competency-based education

Lessons From a Competency-Based Education Consortium

By Sonya Stinson

How Harper College is creating a model for competency-based education.

At Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, a test of College for America’s (CfA) competency-based education (CBE) model has been underway since fall 2015. Harper is one of seven founding members of a consortium created to enable community colleges to explore CfA’s CBE platform and partner with area employers to address workforce-competency shortfalls.

In the current learning phase of the project, Harper is offering the CBE model as an option for employers who want to help workers obtain postsecondary degrees, says Harper President Kenneth Ender. With participants accessing the CfA platform via the college’s website, Harper faculty and administrators can monitor student progress. They are also soliciting feedback from students and employers about the effectiveness of the program, Ender says.

In addition, consortium members benefit from sharing information about their experiences with the CfA program. They meet at least once a year at the AACC Workforce Development Institute in January; this year, they are also considering gathering in July.

Inside the model

Ender has praised the CfA model, especially its coaching, learning platform and student-success analytics. Before joining the consortium, he visited the CfA site at Southern New Hampshire University to see the CBE model in action. He was impressed by how closely student-success coaches are able to track students’ engagement with the platform. He also liked that CfA uses a single platform for all of its CBE programs.

“The students and the coaches both use that platform and interact with that platform, so, literally, a coach can see almost to the minute whether the student is engaged in a learning exercise or not,” Ender says.

Coaches can refer students having difficulty to an academic mentor, while the program’s analytic component can predict the consequences if a student keeps falling behind.

Cost is crucial

Another appealing feature of the CfA model is its cost efficiency, he says.

“They have a model that is priced based on time, not on competencies or credits,” Ender explains. “A student buys six months’ worth of educational experiences. I like to say that for six months and $1,250, you get all the competencies you can eat.”

If the results of this testing phase are positive, Harper will move to fully implement the program. Administrators will look at how much of the CfA software the college can feasibly incorporate as is and then decide what adjustments are needed to custom-fit the program for the campus.

“We are trying to determine how we might ‘white label’ that engine that the College for America has developed, and use it as our own — put our own brand on it,” Ender says.

Partners are key

Harper’s biggest regional employer partner is UPS, while CfA has a strategic partnership with McDonald’s, whose corporate headquarters is in nearby Oakbrook. Employer response will be paramount in determining whether the college adopts the CfA model, Ender says. The bottom line is whether the program produces credentials that students can use to get jobs or promotions.

“Ultimately, it’s whether or not the employer community would be willing to exchange value — a paycheck, if you will — for a competency-based transcript,” Ender says.

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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