Scaling CBE to Democratize Postsecondary Access & Success in Delivering A New Vision of Lifelong Learning
The Challenge Ahead of Us
Challenges lie ahead of every industry, but with the complexity we are seeing in the V.U.C.A. environment today, what worked for previous generations will not work for us. Simply stated by Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”
This has never been truer than it is today as complexity is requiring organizations to change and change fast. The only ones left surviving and thriving are those that can learn and adapt strategically. Higher education leaders and educators, students, workforce leaders, and policymakers, join me as I take leaps in reimagining what higher education can be and explain some ideas on how we can get there.
The thinking in postsecondary education that eventually got us a failing grade for graduation rates simply won’t work in providing educational opportunities for the 36 million students that have some college education but no degree and an estimated 65 million workforce of millennial-aged people and younger that will need to continually learn to stay afloat for the 40+ years of their work life.
That’s a huge market of potential students, a market that early movers like Western Governors University, Arizona State University, and Southern New Hampshire University have been able to enroll in online programming. But that said, we still have a long way to go as a nation to ensure everyone has access to the education they need to lead a meaningful life in a V.U.C.A. world.
Fulfilling a Promise
I reimagine education every day, but one of the most promising concepts I keep coming back to is an idea called the 60-Year Curriculum (60-YC): “The 60-YC initiative is focused on developing new educational models that enable each person to reskill as their occupational and personal context shifts.”
New thinking is not what got us to our current state of performance in higher education. But what can is a promise of truly fulfilling higher education’s mission of lifelong learning. One that meets the needs of an ever-changing environment where our customers will need to continually train for not only new jobs but new careers. It’s clear that for the bulk of our learner market base, the current education models are no longer working, not because of the demographic changes or the cost. It’s the traditional model that requires jumping over hurdles for entry that relies heavily on financial aid subsidies to stay afloat. that requires years to earn a credential recognized by the chosen industry, that doesn’t respond quick enough to workforce needs and that leaves students (and my entire generation) in crippling debt.
This is a call for new pedagogy to meet these challenges in providing education for the masses. The pedagogy I’d like to highlight today is one that democratizes and demystifies all that is held sacred in the Ivory Tower, a pedagogy first used in the ‘60s to train teachers that is now in its Third Wave. It uses asynchronous online delivery and adaptive technologies, a pedagogythat is used in a multitude of ways but is always designed around the student.
Competency-based education (CBE), is a pedagogy also that has the student at the forefront of its design, and it is used in flexible, affordable, and often accelerated and low-cost programs. It is one of the best solutions to drastically adapting to postsecondary education in the V.U.C.A. environment to meet the customer’s needs over the next several decades.
Democratizing postsecondary access and success by stitching together higher education and the professional world is critical to creating an educational curriculum that adapts to and meets the workforce’s ever-changing needs. It’s time for CBE to step up in working towards a scaled model that delivers a 60-YC. Today, most CBE programs receive little support and are remain small. According to the 2019 National Survey of Postsecondary CBE, 88 percent of CBE programs have fewer than 1,000 students and 53 percent have fewer than 50 students. These programs usually involve years of perseverance (and perhaps an intervening deity) before they are successfully launched and supported.
Of course, these are amazing programs (especially those built on a quality framework like that of CBEN) that hold the promise of assessing according to actual learning as opposed to seat-time. Many colleges running CBE are seeing promising results but Capella’s Flex Path program leads the way with data collected between 2013 and2018 showing that when learners progress much faster through their degree programs, the cost of a degree was significantly lowered, and students were more likely to stick with their program. What’s more, 76 percent of institutions surveyed in the National Survey of Postsecondary CBE are optimistic that CBE will grow in the next five years.
There is the promise of a learning experience actually centered on the student, and in many applications, a promise of quickly upskilling and/or reskilling learners for the 21st-Century workforce.
A Vision of CBE at Scale
All of this is good, but let’s take one of those SpaceX rockets up to the jargoned 30,000 foot view. The market is there — and will continue to be there — and perfect for CBE implementation. The majority of CBE practitioners, including yours truly, are concerned with the quality of their programs and proving it with solid data backing our programs. This is critical for growth and supported by the leading network of CBE practitioners at the CBE Network. Charla Long and others even sat in front of Congress to implore further investment in a demonstration project of these programs so we can further prove this model’s efficacy . We should invest and scale CBE to show how this can be a prominent solution in redesigning the education-to-workforce connection.
Everyone everywhere in academia uses “lifelong learning”; 10 to 1 says it’s in your admissions material and academic catalog. But what does higher ed traditionally have as a product to support lifelong learning? Well, you could spend years and money on degrees each time your job and career change, you can always just audit classes or you can jump from certification to certification, but these options will not work for the majority of our customers.
Like it or not, the number one reason students go to college is to prepare themselves for a job. CBE can democratize learning and be used to meet the workforce and customer’s continually changing demands as their lives and jobs adapt to the complex environments we are seeing. CBE can deliver on the promises of lifelong learning in the 60-YC.
CBE can scale as a solution for workforce preparedness, delivering on the idea of a 60-YC. There is significant online CBE enrollment in very non-traditional, unicorn esque schools like W.G.U., Capella, and S.N.H.U., but even those schools are only serving small populations in comparison to the national need (and don’t get me started on the global need!).
For a moment, think of the young folks either finishing up high school or currently in the workforce — what will they need to live meaningful lives? They will need access to education, education that can be digested in small bits, education that can be stacked for credentials, education that can delivered online, education that can always be there to support their next career move, next life change, and an education that doesn’t bankrupt a generation; scaling CBE has the potential to provide pathways to meet all these customer needs in living a meaningful life.
In my reimagining of education, I envision a standardized CBE curriculum built on a quality framework across a large swath of community colleges that serve the learner of the future, including a growing list of competencies and stackable credentials on blockchain transcripts that the learner owns and can build throughout their life and career, and partnerships with the workforce. Let’s also partner with the learners in creating what they need.
This change requires universities and colleges to play nice in the sandbox and share data. There will be plenty of opportunity for all campuses to act as support structures to ground the learning and resources for all the students, almost like a hub of learning and activity throughout a person’s life.
An Innovation Ecosystem
So, what can we realistically do in order to start scaling CBE to meet the needs of the generations of students to come with a 60-YC mindset? What can institutions, policymakers, accreditors, and executive leaders do to support this mission and make it a reality, not just something we talk about at conferences and wonder why it hasn’t yet been implemented.
Rather than getting overly granular and writing a 20-part article, I look towards thinking on entrepreneurship to guide our path as we need to begin thinking about ourselves as intrapreneurs redesigning a system from the inside.
John Bailey, a fellow at the Chan Zuckerberg Institute and longtime advocate of innovation in education, pushes for cultivating an innovation ecosystem of stakeholders in government and school leadership that support risk-taking, provide sustained funding and support, and spark policy changes in order to see this through.
A 60-YC delivered through a CBE initiative is crafted for community colleges to meet their original mission of job and workforce training. (It is not a solution for all that ails higher education. It is also not the one answer, but one of the most promising.)
To aim this innovative model at community colleges, policymakers should clear out red tape regulations that prevent promising innovations from successfully launching and sustaining, create a more open community college system where sharing is expected, and provide continued funding. School leaders should support and work with policymakers on implementing change, and all stakeholders should be patient and listen to the double-loop learning system. Finally, and most importantly, the face of the change: faculty need to realize their roles will change but in a way that allows them to become the coach on the side, working with students as equals and coaching them to mastery of material.
If we truly want to protect non-traditional students, we do them no favors by staying within a traditional model of education. Moving to scaled competency-based education models delivering the 60-YC at scale would give us the robust, comprehensive data needed to redesign the next wave of education. It won’t be perfect tomorrow, or even next year, but we can’t sit idly by as we watch the current system fail students and disappoint employers.
This kind of innovative thinking meets the late Clay Christensen’s ethical guidepost in disruptive innovation theory: whatever we can provide to students can’t be worse than what they are already getting.
Some may call me a dreamer, but I have seen the success stories of thousands of students in our direct assessment CBE programs at S.N.H.U., which challenge the status quo. Higher education can go much further, much faster if we work together in scaling competency-based education and remembering the learner is why we are here. The learner is what the system needs to be designed around, and they are why we should scale CBE to democratize higher education and deliver on the promise of a 60-year lifelong learning curriculum.
Author’s note: The views I express on this site are my own and do not reflect any official view or position of Southern New Hampshire University.
Author Perspective: Administrator