OIG Report Findings Clarify Outdated Thinking Around CBE, Not Programmatic Flaws
In September 2017, the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted an audit on Western Governors University (WGU), and found that the university’s faculty did not meet the defined level of “regular and substantive” interaction with students. Of course, these definitions were established in 1992—25 years before the audit was conducted—and have not been updated or revised to keep pace with the rate of technological change that has reshaped every other aspect of the postsecondary space. In this interview, Nina Morel reflects on the findings of the OIG audit and shares her thoughts on the long-term and short-term impacts they could have.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why has the availability of competency-based programming grown so much over the past five years?
Nina Morel (NM): Higher education has become more attuned to the needs of a diverse student population and to our changing economy. There are many ways to adapt, and CBE is just one of them. But I think everyone working in the higher education space right now realizes that the solutions that worked in an industrialized economy just won’t cut it in an interconnected, information-driven world.
There are about 3.5 million high school grads every year, and 45 million adults who have some college and no degree. CBE can meet the needs of both groups, but most especially it responds to what we know about adult learners—they want and need to be able to apply what they learn to real world problems and issues they encounter in the workplace and the community. CBE is outcomes driven and personalized, so students are not held back by arbitrary time constraints or vaguely articulated course objectives. They have a clear idea of what is required of them and then personalized paths to get to that goal.
In the past, we just assumed students would acquire competencies like relationship building, influence, teamwork, communication skills, flexibility and adaptability—but we rarely intentionally taught or assessed them. Now universities are listening to employers who say these non-cognitive skills are most important—and many CBE programs such as Lipscomb’s are beginning to teach them.
Evo: What were some of the main findings of the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General’s Report on WGU?
NM: The actual OIG report is available on the WGU website, and I encourage people who are considering CBE programs to read it. The report, based on a very narrow reading of a 1992 definition of instructional delivery, found that WGU should not have accepted some federal financial aid because its programs could be categorized as “correspondence” programs and faculty did not have “regular and substantive interaction” with students. WGU vigorously disagrees with the OIG report. WGU is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, a body that reaffirmed WGU’s accreditation and ability to award financial aid in February 2017.
WGU has been an innovator in CBE and in online learning for many years, and I believe these findings just point out that the law as interpreted by the OIG was written in a time when distance education was in its infancy and CBE was completely ignored. At that time, “self-paced” could be interpreted as “learning on your own.” With the tools we have today, that is not the case.
Students in all reputable CBE programs have infinitely more personalized interactions with faculty (via technology) than a student in a 200-seat lecture hall, for example. In 1992, we just could not imagine that faculty interaction might take place instantly via the internet and other channels, and that instead of just one faculty member, a course may have several who are responsible for supporting students in various aspects of the learning.
While it is important for us to ensure quality programs and reduce the possibility of “bad actors” taking advantage of students, it is also important that we look at federal policy around online education and make sure that it supports innovation that is so sorely needed.
Evo: Given the main findings, especially around the question of faculty interaction, what does that mean for the scalability of the competency-based education model?
NM: My hope is that the result of the report will be a renewed interest in updating the laws and regulations around financial aid so that it supports instead of impedes innovation that is good for students.
In the meanwhile, a lot of very talented minds at many universities and non-profits are working on scaling faculty interaction. The Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) is a group of innovative universities who are working together to address shared challenges to designing, developing and scaling competency-based degree programs—and in doing so maintain quality instruction and interaction with students.
Few universities besides WGU have large CBE programs right now—most are just beginning to scale, like Lipscomb’s FlexPACE program, in its fourth year of existence. Many others are in the early to late implementation phase. Universities in C-BEN have been working for years on ways to improve and scale the support that adult and other non-traditional students get in online programs. This is being done primarily by using data and technology to reduce the time spent on routine transactional interactions and increase the time spent on substantive interaction with students. At Lipscomb, we use our LMS to track and code faculty interactions with students, which elicits rich data that is not available from on-ground courses. We can use this data to help instructors improve and catch students who would have otherwise been overlooked.
Evo: How do you expect the findings to shape the design and delivery of competency-based programming going forward?
NM: I am not sure how the findings will shape the future—I think it remains to be seen how the Department of Education will act on the report, and that will influence what happens next. I do think there is strong bipartisan support for innovation in higher education models. CBE is a viable solution to many of the economic and socio-cultural challenges higher education faces, and I don’t expect this report to change the views of educators or policy makers. If anything, it might energize the effort to define CBE in policy and law.
I do think, from my discussions with other universities, that many are looking at ways to strengthen faculty models, data collection, and technology systems to ensure that we have data to show the efficacy of our programs. The focus of all CBE programs is on outcomes—can the student who finishes her CBE program do what we told her she would be able to do if she worked hard and persisted? When the data shows that this is true, and when students report that their interactions with instructors, coaches, and assessors were meaningful and supportive, then we, and the student, are successful.
Evo: Broadly speaking, what impact do you expect the report’s findings to have on public demand for competency-based programs?
NM: I don’t know how it has impacted others, but in the couple months since the report was issued, I have not had one student ask me about it. Most students do not care much about policy around CBE, but they do know how to recognize quality courses, service and faculty interaction that lead to the completion of their degree. When a program is not providing that, students leave. I do not see students leaving CBE programs right now.
However, all CBE schools do have a challenge communicating our message to the public. It is a very simple concept—simpler than the name Competency-Based Education. People expect it to be something very complex. I think we need to continue to get the message out that this is simply education in which the faculty will tell you exactly what is expected of you and how it will be assessed, work beside you to provide resources, practice, feedback and support while you learn at your own rate, and award credit based on what you can show that you can do and not just on the fact that you sat through a class or passed a test of something you can memorize. We are trying to teach students to think and act independently, not just follow directions, so that they can be valuable contributors to their organizations and communities. If we can get better at spreading this message, I think we will find the public will be very supportive of CBE in the future.