Published on 2014/09/30

The Competency-Based Marketplace is More Diverse Than You Think

AUDIO | The Competency-Based Marketplace is More Diverse Than You Think
As more and more institutions launch competency-based programs, students and observers need to remember these programs are incredibly different.

The following interview is with Cori Gordon, assistant clinical professor of personalized learning at Northern Arizona University. Competency-based education is beginning to emerge as one of the industry’s hottest and most intriguing topics, and institutions are starting to look at these programs as a marker of the future direction of the industry. However, as more and more institutions begin to develop competency-based programs, the differences between the various approaches are becoming more pronounced. In this interview, Gordon expands on these differences and shares her thoughts on how they impact students.

1. As increasing numbers of institutions launch competency-based programs, what are the common threads that make the programs similar?

Probably the biggest similarity you’re going to see among the institutions [offering competency-based programming] is that the student is at the heart of each of these programs.

The student experience, student success and student completion rates — that is really the driving factor you will see behind all of these programs. A lot of decisions made in these programs point back to that student experience, accommodating a student in a way that higher education hasn’t always sought to accommodate students. Some would say competency-based models bring something of a business model to higher education where the student is taking on a role of a consumer.

In personalized learning, we really do think of that student experience that guides a lot of our decisions. We know our typical student in personalized learning tends to be a busy adult who maybe just doesn’t have time to go back to college for a whole host of reasons. This offers them an opportunity to have access to a really high-quality education but to do it in their own time. That removal of seat time is a thread you see across most competency-based programs.

2. In what ways do competency-based programs differ?

For a student who’s thinking about competency-based programs, they really have to do their research; they have to look at the different institutions, at the different program opportunities, because they are very different. At Northern Arizona University (NAU), if you look at our mission for extended campuses, we are built to serve busy, working students looking for high-quality education. That mission is all over the infrastructure of our competency-based model. Everything we do strives to address that student population and accommodate that student population.

If a student was looking into competency-based programs or an institution was looking to develop a competency-based program, the first place to start is looking at that institution’s mission. [The programs] are not all self-paced, they’re not all online. There are more differences among the programs than similarities. In another 10 years, you’ll start to see more typical frameworks. You’ll be able to see these big categories start to emerge.

3. How do the variations between the different types of competency-based programs impact students?

It might be useful for a student researching competency-based programs to think about the different programs as small businesses. A small business is going to have its own flavor, its own flair, its own way of operating, and that’s going to be different than even the small business located next door. When a student is researching competency-based programs, they have to really think about what it is that’s drawing them to the competency-based program.

In our experience at NAU, I would actually venture to say a lot of our students are not just drawn to our personalized learning program because it’s competency-based, per se; they’re drawn to our program because we afford them the opportunity to pick and choose, to start where they want, to apply previous experience, to customize how they do things. Factors like the removal of seat time, the online competent [and] its flexibility — it’s those things our students are attracted to.

Once our students are in the program and working, the work feels like you would if you were in any online college class; you’re working hard, you’re doing your readings, you’re navigating the material, but they forget about it being a competency-based model.

4. Is there anything you’d like to add about the differences between the various competency-based programs that are starting to emerge in the marketplace and what students can do to make sure they’re picking programs that are really well suited to them?

It does require some research on the student side. There are programs across the country now and so the student, even if they live in a particular geographical area, they’re not necessarily bound to go to the university down the street. They can have just as rich an experience at an institution across the country via these competency-based programs where we’ve built in this kind of global framework.

Going back to that idea of a consumer model, students are able to customize their experience so they’re doing something that’s working for them and that meets their particular needs. I encourage students to spend a little bit of extra time in their research of programs and to expand their search: cast the net a little bit wider and look at the different competency-based programs out there as well and think about nationally what’s out there and not just what’s available locally.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Readers Comments

Gilbert Clancy 2014/09/30 at 10:25 am

Competency-based education can drastically change the landscape of higher education, but I feel we still haven’t understood or tapped into its full potential. To some degree, all programs should be competency based, regardless of whether they carry that moniker. What higher education needs to do is clearly define the objectives and expected outcomes of competency-based education and implement them, as much as possible, into all existing programming. This would shift all of higher education to be more prepared for the future needs of the workforce.

Dan Krinkle 2014/10/01 at 9:50 am

I appreciate Gordon’s restraint when discussing how not all competency-based learning programs are built the same way. I will exercise less tact and just say there are a lot of unscrupulous institutions out there willing to do anything to attract students, even if that means advertising a fictitious CBL program that’s little more than a do-it-yourself online scheme. Unsuspecting students register for these programs, unfamiliar with what a CBL program actually constitutes. All of this points to the need for better monitoring of CBL programs and the establishment of some shared service standards and/or learning outcomes among the institutions looking to offer CBL.

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