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What Can Competency-Based Assessment and Degree Qualification Mean for the National Degree Completion Agenda?

A Q&A with Gary Brown

The push for degree completion has taken the national spotlight easily in recent years. But surprisingly, questions about the quality and consistency of those degrees have not been quite so prevalent. Gary Brown (photo, right), Portland State University's Associate Vice Provost for Academic Excellence, Co-director of AAEEBL, and a Senior Fellow with Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), is among the higher education leaders seeking to change that. As institutions are increasingly pressed to graduate more students and to do so more efficiently, says Brown, understanding how quality is defined will be critical--and building consensus around competency is an emerging strategy for ensuring quality. Here, Campus Technology asks Brown about efforts underway in this important arena.

Mary Grush: What is the main conversation now, relevant to degree qualification?

Gary Brown: Educators are being pressed to graduate more students and to do it very efficiently. But we know that simple measures of seat time and completion by themselves are not adequate assurances of competence, nor do they reflect the quality of the learning associated with a given degree. So along with the push for degree completion, there will soon be great pressure to define and determine quality in this context. And as the completion agenda heats up, we have just a small window to renew old and establish new assessment principles and measures of quality.

After cutting through the noise, the deeper needs are clear: We need graduates who have broad, integrated knowledge and skills; we need to nurture proclivities toward sustainable innovation and creative enterprise; and we need to cultivate dispositions toward civic engagement and social responsibility. Obviously individual faculty will not make this happen working in isolation. Old models of dissemination will not sufficiently prepare students for either current or coming challenges. The implications--the need for faculty to collaborate within and across institutional barriers--are far reaching.

Grush: Within that context, what can competency-based assessment tell us?

Brown: Unlike current degrees that confirm one has successfully participated in an accredited program with some measure of achievement, competency-based assessments as I understand them refer to one's performance according to specific criteria, and that performance has been assessed according to shared criteria affirmed by a community of experts.

The distinctions between these two approaches are nuanced, perhaps, but significant. In the former, we have the vagaries of individual grading practices that vary from institution to institution, class to class. In competency-based assessment, however, what we can find out is whether a student's performance meets or exceeds the expectations of a whole community of experts. If we do this right, competency-based assessment will be understood to reaffirm the expert judgments of our faculty and community. That alone could be very important right now.

More specifically and as an example, a competency-based performance assessment can tell us what an employer might expect someone with an AA degree to be able to do and what skills and knowledge a person with an AA degree should possess. If we can make such competencies clear for many different types of degrees and design useful competency-based assessments--implemented widely--we can help ensure the high quality and consistency of degrees… high standards without standardization.

Grush: Have such competency-based initiatives been put in place yet?

There are a few successful models--Western Governors University, Rio Salado College, and others--though they are the exceptions right now and their measures of competency have been concentrated, for the most part, within their own institutional borders. But there is also an emerging and notable initiative stemming from current work on the Lumina Foundation's Degree Qualification Profile (DQP). Lumina has recently funded a number of pilots to advance this work. One particular example, the AAC&U Quality Collaboratives project, done in partnership with Lumina, is a far-reaching, collaborative effort among partner institutions that recognizes the urgent need to establish broad principles of quality in the definitions of competencies in degree qualifications, and by extension, in the degree completion agenda.

AAC&U's Quality Collaboratives (QCs) represent the work of 9 states that are adopting learning outcomes to define quality and competency. The DQP competencies, really an outgrowth of the previously existing "LEAP" essential learning outcomes--Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World, Intellectual and Practical Skills, Personal and Social Responsibility, and Integrative and Applied Learning--have been developed to guide assessments that focus on the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and to complex problems.

In each state in the QC project there is a multidisciplinary team approach, in which every team includes representatives from a two-year and a four-year institution within that state. Each team has a designated leader and a designated assessment specialist who work with faculty team members to develop assignments and assessment strategies that deepen students' learning experiences as a means to assure effective articulation and matriculation. Each dyad is developing an approach suitable for its own specific context and institutional culture, but all of this work underscores what is perhaps the most important and challenging change--the shift in work from individuals to teams, from 'my work' to 'our work.'

Grush: What are the implications for technology, or the necessity of planning for technology to support all this?

Brown: Could we really do all this without the effective implementation of technology? To facilitate the kind of communication needed among interdisciplinary teams on campus and across institutions, as well as the essential collection, correlation, and exchange of data, obviously technology will be critical. And it's going to take much more than a learning management system. For example, ePortfolios will continue to grow as a very important technology strategy, a strategy that will again require renewed intentionality and collaboration among educators. And communication and collaboration technologies will also need to be deployed and used more systematically.

Student interactions with their institutions and their own records will be different, too. For example, Lane Community College in Oregon is working on a digital transcript project that will be used not only by the institution, but also more universally between institutions to mediate articulation based upon competencies, not just grades.

You can see the importance of technologies in facilitating this kind of work. I think we can count on being surprised by the variations and innovations that will emerge.

Grush: Is there a role for social networking?

Brown: Yes, but it's really much more than just "social networking." There is a kind of merging of the institutional portfolio universe with social networking. We are seeing a re-envisioning and expanding of the old portal, reincarnated into a kind of MOOC. That is, we are merging learning management systems, assessment management systems, social networking, and portals into a new digital environment. It all seems to be growing organically along with the digital zeitgeist that comes with the connective opportunity that is Internet. The Internet is, ultimately, both repository and learning system in which the management is being redistributed from the institutional LMS to the learner in an expanding digital ecology. This is a major shift.

Grush: Is there a role for learning analytics?

Brown: We are only at the very beginning of discovering the power of learning analytics. I suspect analytics will yield useful insight for organizing and refining learning pathways. So far the lessons from learning analytics have not been surprising: For example, analytics show that students who participate early and often perform more successfully within and defined by our current institutional contexts. But as we expand our research and refine our focus, analytics should contribute much more to our understanding of the diversity of learners and learning opportunities. And analytics relating to the potential of new, competency-based assessments coupled with robust, divergent learning pathways will surprise us. I suspect what we learn will make many in our more traditional institutions more than a little uncomfortable.

Grush: You've outlined some big changes. Are we really going to see competency-based assessments put in place widely for degree qualification, soon?

Brown: The aspiration of keeping quality in the assessment of what we are doing in higher education is really critical. Having more students graduate faster is an easy thing to do. Keeping quality in the process is hard. But we can't stop. It isn't our institutions that require it. It is our world that is demanding it, and soon.


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