Teaching and Learning | Feature
Inside Competency-Based Degrees
Under pressure to deliver more bang for the buck, traditional schools are launching competency-based degree programs that reward life experiences and give students demonstrable skills.
- By John K. Waters
The idea couldn't be simpler: Instead of awarding college degrees based on the accumulation of credit hours — essentially "seat time" in the classroom — make the foundation of a degree a set of demonstrated competencies, regardless of where or when those competencies were acquired. In recent years, the biggest proponents of competency-based learning, as it is commonly known, have been for-profit online colleges, such as Capella University, and a handful of nonprofit institutions, such as Western Governors University, which was founded on the concept. But with concerns growing about what students actually learn at college — and the huge debts they rack up in the process — an increasing number of traditional universities are developing competency-based degree programs of their own.
Texas A&M University-Commerce and South Texas College, for example, have partnered with Pearson to create a competency-based Bachelor of Applied Sciences degree in organizational leadership. This fall, the University of Wisconsin System rolled out a competency-based degree program called the Flexible Option, following on the heels of Northern Arizona University's May launch of a competency-based online degree program that emphasizes personalized learning. And the University of West Florida is in the process of building a competency-based degree program focused on the existing job market.
If these programs succeed, the number of converts could grow quickly, given the support the model has attracted. The U.S. Department of Education has been making supportive statements for several years. In 2011, the agency issued a letter encouraging colleges to seek federal approval for degree programs that don't rely on the credit hour to measure student learning. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has even stated that such programs, which are now the exception, should become the norm.
Florida is an example of the growing enthusiasm for competency-based learning at the state level. Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, a driving force behind the state's recent decision to launch UF Online, the country's first stand-alone, online-only public university program for baccalaureate degrees, thinks its time has finally come.
"There's a real recognition that student-centered learning is the future of education," Weatherford said. "I believe that competency-based degrees are something we're going to see a lot more of in the future. Programs that allow students to learn at their own pace, as opposed to ones that are dictated by the calendar year, will appeal to a lot of people."
But perhaps the best evidence of this momentum comes from the very organization that invented the credit hour, the Carnegie Foundation. Originally called the Carnegie Unit, the credit hour was established in 1906 as a way of measuring faculty workload. It was never intended "to measure, inform or improve the quality of teaching or learning," according to the foundation. Nevertheless, the credit hour quickly became the de facto standard for measuring student progress in both secondary and higher education. In December 2012, the Carnegie Foundation declared that "technology has revealed the potential of personalized learning," and that "it is time to consider how a revised unit, based on competency rather than time, could improve teaching and learning in high schools, colleges and universities."
The foundation is currently conducting an analysis of the value of the Carnegie Unit in "today's educational context" and examining "the potential consequences of creating a new unit of learning."
Make no mistake, the task of converting a traditional degree program into a competency-based one is daunting, with impacts that are likely to reverberate throughout the institution. The biggest challenge is obvious: revising how student work is assessed. In a competency-based learning program, credit is given when ability is demonstrated; credit hours become irrelevant and grades difficult to apply. At some programs, students can even earn credits toward graduation by demonstrating competency earned through life and work experience.
"This is a very different model for traditional universities," said Sue Talley, dean of technology within the School of Business and Technology at Capella University. "Even describing what a 'competency' looks like requires a different mindset. It's not 'finish the assignment' or 'read these pages' kind of language. You have to describe what the activity you're doing looks like when you're competent at it."
Talley has some experience in this area. Capella, which was founded in 1993, began applying competency-based assessments a decade ago. Today, all of its programs are competency-based. In August, the university won federal approval for its FlexPath online Bachelor of Science in Business and Master of Business Administration degrees, meaning that students in these programs can now receive federal financial aid.
Talley defined "competencies" as "skills or knowledge that you would expect learners to have as they enter the workforce or as they move on to the next degree level." Capella evaluates student competencies using a scoring rubric attached to each assignment. The rubrics describe what student performance looks like at each of four levels. For example, the "Defining Risk Management" rubric delineates the general criteria for evaluation ("Enumerate the main components of the risk-management process"), and then the specific criteria for levels of performance: Distinguished, Proficient, Basic or Non-Performance level. A student performing at a Basic level "enumerates some of the main components of the risk-management process." A student performing at a Distinguished level "enumerates the main components of the risk-management process in a sequence that implies their importance and relationship."
"We can translate those levels into your basic A, B, C, D, F grades," Talley explained, "but we're going beyond the subjective judgment that an instructor makes when issuing grades. We're assessing what the learner is able to do. Getting away from grade-based assessment is going to be a big adjustment for traditional schools."
Northern Arizona University tackled that transition by deconstructing standard three-credit-hour courses into learning outcomes, competencies and requirements, and then reconstructing them as interdisciplinary courses. And because the courses are competency-based, accounting for life experience — what Fred Hurst, NAU senior vice president, called "honoring a student's prior knowledge" — presents no real problem.
"Students have been testing out of classes for a long time," explained Hurst. "This is really no different. If you are a bookkeeper who has been working under a CPA for 15 years, you're going to know a lot about accounting. You should get credit for that. More important, if you already understand the material and are forced to sit through a 15-week course, you're going to be bored out of your mind, and we might lose you."
In recognition of the fact that competency-based learning is still on the bleeding edge of education, NAU provides students in its Personalized Learning program with both a competency report and a traditional transcript.
"We believe that having a traditional transcript is still very important," Hurst said. "Some employers want to see them, and the only way the experiences gained in a competency-based program can be interpreted for transfer to a traditional program is in credit hours. And if you want to go to grad school, it's important that they have a more traditional transcript."
Preparing faculty to make the transition to competency-based learning is another significant challenge. "Until competencies become part of the culture — and everyone understands them — understanding the value of a competency-based education is a faculty-development challenge," noted Talley. "This understanding of competencies has to be a cultural change. The use of competencies needs to be adopted not only by professors, but also by the university leadership, so everyone thinks about learning in the same way."
Until that can happen — and it won't be a rapid process — some schools find it easier to keep their competency-based initiatives separate from established instructional programs. NAU is a case in point: After years of rapid expansion — 40 percent growth in on-campus enrollment in four years, plus years of more than 10 percent annual growth online — the school's faculty were in no position to take on extra responsibilities. "From the beginning, we recognized that we could not ask our faculty to take on the additional responsibilities of our competency-based programs," Hurst said.
Instead, the university hired a dedicated full-time faculty for its Personalized Learning program to develop the curriculum and to support student learning. "We invest in support services and faculty development for our lead and mentor faculty," Hurst said, "but it's incremental, rather than support for traditional faculty to take on new roles."
The University of West Florida (UWF) is still developing the faculty strategy for its fledgling competency-based degree program, but the cornerstone of its approach to assessment and student support has been set: student portfolios. "We want our students to come away with the things employers are asking for," said Pam Northrup, the school's associate provost of academic innovation. "The portfolio can contain documentation of their experience and projects they work on, and examples of their writing and critical thinking. We also see the portfolio playing a huge role in helping us to figure out what their needs are. It's almost like a gap analysis: 'what is' versus 'what should be,' and how do we work through the gaps to get to completion?"
As schools change their grading and assessment approaches, the technological underpinnings must change, too. UWF, for example, is still sorting out the technical requirements of its program, according to Northrup. "Our collective head is still spinning," she said. "You can't use the regular LMS and do it justice from a competency-based perspective, so we're pulling back to what we learned a few years ago about learning-object content management. And we're talking with third parties and learning from other people who have implemented competency-based learning programs. We won't reinvent the wheel if we don't have to."
For its part, NAU doesn't feel that the technical hurdles have been particularly high. NAU's competency-based program will continue to use the school's existing learning management system, Pearson's Learning Studio (formerly eCollege). To accommodate the changes in assessment approach, though, NAU's tech crew developed a custom dashboard for the front end but maintained the same database on the back end. In all, the customization required about 60,000 lines of code, according to Hurst.
Depending on how aggressively a school pursues a switch to competency-based education, any tech revamp is likely to be mild compared with the institutional upheaval. While several schools have now launched online-only degree programs that are competency based, no traditional institution has yet attempted a full-scale conversion of its educational offerings.
"My suspicion is that the credit-hour system is so deeply bound into everything that it'll be very hard to get away from it," said Glenn Everett, a higher education consultant who specializes in accreditation and strategic planning for distance learning and online education. As director of instructional technologies at the University of Tennessee at Martin in the late '90s, Everett helped to create The New College, one of the first entirely online degree programs.
"If you do away with the credit-hour system, then there's really no reason to have semesters," he explained. "Then how do you pay faculty? What about the whole idea of the kind of work a faculty member can expect, which traditionally is a balance of teaching, research and service? And if you take away the most significant piece of that structure, what do you put in its place?"
So where does this leave brick-and-mortar campuses that espouse face-to-face instruction? The realities of operating physical institutions — with their issues of facilities, staffing and utilities — make self-paced competency-based learning very difficult to implement. But that doesn't change the fact that taxpayers, parents — and students themselves — are now demanding to know their money isn't being wasted on programs that don't teach learners what they need to know. Regardless of how instruction is delivered, there's pressure to implement outcomes-based assessments that actually measure competency.
The solution for brick-and-mortar institutions may have nothing to do with technology at all and has been part of higher education for decades. "The professional schools are already ahead of all this," Everett said. "Aspiring physicians have to pass board exams. Lawyers have to pass the bar. CPAs have to get certified. These provide a model for determining what kinds of competencies you should be able to demonstrate as you come out of these educational experiences."
Targeting Adult Learners
Adult learners with some college credits and the potential to fill gaps in a state's workforce are the most visible targets of new competency-based programs around the country. The University of West Florida's Complete Florida program, for example, aims to provide associate and baccalaureate degrees aligned to workforce needs identified by the Board of Governors' Commission on Florida Higher Education Access and Degree Attainment. Although the program is still in development, the competency-based model of instruction is considered key to making it a success, said Pam Northrup, the school's associate provost of academic innovation.
"There are about 2.2 million adults in the state who have some college and no degree," Northrup said. "Many of them have years of work experience, and they should get credit for that experience. They'll have an opportunity to demonstrate their competency, and that will appeal to a lot of people who want or need to finish up their degrees."
The program will be fully online, but it will provide two degree pathways: an accelerated program that reduces seat time, and a totally competency-based program. The school plans to implement the accelerated programs first, with a small cohort in January. If all goes well, the Complete Florida program itself will launch in fall 2014. Northrup doesn't expect to roll out a full competency-based program until fall 2015.
Although the curriculum for Complete Florida is still being developed, the initial offering will focus on training learners to fill employer needs. "We are identifying programs where there are jobs at the end of the story," said Northrup. UWF plans to give priority to military and veteran students for the program.
Northern Arizona University's nascent Personalized Learning program, which the school bills as the first competency-based, online degree program by a public university, also seeks to tap a rich vein of adult learners, said Fred Hurst, the school's senior vice president and the program's original architect.
"We've been serving adult students for more than four decades, so it was very natural for us to develop this program," explained Hurst. "We had been talking about what might be the next step in adult education and how we might increase the number of baccalaureate holders. Our Board of Regents was also very interested in degree-completion programs."
The school started enrolling students in the program in May. The curriculum was developed for three bachelor's degrees already offered by the university: small business administration, computer information technology and liberal arts. The first two degrees provide a specific set of skills currently in demand in the workplace; the third targets adults who need to complete a degree to move up in their careers.
"In a general sense, we're looking for motivated students who have skills that are transferable to a degree program," said Hurst.