Getting competency right

Competency-based education is super-hot — but nobody’s quite sure what it means, reports Inside Higher Ed. A new Lumina-funded group, the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) will discuss how to do competency ed right.

“There’s really a danger of people just repackaging what they’re doing and calling it competency-based education because it’s the buzzword du jour,” said Amy Laitinen, a former Education Department and White House official who is deputy director of the New America Foundation’s higher education program.

Competency-based education assesses learning outcomes, regardless of whether the student learned in class, online, on the job, through experience or by reading books.

Decades ago pioneering institutions like Alverno College, Excelsior College, Thomas Edison State College and others with a focus on adult students began assessing competencies and issuing college credit for experiential learning. As with Advanced Placement tests, students could pass assessments and earn credit for knowledge and skills they gained outside the traditional classroom.

Western Governors offers a twist on this model. Created in 1997, the online university added the element of self-paced instruction. Students at Western Governors can work through automated, asynchronous online course material at their own speed. And the university’s instructors act more like tutors than professors in a lecture hall.

A third style first hit the scene this year. This approach, which is called “direct assessment,” drops the credit-hour standard and completely severs the link between competencies and the amount of time students spend mastering them.

Earlier this year the federal government and regional accreditors approved direct assessment offerings from College for America, a subsidiary of Southern New Hampshire, and Capella University. Northern Arizona University, the University of Wisconsin system and Brandman University are developing direct-assessment programs.

Competency-based education would give students more choices, cut college costs and help them find jobs, writes Jesse Saffron.

From competency to credentials

Marcus Carmicle trained to be a nursing aide and then a licensed practical nurse at Bluegrass Technical College in Kentucky. After 19 years as an LPN, he’s finally completing a nursing degree. The competency-based online program at Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges is making it possible to achieve his goal.

Meeting Students Where They Are

Meeting Students Where They Are profiles students in competency-based degree programs. Students say competency programs are demanding, according to the report by the Center for American Progress and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Partial mastery isn’t good enough. Nobody squeaks by with a C.

Students said the competencies they learned apply directly to their work. Competency is “what employers look for, not how many hours you sit in a classroom,” said one student.

Adult students value the flexibility, the report says. “I wouldn’t have gone back to school if I had to give up my job,” said an MBA student. “I was only willing to go into so much debt.”

Student said they needed a degree to advance in their jobs. For example, a nurse with an associate degree needed a bachelor’s to be promoted.

Students value the chance to interact with classmates, the report finds. Predominantly online programs don’t offer that opportunity.  Coaches, advisors and mentors also play an important role.

Financial aid should be available for students in competency-based programs, CAP and CAEL advocate. The next version of the Higher Education Act should identify ways to measure student progress other than by the credit hour.

“Competency-based education is spreading among community colleges” with help from Western Governors University, reports Inside Higher Ed.  WGU “has helped 11 community colleges create their own competency-based degrees and certificates, mostly in information technology tracks” in the last year. The Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor have provided start-up funding.

Competency unbundles college

When nearly three out of four students aren’t enrolled in full-time, four-year degree programs, it’s time to go beyond the credit hour, writes the Gates Foundation’s Daniel Greenstein on Impatient Optimists.

The rigidness of semesters and courses and credit hours doesn’t work for adults who are juggling jobs, family and other priorities while they also work toward a degree – an elaborate dance that too often ends in students leaving school with no degree, but lots of debt. Many of today’s students aren’t interested in a classic college experience of dorms and all-nighters. Rather, they need college to be “unbundled,” and to be able to integrate it selectively, sometimes a course at a time, into their busy and full lives.

Competency-based education, which assesses what students know and can do, provides the flexibility today’s students need, argues Greenstein. In the competency model, students “progress at their own pace and to go deep on material they haven’t mastered, while not having to spend time or tuition on concepts and knowledge they’ve learned elsewhere.”

 Not only are competency-based programs better for so many of today’s students, but they promise considerable advantages for employers, who, right now, evaluate newly-minted grads primarily on where they went to college and their grade point average. Because competency-based programs rely on regular student assessments of specific skills and abilities, they can provide employers with more detailed information about what prospective workers know and can do.

Lumina’s Tuning USA project, the European Union’s Bologna process and the American Association of Colleges & Universities’ LEAP initiative have evaluated the essential elements and outcomes that students must master to earn different degrees and credentials, Greenstein writes. Western Governors University led the way to online competency degrees. Now more traditional institututions, such as Southern New Hampshire University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system will be offering credits and credentials for competency.

Credits for competency

Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America has no courses — online or in person. It employs no teachers, just online coaches. Students complete assignments and projects to show their mastery of 120 “competencies,” such as distinguishing fact from opinion or conveying information through charts and graphs, reports the Boston Globe. Students can earn an accredited associate degree, then show potential employers an online portfolio of their work.

Last semester, Ashley Collins often faced a terrible choice: go to her night class, or pick up a waitressing shift to help pay her community college tuition. Class usually lost out.

As a former foster child with no family to help pay for college, the 21-year-old works three jobs while trying to stay in school.

This year, she switched colleges, and now does her schoolwork at home, in her pajamas when she feels like it.

Students move ahead at their own pace, paying $1,250 every six months. Collins is on track to complete a two-year degree in six months. If she’d continued working and taking classes at night, a degree could have taken 10 years, she told the Globe. She earns $9.91 an hour caring for developmentally disabled adults.

College for America started in January with 277 students enrolled through their jobs: groundskeepers, telemarketers, factory workers, gas station employees and caregivers at the nonprofit that employs Collins.

College for America passed a high hurdle in April when the U.S. Education Department agreed to provide financial aid to its students, the first time a program based on competency rather than “seat time” has been approved.

“The federal government is saying, maybe we should be paying for learning rather than time,” said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, a prominent think tank. “I don’t want to be too hyperbolic about it, but it really could signal a new era in higher education.”

Southern New Hampshire, a private nonprofit, developed its online curriculum using online resources, including video lectures, readings and web sites, rather than writing its own study materials.

When students submit assignments, graders provide feedback within 48 hours. If it’s not good enough, students are told to try again.

Many of the assignments are practical. One presents students with hypothetical proposals for a vending machine contract for the employee lounge and ask him to write a memo evaluating the vendors. Then, a grader determines whether the students’ work demonstrates they have mastered five competencies, including writing a business memo, using logic, and making calculations in a spreadsheet.

Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire’s presidents, hopes to offer a bachelor’s degree and enroll 350,000 students by 2018. In addition to working with employers, the college may partner with churches and community organizations to offer support to independent students.

Western Governors University, an online nonprofit created in 1997, offers competency-based, self-paced bachelor’s degree programs.

Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system also are experimenting with competency-based programs, reports USA Today.

KnowledgeWorks looks at the federal role in competency education, focusing on K-12 schooling.

California eyes exam-based university

A proposed “New University of California” would award credits to students who pass exams proving mastery, regardless of whether they learned the material in class, online, at work or whatever, reports KQED.

Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, proposed AB 1306 to expand access to college degrees.  New University would not offer classes, hire professors or charge tuition, but would be empowered to grant degrees if a student qualified for enough academic credit in a course of study. Students would pay a fee to take an exam.

California’s community colleges already offer course credit by exam, said an official in the chancellor’s office.

Wilk’s idea would “cheapen” state university degrees, responds Eric Grunder, opinion editor of the Stockton Record.

. . . before we set a whole new “university,” let’s better fund the community colleges, CSU and UC systems we have, including opening more seats and helping students pay to sit in them.”

College will be “better and drastically cheaper” in the near future as higher education is “unbundled,” argues Vance Fried in College 2020.  ”Online 2.0 takes today’s version of online education to another level by making the whole curriculum competency-based and using self-paced courses that eliminate the need for a course instructor,” Fried writes.

Western Governors University, which offers low-cost competency-based degrees, is the first step, he writes. Southern New Hampshire University also is launching an affordable Online 2.0 degree.

Digital learning expands access

Digital learning is expanding higher education options for California students, reports the  San Jose Mercury News.

Estela Garcia, a working mother from Menlo Park, attends class at her kitchen table after she puts her daughters to bed; Tim Barham, a UC Berkeley senior, takes statistics at home after a day at work; and Oakland teenager Sergio Sandoval studies a college course while in high school.

“I think this is the single most transformational thing that could occur in higher education in decades,” said Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District.

With the urging of Gov. Jerry Brown, California’s universities are expanding online options. The University of California, whose campuses offer more than 2,500 online classes, may require undergraduates to take 10 percent of classes online. As soon as this summer,
San Jose State University and Udacity, a Mountain View-based company, “could open for-credit math classes to all takers, at $150 each. Some 300 high school, community college and university students are in a pilot program to test the classes.”

Galatolo wants to work with Udacity to design refresher courses to help incoming students ace placement tests, avoiding the remedial “black hole.”

Estela Garcia and a former classmate, Kelsey Harrison, said their online coursework requires self-discipline.

Still, because of the relatively small size of the class, it was easy for them to reach their College of San Mateoinstructors when they needed help. That kind of communication between students and faculty is impossible in a course with thousands of students. Those courses rely on virtual study groups and crowd-sourcing — seeking answers from the whole universe of students.

A well-developed online class might reach struggling students better than a traditional one, said Ronald Rogers, the San Jose State professor who developed Udacity’s statistics course. Rogers said when he stands in a lecture hall and asks if anyone has a question, nary a hand goes up. The new platform inserts short exercises and quizzes into the lecture, prompting instant student feedback.

“Imagine being in a class where if every minute and a half, the teacher shut up and asked if you got it,” he said.

Online courses helped Tim Barham transfer from a community college to Berkeley a year early. Now at Cal, the legal studies major is taking statistics online. Otherwise, he said, “I would have had to graduate later or cut down on work hours, which I can’t afford to do.”

Older students are looking for ways to combine credits earned in many ways to complete a degree, reports the New York Times. New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State College, a pioneer in flexible, low-cost degrees, is growing rapidly. So are Charter Oak State College in Connecticut and the private, nonprofit Excelsior College in New York.  ”The idea of measuring students’ competency, not classroom hours, has become the cornerstone of newer institutions like Western Governors University,” the Times adds.

Pilar Mercedes Foy, 31, a Thomas Edison graduate whose parents did not go to college, said after she got an entry-level job at PSEG, the New Jersey energy company, she realized that she would need a degree to advance. She earned the bulk of her credits through heavily subsidized evening classes offered at work, supplemented by classes at Union County College and 12 credits from the CLEP Spanish exam.

Foy didn’t borrow a penny.

David Esterson, 45, of Whittier, Calif., started taking college classes in high school and attended the University of Washington for a year. After working for years as a photographer and starting a music business, he decided to complete his degree three years ago. He took online courses at the University of Minnesota and the University of Phoenix and at several California community colleges, before earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from Thomas Edison. He’s now enrolled in two graduate programs.

Competency credentials ‘blow up’ the credit hour

Southern New Hampshire University plans a $5,000 online, competency-based associate degree that would “blow up the credit hour — the connection between college credit and the time students spend learning,” reports Inside Higher Ed. A regional accreditor has approved the university’s “direct assessment” method. The university will apply for federal approval to qualify students for federal aid.

In competency-based models, students demonstrate their learning through assessments, notes Inside Higher Ed. “If the tests lack rigor and a link to real competencies, this approach starts looking like cash for credits.”

Southern New Hampshire’s “College for America” will start with an associate degree in general studies and add competency-based bachelor’s degree programs.

The university will assess 120 competencies for the associate degree. Lumina’s Degree Qualifications Profile, which attempts to define what degree holders should know and be able to do, served as the basis for defining those competencies, along with the university’s general education goals. Other sources were used as well, like the U.S. Department of Labor’s competency pyramids.

Competencies are broken into 20 distinct “task families,” which are then divided into three task levels. For example, the “using business tools” family includes tasks like “can write a business memo,” “can use a spreadsheet to perform a variety of calculations” and “can use logic, reasoning and analysis to address a business problem.”

When students pass tests on the competencies within a family, “they will be deemed to have the knowledge and skills necessary to pass a 100- or 200- level, three-credit course,” according to the university.

The university is partnering with large employers, including ConAgra Foods and the City of Memphis, which will steer workers to the university’s College for America.

Twenty other colleges and universities are working with Western Governors University — also online and competency-based — on degree programs that will let students earn relatively low-cost degrees at their own pace and in their own homes.  Competency-based programs are expanding, according to a Lumina report.

Colleges will design competency-based, self-paced courses

Community college students will be able to demonstrate competency to earn credits in self-paced classes, reports the Texas Tribune. It’s the Western Governors University model — but classes will include classroom instruction as well as online learning.

WGU Texas and three community colleges — Sinclair Community College in Ohio, Broward College in Florida and Texas’ own Austin Community College — have received a shared $12 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to develop curricula for key technology fields that allow students to move at their own pace in courses that aren’t purely internet based.

ACC hopes to offer self-paced computer programming courses as early as the fall of 2013. Students who earn an associate’s degree will be able to go on to WGU Texas for a bachelor’s degree.

(ACC President Richard Rhodes) said using “competency units” rather than credit hours would allow the school to be more responsive to the region’s workforce needs. If, for example, a company wanted employees to acquire certain skills quickly, they might be able to “invert the degree” by teaching the requested skills first and then later adding general education requirements necessary for an associate’s degree.

Computer science students could earn 11 industry certifications, an associate degree and a bachelor’s, says Mark David Milliron, chancellor of WGU Texas, a former Gates Foundation official.

The competency model could expand to other majors, Rhodes says.

WGU urges transfers to earn 2-year degree

Western Governors University, which offers adult students credits for demonstrated competency, is rewarding community college transfers who complete an associate degree before enrolling, reports Inside Higher Ed.

The parent university, which offers bachelor’s and graduate degrees, has begun a national push to encourage students to complete their associate degree before enrolling. And it’s seeing results. Two years ago, 35 percent of the university’s incoming students held an associate or bachelor’s degree. Now roughly half do, said Pat Partridge, Western Governor’s chief marketing officer, who oversees marketing and admissions.

WGU Texas offers Finish to Go Further in partnership with the state’s community and technical colleges. WGU waives application fees and offers a 5 percent tuition discount for transfer students with an associate degree. All their lower-division credit requirements are satisfied by the associate degree. WGU Indiana and Washington have similar programs, including the 5 percent tuition discount.

The university has statewide articulation agreements with community colleges in seven states, some of which include discounts and scholarships for associate degree holders, as well as “softer marketing partnerships” with 330 community colleges around the country, including large systems like Arizona’s Maricopa Community College.

WGU hopes to “create smooth, credential rich, high-value pathways” for students, said Mark David Milliron, who came to WGU Texas from the Gates Foundation. A transfer with an associate degree is twice as likely to finish a bachelor’s degree at WGU Texas, he said.

Report: Give credit for learning, not time

It’s time to measure learning, not “seat time,” concludes a new report, Cracking the Credit Hour by the New America Foundation. The credit hour is outdated, argues Amy Laitinen.

Colleges often reject credits earned elsewhere, a huge waste of time and money for the 59 percent of students who attend two or more schools.

Seat time assumes a “traditional” student who lives and studies on campus, yet only 14 percent of undergraduates attend full time and live on campus. Meanwhile, more students are taking online courses that let them move at their own pace.

 While some students earn credits for little more than sitting in class, millions of professionals who have acquired college-level learning on the job have no way to get credit for their learning.

. . .  students who earn credit through programs that assess and award credit for things they already know are more likely to stay in and complete college than those who don’t.

The federal student aid program’s reliance on credit hours has stifled innovation, the report argues. Many “believe that their safest bet, if they want to keep access to federal financial aid, is to do what they have always done: use time to determine credits.”

The report recommends changes in federal policy, such as adopting Western Governors University’s competency-based model for awarding credits. This should “be the norm,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. In addition, the report urges federal experiments with learning-based financial aid, such as aid for credits earned using Prior Learning Assessments or outcomes-based financial aid. Finally, direct assessment of student learning is permitted under the Higher Education Act but has never been used, Laitinen notes.

“In an era when college degrees are simultaneously becoming more important and more expensive, students and taxpayers can no longer afford to pay for time and little or no evidence of learning,” the report concludes.