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Building on Competency-Based Education

A Q&A with Ruki Jayaraman

Argosy University System is among the first institutions in a movement toward competency-based education, creating new models of direct assessment that promise to reduce time-to-degree and offer greater relevance for graduates in the job market. CT talked with Argosy University System's vice chancellor for academic affairs to learn how that institution tackled competency-based education — creating the first WASC-accredited MBA in its region based on a direct assessment, competency model. Now, Argosy is developing hybrid approaches that combine direct assessment with traditional seat time-based courses.

Mary Grush: When did Argosy first approach competency-based education? Were you part of the leadership, and how would describe the process of making this transition for your institution?

Ruki Jayaraman: Argosy's journey in terms of building and launching competency-based models began about two years ago. In terms of leadership, Argosy University's Chancellor, Craig Swenson and I had worked together at Western Governors University, so we had both cut our teeth in competency-based education at WGU, and after moving to Argosy, we simply never lost our passion for building competency-based programs. I had been very involved in building programs at WGU and am very hands-on in terms of methodologies and building programs to standards. We had initial conversations with other academic and operations leaders at Argosy and assembled a team, which included consultants who could help us architect a program.

In the beginning we actually didn't publicize this widely at Argosy, and in fact, we flew a little bit under the radar in our efforts to build the program. At that point, we didn't know if we were going to get approval through WASC, our accreditation body, and we didn't want to create a distraction. We assumed there would be a lot of people who would be skeptical about moving to a direct assessment model during the initial stages.

We also assembled a professional advisory board, consisting of industry experts from different business verticals, so that they could inform us about core competencies our graduates would need to have — this was important input we would use as a starting point, in building the competency MBA program. We asked them what skills, knowledge, and abilities they would look for when hiring MBA graduates.

It took us about a year to complete the development of assessments based on the core competencies the board and faculty outlined, and we were in a position to work on a proposal for WASC. The team that WASC put together to evaluate our proposal worked collaboratively with us, which was a fabulous experience culminating of course with a site visit, after which WASC approved our program. This was the first direct assessment, competency-based program within the region to be approved.

We launched the MBA program officially in September/October 2013.

Grush: What issues will Argosy solve for the students of this program, by moving to the competency-based model?

Jayaraman: There is so much debate going on in higher education right now, around the ideas that our traditional seat-time programs take too long, and that students are forced to take classes in areas they've already mastered, just to earn credit. Cost to degree is an important, related issue here. "Fast-tracking" the students who already have competencies in core areas can have a huge impact on cost and time to degree. Of course, reducing or eliminating seat time requirements can also help the "non-traditional" student who may be working and needs a more flexible schedule.

Another key element is relevance. Following our industry advisory board's advice on core competencies, rather than taking a more traditional, textbook-based approach to building the program, creates a real value for our graduates in the job market.

Grush: What role does technology play in competency-based programs?

Jayaraman: Technology is a huge component — the backbone, if you will — for supporting competency-based programs. At Argosy, we recognized this from the very beginning of our work. We had a fully online program, which meant that all of our systems — for assessment, content management, learning community platforms, or even dashboards for actionable data and support strategies for students — were critical for the success of the program.

Grush: What are you looking at now, in terms of building out Argosy's competency-based education programs?

Jayaraman: One of the things we are looking at right now is the possibility of creating a doctoral program in management, built on a hybrid methodology that combines competency assessments with seat time-based courses. In this model, students will be able to choose either a competency-based or seat time-based approach as needed. We have already received permission from WASC to proceed on development of the model, and we hope to get a substantive change proposal for the program in front of WASC in the early or middle part of the coming year. We are very excited about the potential of moving students to this innovative model.

Grush: Is competency-based education here to stay? Will we see it offered more universally among institutions?

Jayaraman: More and more people are beginning to see its value and the potential of this model — particularly as it relates to direct assessment — to impact cost, time-to-degree, and relevance. The Lumina Foundation has pulled together a group of institutions that have either launched, or are very close to launching competency-based programs. The Competency-Based Education Network was officially formed in August 2014, and has 20 institutional members. This is looked upon as a "think tank" for competency-based education. And the U.S. Department of Education is partnering very closely with these institutions to lay out a knowledge base, standards, and a taxonomy. Also, the DE's Experimental Sites Initiative will hopefully generate a set of standards for competency-based education that will allow more institutions to launch programs under a common set of standards. So yes, competency-based education is here to stay!


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