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Abnormal Becoming the New Normal: CBE and Moving Beyond Standard Practice in Higher Education

Co-written with Celina Garza | Associate Vice President for Institutional Assessment, Texas State Technical College-Harlingen

The EvoLLLution | Abnormal Becoming the New Normal: CBE and Moving Beyond Standard Practice in Higher Education
The capacity to microcredential through competency-based education formats allows colleges to ensure their content remains relevant and responsive to the needs of students and the labor market.

Throughout its 50-year history, Texas State Technical College (TSTC) has been known for breaking the mold—for moving beyond the customary and exploring new and innovative ways to achieve its core mission. The institution has engaged in a paradigm shift where abnormal becomes the new normal, where innovative, transformative thinking outpaces traditionalism. Indeed, TSTC Chancellor Mike Reeser has remained steadfast in the college’s vision and mission of preparing students for great-paying jobs in Texas, but also understands that the college must think outside of the box to meet the needs of today’s students as well as the high-tech challenges of the modern global economy.

TSTC is a public coeducational institution of higher education offering courses of study in high demand technical education fields leading to Certificate and Associate of Applied Science degrees. TSTC also provides technical education and training to business and industry, continuing education to the public, and training programs for community and state economic development. TSTC serves Texas through ten campuses located across the state, and we’re the first postsecondary institution to adopt a funding model based on entirely on student employment outcomes. In essence, we’ve aligned our funding with our purpose and mission of strengthening the competitiveness of Texas business and industry with a highly skilled, technically competent workforce.

In part, TSTC has embraced the new normal of disruptive higher education, one that is centered upon student needs, flexible scheduling and performance-based outcomes. To do so means moving past and pushing through traditional collegiate practices that—while originally designed for student and institutional success—have not kept pace with the changing needs of today’s college students. In fact, those traditional practices have in some cases become a burden to students, a barrier to innovative instructional practices and learning, or both.. Beyond just job placement, however, TSTC measures institutional success on student employment in high-paying, satisfying jobs—ones that can lead to long-term careers and promotional opportunity through the completion of state and national certifications.

TSTC top leadership recognized several years ago the need to focus on our core mission of training the Texas’ workforce for high-tech jobs first, and contact hours second. So much so that TSTC is no longer funded on a contact-hour basis, but on student placement. This new funding formula shifted focus from number of students in seats per clock hour to demonstrated comprehension of work-based skills leading to placement in a given field. This shift also resulted in a questioning, rethinking and piloting of a number of traditional practices. For instance, holding students in developmental studies until proven understanding of theoretical mathematics may give way to contextualized mathematics delivered in a variety of methods – boot camps, condensed, self-paced – to allow students to begin studies in their chosen field and learn foundational mathematics as they acquire skills mastery.

Competency-based education (CBE) programming is one of the latest instructional processes implemented at TSTC. We developed processes to offer CBE instructional delivery within several technical programs of study, and included technical badging as a key component of the process. As TSTC sees CBE as an integral facet of the college’s strategic plan, TSTC has developed student support, administrative, and information technology processes to facilitate CBE registration, advisement, tracking, and professional development. TSTC’s CBE programs are designed with demonstrated linkage to courses, allowing students to achieve all credits within an award with competencies linked to student learning course outcomes and overarching program outcomes.

In competency-based education programs, the conventional approach of the teacher imparting all knowledge to each group of students on a uniform schedule is transitioned to instructor as facilitator/demonstrator, with students acquiring competence in skill sets in a manner most conducive to their particular learning style. Students are able to move faster through their curriculum due to previous understanding of skill sets or inherent proficiency. CBE students are awarded course credit within a program of study based on mastery of a particular set of competencies or skills and not on time spent in class. Skills are grouped into technical badges—or microcredentials—to show student achievement within focused topic specialties. For example, students working their way through a Cyber Security CBE award will earn not only course credit, but also a number of technical badges such as networking, hardware, digital forensics, and firewalls. Furthermore, as the student earns TSTC badges, they also have the opportunity to test for and earn nationally recognized computer science certifications.

Competency-based offerings present challenges to the traditional college structure for students, administrative practices, instruction and accreditation. Designed as a “flipped” course with the majority of lecture offered online and student face-to-face time practicing in the laboratory, students spend the bulk of their time learning through hands-on activities leading to acquisition of skills. Student progress, while remaining linked to course credit achievement, is self-paced and focused on student achievement of skill sets. With students required to demonstrate mastery of all competencies within the program of study, rather than earning an average grade, a greater rigor is inherent within TSTC’s CBE protocol. Thus, not only must students show greater self-motivation to move through the training, but they must also acquire all skill sets within the curriculum without relying on grade averaging.

From an administrative standpoint, decisions relative to registration, billing/financial aid, semester term, and student support must be assessed through a CBE lens. As colleges and universities considering CBE have discovered, the majority of student information system (SIS) products available for institutions of higher education are based on contact hours, courses and semester-based programs of study. Similar issues are found within learning management (LMS) systems utilized by instructors and associated gradebook software products. While several CBE-compatible LMS products such as Motivis Learning, eLumen, ellucian Brainstorm, and LoudCloud Systems, are offered at this time, TSTC found the in-house CBE gradebook process best fit the technical CBE format used within the college. The in-house process is also designed to automatically generate technical badges as students demonstrate achievement of the requisite competencies within each badge. As CBE and technical badging offerings expand at TSTC, these robust CBE products may better fit the college needs and will continue to be monitored with the future in mind.

While CBE in the higher education landscape has garnered a lot of attention from policy-makers, regulatory agencies and education reformers, its inherent design will streamline the path to earning a college credential for many traditional and non-traditional students. At TSTC, the CBE approach works well with students because it articulates “what the degrees actually mean and what students know and can do with those degrees—and that’s what both consumers and employers are demanding,” as stated by Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of Lumina Foundation. This intentional and constructive alignment of education and learning to employer and industry expectations places TSTC students and graduates in a much better position to be competitive job seekers with increased earning and promotional potential.

Change in any organization can be perceived by employees as exciting, annoying or detrimental to established processes. However, TSTC views transformational practices such as CBE as necessary to meet the needs of both students and the community of industries served. By making a shift in educational focus and aligning the definition of student success with the modern desires of students and skill requirements of business/industry partners, TSTC’s strategic plan incorporates innovative methods into the institutional goals and performance measures with the long-term goal of keeping higher education relevant and supportive of student and industry needs for today and tomorrow.

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