Bring up competency-based education in a group of education professionals, and eyebrows might rise. While many questions still surround competency-based education, or CBE, there’s also growing interest in testing it out in the classroom.
CBE focuses on what students learn and the application of that learning, rather than how much time they spend sitting in the classroom or studying materials. Students demonstrate competency through a system of rigorous assessments, proving they have mastered the knowledge and skills required for a particular competency or area of study.
The concepts underlying CBE have been around for several decades. CBE made headlines in 1997, when a consortium of 19 states founded Western Governors University as an entire degree program structured around assessments of learning. But the latest CBE models have emerged in response to the growing concern — among faculty, administrators, employers, policymakers and the general public — around reforming the so-called “iron triangle” of access, affordability and quality of higher education.
Like most reform movements, CBE is stirring the pot. With multiple experimental programs underway, including several at community colleges across the country, the debate is informed by a rise in empirical data on its strengths and challenges.
This two-part series highlights some of the initiatives that are bringing CBE directly into the classroom and takes a look at three colleges that are testing or enhancing direct-assessment learning programs.
More institutions testing CBE
It’s important to understand what CBE is and is not, says Andy Calkins, deputy director of Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), a program managed by Educause and funded principally by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. NGLC’s Breakthrough Models Incubator is currently working with nine institutions on CBE initiatives.
“Instead of time being fixed and learning being variable, it’s the reverse. Time is variable and learning is fixed,” Calkins explains. Calkins admits that seat-time education has a place for many students, but it “leaves out a lot of potential [students] who are not able to do the traditional, residential, straight-time model.” CBE offers greater student access, he says.
In July, the NGLC CBE project grantees gathered for the first of the project’s periodic, mandatory meetings, in Washington, D.C., where they agreed to finalize plans for their CBE efforts by January. The group was buoyed by the U.S. Department of Education’s announcement of a second round of its CBE “experimental sites.” The Experimental Sites Initiative waives certain rules for Title IV federal financial aid programs, allowing institutions to more flexibly test CBE programs. Simultaneously, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that supports CBE and provides access to federal funds for students in such programs.
The new round of experimental sites will be guided in part by the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), a group of 20 higher-education institutions working together to design, develop and scale CBE programs. “Our role is to help facilitate and lead the schools through a 90-day research and development process,” reports Laurie Dodge, vice chancellor of institutional assessment and planning and vice provost at Brandman University in Irvine, Calif., and co-chair of C-BEN along with David Schejbal, dean of continuing education at University of Wisconsin-Extension.
“You ask a question, test that, analyze the results, then discover what you learn and move on,” Dodge says, describing the R&D routine. “The participating schools decide what they want to know or discover, what’s the best way to do that, and then try to answer that question. We like this, because it allows change throughout the process.”
The Lumina Foundation is funding C-BEN’s work. “Lumina got interested [in CBE] when we started thinking about learning outcomes as a measure of quality in higher education,” shifting away from the idea that inputs are the most important thing, says Kevin Corcoran, Lumina’s strategy director. “Our feeling is that what’s really important is what students take away from their education, the value they gain from it and what they can do with it later.”
Guidelines for degrees
In an effort to precisely describe what students should know and be able to do with an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree, Lumina has developed the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), which is being tested in CBE programs at several dozen institutions.
“The DQP outlines competencies that embody a broad consensus and encourages diversity in programs, not standardization,” Lumina president and CEO Jamie Merisotis stated in a Huffington Post essay last year. “In fact, in many ways, the DQP takes assessment back to its roots. It requires the demonstration of student mastery at multiple points, using various tools — exercises, performances, exams — that are embedded in the learning process, rather than added onto it.”
For community colleges, CBE is not just about workforce readiness, insists Holly Morris, NGLC’s director of postsecondary model development and adoption. “It provides a lever that we can force down all three sides of the iron triangle at the same time. Competency-based education is about quality education. We’re intrigued with how institutions are grappling with competencies that not only teach skills but also are infused with academic, intellectual rigor.”
Want to read about CBE in action? Read Part Two of this series, which explores three college-based CBE initiatives.