Moving Ahead With Competency

Eight Washington State community colleges will offer an online, competency-based business degree, as emerging form of higher education wins fans -- and some critics -- in the state.

February 17, 2015

The online, competency-based certificate Bellevue College offered last year was a hit with students. In fact, the certificate in business software was so popular that the two-year college in Washington State decided to drop its conventional online version.

“The train has left the station at Bellevue,” said Suzanne Marks, a faculty member who teaches business technology systems and is the program's chair. “We went from pilot to permanent, immediately.”

The certificate was part of phase one of an experiment by a handful of Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges. The next phase, which began in January, is the creation of a fully online, competency-based associate degree in business.

The degree will be a transfer credential, meaning students should be able to move easily to four-year institutions. The courses will feature only free and open content. And Lumen Learning, an Oregon-based company, is designing the material to be adaptive, meaning it will respond to each student’s prior knowledge.

Competency will replace grades in the degree track, with the equivalent of a B being the minimum mark students must meet.

“They keep trying until they’re done,” said Connie Broughton, who works at the Washington State Board for Technical and Community Colleges and directs the project.

Columbia Basin College, which is the system’s lead institution for the business degree, received approval from its regional accreditor for the program. It has begun marketing the degree, which, although linked to the credit-hour standard, includes elements of self-pacing. The program will also feature assessments that students can take and pass without completing course material.

Seven other two-year colleges in Washington, including Bellevue, plan to sign on and begin offering the competency-based associate degree later this year, according to Broughton.

A key reason for the degree’s creation was research showing that there are 1 million people in the state with some college credits and no degree. Broughton said many of those people need a flexible form of higher education to go back and earn their degree.

“We saw that we need to serve learners who are not with us now,” she said. “The goal is, eventually, every college can do this.”

Washington’s two-year colleges have joined more than 200 other institutions around the country that are giving competency-based education a whirl. However, some faculty groups at the Washington colleges have criticized the move. They said the competency-based credentials were created without adequate faculty input, and that the programs will create more work for faculty members.

Karen Strickland, president of the American Federation of Teachers of Washington, a faculty union, said administrators have not always acknowledged the new responsibilities competency-based credentials create for instructors. She also said faculty members were concerned about how the programs "disaggregate" the faculty role. They break apart the degree track with a canned curriculum and modularized course content, she said, which can be offered by a different college than the one where instructors work.

"It's a generic degree from another college," said Strickland. "What we oppose is corporatization of the learning process."

Tapping Expertise

The project in Washington began with a hand from Western Governors University, a pioneer in competency-based learning. The nonprofit university in 2013 began working with 11 community colleges in 5 states -- including the 4 in Washington -- to help those institutions design their own competency-based credentials in information technology. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor chipped in funding for the project.

WGU ran workshops in those five states to expose faculty and administrators to the emerging form of higher education. Attendees in Washington ranged from vice presidents to online instructors and registrars.

The sessions “started to get the idea of competency-based education into the cultural soup,” said Rich Cummins, president of Columbia Basin College.

Soon four colleges in the state began offering short-term, competency-based certificates in business and I.T. As part of those programs, students take a pretest at the beginning of each course to identify their strengths and weaknesses. They can use those results to move faster through material they understand, earning credits when instructors deem them competent.

The competency-based courses feature both course instructors and a navigator for students, who serves as a sort of advisor, providing support and helping them to select course sequences.

Three days into offering the certificate, Bellevue had enrolled 104 students in the program, said Marks. Another 107 or so enrolled during the second quarter.

“Students voted with their feet,” she said. In particular, Marks said students like the self-pacing, the flexible due dates for work and the program’s “high-tech, high-touch” approach.

Faculty members had to do a lot of work up front to create the programs. Mapping course competencies in particular is laborious, said Marks. But there was a payoff for instructors as well as students, she said. “It makes you pay more attention to instructional design, your outcomes and your assessments.”

Other faculty members at Bellevue were less enthusiastic. And some have expressed concern about the college’s attempt to join the Columbia Basin pilot group. Several signed a letter expressing concern about who is overseeing quality control for the degree.

“It will be taught by non-Bellevue College faculty, developed by non-Bellevue College faculty and with assessments formulated by a third party, Lumen Learning,” the faculty members wrote. “Should Bellevue College lend its name to this degree?”

Self-Paced Model

The eight participating colleges in the consortium contributed a total of $1.4 million for the creation of the online transfer degree. The costs went toward the hiring of four full-time faculty members, who will oversee the business core of the program. Columbia Basin also hired six part-time faculty members to run the general education side of the degree track.

Cummins said the program will need about 400 students to break even. Other colleges can then join by creating their own online portals for the degree track, which should be fairly simple.

“We don’t believe it’s going to fail,” he said.

A key innovation of the program, said Cummins and others, is that students will be able to begin when they like during the first three months of each term. They must enroll full-time for the second chunk of three months.

Tuition is a $2,667 flat fee per six-month term. There is a $40 assessment fee. The program includes 18 courses, all competency based and online. Students must earn at least 20 credits per term, but can earn more at no cost. Cummins called this an “all you can eat” model.

Columbia Basin's role is about social mobility, he said. And the competency-based degree will allow "distant students to move at their own speed as well as their own time and place while ensuring a greater level of rigor across distance learning offerings.”


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