A President's Reflections

How government can support competency based learning

Posted on December 8, 2012

SNHU is one of a handful of institutions pushing forward with new competency-based education (CBE) models of education, joining long-standing pioneers like Excelsior College, Charter Oak State College, and Western Governor’s University and newer players like Northern Arizona University in finding ways to speed the way to degrees for the millions of Americans who have no to some college credits and no degree.  CBEs fundamentally change the way we think about learning by reversing the core “seat time is fixed and learning is variable” principle reified in the Carnegie Unit or three credit course.  CBEs instead say “We don’t care how long it took you to learn something, whether three days or three months.  We care what you know and how you prove it.”  This new paradigm changes everything.

As I wrote in a 2011 Christian Science Monitor column (http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2011/0912/Make-college-accessible-to-the-masses-and-jobless):  “Knowing with certainty that someone has mastered a discipline means it shouldn’t matter how that person got there or what school they attended. At that point, traditional higher education’s monopoly on delivery would end and America would see myriad new models and providers of education.”  Our College for America (CfA) program is a CBE model that is the first of its kind to be approved by a regional accreditor, NEASC in our case, and is the first program to seek approval from the Department of Education under its “direct assessment” provisions.  Direct assessment is a not yet used provision within Title IV that allows federal financial aid to pay for the direct assessment of mastered competencies or learning rather than using the credit hour as a framework for measuring learning, academic progress, and financial support.  A lot of people are watching.  The hope is that the department will finally break from the increasingly inadequate credit hour artifact that has come to so much shape modern higher education (from workload to scheduling to facilities to transfer policy to classroom allocation and more – see Amy Laitinen’s excellent piece http://newamerica.net/publications/policy/cracking_the_credit_hour) and open new avenues for CBE. 

If successful, CBEs stand to tackle the twin challenge of cost/price and of quality.  Existing versions, which are still structured around classes and credit hours, but allow faster progress through assessments (WGU is a good example), offer lower costs.  WGU is at $6000 per year.  CfA is slated to launch at $2500 per year, well below the average annual cost of a community college.  As important, with rigorous and trustworthy assessments, we can stand behind the claims we make about the learning with actual evidence.  Employers no longer trust the quality of what we produce – they have hired too many college graduates who do not write well, can’t get in front of a room and present, or do quantitative analysis.  CBEs force providers (or should anyway) to be very clear about what their students learn, to define the competencies, and to use trusted assessments.  A typical transcript is really a black box for employers.  If Jane Smith earned a “B” in Sociology, employers knows little more than Jane performed better than someone with a “B-“ or “C” and not much else.  A CfA transcript lists 120 competencies – can do statements, the actual claims we make for the learning, supplies a rubric for each (a detailed definition of the competency and the one we use for assessment), and then indicates mastery.  This last point is important.  There is no sliding by with a “B” or a “C” – a student has mastered a competency or is still working on it.  The electronic transcript is linked to an e-portfolio so the actual evidence of mastery in any competency is there for the employer to see.  Cost and quality – the magic combination.

In my CSM column I also wrote: “…the United States needs policymakers and regulators to support the innovation under way and to make room, if only on the margins, for those inventing new pathways to success.”  I’ve been thinking about what the government might do to encourage CBEs while curbing the abuses everyone fears (and amply saw in the for-profit sector and some would say non-profit sector too, the sad possibility when billions of dollars are on the table), ensuring quality, and not federalizing higher education.  In their recent Harvard Business Review article “Surviving Disruption,” Maxwell Wessel and Clayton Christensen list five barriers to disruption (and CBE would be very disruptive):

  1. The momentum barrier (customers are used to the status quo);
  2. The tech-implementation barrier (which could be overcome using existing technology);
  3. The ecosystem barrier (which would require a change in the business environment to overcome);
  4. The new-technology barrier (the technology needed to change the competitive landscape does not yet exist);
  5. The business model barrier (the disruptor would have to adopt your cost structure).

(Quoted verbatim from the article: http://hbr.org/2012/12/surviving-disruption/ar/1)

It might be useful to think about the “what could the government do to unleash the creativity that is so far held in check by the tyranny of the credit hour, the constraints of a highly regulated industry, and the power of threatened incumbents?” through the lens of those five barriers.  In other words, how might the government open up the field instead of dictating the answers?

I am not worried about item #1, the momentum barrier.  The need is enormous and millions of Americans worry about access to a degree.  If we find low cost, dependable models of delivery, they will flock to them.  We often hold out the traditional campus experience as the model against which all others should be evaluated, but that “coming of age” residential learning model is a reality for less than 20% of college students and of no interest to working Americans who have their fair share of “coming of age” in their lives — juggling family, work, and financial worry — and not enough access to affordable education.  As we partner with large scale employers like ConAgra Foods and Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield we have presented CFA to employees who might participate in the pilot launch of the program.  In every instance, almost every hand in the room goes up when we ask for volunteers.  There is a hunger for education out there for people who want to improve their lives. 

Item #2, the tech-implementation barrier, is an area in which we need more work.  CBE programs at scale require authentication systems, ways to know that the person taking an assessment is really that person and not cheating the system.  This is already a much voiced worry about online programs and while biometric systems, cameras, and proctoring are all emerging and possible answers, if all CBE providers had a national, trustworthy assessment delivery system that could be used and made available free of charge then everyone could breathe easier.  Note that I am not arguing for a national assessment (a federal standardized test or tests), but a platform for delivering assessments common to everyone, trusted, and inexpensive.  The development of such a platform is perhaps something the NSF can fund or call for while providing the standards and guidelines for development.  It ought to be free and part of our national learning infrastructure.

Item #3 is the big ticket item as it addresses the regulatory questions.  I would argue for a new regulatory body, perhaps within the Department of Education, that would review proposed CBE programs for Title IV authorization.  Those reviews would work from clear guidelines and require submissions to do five things:

  1. Clearly identify the competencies in the program, including the rubrics that define them and that will be used to assess mastery;
  2. Offer a rationale for each competency with more weight given to those externally validated by some third-party entity (e.g., the ACRL standards, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the DOL competency pyramids);
  3. Offer a rationale for degree level by mapping the propose competencies to existing credentials in some way (not the credit hour, which is measurement of time, but to learning objectives and competencies, indicators of outcomes);
  4. Outline the assessments to be used and demonstrate their rigor (weight to be given to third party assessments);
  5. Identify the assessment platform to be used and how it meets or exceeds the capabilities of the national assessment platform (I fantasize about in the previous item).

A requirement, not a guideline, should be that CBEs make transparent certain performance data (down to the level of each competency) such as average time to completion, completion rates, average number of attempts at the assessment, and more). 

With those guidelines (and there are probably others) guiding the reviews, the federal government would not dictate a single model, a single set of competencies, or a single set of assessments.  It would ensure quality.  Moreover, it would break fully from the corollaries to the credit hour such as educational activity and satisfactory academic progress, especially if it paid only for success.  Rather than throwing billions of dollars of taxpayer money at failure, CBE models might only pay for completion of competencies.  Lots and lots of details to be worked out on that question, but it is an intriguing notion.  In all events, the far lower cost of CBEs would make their attempt far lower risk for both students and the government.

I am not at all expert in the ways of government or policy, but as influenced as I am by Clay Christensen (full disclosure: a member of the SNHU Board of Trustees), I would bet anything that such game changing and disruptive innovation will be squelched by well-intended incumbent stakeholders.  If I could wave a wand, I’d create a stand-alone CBE regulatory body outside all of those bodies that currently regulate traditional higher education, though perhaps within ED.  The current regulatory groups do good work – I’m a believer in regional accreditation and feel it too much maligned recently – but it is designed for a far different model of delivery than CBEs and Christensen’s research clearly shows the ways in which incumbent groups (and there is nothing more incumbent than a membership group regulating itself) will pull disruptive innovation on the margins, where it always takes hold) back into the fold.  A lot of people promoting CBE models fear that ED’s current review of CfA may not go far enough, reflecting the incumbent dynamic and forcing our CBE offering to map back to credit hour regulations that essentially pull it away from direct assessment.  We have not seen that happen yet and the Department seems eager to get this one right.

Barrier #4 in the Wessel and Christensen article worries me less, though I do think social networking platforms that support peer-to-peer learning (think OpenStudy, for example) and affinity groups will be an important part of any successful CBE that makes little to no use of traditional instructional faculty.  For most adult learners I think we overstate the role of the faculty member in creating perseverance, a huge issue for adults whose busy lives and frequently limited academic preparedness and/or confidence often get in the way of completion.  But we do know that when students feel part of a group and that their education matters (to the other members of that group, to their employers, their families) they are more likely to stick with it. Because CBE’s do not allow anyone to slide by, the completion rates for CBE’s will be the big challenge and continued progress in platforms and technologies that better support learning —  adaptive learning systems, immersive environments, and other technologies that increase engagement —  will be helpful.  That said, we have a lot of tools at hand now and progress here is good, but not necessary, to move forward and as such looms as less of a barrier.

The fifth and last barrier mentioned in the article, the business model barrier, will prove to be no barrier at all because the traditional bricks and mortar system, superb at the coming of age job, at research, at advanced degrees, does not do so well with adult learners who need access.  Community colleges are the often unsung heroes of the higher education system, but they are offshoots of a traditional model and their low completion rates reflect that fact.  They also reflect the very genuine difficulties of serving adults at the margins of higher education.  I believe that CBEs, freed from the credit hour and its far reaching implications, can provide new ways to reach and serve these learners.  The whole point here is to use the regulatory and financial power of the federal government to open up the business models and create very low cost, very high quality pathways to a degree. 


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