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2014 September 7 - 08:33 pm

Move Over, MOOCs

Competency-Based Education Takes Center Stage as ‘Next Big Thing’

To higher education policymakers and analysts, competency-based education is the latest big thing, commanding attention from federal agencies and leading foundations and even from the White House.

MOOCs — massive open online courses — once billed as the answer to higher education’s woes are so last year.

It was five weeks ago that the U.S. Department of Education announced a new round of its “experimental sites” initiative, clearing the way for colleges to test emerging models of student-focused, outcomes-based approaches without risking their eligibility for federal student aid programs. More than 300 colleges are expected to file applications.

But to faculty and administrators at Bellevue College, CBE is no experiment at all. As the 2013-14 academic year opens, CBE has secured a strong foothold at the college, eliciting an enthusiastic response from students and yielding promising academic results.

When the college launched its first CBE program last winter — it’s a business software specialist certificate program based on the Microsoft Office suite — administrators projected that about 20 students would enroll. By the second day of the quarter, 80 students had signed up. By the fifth day, 60 percent of enrolled students had completed the required orientation course. By day eight, 160 students had inquired about the certificate program, two-thirds of which led to enrollments. This year, an extra track is being added to meet the growing demand.

“The students seem to love it,” said Tom Nielsen, the college’s vice president for instruction. “We are seeing that most students are going through their course sequences faster.”

Bellevue College, near Seattle, is part of a wider movement. It is one of 11 community colleges in five states working with Western Governors University — a pioneer in competency-based education — to create their own competency-based degree and certificate programs. Funding is being provided from the U.S. Department of Labor and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Sally M. Johnstone, vice president for academic advancement at WGU, said the initiative comports with the mission of the online university, which was founded in 1997.

“When WGU was created, one of the goals was to increase the use of competency-based education across the higher education universe,” she said. “We want to be able to tell their stories. We want other colleges to learn from them. We’re planning a website that will include a collection of artifacts so other colleges won’t have to start from scratch.”

Moreover, she said, community colleges are especially well-suited to developing CBE programs. The colleges’ close ties with their local communities permit them to respond quickly and effectively to local workforce and education needs.

“With community colleges, there is a real connection to the community,” Johnstone said. “And as various funding sources dry up and colleges are put in a tough spot, competency-based education offers an alternative way, another path to a degree.”

Said Thad Nodine, a writer specializing in education policy who is documenting the colleges’ experiences in creating the programs: “Community colleges do pay attention to the needs of their community. They can offer close links with employers. Austin Community College (one of the 11 colleges involved in the WGU initiative) now has over 100 employer partners.”


Johnstone and Nodine are beginning to share their experiences with community college leaders interested in creating their own CBE programs. They said what has been learned so far is that creating a competencybased education program is painstaking and difficult work, akin to fitting a square peg into a round hole. But can be done.

“There are a lot of things in the back room that have to change,” Nodine said.

That’s because CBE turns the traditional higher education model on its head. CBE represents a significant departure from the classroom-based model. A paper Johnstone co-authored for the Educause Review puts it this way:

“The basic tenet behind CBE is flipping the time-mastery relationship. In a classroom-based model, all students start and end their learning experience at the same time. During a term of study, some students will master most of the materials and earn high grades; others will master less of the material and earn lower grades; and still others will master only about half the material and receive a failing grade. So, while these failing students know a considerable portion of the material, their only option is to take the entire class over again. This is discouraging to students, and some might well give up on the whole higher-education experience.

“In CBE programs, students work toward mastery at their own pace, within the constraints of financial aid, institutional, and state policies. When students demonstrate mastery of the skills and knowledge designated by a course’s faculty, they pass the course. Students can progress through courses either sequentially or take several at a time, depending on their study habits and time constraints.”

Such a departure from the traditional setting raises challenges across the campuses of the colleges developing the CBE programs. Virtually no operation at the college has gone untouched. Professors and deans had to change the way they do things. So did registrars and financial aid offices and student support specialists.

Nielsen, the Bellevue College vice-president, knows this first-hand. The WGU model, he said, is based on six-month terms. Bellevue operates on a quarter system.

“Everything here is based on the quarter system,” he said. “We had to craft a CBE that would fit in the quarter system. There were lots of questions. How do we pay the instructors? There are federal rules that we have to comply with.”

Then there is the matter of grades. Under the CBE model, assessments determine whether a student has mastered a specific competency before moving on to the next one. But some states require that colleges issue a letter grade. Reconciling the two can be an arduous task.

Colleges also must carefully craft the CBE programs to ensure that competencies are valid and robust and that diverse students studying at their own pace receive strong academic support. Academic support needs to be flexible, Johnstone said. Learning resources must be available anytime. Assessments must be secure and reliable, based on the expertise of industry and academic subject-matter experts.

None of those tasks has dissuaded Washington state from an even more enthusiastic embrace of competency-based education. Next year, the state will launch an all-online, competency-based associate degree in business that a student could earn in 18 months. It will be the state’s first CBE degree program. Four Washington colleges are among the 11 taking part in the WGU initiative, but those are certificate programs.

The degree program will cover the same material as an existing program. The difference is the competency-based approach. Thirteen of the state’s 34 community and technical college are taking part. The degree program will be more ambitious than the information technology certificates, including classes in English composition, accounting, economics, business calculus, public speaking, political science, sociology and statistics.

Nielsen said the transition to CBE is similar to the work colleges undertook when distance education programs took off about 15 years ago. Then, as now, colleges had to respond to a changing marketplace or risk being left behind.

“The better mousetrap is only a click away,” he said. “If we insist on imposing our system on students and wasting their time, we’ll no longer be viable.”

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