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Inspiring Innovation in Competency-Based Education

A Q&A with Ruki Jayaraman

The application of competency-based education in U.S. higher education is uneven: Some programs are just starting up; others are firmly rooted and flourishing as they serve today's non-traditional students. Will we soon see the kind of innovation in CBE that will ultimately contribute to widespread, mainstream implementations? How can institutions create the best environment for CBE?

"Institutions venturing into competency-based education must have an awareness of regulatory, accreditation, and sustainability issues, as well as experience with assessment and program design methodologies," explains veteran CBE consultant Ruki Jayaraman. Working in her roles at the dean, director, academic vice president, and academic vice chancellor levels she developed competency-based education programs at pioneering institutions, including Western Governors University and the Argosy University System. She has a truly unique perspective on the evolution of CBE in higher education. CT asked Jayaraman to comment on the status of CBE in U.S.-based institutions and the call for a widely accepted framework and standards for CBE.

Mary Grush: Where are we with competency-based education today?

Ruki Jayaraman: We are at an interesting phase of innovation in higher education where the utility of traditional, credit hour, seat time-based instructional models is being challenged. More and more institutions are adopting competency models in an effort to reduce costs and time to degree for students, and importantly, to make outcomes more meaningful and relevant.

What's especially significant is that today we have something which did not exist even 12-18 months ago: an articulated typology (however basic) of competency programs, created by the U.S. Education Department (ED) and the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC). Two categories  — Credit Equivalency and Direct Assessment models — have established boundaries and given legitimacy and some initial definition of standards to both institutions aspiring to launch competency-based education programs and the accrediting bodies assessing them.

However, despite some progress, there is the inherent paradox of advancing new models and methods in outcomes-based education within the boundaries of the current regulatory requirements, particularly those related to federal financial aid. How do you innovate in CBE while still being expected to adhere to requirements such as "regular and substantive interaction between faculty and students" and "satisfactory academic progress"? Philosophically, in an outcomes-based model the journey, while important, is not as critical as the destination. Students are required to demonstrate that they have knowledge, skills, and abilities regardless of how they achieved them. The fact that institutions are having to provide evidence of substantive faculty-student interaction is in some ways akin to fitting a square peg in a round hole. However, on the flip side, there needs to be some evidence of student learning and progress when billions of dollars of student funding is at stake. It is hoped that the results of the U.S. Education Department's Experimental Sites Initiative will permit some loosening of the regulations, to allow institutions to be more innovative in administering these programs (while still holding them accountable).

In the current state of CBE, in addition to developments within the regulatory environment, there have been some interesting innovations in technology and platforms such as adaptive learning, sophisticated assessment systems, learning portals, dashboards, and CRM systems,  enabling the effective delivery of programs. And institutional culture shifts are occurring, albeit slowly, forcing faculty to become acclimated to unbundled roles. Discussions of learning analytics on how to grapple with data around student learning, student engagement, and assessment dot the landscape. Questions about accountability to stakeholders, quality control, and program integrity dominate the forums. Employers and professional advisory boards are beginning to work alongside faculty in determining program outcomes and competencies in an effort to make outcomes more relevant.

A number and variety of institutions — public, private, non-profit, for-profit, state, religious, community college, 4-year, and graduate schools — have adopted CBE. It has found particularly fertile ground in institutions where there is a culture of innovation and outside-the-box thinking among both administrators and faculty. Funding (or the lack of it) has not been a major impediment, but having investment dollars helped some schools partner with platform and technology leaders to implement customized solutions. While CBE has been more readily adopted in disciplines like business, health sciences, and IT, it is also slowly gaining the acceptance of faculty in the liberal arts. Some institutions, such as Western Governors University, have mature competency programs, while others are just emerging. It appears that there are more than 600 institutions currently developing or offering CBE programs.

Grush: What are those institutions hoping to accomplish with competency-based programs?

Jayaraman: The most compelling arguments for CBE are: that learning cannot be time-bound within the confines of traditional terms; there is a need to reduce education costs, indebtedness, and time to degree, particularly for those who are already competent; programs need to be accountable, preparing students with demonstrable knowledge, skills, and abilities; and finally, we now cater to a new breed of learners who don't fit the "traditional" student mold.

The traditional seat-time/credit based education paradigm does not acknowledge the fact that learning is constant and time is variable. Forcing a student who is already competent to sit in a semester-long class to earn credits will only increase education costs and time to degree. The argument that degree programs have to be more relevant and teach students application and real-world skills is not only compelling — it has to become an accepted standard. Given student demographics in the 21st century, it is apparent that a traditional student attending school full time is no longer the norm. Now, catering to all types of learners — traditional, non-traditional, and adult — and offering programs where students can progress at their own pace amidst conflicting life priorities is imperative. This is the promise of CBE. All of these compelling arguments have fostered an interest in innovation, investments in new instructional models and assessments, new delivery platforms and operational models, and new degree programs that focus on outcomes and competencies. Institutions are embracing CBE as part of their culture of innovation and problem solving.

Grush: What has been outstandingly well done in CBE?

Jayaraman: Overall, there is both overt and tacit acknowledgement that current paradigms (and pedagogies) in higher education have to be adjusted to face the challenges of the 21st century and a new generation of learners. The willingness of some institutions to experiment boldly with CBE models that are rooted in the principle of 'outcomes', with time being variant, is in itself laudable.

Great strides have been made in the area of program and assessment development and delivery. A lot of progress has been made in adaptive learning, with providers vying with each other to build platforms based on learning science and complex algorithms. Recently, it was reported that Flat World Knowledge has partnered with Knewton to pool their expertise in the development of new course solutions.

Assessment development methodologies are becoming more sophisticated with psychometrically sound measurement strategies. For example, over the years WGU has refined its assessment development framework and methods, and it has become a leader in the field. Its assessment development process is thorough, and every program has a battery of rigorous, robust, valid and reliable, and psychometrically sound assessments.

There is a lot of attention drawn to learning analytics relevant to CBE. Given that students are generally in an independent learning environment and working at their own pace, it is imperative that there are accurate metrics to track progress and performance, and to enable faculty to know how students learn so they can guide them effectively. Assessment platforms and newly evolving CBE learning management systems are beginning to generate sophisticated analytics and reports.

Grush: What are some of the hurdles/problems to be faced by institutions that decide to offer competency-based programs?

Jayaraman: It will be helpful for institutions new to CBE to be aware of some challenges that others reported to have faced. These may not be deterrents if the institution is committed to a strategy of innovation and has the resources to execute. Typically, existing culture may be an impediment if administrators and faculty have not bought into the promise of CBE. Getting faculty to understand the model and not feel threatened by their changing role is critical. And not having a clearly articulated vision for the program, or a development strategy with clearly documented steps for the program development lifecycle, can lead to a low-quality, piecemeal program.

Making the determination up front as to whether the program will be direct assessment or credit equivalency is necessary in the current regulatory environment. Generally, institutions may not have assessment development and psychometric expertise in-house, or they may need to pay a premium to hire consultants or have metrics developed by outside experts.

Funding for the program could prove challenging. Most of higher ed is facing severe cuts to essential programs and services, and seeking funding for a greenhouse model may be a challenge. Technology and platforms can be an expensive proposition, and while most institutions can cover start-up costs, funding could potentially dry up for the long term.

Data analytics can become a daunting proposition. Identifying the right metrics, gathering data from multiple systems and sources, and having experienced resources to systematically analyze the data and make action plans — while not being overwhelmed by too much data — will be critical.

While the hurdles are not insurmountable, having key stakeholders make a long-term commitment to CBE backed by ongoing resources will make a huge difference to success or failure.

Grush: What is the overall direction now, with the accountability of CBE programs?

Jayaraman: Accountability is absolutely critical, not just for the viability of the program at the institutional level, but it will have implications for the competency-based movement as a whole. Unless institutions take responsibility for the quality and integrity of the program, a failing program can affect the reputation of CBE and cast a shadow over its innovations.

This past year, we have seen the Inspector General's report about the Education Department's handling of some of the direct assessment programs, and the subsequent censure of the handling of CBE program reviews by regional accrediting bodies. Since then, both the ED and C-RAC have issued standards that will help maintain some accountability.

Given that most competency programs are not seat time based, and students earn credits through assessments, it is imperative that programs are able to guarantee (backed by evidence) that their assessments are rigorous, measure the right competencies at the right levels, and are psychometrically sound.

In the current environment, the regulatory requirement of having to build in regular and substantive interaction between a student and faculty — while somewhat limiting to future CBE innovation as I have mentioned — does ensure that the program in place now is not merely a correspondence program or a program through which credits are earned solely through prior learning.

Institutions are also accountable to their stakeholders — students, employers, faculty, and staff. The mandate for CBE programs is that students will be able to demonstrate that they have the requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities in their discipline at the end of the program. In some ways, this is a promise to the stakeholders. Quality and integrity of the program is essential to delivering on that promise.

Grush: How does accreditation fit into the process of building competency-based programs?

Jayaraman: The current regulations stipulate that all CBE programs at a regionally accredited institution have to go through a substantive change review process. As I stated earlier, there are some standards that have been established by the ED and the regional accrediting bodies for approving those programs. Incidentally, the Experimental Sites Initiative requires that institutions that have applied to participate should have their CBE program approved by the regional accreditor in order to be eligible.

Grush: Especially considering sustainability, what are the important technology issues for CBE? Which technologies contribute to successful operation of competency-based programs?

Jayaraman: Technology requirements have to determined by the respective institutions as needs may vary depending on the CBE model adopted. However, there is general acknowledgement that technology requirements for CBE are more extensive than they are for traditional programs. It must be remembered that technology costs go beyond just start-up funding, and need to be factored into the long-term strategic planning and budgeting process for the institution.

Assessment systems are critical for CBE. In order to maintain the integrity of assessments, there is a need for a secure platform to develop, house, configure, deliver assessments, and gather and report on data. This is true for both objective and performance assessments. Given the independent learning environment, course content is becoming increasingly customized for each student, and adaptive technologies have emerged based on learning science and learning analytics. The ability to review data on student engagement with the learning resources allows faculty to intervene early.

Portals and CRM systems allow faculty, mentors, and student advisors to track student progress and follow structured communication protocols. Dashboards provide analytics and the ability to review learning and assessment data. Learning analytics provide faculty with valuable insights into the effectiveness of the materials and resources so they can implement changes. And various analyses of assessment data enable the institution to determine whether or not competencies are being met at the right levels or if changes are in order.

Publishers such as Flat World Knowledge and Knewton have teamed up to provide sophisticated learning platforms. Others, like Kryterion, Task Stream, TK20, and ProctorU are already in the assessment delivery space. Several other companies such as ETS and Caveon have been developing objective type assessments for some time, and they maintain a team of developers and psychometric staff who work with faculty and subject matter experts to develop test items.

Grush: You mentioned some initial work on CBE standards by the ED and C-RAC. How else do standards apply? Where will we find them?

Jayaraman: Currently there are no set, widely established standards for CBE — other than what the ED and C-RAC have started. Each institution that seeks approval for CBE either from a regional accreditor, the ED, or a state regulatory agency, is governed by any standards set by that entity. However, several organizations such as the Lumina Foundation, CAEL, C-BEN, Public Agenda, Educause, and others are continuing their efforts to articulate the cause of CBE. Some of these entities such as C-BEN have attempted to create a taxonomy, construct definitions, classify terminology, and outline the processes for development and delivery of CBE programs. However, there are as many CBE models as there are institutions, and while there is general agreement on some terminology and definitions of CBE, there is quite a way to go before we have a clearly delineated and widely recognized set of competency-based models and frameworks.

Grush: How would you predict the future development of competency-based education to unfold?

Jayaraman: What is intriguing about CBE is that it is not a new phenomenon. The apprenticeship tradition in the European guilds of the middle ages was in some ways a precursor to the current CBE framework. And corporate employers have mostly relied, for many years, on competency assessments and certifications to onboard and train new employees. I expect that hybrid models — which are a combination of direct assessments and seat-time based courses — may become popular, allowing students to take assessments in areas in which they are competent as well as do coursework in subjects where they need additional learning.

My colleagues in the field of education often remind me that competency-based education has always been at the foundation for P-12 education programs. It is interesting that it is only recently that CBE has taken center stage in higher education in the U.S.

CBE is here to stay. It continues to be an emerging area, and institutions are still innovating (within regulatory boundaries) with different frameworks and practices. I hope the Experimental Sites Initiative will give the ED enough data, analytics, and insights to inform future regulations and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act. The future of CBE and its accompanying innovations will unfold, sooner or later, alongside technology developments, but it will be dependent on regulatory priorities, accepted standards, and the readiness of our campus environments. And students and society will be the benefactors.

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