Published on 2014/08/07

AUDIO | Mapping the Rise of Competency-Based Education
Competency-based education is an example of the rising responsiveness of the higher education industry to the demands of its main constituents: students.

The following interview is with Nan Travers and Amy McQuigge of SUNY Empire State College, and Mary Beth Lakin of the American Council on Education (ACE). Travers, McQuigge and Lakin gave a presentation at the 2013 UPCEA Mid-Atlantic Conference focused on the definition and direction of competency-based education (CBE). In this interview, they expand on that topic, discuss how competency-based learning has impacted the industry thus far and share their thoughts on how the growth of competency-based education will continue to impact the postsecondary landscape going forward.

1. Why has CBE grown so much over the past few years?

Mary Beth Lakin (MBL): There have been converging pressures, challenges and opportunities. There is greater need for more affordable college education, increased access, shorter time to attainment and, from that, the CBE approach has become one of the answers to those challenges. What we’re seeing now is more of an emphasis on “What is learning?” and less of a focus on [seat-time] in a seat in a college classroom. The adult learner population has really changed and expanded in terms of learning experiences and needs.

Nan Travers (NT): As the employment world has been shifting and has become so much more global, it’s harder to get a sense of what somebody knows and how appropriate they are for a position. There’s significant pressure coming to higher education from the employment sectors to really provide better information about a learner and the kinds of knowledge they have in order to help the transition.

The ability to connect to information has drastically changed and once we move toward mobile [opportunities] instead of it being at computers, people have access to information in a very different way. The competency-based process allows us a very different way of describing knowledge and documenting it, validating it and credentialing it so it captures what people know and how it fits into the work world.

Amy McQuigge (AM): One of the huge changes in education is access to the Internet and access to open educational resources that didn’t exist previously.There are a lot of different communities being built up outside of the traditional educational experience. Students are coming in with these competencies or gaining competencies outside of their traditional educational environment that need to be recognized.

2. How has postsecondary education changed as a result of the growth of competency-based learning?

MBL: This still is early days for this wave of CBE. Higher education really has to look across different environments. It’s really broadening in capacity to do that and one of the things coming out is an ability to look at these different environments, to look at where the commonalities are, to come up with a common language and definitions and a framework.

NT: One of the movements we see just in the last few years is the whole process of prior learning assessment (PLA). As more institutions are becoming aware of how to do PLA and how it can fit into the curriculum, part of the question becomes, “How do you measure learning that has been gained in the workplace and through other kinds of life experiences that are verifiably for college-level credit?” Learning that’s been acquired outside of the classroom doesn’t nicely fit into what has been designed to be taught in the classroom, so a lot of institutions are struggling and working toward this solution.

Another movement that’s been growing over the last couple of years is the use of ePortfolios in higher education. As we move away from [traditional] assessment strategies such as tests and exams and papers  [to a model where] students start to be able to articulate their learning and use evidence to show that learning, there’s ways of actually looking at that and talking about that from a competency point of view.

AM: One great thing CBE is doing for higher education is getting some good conversation started. 2012 was the year of the MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] and it got people to start talking about pedagogy and how big can a class be, how small can a class be, what is discussion, what is video, what is lecture? This is the year of CBE: what do we expect out of a student once they graduate, what should a degree look like, what is the credit-hour?

3. Looking to the future, how do you think higher education will look in 10 years should CBE continue to grow?

MBL: I’m hoping there will be greater alignment and more interconnectedness and networking. Right now, we’ve got a lot of great ideas and a lot of frameworks put in place, so how do we connect them and build on each other?

ePortfolios will keep going where I, as a learner, can use those technologies to present myself and my skills and my credentials to an employer and to higher education. I’ll be able to do that across different environments and hopefully that will be more integrated into the way higher education is operating. It’s a great way of sharing easily and streamlining that whole process of verification.

NT: At Empire State College, we are 100 percent-designed and focused on the adult learner. PLA is central to the design of the student’s degree and the student works with a faculty member to design a degree plan around learning outcomes or competencies. They put their degree curriculum together based on where they want to end up with their goals. What I see for the future of higher education is a greater appreciation of the knowledge people have and making that central to allowing curriculum to grow as industry grows.

We may see students doing less with one institution and actually combining opportunities across institutions. We may see partnerships across institutions so that we can serve students in different ways that we don’t have to repeat. We’ve got a lot of ways of rethinking how we can use networking and helping students really think through how to best become a lifelong learner as they move through it.

AM: Part of that ePortfolio process is pulling in a bunch of different sources from non-formal and formal learning. You can pull in the certificates you’re getting from MOOCs, you can pull in the awards or training you’re getting from your job, you can pull in badging, you can pull in any experiences you have in your community. You really have this lifelong, life-wide ePortfolio that can then link to an academic transcript to see what that student did in that class, what objectives they met. Those adult students who are coming back to school — they’re learning, and their knowledge needs to be accepted and recognized as well, either through PLA or ACE credits or competencies.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • The demands for affordable higher education and shorter time to completion are among the driving forces behind the rapid growth of competency-based education (CBE) programs.
  • This approach to education is leading to non-traditional approaches to assessment, as shown by the rising popularity of ePortfolios.
  • The growth of CBE could lead to an unbundling of the degree program, where students complete relevant credits at different institutions and roll them together into a single degree.

Readers Comments

Dwayne P. 2014/08/07 at 11:47 am

It’s interesting to read about the conversation now developing in higher ed around the core aspects of teaching and learning, going as far as challenging what we fundamentally understand as education. The definitions that have served us since the early land-grant institutions were formed no longer work in today’s environment, and it’s worthwhile to revisit and update them.

Wallace Kenyeres 2014/08/08 at 9:27 am

I agree that one trend we’ll see more of in the next decade is students combining coursework from multiple institutions to build a credential and skillset that suits their needs. Currently, ePortfolios are perhaps the best way to display this type of effort. However, we may soon see multi-institutional learning recognized in a more formal way. Some states are starting to look at how to coordinate among their higher ed institutions to encourage seamless transitions for students from college to university, or from one university to another. This has helped improve accessibility and flexibility for adult students.

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