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Competency-Based Education in Action

By Bob Woods

The second installment in this two-part series about competency-based education profiles three colleges that are testing direct-assessment learning programs with their students.

Recently, the national higher education conversation has focused on affordability and learning measures, and this has amplified the voices of those promoting competency-based education (CBE).

That’s because CBE focuses on what students learn and how they apply their knowledge rather than how much time they spend taking classes or studying materials. With CBE, if students can prove their knowledge in a subject, they can move closer to a degree without having to collect credit hours in courses for which they already know the material.

Not everyone is a convert to CBE, but an increasing number of higher education institutions, with the assistance of education nonprofits, are testing it in their classrooms.

In the first installment of this two-part series, Competency-Based Education Gains Momentum, we examined some CBE initiatives being championed by education nonprofits and the federal government. Today, we profile three colleges that are testing or enhancing direct-assessment learning programs.

A focus on IT in Austin

Austin Community College (ACC) in Texas is among the second cohort of institutions to participate in Next Generation Learning Challenges’ (NGLC) Breakthrough Models Incubator, which helps educational institutions create CBE programs.

ACC isn’t new to CBE, however. Two years ago, the college began developing 24 computer information technology courses based on a model of distance-learning CBE. Enrollment in the courses continues to grow, especially among underemployed adults and veterans looking to get into or advance in Austin’s thriving IT industry, reports ACC President and CEO Richard Rhodes.

To meet the demand, this fall ACC added three full-time faculty members to the program. “When we started this, I thought our greatest challenge would be faculty adoption and acceptance,” Rhodes says. But after a month, “they just ran with it.” Rhodes says state funding for the program is the current challenge, which the college will confront during the next legislative session.

“This is a departure from traditional education methods, so there is a discomfort in not knowing exactly what to expect,” Rhodes says. “It takes time to gain confidence that institutions are not gaming the system for more money and that the courses maintain academic rigor, even though we’re allowing students to accelerate their progression.”

Appropriately, technology is a main driver of the program. “It’s mostly online now, although we’re moving some of it to a hybrid model,” Rhodes says. To that end, ACC is opening what he describes as “the galaxy’s largest learning emporium, called the Accelerator, which is a huge computer lab with 604 computer stations.” In conjunction with hosting the CBE classes, the Accelerator will offer students just-in-time tutoring, advising and other support services. “Although online is working well, some students will benefit from being on campus.”

Simulation a growing reality in central Wyoming

Central Wyoming College (CWC), in Riverton, Wyo., serves Fremont County, a rural area with a population of just over 40,000. Unlike ACC, CWC is a relative newcomer to CBE. Like ACC, CWC is participating in the Breakthrough Models Incubator, which “will allow us to collaborate with other colleges and universities that are grappling with the same professional development needs that we are,” says Jason Wood, CWC’s executive vice president for student and academic services. Wood is helping incoming president Cris Valdez get up to speed on CWC’s fledgling CBE efforts.

The college has identified simulation technology as its initial competency-based degree program. “We are exploring the idea of teaching a competency-based program and having those students develop additional simulation modules, learning from the ground up how to do that,” Wood explains. “It’s kind of a train-the-trainer model.”

CWC already operates simulations for its nursing and rural justice programs, and Wood says the college would like to expand these and develop its own simulations. Down the line, CWC is interested in selling those simulations to other education institutions.

CWC has put together an “incubator team” to deal with the various components of instituting CBE, from agreeing on competencies to navigating financial aid. A critical member of the team is the faculty senate president.

“This is on the forefront of our faculty agenda,” Wood says. “We have had great conversations about assessing learning rather than teaching. There are critics and there are champions, and many who are waiting to see how this might help their students. It is in front of them, they will be involved, and, quite honestly, the faculty will have to drive this in order for it to be successful.”

Distance educator expands CBE model

Excelsior College is a unique player not only in the CBE movement, but also in higher education in general. Founded in 1971 in Albany, N.Y., Excelsior is a pioneer in distance-learning programs for adults, most of whom have some college credits and plenty of workforce experience. The college serves more than 37,000 students, whose average age is 38. About 30 percent of students are active-duty military or veterans, and only 10 percent live in New York state.

Nearly half of Excelsior’s students are enrolled in its School of Nursing, which opened in 1975 and has been a CBE prototype ever since. “We created a competency assessment back then, and while it has been refined over the years to reflect the skills required by the nursing profession, it continues in its original format,” says Excelsior President John Ebersole.

The crux of the nursing program’s competency-based learning — and a model for today’s CBE adopters in all disciplines — is a rigorous, two and a half day assessment of students’ clinical skills. Ebersole explains that 80 percent of Excelsior’s nursing students are LPNs or LVNs with at least 10 years of experience, so the college doesn’t teach clinical skills. “We believe that knowledge on the job counts for something; however, you’re going to have to prove it in a high-stakes testing environment.”

The competency assessment takes place in a hospital under the supervision of three Ph.D. nurse educators. “Students work on real patients across the lifespan, from pediatric to geriatric,” Ebersole says. “About 65 percent pass on their first try.”

Excelsior is also participating in the NGLC incubator program to expand the college’s CBE offerings. “We’re going forward with an assessment-based bachelor’s in business program,” Ebersole says. “We’ll be working with our faculty and hopefully the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to establish the competencies, which can be assessed like in our nursing program.”

The NGLC initiative also allows Excelsior to collaborate on CBE programs with community colleges, with which it already has almost 100 transfer agreements. “We deal with similar students,” Ebersole says, “and we both want them to graduate and succeed. Giving credit for prior learning increases the odds of degree completion two and a half times. We need to be doing more of that, particularly at community colleges.”

If you missed Part One of this series, read it now. And share your thoughts about CBE or what your community college is doing with it in the Comments.

Bob Woods

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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