From Pilot to Permanent: Competency-Based Program Sees Success

By Sonya Stinson

Bellevue College’s online certificate program for business drops conventional class model and answers student demand.

Sometimes, the response to a trial reform measure is so quick and so clear that it makes sense to fast track its adoption as a permanent fixture.

Just three weeks into the first quarter of Bellevue College’s pilot competency-based online certificate program for business software specialists, instructors were receiving messages from students, wishing they could take all of their classes in the same mode, according to Suzanne Marks, program chairwoman and the director of the college’s business technology systems department.

The pilot ran for six months, beginning in January 2014, with 104 students enrolling in the first quarter and 107 in the second quarter. Because the concept went over so well, Bellevue made the pilot program permanent and dropped the conventional version of the online certificate program that dispensed academic grades. The regular on-campus business-software certificate program will continue as before, says Marks.

Funding for the pilot came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided a $1.19 million grant to Western Governors University to help a handful of colleges and universities develop competency-based IT programs.

Four of the 11 participating institutions, including Bellevue, are located in the state of Washington. Each school was required to develop a curriculum that is 100 percent online and IT-related and culminates in a certificate or degree.

Features of a competency-based program

Bellevue’s business-software program consists of eight courses, worth a total of 32 credits: five classes in Microsoft Office, two focusing on the Web, and a one-credit orientation class. Instructors spent six months gearing up for the program’s debut.

“The hard part for the instructors is that it is a ton of work to set one of these things up, because you have to flip your classroom,” Marks says.

Teachers had to erase the due dates from their usual lesson plans, because in competency-based education, the only hard deadline is the last day of the term. They also had to eliminate homework assignments, which were replaced by ongoing, self-paced skills practice.

The basic formula for competency-based courses includes pre-tests to assess students’ skill levels, practice to improve those skills and post-tests to ensure the students have mastered the skills. It is up to Bellevue instructors to identify the appropriate assessment tools for their classes. They also had to design a new orientation class, in which students create a vision statement and road map; conduct a browser check to ensure they are equipped to complete the various online assessments; and take other steps to get their technological tools in order.

The program is designed to provide students with plenty of individualized attention from instructors, along with tutors and navigators, who help onboard the students into the classes and monitor progress.

A model for student success

“The students love the flexibility of going at their own pace,” Marks says. “They like the fact that they can practice without penalty.”

Students also appreciate the opportunity to earn industry certification at the same time they complete the school’s certification requirements. Bellevue allows them to take Microsoft Office Specialist certification tests along with the college’s comprehensive finals for each segment of the Office Suite.

Bellevue is currently developing a competency-based associate degree program in business. It’s one of eight schools that are partnering with the Washington State Board of Technical and Community Colleges to build 18 courses that each institution will adopt.

With the help of a $5,000 grant from the Lockwood Foundation, Marks’ department also has created an additional competency-based certificate program, this one in Web content management.

“In my department … we expect to move more courses and more certificates over time into this model,” Marks says, “and we expect other programs in the Institute for Business and Information Technology division to follow suit.”

Is your college making a pilot program permanent? Tell us about it in the Comments.

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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