A little over a year ago, I left my post as vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education to become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin-Extension, a job I was attracted to because of the strong access, attainment and innovation values that are at the core of these institutions.
For example, UW-Extension is the home to the UW Flexible Option Program, and the UW Colleges offer their entire two-year liberal arts transfer curriculum in a competency-based format.
Having spent the past year overseeing one of the first and most visible direct-assessment competency-based programs in the country -- and the only one within a major public university -- I’ve had a number of aha moments that could only come from hands-on involvement in the real day-to-day work that makes these programs an exciting new option for institutions and their students.
However, developing a competency-based program, especially of the direct-assessment variety (no classes, per se), is not easy. Everything is new: identifying and describing competencies; developing meaningful assessments; gaining accreditation and federal approval (which we did); recruiting faculty and staff to participate; developing workarounds to student information systems while we develop new ones to support these programs; and explaining the concept again and again to the public, business and government leaders, and prospective students. Add to that the complexity that partnerships bring since, in our case, our current programs are offered in collaboration with other University of Wisconsin institutions.
We relish our role as pioneers because we believe we can make a dent in the need for postsecondary attainment in our state -- and beyond. But to make competency-based programs work, you need to find your allies -- people who can tolerate ambiguity at times and many roadblocks along the way. You need to establish the means to reward them financially and in other ways, because forging new territory takes enormous time, energy and commitment.
Though we in higher education have been focused on student learning outcomes in broad terms for decades, faculty who developed our UW Flexible Option programs embraced the tasks of delineating competencies on a far more granular basis than they had done before. They also took on the enormous job of creating meaningful authentic assessments, not simply multiple-choice exams, and guiding our academic success coaches, who in turn guide our students.
Our first programs were in professionally oriented fields like health care and information technology that naturally lend themselves to a competency-based approach. I am particularly impressed with the faculty within the UW Colleges (the 13 high-access two-year transfer institutions that are the on-ramp to the UW System), who created a direct assessment version of the first two years of liberal arts general education, providing a strong rebuttal to those who say the liberal arts cannot be taught in a competency-based format.
I know that any time faculty take a close look at the curriculum, courses get better. I have heard from our faculty that they believe their involvement in designing UW Flexible Option programs improved their classroom teaching. Surfacing competencies and shifting to a mastery model, where one competency must be mastered at a particular level before moving on to the next, is finding its way to various degrees within our traditional programs.
A recent interview-based briefing by the Education Advisory Board highlighted the difficulty some students and employers have understanding the direct-assessment competency-based model. I agree with the EAB finding that emphasizing flexibility in student recruitment, rather than using the term “competency based,” is more effective.
I disagree with the EAB recommendation that the competency-based format is best suited to and should focus on short postgraduate degrees and programs. While it is true that the most experienced students will tend to adapt to the format more quickly and will persist to completion, it would be a shame if we did not deploy this effective and flexible teaching model to address the critical need for postsecondary attainment at the associate and bachelor's degree level. Our experience with UW Flexible Option gives us great optimism that competency-based education is here to stay and through this modality, we will make a difference.
The general media often describe competency-based education as a “shortcut” to a degree. For example, The Atlantic titled its September 2015 article about Western Governors University, “The Online College That Credits Life Experience.” A recent survey by Public Agenda indicated that nearly 600 colleges are creating competency-based credentials. I worry somewhat that all these new programs may try to take shortcuts in program design, will shortchange students and sully the reputation of CBE.
We have an advantage because regular UW faculty are directly involved in program design. Students earn a standard degree from a University of Wisconsin campus and understand these credentials have and are perceived as having great value.
The earliest graduates who took part in UW Flexible Option’s bachelor’s degree completion programs finished their degrees quickly, in less than two years. These nontraditional working students with some college experience but no degree were able to avoid one of the greatest barriers to degree completion in this student population -- obtaining academic credit for courses completed elsewhere. Other forms of credit for prior learning (transcripted credit and portfolios) have not been shown to break down barriers significantly for nontraditional students, the majority of whom will have attended three different institutions before finally earning a degree.
Direct assessment allows students to leapfrog the current credit transfer miasma by completing assessments designed by faculty, thus proving what they already know or can do. This is not “credit for life experience,” but recognition of university-level work that was accomplished elsewhere, whether in a formal class at another institution or in the workplace. It doesn’t matter where, when or how the learning took place. As long as the student can demonstrate it, he or she gets credit for it along the pathway to completing the program.
Another positive consequence of direct assessment program design is greater use of faculty-curated open educational resources that students can access as they learn new material and prepare for assessments. Faculty who design for us may have been exposed to the OER world for the first time, realizing the wealth of quality materials available for free and perhaps integrating more OER into classroom-based programs. Greater use of OER is especially important for institutions that have a high-access mission and a focus on affordability, such as ours.
Direct-assessment competency-based programs are not for everyone. A younger, first-time, first-generation student needs more face-to-face interaction and support. Students enrolled in competency-based programs should have a smooth pathway to transfer into a traditional online or classroom-based program if they find that the format is not the best choice for them.
Our need for greater postsecondary attainment -- and the highly diverse nature of students in the U.S. -- calls for multiple pathways to a degree, including flexible means for meeting the needs of older, experienced, working students and getting them to the finish line.
Cathy Sandeen is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Extension.