Advocates of competency-based education push to encourage adoption – amid challenges – EdSurge | Wonder Mind Kids

AMELIA ISLAND, FL. — For decades, proponents of competency-based education have argued that colleges should allocate credit based on the knowledge level of the student, not the number of hours taught. Although the idea of ​​CBE, as it’s called, gets a buzz every few years, it’s remained a relatively minor phenomenon.

Could this post-pandemic moment lead to wider acceptance of the idea? After all, there is a growing interest among employers in using skills-based hiring – i.e. looking for evidence of specific skills rather than requiring a college degree. And colleges appear to be more open to new approaches as overall enrollments decline and skepticism about higher education increases.

Last week, a group that promotes CBE, the nonprofit Competency-Based Education Network, released a new report that it hopes can be a roadmap for a coordinated push to increase adoption and acceptance of the education model.

The report is fairly short – just over 20 pages – and lays out five design principles for colleges and other educational institutions that want to try CBE:

  1. Explain what competencies a course or program provides.
  2. Promote equity in education and recruitment by shifting the focus from a program’s reputation to what students can demonstrate.
  3. Try to use CBE to close the “skills gap” between what employers say they need and what schools and colleges teach.
  4. Look for achievable steps that indicate a large-scale change toward a competency-based system.
  5. Help diverse sectors—K-12, higher education, employers, communities, government, and industry—collaborate on the transition.

The glossy document was published here at the Competency-Based Education Network Annual Conference, where it was distributed to attendees and informed the topics of many sessions. In a sign of momentum in this area, the group noted that membership has grown from about 30 institutions to more than 600 in the five years since it officially became a nonprofit organization.

But that still leaves thousands of colleges without a competency-based program.

hype and reality

The conference attempted to channel the energy and momentum of a sporting event to support attendees in their efforts to conduct or launch CBE programs that go against the norms of typical campus cultures. To the cheers of conference organizers, attendees entered the grand ballroom through an inflated archway at the start of the event, as if they were professional soccer players entering a stadium for the big game. The group’s president, Charla Long, who worked in management at Disney earlier in her career, is known for bringing over-the-top props and themes to the conference. This year, a square of artificial turf with field markings was laid out in the center of the space in front of the main stage, speakers sat in bleachers with cardboard cutouts of fans behind them, and event leaders wore football shirts.

But organizers and participants have sometimes been blunt about the challenges they face.

For one thing, the transition to competency-based education requires changes in many aspects of a campus, from the way professors teach to the way the registrar awards credits.

“Everything has to be modified, so you have to be willing to really dismantle your institution and then build it from scratch,” said Yvonne-Russell, dean of the College of Innovation and Design at Texas A&M University-Commerce, in an interview. “Doing competency-based education means unlearning the educational paradigms for faculty, the way they teach students, the way [students] to learn. And for the back office processes for financial aid, enrollment, admissions, tuition [and] Review, everything needs to be changed.”

She runs five competency-based majors, including a bachelor’s degree in general studies, with nearly 1,000 students, and she says they’re going well. And she and her colleagues have received officials from many other colleges interested in copying their model. But none of these visitors have been able to get a CBE program off the ground at their own institution, she said, because the way all these departments work on each campus is so different and they all need convincing to change. “My advice to other schools is, be prepared to really create a parallel institution within your institution,” she said.

“We’ve been there for almost 10 years and almost every day [we have] The registrar said: “I’ve never seen that before. We just broke the system. What are we doing?’” she added, giving an example of how to handle a financial aid overhaul when, say, a student transitions from a traditional program to a competency-based one mid-year. “We are constantly revising our policies. We are constantly creating new ways of doing things and creating a patch in the existing system.”

And teachers are not always sold. For example, when some courses at the Air Force Institute of Technology switched to a CBE model, some instructors chose not to stick with them to make the change. “We’ve lost a few professors,” said Brian Fitch, who works in the business administration department at the institute. “Professors like being on the podium and teaching,” he added, and in the CBE model, the trainers serve more as a coach and resource. But instructors who stay often like the model better, he added.

Even the language of the approach can be off-putting to the uninitiated.

“Skills-based education is a tongue twister and doesn’t always get traction,” said Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of the nonprofit Complete College America, during a session. She advised colleges to use “very simple language that resonates with laypeople” when marketing a CBE program, since students may not understand how it works: “Focus on, ‘How is it going to improve their lives and help them , make more money and be successful?’”

Nationwide projects

One big shift that CBE leaders are feeling encouraged and trying to encourage more of is national CBE efforts trying to endorse the model in a number of colleges or schools.

“What’s different this time is more system-level conversations,” said Amber Garrison Duncan, executive vice president of the Competency-Based Education Network, in an interview with EdSurge.

She pointed to an effort in Alabama that is building a statewide framework to help CBE programs succeed by defining skills and tailoring educational offerings to what employers are looking for. Illinois, meanwhile, is establishing a statewide CBE effort to train early childhood educators.

There is a feeling among heads of state and other policymakers, she said, that when public money is going to fund education, “it had better go somewhere,” adding, “We can’t just say it’s okay for people to have access to education.” To get education, and then they have a road to nowhere or a dead end.”

Questions were raised about some forms of competence-based education.

In 2017, a federal audit found that Western Governors University’s CBE program lacked faculty interaction and classified it as a distance learning program rather than an online program. Based on that ruling, the institution’s review recommended returning $700 million in financial aid to the government. Two years later, the Trump administration rejected those findings and dropped the request for reimbursement, but the incident has made some college administrators suspicious of CBE.

The new Competency-Based Education Network report dedicates a section to the importance of quality assurance in the creation of competency-based programs and calls on accreditors to develop standards that understand the unique characteristics of these programs.

Meanwhile, competency-based programs have found adherents among some college students—particularly adults. The American Institutes for Research’s 2020 National Survey of Postsecondary Competency Based Education suggests that CBE programs enroll more people ages 25 and older and more people who have previously earned college credit than traditional college programs.

These returning adult college students say they are finding competency-based programs exactly what they need to complete a college degree in a way that recognizes they have already acquired many knowledge and skills in the workplace. That was the case with Gina Petersen, a college student who was interviewed by EdSurge on our Second Acts podcast series while she was completing a competency-based program at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Universities reluctant to adopt CBE may be particularly interested in one of Petersen’s insights. At some point in her studies, she wondered if the CBE approach might one day allow students to prove their skills using only standardized tests — essentially allowing them to skip college altogether.

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