Competency-based education has been available to students for several decades, but there’s been a jump in interest over the past year. The White House is encouraging innovation in new delivery models. Federal agencies and foundations are weighing in with studies and grants. And think tanks and higher education associations are organizing convenings and webinars.
Meanwhile, more colleges and universities are beginning to offer competency-based education (CBE) programs and many others are considering them. There has been plenty of attention, at the 30,000-foot level, concerning the potential benefits and risks of CBE, but little has been shared about what the programs entail on the ground, particularly for traditional institutions.
Over the past year, Western Governors University (WGU) has been working with 11 community colleges in five states as they create new competency-based programs (with support from the U.S. Department of Labor’s TAACCCT programs and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). We found that faculty are creatively adapting to CBE based on their students’ needs and within their existing practices.
The colleges and programs
All these pilot programs are in information technology and most are starting with certificate programs that lead to degrees. The certificates range from computer system specialist and business software specialist to network+ and programmer training.
All the colleges provide traditional classes in brick-and-mortar settings, as well as online and hybrid courses. The group includes large and small, urban and rural colleges. They serve large numbers of working adults, part-time students and students with families (see box).
Austin Community College, in Texas
Bellevue College, near Seattle
Broward College, in south Florida
Columbia Basin College, in southeastern Washington State
Edmonds Community College, near Seattle
Ivy Tech Community College, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Ivy Tech Community College, Lafayette, Indiana
Lone Star College - University Park, Houston
Sinclair Community College, in Dayton, Ohio
Spokane Falls Community College, in eastern Washington State
Valencia College, in central Florida
We interviewed faculty, department chairs, deans and vice presidents of instruction at the colleges about the development of CBE courses. Here are some preliminary findings:
What is competency-based education?
One critical characteristic that distinguishes CBE from other courses is that students can progress at their own pace. They progress toward course objectives and toward a certificate or degree, based on demonstrating the knowledge and skills required at each level. That is, learning becomes the constant -- and is demonstrated through mastery of learning objectives, or competencies -- and time becomes the variable. Some students can accelerate their progress as other students might take more time and practice to advance. This requires faculty to think differently about how they support learning. Course materials need to be available whenever the student is ready for them. Faculty will work with a variety of students who are learning different things at any one time.
At all 11 colleges, faculty are responsible for course development in the pilot programs, based on their college’s policies. Working mostly in teams and sometimes through processes that included industry representation, faculty modified existing course templates, enhanced course mapping to learning objectives and changed assessment processes so that students could progress at their own pace. There was a broad range, however, in how the faculty handled course development.
Prior to beginning course development, faculty at Sinclair Community College revised the curriculum to align with new Ohio standards in information technology and with industry certifications, which entailed submitting changes through the college's curriculum approval process. Faculty then worked in teams of two or three with instructional designers to develop the courses, with each template redesigned to support CBE delivery. For each course, they mapped competencies to content and assessment items to ensure that all required competencies were met. At the end of each semester, faculty review assessment results to ensure students are achieving all competencies, and adjust assessment and content items if needed.
In comparison, faculty at Columbia Basin College are making fewer modifications. This approach is about changing a delivery mode rather than developing a new curriculum. They are using existing student objectives for their courses, with existing textbook chapters serving as course units that students draw from to master the learning objectives. Each faculty member takes on all the course roles, including collecting learning materials, delivering all content and developing assessments.
The pilot programs are gathering data, and faculty will assess student outcomes and make adjustments over the next year. So far, the following elements appear to be important decision points:
The mapping of content and assessments to student learning objectives (or competencies)
Faculty at many colleges preferred the term “student learning objectives” to “competencies.” They said it was more familiar. Most existing courses already have student learning objectives, but not all content or assessments are aligned with them. At Lone Star College in Texas, faculty are working in a committee process to rebuild courses for a competency-based approach. “Mapping course objectives to student learning outcomes to achieve student success; that is not new,” said Gina Sprowl, workforce education chair and professor of accounting. “But taking the course and building it to achieve specific outcomes from the outset, that was new.”
Alan Gandy, assistant professor at Lone Star, said the idea is not to compartmentalize learning, but rather to show students how each competency relates to the overall curriculum. He said faculty are “breaking down the competencies, matching them to the assessments, so the student will see what piece they are working on in the puzzle. They’ll see the big picture, why they’re studying this and how it matches to the overall competency.”
Each program is developing its own systems for supporting student learning. For example, faculty at all the colleges are serving their traditional roles as content experts and mentors. But these roles have shifted, as they often do in online courses, from delivering lectures to providing timely academic tutoring and engagement with students individually and in groups -- online, by phone or in person. The role is closer to that of a tutor than a lecturer.
In addition, some colleges are developing new roles to support student retention. Edmonds Community College has hired a “student mentor” to contact each student weekly to check in, find out how they’re doing, provide them with feedback and advice, and direct them to additional services as needed. The mentor serves as coach, troubleshooter, strategist and enthusiast, to address each student’s challenges and encourage their progress in these self-paced programs. Some colleges use faculty in this type of role and others use student services professionals.
Why do it?
Students attending community college in the United States are diverse, and there’s no single delivery system that serves all of them well. The faculty we interviewed described CBE not as a panacea or big risk -- but rather as another way to provide students with high-quality programs that meet their needs. Tom Nielsen, vice president of instruction at Bellevue College, said of his college’s new pilot program: “This feels like the transition when we started talking about online instruction 15 to 18 years ago. Many people at that time said we couldn’t do it. To me, it’s just another evolution. It’s another choice, another avenue for our students.”
Deborah Meadows, a dean at Columbia Basin College, said she wants to target the CBE program in information technology to women: “Our distance program tends to have more women. They tend to be working and have kids, so they're looking for ways to go to school and build options for the future.”
As colleges gain experience with competency-based programs, we’ll learn more about its impacts. Meanwhile, the programs appear to be popular at some campuses. As Suzanne Marks of Bellevue College said, “Students are voting with their feet. There’s definitely demand. Students are already asking about summer classes in this model.”
Sally Johnstone is vice president for academic advancement at Western Governors University. Thad Nodine, a novelist and writer specializing in education policy, is tracking the colleges’ experiences in creating competency-based education programs.
When concerns about the quality of education swept the nation in the 1990s, test results were said to promise a reliable measure of instructional effectiveness. They offered a way to make comparisons across teachers, schools and students, all while assuring good value for Americans’ tax or tuition dollars. Faith in data, long built into U.S. educational practices, now came to support the ideal of schooling as a fair, honest, and well-managed service. The costs to Americans of public or private education would now need to be justified by those doing the educating.
Unfortunately, that justification, like any economic calculation, started from presumptions about what is worth paying for, and increased public spending on poorer communities was not on the table. The weaker performances of under-resourced urban or rural schools called forth not more public funding but less under No Child Left Behind. However precise its format and consistent its application, measurement in this instance served entirely subjective ideas about public good, and old race, class and geographic differentials were reproduced.
That standards-based heart of No Child Left Behind beats on in current advocacy for outcomes as the main drivers of educational design and evaluation. New metrics such as President Obama’s “College Scorecard” have helped make the idea of a measurable educational “return on investment” meaningful to schools and to students and their families. And this strong emphasis on the free market as a means of quality assurance in teaching and learning continues to spread.
For example, in “competency-based learning,” the organization of higher education shifts from the familiar credit hour system to one based on assessments of student mastery of skills and content. This means that familiar units such as courses, or classroom and contact hours, may disappear altogether in some programs. It also means that students pay for credentials not on the basis of certain numbers or types of instructional activities undertaken in a degree program, but on the basis of their own educational achievements.
A kind of industrial model of efficiency and market competition emerges in competency-based education. Advocates for this shift point to lowered tuition costs as classroom time, faculty wages and other institutional expenditures are reduced (the same savings often used to justify the use of MOOCs). And Lumina Foundation’s Jamie Merisotis predicts gains in quality control because colleges and students will undertake measurement of “what is learned” rather than “what is taught.” Federal officials also firmly endorsed competency-based college programs earlier this year by declaring them eligible for Title IV financial aid.
But learning is poorly served by such supposed efficiencies. There is a fundamental inequity in the character of competency-based education as a kind of scrimping: The “saving” of money supposedly in the interest of affordability and inclusion that in actuality achieves only social demarcation. Those students with the least money to spend on college will not be walking away with the same product as their more affluent fellow enrollees, uplifting rhetoric notwithstanding. Budget versions of education, like surgery or car repairs, are no bargain. In such outcomes-focused college curriculums, stripped of “unnecessary” instruction, open-ended, liberal learning easily is deemed wasteful. And so much for the profoundly energizing (and developmentally crucial) experience of encountering messy, uncertain arguments -- of experiencing cognition without identifiable outcomes. The distance will grow between the student who can afford traditional university instruction and the one who needs to save money.
We should be careful not to presume that those who teach in competency-based programs are necessarily weaker or less committed instructors. Yet, if a pre-set body of skills, identifiable upon graduation, is what demarcates one program from another in this kind of higher education, bringing revenue and market share to a school, in whose interest is an inventive classroom experience, or one that leads to diverse intellectual experiences for different students? What faculty member will take pedagogical risks or welcome the challenging student?
There’s an important echo here, I think, with recently renewed interest in K-12 classroom tracking. New proponents of that practice recently interviewed by The New York Times point out how such tracking matches the level, speed and style of teaching more closely to divergent student needs than can any single, unified classroom. It sounds like an inclusive reform. But both trends threaten a kind of separate but equal educational system, reasserting group identities even as they claim to customize education. They do so through projections of how best to distribute resources in our society, and also through more subtle projections of student abilities and the assertion that such abilities may be predicted.
Both propose tiered education on the presumption that underachievement and differentials in life opportunities are not something we can try to prevent. Tracking and competency-based education both assert that solutions to missing or poorly executed education involve reshaping student experiences, not expanding resources. That’s a very different ideology than the one that fueled compensatory programs of the 1970s. Those initiatives managed to accommodate diverse learning styles and paces while also bolstering educational provisions for disadvantaged communities.
Competency-based education, for its part, engages in some extraordinarily selective definitions of efficiency and inclusion. The results-based model of higher education supposedly weds quality control to flexibility; some competency-based programs give equal credit for students’ classroom, online, life-experience and video-, book- or game-based learning. Those students who are shown through assessment to have pertinent skills are credentialed, however those skills were obtained; they need not pay for “unneeded credits.” For federal supporters of this scheme and approving think-tank voices, standards in each subject will reliably determine what is worth knowing and what learning counts. They also assure that the “consumer” will be well-served throughout.
Let’s think about this. A conflict of interest certainly resides in a system whereby educational providers measure learning outcomes in their own institutions. But to be fair, that conflict can afflict any instructional effort, whether good performance promises a school more revenue, more public funding or simply greater prestige. Competency-based education, however, seems systematically to deny criticality about its own operations. It uses only its own terms to judge its success. That’s troubling. If educational standards are conflated with the instruments of industry, we should not be surprised to encounter the self-serving methods of industrial quality control. Here, as in a profitable factory, the system claims a basis in economies and managerial oversight, the supposedly no-lose technics of mass-production. But industry standards invariably best serve their creators.
The multi-tiered and modular have certainly long been the American educational way. The new instructional models simply extend older beliefs in natural distributions of talent and diligence, in inborn differentials of cognition and character. Calling such schooling “diverse,” “flexible,” or “customer focused” will not make it democratic.
In outcomes-focused education, I see strong support for the idea that each individual who enters the classroom, aged 5, 15 or 25, is one with predetermined potential, with an identifiable niche on the ladder of aptitude that will match with a certain amount and kind of instruction. High or low, that ascription of talent is more than merely a subjective judgment, it is an iniquitous one: The customized learning experiences currently being praised proceed from the idea that an individual can be known by such categories and then placed in an appropriate position in a classroom or curriculum. Ultimately, that will also continue with the employment ladder. These so-called innovations don’t promise enriched learning and expanded opportunity, but outward rippling discrimination.
Amy Slaton is a professor of history in the department of history and politics at Drexel University.