Competency-Based Education

Exploring Competency-Based Education

By Emily Rogan

How leaders can prepare to transition to this approach.

William Tammone, interim president at Illinois Central College (ICC), in East Peoria, knows how to make competency-based education (CBE) work, how it affects students and faculty, and why some employers are very excited about this different approach. But it also has its challenges. Here’s what college leaders need to know.

The need to fill gaps in learning

Years ago, as a professor teaching anatomy and physiology to nursing students, Tammone observed that some of his students, knowing they already had a passing grade in his course, skipped the final exam to concentrate on another class’s final.

“That concerned me,” he says. “In fact I was passing along pre-nursing students with significant gaps in their skill sets.”

Tammone contends that in today’s traditional structure, high school and college students often complete and graduate without having enough knowledge or proficiency. “Employers become distrustful, because they don’t know whether two people with the same degree have the same skills to be successful in their jobs,” he says.

The competency-based education approach

With a CBE model, students can work at their own pace to demonstrate competencies in each area of study. They’re also given more than one opportunity to prepare and move on, topic by topic, in a course, rather than relying on one high-stakes final.

CBE relies on practical application and project-based assessments so that students are utilizing knowledge in some way, not just repeating memorized facts.

“It guarantees students have the skills that they need,” Tammone says. “You don’t just pass them along if they don’t demonstrate competency, but you do give them the chance to demonstrate all the competencies.”

Challenges remain

One aspect of CBE that’s causing a bit of a commotion, Tammone says, is that conventional higher education measures seat time for credit hours; current federal financial aid is based on seat time and not on learning.

“CBE says we’re going to hold the learning constant — everyone demonstrates the same skills — but the time is now variable. It goes away from the seat-time measure of hours,” he says.

Regional accrediting agencies and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) are working on a common framework to redefine what CBE means so that there are consistent expectations and definitions across the country, Tammone says.

“The DOE wants [CBE] designed in a quality way. It’s not a high-tech correspondence class. You have to design for substantive and regular interaction between student and faculty,” he adds.

Significant time and resources

ICC is “dipping [its] toes in the water” to develop two competency-based programs — one in web design and the other in software development.

CBE involves online work, but students need support and advising on a regular basis. Some colleges use a “success coach model” to monitor students and proactively reach out to them when they reach a roadblock, Tammone says.

It’s essential to make sure that the faculty is on board and fully understands the model, and that takes time. “They have concerns about student success,” he says. “They didn’t want to see students floundering.”

Tammone says the workload issue is a significant one: “In a traditional class, students are all in lockstep. In CBE, students are all over the place.” At ICC, leaders are still working through the specifics, but the faculty is enthusiastic. “The faculty got into this with eyes wide open,” he says.

Other stakeholders affected by a shift to CBE include the IT department, financial-aid staff, the marketing department and the college advisory board.

It helps that ICC’s industry experts are “ecstatic” about CBE, Tammone says. “Because if you’re hiring somebody in secure software development, you don’t want to take a chance that they have gaps but want to be confident they can demonstrate the skills you need.”

“I think everyone needs to be aware of how resource-intensive this is — in terms of money and time — to develop programs in a quality way,” Tammone says.

All stakeholders need to be involved from the beginning, and it’s important to allow them time to adjust and “wrap their minds around how they can design for students to succeed,” he adds.

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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