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The EvoLLLution (Evo): What’s unique about the way you and your colleagues are bringing competency-based education (CBE) into your programming?
Donna Diller (DD): From the beginning, a lot of the conversation around competency-based education was driven by our Faculty Fellows and their leadership. From there, our executive leadership team established it as a strategic initiative of the college.
We took a “sandwich approach” to developing the program, meaning that we fostered faculty support and interest in learning about this new way of offering education while having administrative buy-in and support from the beginning. That ongoing support from both administration and faculty has really allowed the initiative to grow and flourish.
Evo: Why did you decide to build competency-based programming from the bottom up, as opposed to dictating it from the top down?
DD: We follow a shared governance approach at CNM. This allows for better buy-in from stakeholders. When developing our strategic initiative teams, we try to make sure the appropriate players are at the table.
We found this to be a successful approach because it meant that we not only had administrative support, but also that we could find people on campus who were excited about trying something new. We were able to find faculty to champion the idea, and then build upon those successes to develop a cohesive plan.
In terms of designing our own model for CBE, we explored a lot of different models across the country. This process included drawing on the expertise of C-BEN (the Competency-Based Education Network), which we have been part of since 2015. There’s not one model for competency-based education, and so using the expertise of those that had already developed different models helped us to hone in on what would work for our institution. There are many nuances and regulatory requirements that are impacted by CBE, so we’ve taken our time, which has been good in many ways.
Kalynn Pirkl (KP): I want to give you a bit of context around the program. We developed our competency-based Retail Management Certificate in partnership with the Western Association of Food Chains. The idea was to use a CBE model for the series of classes that make up the certificate. Students are enrolled for courses in seven-week blocks, which they complete as and when needed. It was designed for current employees that have some work experience, so we wanted them to be able apply their work experience towards those classes.
Evo: A lot of institutions build CBE programming in a very ad hoc way, often as part of their CE offerings rather than as part of the main campus. At CNM, you built this CBE program right on the traditional campus, and right into existing programming. What are some of the lessons learned in that approach to program development and execution?
DD: One real advantage of a credit-based approach to CBE is the flexibility it brings. So many organizations that we work with typically want the programs we develop to still be credit-bearing, because they want their employees to have a pathway to a degree. By designing CBE programs as stackable credentials, it benefits those students that want to take the course for credits. For those that just want to take the program to develop a given skill, the credit-bearing aspect doesn’t put them at a disadvantage, especially since in a competency-based model they can work through it more quickly if they have prior knowledge.
That said, a credit-based approach leads to challenges. There are so many more regulations and roadblocks that we have to overcome for credit-bearing courses, such as financial aid requirements and constraints around the credit hour. If we want to support credit-bearing CBE programming, there’s going to have to be a few changes to some of the ways we look at doing things in higher ed.
KP: An advantage and a disadvantage to CBE programming is finding ways to fit it into our traditional structure. It’s an advantage in that our students quickly understood the program, once we explained how the competency-based model works. But on the other hand, it also made things more difficult because we had to create a different way to register students and help them apply for financial aid. The students still don’t register themselves at this point. At some point that may change, but we tried to do what we could to make sure that students are completing the competencies they need, while still fitting them within that standard program or structure.
DD: Another reason we built CBE into our existing program was because our president and her executive leadership team encouraged us, as a college, to use an entrepreneurial mindset and think about how we deliver education in a different way to better meet the demands of students who need a more flexible way to obtain their education. There’s been a level of understanding from the President’s office that it’s okay to try new things and see if they work out. If something doesn’t work, you learn and then figure out a different way to do it. She, along with her team, is fully supportive. The idea of failure is allowed, as long as you learn from it!
Sometimes in the past, all of the answers had to be figured out before you would start a new program. When we were developing this, it was important for us to understand that we didn’t have all the answers. We had to be willing to say, “It’s okay that we don’t know exactly how this is going to work, but this is our pilot plan,” and then move from there.
Evo: With so much conversation around the bureaucratic and administrative process playing into the student experience, how do you make sure the students’ expectations are being met when trying to get them involved in a manual and challenging process? If they can’t manage their own registrations, I’d imagine that means staff are manually doing a quite a bit of work on the back end to help facilitate enrollment.
DD: We’ve come at this with a “concierge” attitude. A large part of students’ successes and failures comes down to the fact that sometimes we make them jump through so many hoops that it becomes difficult for them to engage with us. That is where students fall through the cracks.
This industry partnership helped us realize that we needed a different level of service. One example was the need for a different orientation process. To Kalynn’s point, we needed to explain to students how this program is different from our traditional educational offerings. That’s really been beneficial. We have a student success coach involved in the program as well. Part of our discussion as we’ve grown the program was around identifying costs and expenses, particularly if program orientation ends up being a manual process. We need to be realistic about what it’s going to take to operate as we move forward.
We’re still trying to adopt some processes that will help us streamline. We’re adopting a CRM, and some of the processes within that—like our application process—should become simpler as a result. That would help all of our students. So, if we can learn some lessons about what’s helpful in the CBE course offering as a pilot, maybe we can transfer that to our traditional offerings as well.
KP: We’re finding that our students really like the concierge service approach. We register them for the courses and have everything ready for them, so they can hit the ground running and take those classes that will help them develop their skills through mastery of the competencies. I think they prefer this concierge service. It helps them overcome some of the obstacles that are part of the traditional structure such as application, registration and enrollment processes. That is definitely something that we are seeing in student feedback.
DD: The other benefit to our competency-based coursework is that there’s no additional charge for textbooks. Students don’t have to worry about registering for the class and then paying additional money for their textbook. It’s all covered in the price of the program and is automatically in the online program.
Evo: What characteristics are essential to a great student experience in competency-based programming? Which of those elements could transition into the more traditional on-campus student experience?
KP: We used a backwards design method when we were developing these CBE classes. Because of the way we designed it, the process allowed us to look at what we really needed to teach and what we were trying to get out of these classes. That approach is being applied to not only our CBE classes, but also to our traditional classes.
DD: The other unique benefit to this program is the role of the student success coach. Could that be scaled up across the institution? I think in some ways it could. As our enrollment shifts to more students taking coursework online, we don’t need some of the in-person support structures that we used to have on campus. We’ve been thinking about how to transition some of our advisor or coaching positions into more support for an online environment.
One of the keys to this competency-based program is the ability for the student’s learning to stay with them throughout their educational pathway. In traditional coursework, once the course is over, it’s over. We’ve created an “in-progress” status, which means that if the student has truly engaged with the coursework and they get to the end of the seven weeks and have more to finish, they can pick up where they left off in the next seven weeks to finish their work. Then, after completing the final competency, they can start with another course, even after the next term has started. It takes away the barriers of those course walls and lets students progress without having to start the class all over again. The learning stays constant with the learner.
Evo: What advice would you share with other institutional leaders who are looking to bring competency-based programs to their own campuses?
DD: My advice would be to take your time, do the research and see what you think will fit best within your institution, because there is no one-size-fits-all model for competency-based education. We found that one of the keys in this process was utilizing C-BEN’s quality standards and framework as a guide, because it really helped us ensure that we had all the right people at the table, and that we were aligning outcomes with industry demands. The guide also helps faculty develop competencies aligned with relevant assessments identified by industry. Another piece of advice is to use a project manager if possible.
Make sure you have sufficient training for your faculty, instructional design experts and student services teams. Make sure they are involved in a meaningful way, so that you can get all those systems aligned to support CBE. Work with your accrediting agencies to make sure that what you’re developing is going to meet their guidelines and expectations. We’ve found that it’s been very beneficial to have an industry partner, because they’re in it with us. They’re helping us build that pathway for students.
Don’t feel like you have to have every single thing figured out before you start. If you do that, you might sit there and spin your wheels for a long time.
KP: One of the things that has made our program successful is that we built it from the bottom up, and we got the faculty interested in teaching in this new modality. That’s helped us grow the program and build excitement. If we had said, “Okay, you’re going to do this whether you like it or not,” I don’t think it would have been as successful as it is.
DD: You need to recognize that this isn’t going to be for everybody. It’s just another modality designed to meet the needs of a different student population. Our faculty don’t feel like competency-based education is being shoved down their throats. We’ve really just tried to open it up for those that are interested in the work, because then they’re passionate about it. For students, it’s the same thing. Our advising services are really important in helping students understand up front how it differs from traditional programming so that they can choose the pathway that is best suited for them. Some students still do better in a face-to-face environment, but for others this is perfect.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Author Perspective: Administrator