Published on 2012/11/21

Developing and Implementing Competency-Based Learning

Higher education can be a confusing challenge for many adults, especially given the traditional focus on class time for completion. The competency-based model, however, allows a simpler path to a degree by focusing more on what the student knows than how long they have been enrolled.

The following interview is with Allison Barber, the Chancellor of Western Governors University—Indiana. Western Governors University was instrumental in the introduction of competency-based learning in higher education. In this interview, Barber discusses the value of the competency-based model of higher education for adult students, and explains how adopting this model could help colleges and universities increase their attractiveness to adults.

1. Why does the competency-based model appeal to adult students?

What I know about adults is that they come to higher education knowing different things based on their backgrounds and their job experiences and they learn at different rates. So if you and I both took the same math class, for instance, you and I would excel at different rates based on our previous knowledge or our experience or aptitude.

So what we find, especially with adults, is if you invite them to come to higher education and if they decide to either pursue that Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree, that one of the things you do to help them on a path to success is that you look at a competency-based model that really underscores this premise, and that’s we’re not going to teach an adult what they already know. We’ll let them leverage what they know and excel through curriculum and they’ll spend time focusing on the competencies they don’t already have.

So competency-based is really leveraging what adults are already bringing to higher education because work experience.

2. Your institution pioneered the development of competency-based models for higher education institutions. What are some of the challenges an institution must overcome when developing a competency-based model?

We created this university 15 years ago. There were a few hurdles.

First of all we had to really coordinate and socialize this new concept for higher education with the leaders of the traditional institutions. And this is why Clay Christensen from Harvard University calls our model a disruptive innovator. We took higher education and said, “Let’s take the best parts of education. But then, let’s recreate the distribution of it and the model of how it’s presented to adults so that they will walk away with an accredited degree but the path they take is very non-traditional because they’re non-traditional.”

So the first barrier was to be able to really validate the model and we had to do that with states across the United States Department of Education in Washington DC and really walk each person through how competency-based learning really does accelerate a person’s path to degree and its better learning because they graduate and they’re ready to go into the workforce.

And then we had to have a program, a credible program, that was worthy of accreditation so that we could prove when students chose Western Governors University, they would graduate with a degree that had real meaning. …

3. Well, how do you think the competency-based model will evolve over time? Do you think it will become more widespread in its use?

What we’ve witnessed at Western Governors University is that we’ve started a trend in all of higher education that’s focused on competency-based learning. And there are two reasons for that. The first is because it really works and now we’ve been in university for 15 years, we have actual research and data done by third-party institutions showing that our graduates are receiving pay raises and promotions or new jobs at a higher rate than graduates from other institutions. So we know that competency-based education works.

The second reason that it’s starting to change this conversation of higher ed is because the students and the consumers are demanding it. And, our higher education system is—really across the country—is starting to challenge itself saying we’ve got to challenge status quo. So we used to have a model, we still do have a model at several universities that say, ”If you want a business degree, you will have to sit through accounting for an entire semester:”

Nobody even takes into account that that student… may excel in accounting and might already be able to master that content and be able to move out of that class in two or three weeks. The traditional universities don’t have a model that allows that kind of advancement. So our competency-based model at Western Governors University has really created this new approach to education that really does reward prior learning.

4. You made a very interesting comment just now that not only are individuals demanding competency-based education more and more, but the competency-based model the students that come out of those programs are actually moving through their careers and advancing at a much faster rate. Are you finding that you need to convince adults to take a competency-based approach to their learning? Or are adults starting to understand for themselves that this is something that is available to them and something that should pursue?

It’s really the former of what you just described. So what we know is that as we’re building awareness with adults across the country about our competency-based model, there’s great attraction. So we’re witnessing at Western Governors University… a 30 percent growth in enrollment when most universities are reporting declines in enrollment. So, the more that we promote and educate adults about this option, the more people we enroll because it’s what adults are really looking for in the area of education. The second piece is it’s what employers are really starting to look for. In America, we talk about a gap between the people who have education and the jobs that are required and there’s a gap because we don’t have skilled workforce that’s currently required. Business owners are looking for universities like Western Governors University who train competency so when someone graduates, they are ready to hit the ground running. So employers are starting to really message the importance and the values of competency-based education as well.

5. Do you think traditional institutions could develop a competency-based approach to their programming? Or is the competency-based approach best-suited to institutions focused on serving adults?

We’re already seeing this happen at universities across America, universities that are coming to Western Governors University and saying, “Tell us how you’re doing a competency-based model, so we can learn from it and adapt it and implement it”. So we see the trends that are starting to move in the direction of competency-based education. We think that’s exactly the right approach for universities to take.

Is it the right approach for every course or for every degree program? Probably not. But it is the perfect approach for many degree programs which is what we have witnessed at Western Governors University.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of competency-based model for adults and how important offering the competency-based model is for institutions looking to enroll more adults?

The testimonies that we hear from our students and our graduates is that by going through a competency-based model in higher education that when they graduate, they are more confident in their abilities and their capabilities to do the job that they are being hired to do.

We have to look at this across the landscape of people who are returning to college. We’re not talking about an 18-year-old who’s going to college for the first time. We’re talking about the majority of people who are older, returning to college, and who have something to bring to the table. I think it is short-sighted on the part of our education system—that is stuck in the past—to not recognize the potential that an adult college student has to accelerate because of the competencies they already have acquired through their life experience. I’m optimistic about other universities adopting a competency-based model and I’m very excited about the potential our students across our country will have to gain their degree and invest their time and money acquiring and learning the competencies that they don’t currently have. It’s a terrific formula for success for both the institution and the student.

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Readers Comments

Elle Peterson 2012/11/21 at 10:52 am

I am so happy to see recognition of prior learning gaining traction. I am convinced that it is a crucial part of any mandate or strategy for educating adults, for engaging non-traditional students, and more making higher education accessible to previously ignored populations.

What it points to is a shift to a student-centered model that is more focused on the particular needs and competencies of the student, and how it might effect their learning experience, than on the sacredness of any educational tradition or method of reaching the goal of accreditation.The truth that those who cling to the traditional academy don’t want us to know is: it doesn’t matter how you get there…and guess what? Life might teach you a lot of the skills that you are required to learn here for this degree!

Yvonne Laperriere 2012/11/22 at 8:13 am

Competency-based education seems really compatible with new digital badge technology, which, like the approach described here, is focused on specific skills developed. It is also concerned with making those skills shareable with employers, colleagues, et cetera in a way that is incredibly practical for adult learners who want to go out and enter the workplace with their newly acquired skills as leverage.

I understand that as of now, what Western Governors University offers is accredited programs, but I wonder: is accreditation becoming obsolete? It seems like just another way that the academy is clinging to the monopoly they once had over higher ed– a means of controlling knowledge, who can give it out, which of it is meaningful, and which isn’t. The more the use competency-based ed and digital badges increases, I think the more we will move away from traditional accreditation…could be a very radical shift.

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