Wednesday, January 01, 2014

2014 ... Also a Good Year for HBCUs and Virtual HBCUs to Think About Competency-Based Education

Last updated: Thursday 1/2/14 @ 2:31pm
Competency-based education (a/k/a "competency-based learning") is a truly disruptive innovation that hasn't received much discussion at my HBCU, nor have I seen signs of it gaining much attention at the other 105 HBCUs judging by what's on their Websites, nor within the Twitterverse of the HBCU media. I posted a note about it on this blog at the beginning of 2013.

I've been brooding about competency-based education for the last three years while helping to plan my HBCU's comprehensive efforts to provide more effective learning opportunities for the mostly black students on our campus via flipped courses and to provide effective learning opportunities for the mostly black students that we will probably recruit to our new off-campus online degree & certificate programs.

The cost of higher education continues to soar beyond the reach of more and more black students. While I have good reasons to believe that flipped courses and online programs will make higher education more effective, I have no reason to believe that, as currently organized, they will make higher education more affordable. At best they might slow down the rate of tuition increases. So the "Haves" will get bigger bangs for their tuition bucks, while the "Have Nots" will continue to be priced out ... and the proportion of "Have Nots" will continue to increase.

... which is why I have been brooding. Competency-based education is the only big idea that's moved past the "blue sky" stage and is now positioned to yield large reductions in tuition for substantial numbers of students within the next three to five years. 

  • Southern New Hampshire University (SNU) launched its 5K AA program in January 2013, i.e., an associate arts degree with a $5,000 tuition that is equivalent to the usual 60 credit-hour AA programs, through its College of America. The program has already produced its first graduates.
     
  • SNU also plans  to launch 10K BA programs, i.e., $10,000 bachelors degrees that are equivalent to the usual 120 credit hours.
This is not the stuff of educational fantasy. SNU's College of America received blessings from its regional accrediting agency, from the Gates Foundation, from the Lumina Foundation, and from the U.S. Department of Education. Therefore it is fully accredited; its students are eligible for federal financial aid; and it has already produced its first graduates. 

Indeed, the substantial involvement of so many of the pillars of the U.S. higher education establishment -- noted in Section C of the Appendix at the bottom of this note -- suggests that competency-based education is in the process of shifting the tectonic plates underlying U.S. higher education so as to have a seismic impact that may be as profound as the introduction of the credit hour during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In principle, competency-based education is deceptively simple:
  • Competency-based programs are not composed of courses measured in credit hours that reflect the amount of time students have participated in a learning process. Competency-based programs deconstruct what students are expected to know when they complete a degree or a certificate program into a large number of narrowly focused component skill sets, understandings, or competencies.
     
  • Students receive degrees or certificates when they can demonstrate that they have achieved the acquired all of the specified competencies at acceptable levels. They demonstrate their acquisition of these competencies by taking exams, writing papers, executing projects, etc, etc, etc.

    For example, a traditional bachelors degree program might award degrees to students when they passed passed 120 credit-hours of courses. By contrast, a competency-based program might award bachelors degrees to students who demonstrated their acquisition of 120 distinct, but interrelated competencies.
     
  • Competency-based programs are typically self-paced, with students moving as quickly or as slowly as their aptitudes, prior experience, and motivation propel them.
     
  • Faculty in competency-based programs are more likely to coach individual students and assess their students' progress through recommended readings and other learning materials than to present lectures to groups of students.
     
  • Learning materials are typically online, but in byte-sized modules that are much shorter than the materials used for flipped/online courses. (Think Kahn Academy videos.) Indeed, the same kinds of information technologies that facilitate flipped courses, MOOCs, and online programs can be used to support competency-based programs ...

    ... which is why HBCUs and virtual HBCus that launch flipped courses, MOOCs, and online programs should also think about instituting programs based on competencies rather than course credits
As I said, these ideas sound simple ... at first ... but their simplicity is deceptive. Picture yourself as the member of a Dean's staff who has been tasked to organize the efforts of the faculty to produce a competency-bases version of one of the school's existing degree programs.
  • First you have to organize a process whereby faculty will come to a consensus as to what students who receive the degree are expected to know;
     
  • Then the faculty have to break this knowledge down into one hundred or more component competencies;
     
  • Then they have to develop learning materials and/or identify existing materials (preferably open source) that can enable self-paced students to master these competencies;
     
  • And finally the faculty have to devise reliable methods for assessing students' mastery of each competency.
Easier said than done ... hard work ... time consuming ... but it's already been done again and again by other colleges and universities, most notably by the successful pioneers listed in Section B of the Appendix at the bottom of this note. 

But the pioneers don't have all the answers yet -- which is why the Lumina Foundation is organizing a "Competency Based Education Network (C-BEN)" whose twenty member colleges and universities will share intelligence about best practices. (See Paul Fain's first article referenced in Section A of the Appendix to this note.) Indeed, as an academic planner for an HBCU, I have a predictable question to which I have yet not found an answer:
  • Does competency-based learning work for black students? Or does it yield the same kinds of persistent achievement gaps between black and white students found in traditional face-to-face programs and in the newer online programs??? 
Being a devout disbeliever in "academic trickle down" I have no faith that educational systems designed by mostly white faculty and staff for mostly white student bodies will close these persistent achievement gaps. That's why I believe that is imperative for HBCUs and other institutions having substantial black enrollments to get involved in competency-based education before it rolls too far down all-too-familiar tracks that lead to the same disappointing destinations.


Appendix ... Some References for Competency-Based Education

A. Paul Fain's Articles
Inside Higher Education's Paul Fain has produced a series of insightful articles that have tracked the development of competency-based education over the course of the last few years. Some of his pieces are listed below:

  • Paul Fain, "Competent at What?" (Inside Higher Ed, 12/12/13) ... Lumina Foundation will fund the Competency Based Education Network (C-BEN), a group of 20 colleges/universities that will share intelligence and best practices on competency-based education. How many will be HBCUs???
     
  • Paul Fain, "Adding Competency to Community" (Inside Higher Ed, 11/19/13) ... Western Governors University partners with 11 community colleges to develop competency based degree & certificate programs ... Gates Foundation invests $1 million
     
  • Paul Fain, "Experimental College's First Graduate" (Inside Higher ed, 8/16/13) ... recipient of first AA degree at SNU's College for America competency-based program
  • Paul Fain, "Big Disruption, Big Questions" (Inside Higher Ed, 4/17/13)
     
  • Paul Fain, "Beyond the Credit Hour" (Inside Higher Ed, 3/10/13) ... Southern New Hampshire University gets clearance from U.S. Dept of Ed for competency-based bachelors degree
     
  • Paul Fain "A Disruption Grows Up" (Inside Higher Ed, 10/1/12)
     
  • Paul Fain, "Competing With Competency" (Inside Higher Ed, 8/6/12) ... Kentucky State's system of community colleges adopting competency-based learning with "stackable" modules"

B. Some Pioneering Colleges & Universities

C. Some Supporters within the U.S. Establishment 

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