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October 9, 2015: Five Things to Consider about Competency-Based Education from #CBExchange

cbexchangeLast week I attended CBExchange—an interactive workshop dedicated to helping institutions plan or enhance competency-based education (CBE). Through a series of facilitated sessions, there was dynamic dialogue describing competency-based programs and the desired outcomes for top programs to support learners. While CBE is not by any means a new learning model, strengthening expectations for CBE quality while embracing the diversity of learning practice is crucial to the future of DEAC as we continue to spearhead innovation in distance education.

I have five main observations from my participation at CBExchange to share that intersect with the distance education accreditation landscape:

  1. Shifting the paradigm while maintaining quality is challenging: I heard a recurring emphasis during discussion that competency-based education programs must take great care to assure that they exhibit USDE-established characteristics so as to avoid confusion with correspondence education. This ties to the experimental sites initiative and federal expectations that regular and substantive interactions between faculty and students are vital to instructional design, direct assessment practice, and competency-based education offerings.
  1. Supporting disadvantaged learners remains a huge challenge: It is still a significant challenge to match learners with their ideal CBE program. CBE programs that seek to advance the “attainment agenda” for students with less preparation must prepare to commit substantial resources to coaching, advising, mentoring, satisfactory academic progress (SAP) monitoring, and appropriate interventions for these students. Absent these critical features, CBE will only serve the exquisitely prepared high school graduates with strong writing, research and critical thinking skills as compared to learners that do not come to higher education with such preparation. At CBExchange, strategies such as weekly momentum monitoring ad offerings of mini – project management were discussed to help bolster retention and support learners from diverse backgrounds. But I cannot help but raise the question: what demographic of students are we trying to serve?
  1. There is a growing movement and need for K-12 in CBE: There is an increasing trend of K-12 systems that are moving toward a competency-based model for learning.  K-12 systems from Washington DC to Philadelphia to Maine are preparing a new generation of graduates who would desire continuing their academic pursuits in competency-based versus time-based models. Will higher education be ready for these graduates?
  1. CBE is expensive for institutions: Institutions that are able to successfully launch a CBE offering have tremendous financial support, whether through a foundation, a corporate sponsorship, or a grant.  The resources required to support a CBE program launch are significant.  I spoke to many attendees who expressed concern about the reality of costs, especially in relation to keeping CBE affordable for students.
  1. CBE results are challenging to measure: There is significant dialogue around identifying clear and concise learning outcomes for students, but much remains to be seen regarding the actual results of what students are really learning. Some institutions are in the early stages of implementing CBE but have plenty of students enrolled. Despite increasing enrollments over the last few years, little is known about true educational outcomes of students, particularly those who are receiving federal financial aid assistance. We need meaningful ways to track students’ successful entry or advancement into a profession or into furthering their education through graduate studies. With the exception of a few institutions, such as Western Governor’s University, very little is known or published about student performance in emerging forms of competency-based education.

CBE knowledge sharing occurring at conferences such as CBExchange will certainly expand the Competency Based Education Network (C-BEN) that started in 2014 and is now comprised of 30 colleges and universities and four public systems with 82 campuses. According to the C-BEN website, these institutions have been taking part in a ” research-and-development phase, funded by Lumina Foundation, to provide an evidence-based approach to advancing high-quality competency-based education capable of serving many more students of all backgrounds. Participating institutions either offer degree programs with well-defined learning outcomes and rigorous assessment or are on their way to creating them. The C-BEN Steering Committee, comprising higher education innovators from several of these institutions, will guide the work and periodically will issue additional calls for applications. ”

At CBExchange, the ten shared design elements were unveiled and represent an early result of the work of C-BEN to integrate common standards into CBE programs. While these elements are certainly “dynamic” descriptors for thriving CBE programs, these are desirable aspirations that should be integrated into any educational offering across the spectrum of higher education. As a community of educators with such a vested interest in education attainment, we should advance these ideals far beyond the competency-based movement.

Join the conversation – what do you think about CBE programs and the future of distance education?