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Competency-Based Education: For Learners At Any Stage of Life

The EvoLLLution | Competency-Based Education: For Learners At Any Stage of Life
Competency-based education provides a framework to increase accessibility and opportunities for success for diverse groups of learners, but achieving the level of personalization necessary for CBE to work at scale presents a challenge.
The competency-based education (CBE) model is an obvious fit for busy adults with previous postsecondary experience, but does CBE fit traditional learners too? Can CBE improve the dual credit model? In our experience, CBE is a fit for learners at any stage of life.

CBE is a learner-centered educational model in which progress is measured by demonstration of what a student knows and what a student can do. The expectations of learning—not the time spent learning—are held constant. The learning outcomes—competencies—are defined in collaboration with employers and must be mastered at a high  level of achievement. A competency-based curriculum enables institutions to recognize and honor differences in learners’ abilities, prior knowledge and educational goals. CBE models can accommodate a student’s life, open access to higher education and improve learner success by offering tailored academic plans that let students wrap education around their other priorities.

Nicolet College is a public community college with a broad mission to transform lives, enrich the community, foster economic development and expand employment opportunities. Seeing the potential benefits of a CBE model, we introduced our Nicolet MyWay program in early 2018. Already, Nicolet MyWay programs are serving a wide range of learners, including high-school dual credit students, traditional direct enrollments from high school, employed adults with no prior postsecondary experience, post-traditional adult students seeking to complete their college degrees or develop new skills, and employees in employer-sponsored training programs. Drawing from the Competency-Based Education Network’s Quality Framework for CBE programs, Nicolet MyWay incorporates best-practices of a quality CBE program: extensive employer engagement; a deep learning of clear and transparent competencies; honoring the diversity of learners; and providing a quality learning experience with highly qualified faculty in a supportive learning community. Our early experience leads us to believe that these best practices are effective for learners at any stage of life.

At Nicolet, employers and faculty collaborate extensively to define competencies and create innovative work-and-learn models. Competencies—what a student needs to know and be able to do—provide a clear and transparent picture of learning expectations that are easily understood by students and employers. In our initial CBE offerings, 80 to 100 industry-validated competencies magnify the program outcomes of a traditional associate degree program. The detailed understanding of learning outcomes has made it easier to recognize prior learning and incorporate experiential learning. Employers better understand the skills our students possess, because the curriculum is accompanied by valid, reliable, often industry-defined assessments. We anticipate that this will lead to improved employment outcomes for our graduates.

The Nicolet MyWay program requires deep learning. Students must demonstrate mastery of competencies at a high level of achievement. There is no room to move forward with marginal performance. Mastery at the competency level is clearly and transparently displayed on the extended student transcript in terms that employers understand and students can describe.

Nicolet’s approach to CBE honors the diversity of learners. The program recognizes that not all learners enter education at the same place, learn at the same rate on all topics, or have the same goals. Nicolet MyWay honors the learner’s prior knowledge and aptitude acquired from work, informal education or military experience with credit for competencies already mastered. Learners who possess prior knowledge or demonstrate a high level of aptitude gain entry into the workforce faster. Learners enjoy a personalized pace and do not advance until a competency has been met. This might take learners one day or several weeks, but learning expectations remain constant. Nicolet MyWay honors differences in learner goals by providing personalized academic paths and recognizing pathway credentials that are aligned with employment opportunities. Regardless of their baseline knowledge or educational goals, learners are supported by highly qualified faculty and success coaches every step of the way. Simulators, virtual reality trainers and 24-7 access to learning material creates the opportunity for engagement while providing the flexibility of on-demand learning.

But can CBE work for the learners who require more structure? We believe that it can.

CBE does not prevent structure; it lets the student tailor the level of structure they need to meets their needs. In Nicolet’s model, a success coach assists learners who prefer more structure by building a solid pacing guide with deadlines and prescribed sequencing. With 11 start dates spread across the year, learners no longer have to wait for the start of the semester to begin their coursework. In the summer of 2018, a handful of high school graduates began their welding coursework, and diligently acquired competencies over their summer break. According to one student, they wanted get as much done as they could before the fall so that they could take time off for the ever-popular hunting season in Wisconsin. This organically-formed “cohort” of learners found support not only from the highly qualified instructors in Nicolet’s open labs and synchronous online sessions, but also in one another.

As we look ahead, the challenge lies in how to best scale this level of personalization and guided learning at a sustainable cost. Technology tools that could replicate the high level of personalization needed to support learners in this model would ease the human investment required. All strata of the organization are reflecting on the services provided to the CBE learner and reimagining how to deliver products and services. For example, staff lab hours are extended so that students can access the faculty and tools they need to progress. Student services staff are re-tooling to accommodate learners who may never step foot on campus. Career coaching, financial aid, transcripts, career services and engagement teams are all envisioning their work in new and exciting ways to provide a quality learning experience for the CBE learner in a supportive learning community.

Adult learners, first-time students and high school dual credit students have different needs, but when it comes to learning, they have much in common. They need to demonstrate the same set of employer-validated skills to secure employment. They need flexibility that accommodates their aptitude, prior experience and life situation. They need access to high quality instruction, and they need personalized support. CBE programs address all of these needs through employer engagement and deep learning, honoring learner diversity and high quality learning environments. At Nicolet College, we see CBE as a solution for a diverse set of learners.

Additional information on CBE is available from the Competency-Based Education Network’s Resource Library.

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