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Blazing the Trail: Competency-Based Education at SNHU

A Brief Q&A with Paul LeBlanc


Southern New Hampshire University's competency-based program, College for America, is opening up new options for the assessment of student learning. It's also turning the notion of the traditional credit hour, and all it supports, on its ear. Here, CT asks Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc about the implications of competency-based assessment.

Mary Grush: We have been hearing a lot recently about competency-based education. Where do we stand in its development?

Paul LeBlanc: Competency-based education is a hot topic right now, but in reality it's been around for a long time — some would argue 30 or even 40 years. A whole host of institutions have worked in this space: important institutions like Excelsior, Charter Oak State College, and more recently, Western Governors University. They have really moved the dial on how we think about education and measuring outcomes and competencies. What's different now, though, is that we've crossed a line and moved into a new generation of competency-based programs — and here I would include our program, College for America — that are actually fully untethered from the credit hour.

Grush: What is being untethered?

LeBlanc: That's a really critical piece to understand. The credit hour was designed about a hundred years ago to figure out how to pay pensions to retired faculty members. That's why it was created. But, interestingly, it's come to permeate higher education, almost as the defining artifact within our industry. It has come to define how we unitize knowledge or learning [such as "the 3-credit hour course"]. It is how we define faculty workload and how we pay people. It is how we allocate our physical resources, and it drives classroom scheduling. It's how we measure student progress towards a degree — it's actually how we shape or define degrees. And importantly, it's the basis for giving out $150 billion dollars per year in federal financial aid. All of that is tied to the credit hour.

Grush: And the College for America program at SNHU is, instead, fully untethered from the credit hour?

LeBlanc: Yes. There is a provision under Title IV that allows for an exception to credit hour-based programming; for direct assessment of student learning. Our program is the first to be approved by the Department of Education under that provision. We decided that College for America will have no courses; no credit hours. What we have instead is 120 competencies — 120 "can do" statements; claims we make for student learning.

This is profound in that it reverses a really fundamental relationship embedded in the credit hour, which is: Time is fixed, and learning is variable. The credit hour is pretty good at telling you how long somebody sat at a desk. But it's not so good at telling you what they learned.

So, now what we have said [instead of "Time is fixed, and learning is variable."] is that we are going to be really clear about the claims we make for learning. We have 120 claims [or competencies], defined with rubrics, and we will share how we assess and share the evidence of that assessment.

Grush: For example?

LeBlanc: When we make a claim for competency around the ability to make presentations, we define that in terms of a rubric. It's very transparent: Students know how they are going to be judged — they can see the rubric. We make an assessment and that presentation, that evidence, will be stored in a Web-based portfolio.

Grush: So, you have removed the credit hour as a building block to a degree, and placed your full emphasis on the competencies — the claims you make for the student's learning?

LeBlanc: Yes. This has enormous implications, because we've taken that fundamental building block and changed the polarity of that molecule [to borrow from physics], if you will.

Grush: What does your record then show?

LeBlanc: Under the credit hour system, which is not very good at defining learning, transcripts don't tell people very much about the student's learning. For example, if you have a "B" in Intro to Sociology, most people that I know would look at your transcript and figure that you did presumably better than someone with a "B-" or a "C+". And they can infer a few things from the course title, but that's about it — they don't really know what you know. But in our case, they get to see exactly the claims we make for the learning.

Grush: Then is there less emphasis on content delivery, and more on outcomes?

LeBlanc: When you think about outcomes and competencies, you worry less about inputs. I always like to say: If you are crystal clear about the claims you make for learning, and you are rock-solid about your assessments, then no one should care how you got students to that finish line.

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