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3 Keys to Launch and Scale a Competency-Based Program

The EvoLLLution | 3 Keys to Launch and Scale a Competency-Based Program
Successful competency-based programming requires a significant shift in institutional administration to ensure students’ needs are being met both inside and outside the classroom.

As the dean of an online competency-based education (CBE) program at a traditional private university, I frequently get calls from leaders at other universities wanting advice on how to launch and scale their own CBE program. What is the secret? Sometimes I want to answer as realtors do when asked the three most important secrets of real estate—but instead of “location, location, location” it is “change, change, change.”

When you create a CBE program, you leave the old systems and process behind and change almost everything. But it might be more helpful to start with the three areas our leadership team focuses on every day: Create, collaborate and separate.

1. Create

Every CBE program is rooted in the concept of backward design, or “starting with the end in mind.” So, whether you are talking about the curriculum, faculty model, instruction, marketing, budget, technology systems or student support we start by asking what is the best outcome for the student and then create a path to get there. The constant creative thinking is one of the joys and challenges of CBE.

This creative process is iterative. The first thing you try won’t work. So fail early and cheaply and be ready to pivot (and yes, maybe accept incremental progress less than the ideal.)

An example of this in our own experience is our faculty model. When we started, we wanted time to be flexible and learning to be consistent, with courses available any time to any student. Then, we created a faculty model that would lead us to that. We paid faculty salaries (full-time or part-time) not related to course load so that they would teach even if only one student was in a class. We divided the role of the faculty into three parts: Subject matter experts to create content; instructors to interact regularly with the student and the material; and assessors to ensure the final assessment was graded in a consistent, rigorous and non-biased way.

Before long, we found having constant access to every class—each one staffed with multiple people—was too expensive and complicated for the numbers we had. So, we decided that offering all courses all the time was more important to student success than having separate assessors and instructors in every course. This is still a goal, but it is one that we may have to wait for the full scale to achieve.

2. Collaborate

It can take years of persistent consensus-building to gather the high level of commitment needed to make a success of your program. CBE is expensive to create and scale—it requires long term financial commitment and unwavering leadership. You will encounter opposition along the way, so you will need support from the top administration and board of directors or system leadership.

You will need a great working relationship with faculty, as well as professionals in student account services, financial aid, registrar’s office, marketing, recruiting, technology services, public relations, institutional effectiveness, the bookstore… essentially every function of the university. Sharing your vision for CBE, and inviting stakeholder support is important because every function will be impacted by a changed model, and you will often depend on goodwill for people to go above and beyond their job expectations to help you create a solution.

External collaboration is helpful as well. Fortunately, the Competency-Based Education Network and other resources have matured in the last few years and offer extensive resources to develop and scale new programs. Dive into the website, attend CBExchange, join and participate in the convenings, and share your struggles and successes with the helpful colleagues that you will meet. Universities with more mature CBE programs are often willing to share their experiences. There are even academic certificate programs such as the one at my university, Lipscomb, in Competency-Based Education design where you can take graduate classes in a CBE format on how to develop a CBE program.

3. Separate

It might seem antithetical to the previous point, but you have to accept from the beginning that a mature CBE program cannot co-exist with a traditional program using the same structures and systems. Here are a few of the areas where traditional and CBE do not work well together:

Curriculum: CBE courses or competencies are designed around outcomes, not topics, and often require a total overhaul of course requirements. Curriculum changes must be nimble and responsive to employer needs, so traditional approval processes may prove too cumbersome.

Learning Management Systems: I haven’t seen a CBE LMS that meets all the needs of a traditional program, or a traditional LMS that meets all the needs of CBE. 

Registrar, Financial Aid and Student Accounts: CBE will tax your leaders in these areas. There will be enough work for a separate staff. We solved this problem in different ways: We hired our own registrar, but we worked with financial aid to assign an officer to our team with a dotted line to CBE leadership. 

Policies and processes: Dropping, adding, withdrawing, grades, payment, financial aid, student services, substantive interaction, success coaching, transcripts, faculty load, student services. All these and more are impacted and require updated or completely different guiding documents such as separate catalogs, student and faculty handbooks.

Student Information SystemsYour CBE processes (especially if you have a direct assessment or subscription model) will be very different from your traditional processes. Make sure your SIS can handle it, and that it is responsive to student needs.

And there are more. Separate systems and functions are best accomplished with a unit devoted to CBE—a separate college, division or campus. Again, this will not happen overnight in most cases, but understanding that more and more separation will need to come with scale is something that should be accepted at the start of any CBE program.

Focus on the Student

As a leader in the CBE field, your challenge is to continually create the most effective ways to meet student needs, to collaborate generously while influencing the people and systems you need to solve complex problems, and to separate from the traditions and systems of the past to achieve your vision of the future.

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