Published on 2016/06/17
The EvoLLLution | Competency-Based Education Models Benefits Faculty As Well As Students
Competency-based education transforms the faculty role but could allow for specialization and personalized support than ensures a more rigorous and customized educational experience for students.

A college degree signifies to an employer that a graduate can demonstrate multiple things, reading and writing at the very core of this skill set. Yet, national surveys show employer dissatisfaction in multiple areas for new college graduates. Consider the following statement: the same qualities or competencies that make a college graduate desirable to an employer might also be the same qualities that make for better students in courses and create better learning environments. Students create more dynamic and successful classroom communities where ideas are dissected and new knowledge created. Competency-based education helps to further shape and produce those very qualities faculty like to see in top students. The key is found in student support.

Across the country, higher education institutions are innovating curriculum and business process to implement online competency-based education (CBE) models. Yet competency-based pedagogy—organizing teaching through learning outcomes and disciplinary competencies—has been a mainstay of teaching for decades. The innovation is found in business processes and systems that support a more flexible educational delivery system and represent significant opportunities to be tapped. Instead of a delivery model scheduled around instruction hours and seat time, faculty structure CBE online degree and certificate programs around student mastery of content knowledge—and this becomes the crux of the educational model—focused on the student, not the academic calendar.

For instructors I think this concept also correlates with more teaching support. In speaking with colleagues teaching at the college level, it becomes clear that competency-based programs focus on the same overarching competencies many faculty would love to have in their classrooms now. A competency-based pedagogy married to a competency-based delivery model distributes the responsibilities for teaching and learning across the program instead of layering multiple responsibilities with the faculty member.

For faculty, a familiar model is found in undergraduate research programs. Many undergraduate research programs across the humanities have deliberately integrated a competency-based research skills-focused pedagogy across degree programs instead of hoping the student comes to class with the abilities to write coherently and with persuasion, review information accurately, work collaboratively in teams, or to demonstrate critical thinking through oral argument. Undergraduate research directors work with faculty across disciplines to integrate necessary research skills. These competencies are sewn into the fabric of the degree program through curriculum redesign strategies in which the entire department agrees to participate. Although not delivered online, competency-based education programs like the model at Alverno College have successfully graduated students through a competency-based model for decades. The model can work if the right people are involved.

I want to underscore that for online CBE delivery models, the CBE curriculum should remain in the hands of highly-qualified, disciplinary faculty—the same way that undergraduate research skills might be designed into a disciplinary curriculum in partnership with faculty. Rather than a degree-mill concept built around passing a series of standardized tests, I advocate for a competency-based pedagogy molded around a planned and deliberate delivery of competencies determined and taught by programmatic faculty. The competency-based delivery model, an innovative and transformative approach, differs because of the delivery and support systems set up in favor of the student. Just as in a traditional seat time-based program, a competency-based model combines a series of intricately related concepts, modules, projects, essays, exams and other assessments and experiences that build upon each other to scaffold a guided learning environment for the student. In successful CBE degree programs, I’ve noticed a couple of highlights:

1. An assigned coach, mentor, or advisor: The advising role is key for students; folks in higher education have know this for a long time. In an online CBE model, the advisor or coach checks in with the student every week the student is enrolled and helps the student prioritize and manage time effectively.

2. The student works at her/his own pace: Many students have stepped out of college mid-stream for one reason or another to enter the workforce. The online CBE model leaves room for unexpected occurrences that won’t negatively impact a student’s transcript, and also lets the student demonstrate life and work experience through faculty-designed programmatic content assessments.

3. Teaching faculty have a lot to gain from a well-planned CBE delivery model: The unbundling of faculty roles frees up faculty time for scholarship and development of innovative curricular strategies.

Here’s a familiar story: A student has progressed through introductory courses without learning to write persuasively, develop rational argument or think critically and is now enrolled in an upper-level seminar trying to demonstrate and communicate to her professor through written assignments that she knows the content. Although not all students in every course are at the same level, this student is far below—in fact, rarely making above a C on assignments and projects. A competency-based program will incorporate personalized learning—analytics with branching tree logic that expand or collapse according to the student’s needs, a coach to help the student stay on track, and flexible time arrangements to help navigate life disruptions—to make sure the student stays on track. Supports are placed at multiple points but the student will not advance until the writing competency is mastered. The decision to hold a student back is not tied to one faculty member, and instead all who come in contact with the student are aware that the student is struggling with this particular component. With a CBE degree program delivered through a well thought-out competency based delivery model, unbundling these traditional faculty responsibilities recognizes that the faculty member has additional support as well as the student.

Competency-based pedagogy does not mean there’s a single multiple-choice, standardized test that indicates competency or provides a degree. Rather, this rigorous academic, problem-based pedagogy and student-focused program delivery strategy weaves competencies throughout the curriculum and supports students where they need it most.

From the faculty perspective, teaching through competencies should not be new, but rather a much more student-friendly way of learning that is not contingent upon an institution’s academic calendar, but on a student’s lived experience as a working adult, a parent, a caregiver, or a combination of all these and many others.

I don’t think competency-based education is a one-size-fits-all prescription for what ails higher education. And right now, I don’t think it’s best for all students. But like online learning twenty years ago, online competency-based education is continuing to evolve. The collective “we” are going to figure this out, and it certainly won’t be without growing pains. In the best Deweyan tradition, let’s work through the process, learn from mistakes and experience, and then practice innovation in higher ed environments for the benefit of students AND faculty.

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