philosophers of language (who prefer greater precision in their analyses than Ms. West found sufficient) -- namely, the distinction between “illocutionary force” and “perlocutionary effect.”  “Illocutionary force” refers to what a speaker intends in a communication. So, for example, when someone asks “Do you know what time it is?”, the speaker intends this as a request to be told the time. Should the addressee answer “Yes” and leave it there, that would be a failure of communication.  Or, to put it another way, the perlocutionary effect (that is, the effect upon the addressee) will not have been the one hoped for. 

So, returning to in the faculty meeting at issue here, the speaker president may strongly believe in the illocutionary force of terms like “competency” and “assessment,” while the perlocutionary effect on the faculty addressees may be roughly equivalent to “yadda yadda yadda.”  In brief, if we want the illocutionary force to be with us, we must be ever mindful of the perlocutionary effect.

Given the increasing acceptance of the term “assessment," can we expect the same for “competency”? The very distinguished Derek Bok uses it – more often in Higher Education in America than in an earlier work, Our Underachieving Colleges. Faculty members in a number of institutions are using it – especially in reports submitted to foundations.  The Association of American Colleges and Universities has recently been testing the usefulness of the term in identifying the desiderata of a high-quality liberal education.  

As it happens, though, AAC&U’s president, Carol Geary Schneider, told me recently that she and others are finding the term “competency” too modest for the true goals of a mind- and horizon-expanding education.  The AAC&U is planning to move to the term “proficiency.” an improvement in both substance and style that also serves better to engage the high standards of faculty members.  Needless to say, Mae West would have her own reasons for preferring it.

Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation. She is also president emerita and professor of anthropology emerita of Barnard College.

 

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