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An Overview of Competency-Based Education: Its Place in the Market and Gaining Stakeholder Buy-In

The EvoLLLution | An Overview of Competency-Based Education: Its Place in the Market and Gaining Stakeholder Buy-In
While faculty should have final say on all competency-based curricula, student demand and industry requirements must play a role in the competencies being delivered.

When it comes to finding a common definition for alternative and innovative credentials, there doesn’t seem to a standard. What is innovative for some institutions has been in place at other institutions for decades.

By definition, alternative credentials would seem to be any educational experience completed by a student that does not align with the traditional semester-based course delivery model. Therefore, students and employers might think of alternative credentialing as anything that is not a traditional degree—meaning not an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate—but that lack of definitiveness leaves many in a state of confusion regarding the worth of the credential.

A look across disciplines reveals that alternative credentialing is really not that new. Medical fields have offered alternative credentials through licensures and technical training that is widely accepted across disciplinary and industry standards. The notion of a traditional degree may be going the way of the notion of a traditional student. At the D2L FUSION conference this year, a speaker described non-traditional students as the new– traditional because the majority of students seeking higher education credentials fall outside of the typical student living on campus, 18 to 24 years of age.

The new traditional student is older, with more experience gained outside of the classroom, and demands more flexibility in both the degrees pursued and the method of degree delivery. Traditional students are not the majority and so the term new-traditional seems more appropriate than that of non-traditional student. In the same manner, alternative credentialing may comprise more and more of the majority of degrees being sought by students.

The more students know about the credentials needed, the more the demand for multiple pathways to credentialing will drive production of alternative and innovative models of education. Competency-based education (CBE) curriculum development and content delivery models are a good example of this innovation—degrees offered through a flexible path around a student’s needs, not an institution’s academic calendar.

Understanding the Place of the CBE Model: Alternative, Innovative or Standard?

CBE programs across the country are being launched in so many forms that “CBE” is almost a catch-all phrase too widely used. In one way, competency-based is an innovative means of learning because it adopts and expands content around the needs of the student. On the other hand, educators have always structured student learning around mastery of knowledge, skills and attitudes. As such, CBE remains rooted in a traditional means of curriculum development. In both the former and the latter, content remains in the hands of faculty. I think it’s important for institutions and systems of higher learning to take the time to decide what CBE means for a particular institution. The innovation rests in the hands of the education provider in response to the demand of the student market.

Who “Owns” Program Development?

Recently, during a competency-development workshop we outlined the clusters of skills, knowledge and attitudes involved in a particular master’s degree program. Eventually the topic of industry standards came to the floor. One faculty member was ready to accept as the framework for development of a new curriculum the standards previously focus-grouped and developed by an industry association. Other faculty members in the department pushed back, responding that industry alone should not define student learning. Industry standards might inform the development of content for the degree. But the content of any degree program—traditional and alternative— should remain in the hands of the faculty.

Faculty may use industry standards to inform competencies as they create curriculum, but the final course product and student learning outcomes decisions remain the responsibility of faculty, not the employer.

Students also help to drive the curriculum for degree creation, and in this way degrees do become responsive to the marketplace. For professional schools, where job advancement is the lens through which students view their education, there may be closer alignment between student, industry, and faculty ideas of what’s valuable in a degree. What students help to shape more, however, is the delivery method of a degree: whether the degree is delivered online, as a cohort, outside of a traditional semester, or at a lower price point. In my opinion, alternative and innovative degrees are shaped and molded in response to market demand on a greater scale than traditional degrees.

Getting Faculty Buy-In

Asking for support from faculty is not all that different from getting buy-in from any other audience. Faculty, like anyone else, need to be valued, respected for their expertise, and not taken for granted. Assuring faculty that the creation of any credential, traditional or alternative, remains the responsibility of the faculty is a great start. Industry and audience can inform content creation, as can discussions on skills, knowledge and attitudes. But the final decision of curriculum design and delivery should remain in the control of the faculty—this is true for any credential earned from an institution of higher education.

Communicating the Value of CBE to Prospective Students and Employers

Students continually ask, “Why are we learning this?” They complain, “I’ll never use this again.”

You’ll often hear me say to students, “What this looks like when you’re on the job is this…,” or “On your resume, what we’re doing now translates to the following sentence…” And then I’ll provide a resume snippet of a description of the task at hand.

For competency-based education, the implementation of which is providing a good idea of an alternative or innovative credential, that process of successfully mapping out the competencies becomes the “sell” for students because it outlines that final mastery level to which the student aspires—it gives them the end goal. “By the end of this degree you will demonstrate mastery over the following competencies.”

Students should be able to use just about every competency in some form or other on a resume. Alternative credentialing should provide for a student the words to explain the value that new knowledge has for an employer. Student should be able to describe, discern and demonstrate for themselves, for their peers and for an employer the differences found in the following communication competency: “I can prepare a brief for a supervisor, a press release for the public, or develop a white paper, all around the same topic.” This specific communication competency provides a lot more information to both student and audience than simply a course entitled, “Communication 301.”

As long as both students and employers know that faculty have developed and awarded the credentials, and that students can easily describe new knowledge, skills and attitudes in the alternative and innovative credentialing, the jump to a credential’s value and worth should be a simple one.

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