Pathway Redesign: Competency-Based Education?

“Competency-based education” (CBE) is one of the most ubiquitous buzz phrases in higher education today. But what it is and what it means for the student success and completion movement remains to be seen.

This post is written for readers working in higher education reform and was originally published on the Completion by Design blog. Completion by Design is a national initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that works with community colleges to significantly increase completion and graduation rates. Read more about our work with Completion by Design.

“Competency-based education” (CBE) is one of the most ubiquitous buzz phrases in higher education today. But what it is and what it means for the student success and completion movement remains to be seen. Most simply, “competency-based” is used to describe any model or approach that substitutes the assessment of student learning for seat-time measures when determining a learner’s progress toward a degree or credential. There are a few facts and trends that, when taken together, help account for the incredible rise of interest in CBE in recent years:

Competency-based models aren’t exactly new – some have been around for decades, with first-generation innovators like Excelsior College in existence for more than 40 years. And a new generation of innovators at public institutions, those like Kentucky Community College and Technical System and University of Wisconsin-Extension, have built and launched a new generation of models that they hope will scale to a wide range of learners not well served by traditional models.

But there are real and serious questions to be asked about the conditions under which competency-based models are appropriate and for what types of learners. There are also fundamental questions about what constitutes high-quality when it comes to CBE programs.

There is, I believe, a great deal to be learned from colleges that have engaged in wholesale reform of curriculum on behalf of clearer pathways for students. And so I wasn’t at all surprised when Michael Horn at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) in North Carolina contacted me after hearing that Public Agenda is providing facilitation and project management support to the Competency-Based Education Network. Horn reached out because CPCC has found that its pathway redesign work has led naturally to a competency mindset.

A focus on creating accelerated pathways for students has occurred at warp speed in North Carolina. According to Horn, faculty-led reform -- backed by policy changes at the local and state level -- have resulted in dramatic changes in the curriculum and its delivery.

Over the past four years, CPCC has been involved in a host of interrelated efforts to create coherent pathways for students. These include reforming developmental education so that it is an on-ramp instead of an invidious sorting mechanism, engaging in ground-up curriculum redesign of high demand programs in IT and Advanced Manufacturing, and focusing on pathways for transfer between 2-year and 4-year institutions. Such efforts have led to the implementation of a new intrusive advising protocol that brings together faculty and counselors to co-create with students clear “maps” to degrees and careers.

Horn marvels at how easily “the modularization and digitization of these redesigned pathways have also led to profound changes in pedagogy. Math and technical program faculty have intuitively flipped classrooms and labs, freeing them to engage students in new and creative ways -- online and elbow to elbow.” The picture below summarizes how the various pieces fit together, and shows a coherent vision with intensive activity at multiple levels.

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All of CPCC’s initiatives have had one thing in common: the passionate dedication of faculty leadership across the state, backed by leaders hell bent on changing the way students are served. When Horn tells the story of North Carolina’s journey, he focuses on what was most surprising, and this is where our story circles back to the significance of CBE. The speed with which faculty were able, once given the opportunity and support to deliberate together, to establish consensus on competencies and learning outcomes across courses and across educational systems has been eye-opening and heartening. The story he tells underscores the importance of broad-based co-ownership of reform efforts that go beyond thin notions of faculty “buy-in,” and points us toward what is perhaps most promising about competency-based approaches.

While many consider CBE a “new model” and an alternative to traditional modalities, and one that offers a potentially cheaper/faster route to credentials, its greatest promise may in fact reside it its ability to push traditional higher education to think more deeply and creatively than ever before about what rigorous and high-quality learning outcomes work ought to look like.

Today, there are several colleges already coupling competency-informed curriculum redesign with other tools and strategies designed to support their student success and completion goals. For these colleges and the faculty who have done the heavy lift of articulating learning outcomes in ways that help students progress based on what they know and are able to do, the connections between pathway redesign work and CBE are manifold and meaningful.

As the current generation of innovators in competency-based education learn and mature, the lessons learned in North Carolina about the need for broad-based co-ownership of the student-success efforts will become all the more important.

While it is unclear whether CBE will go the way of the MOOCs or grow to become a strong alternative to traditional models, there are undeniable and potentially powerful connections between the work of creating clear pathways for students and the work of ensuring that student progression toward degree is determined by knowledge demonstrated instead of time served. These are exciting times indeed, and those like CPCC who are engaged in the wholesale rethink of their work should be front and center.


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