For decades higher education has been inundated with calls for change; the most recent ones being driven by a national conversation on making higher education more affordable and expanding access to quality programs that prepare graduates for the workforce. Many of these institutions are turning to competency-based education as a way to answer these calls for change.

We believe that despite the challenges that an institution might face while developing competency-based education, the rewards are so much higher. Institutions, though, are discovering that the most difficult piece of CBE program development is not curriculum and assessment development, rather it’s all of the myriad pieces of program development unrelated to the curriculum. CBE uses an andragogical model of student learning and support that places the learner rather than the teacher at the center of the learning paradigm, and it creates a similar shift in administrative functions and offices across the institution.

Over then next few months we’ll be doing a deeper dive into curriculum and assessment design and development in this blog series about competency-based education. But here, we’ll examine five most important considerations and tips to ensure that your institution has the capacity to develop and sustain a high quality competency-based education program. Those areas of consideration include: faculty ownership, leadership and change management, planning and business modeling; policy review and revisions, and processes and infrastructure.

Tip 1: Make sure faculty take ownership of the competency-based education program development and implementation 

Faculty are the heart and soul of any institution—critical to its mission and success—and tasked by most accrediting groups with ensuring the academic integrity of the institution. Much of the conversation around CBE focuses on a disaggregated faculty model where the faculty role is broken up across three or four separate positions—coaches, instructors, content experts, and assessors— but that does not eliminate the need for an institution’s existing faculty to be fully invested and involved in the creation and execution of a CBE program. Involving existing faculty in the development and implementation of a CBE program will help embed the program within the fabric of your institution and assure that it is not merely a flash in the pan. Conversely, circumventing the role of faculty in program development and implementation sends a message that the CBE program is not really part of the institution and is not a “real” program with academic integrity.

Tip 2: Engage institutional leaders to help with change management

Although it should go without saying, leadership matters in the development of any new program, but it especially matters in developing, implementing, and sustaining a high quality competency-based education program. Institutional leaders, whether it be a president, provost, dean, or department chair, play six key roles in the development, implementation, and sustainment of a CBE program.

Provide advocacy

Leaders act as internal and external advocates for the program by explaining its significance and a vision of transformation.

Generate buy-in

Leaders help different stakeholders understand the importance of the program and develop the support of those various stakeholders for program development.

Develop external cover

Leaders find ways to provide faculty and staff with protection against criticisms and concerns over the program so that they have the space to implement the program.

Lead by example

Leaders put their money where their mouth is and provide direct support for the program. It is an especially powerful message to faculty and students when a president, provost, or vice president teach in a CBE program.

Create safe spaces to fail

Leaders understand that taking risks means accepting and even celebrating failures. They understand that even failure can be helpful in understanding what works and doesn’t work and crafting a stronger program in the long run.

Grease squeaky wheels

Leaders understand that sometimes they should use their positional authority and intervene in order to help processes along.

Image of the institutional challenges to competency-based education

Figure 1. An illustration of how a competency-based education program impacts various institutional resources.

Leadership alone, however, is not enough. A successful program should also include a well thought-out and developed strategy for managing all of the institutional change CBE brings to an institution. Currently we are partnering with the American Council on Education and Texas A&M University-Commerce’s Institute for Competency-Based Education to develop a framework for managing the change that CBE brings to an institution. For now, suffice it to say that the reach of CBE, as demonstrated in Figure 1, is so broad that institutional leaders and advocates should carefully think through how to help various institutional stakeholders better understand these programs, develop partnerships with the programs, or even create their own CBE programs.

Tip 3: Carefully consider strategic planning and business modeling

Higher education has, at times, been guilty of using the Kevin Costner, Field of Dreams, approach to strategic planning—building a program in hopes that Shoeless Joe Jackson will magically come. This “build it and they will come” approach to planning is especially dangerous for a CBE program; institutions should carefully consider strategic planning and business modeling in any conversations about developing a CBE program on their campus.

Any CBE strategic planning process should carefully consider how a program will be implemented (will it roll out at once or be phased in); what is the realistic student demand for the program and how is that anticipated to change over time; how can program growth be managed in such a way that balances the need for growth with the need for institutional capacity; and what are the program’s goals, benchmarks, and success metrics.

In addition to strategic planning, institutions should also carefully consider the business plan and model that undergirds the program. This can be especially tricky as CBE programs often initially leverage existing resources and services but, when scaled, will need new additional resources. Additionally, since many CBE programs assume that efficiencies are reached and costs are reduced as programs scale, determining the break even point and gap funding for program sustainability until that point is reached is critical. Among other things, this means considering revenue streams and the timing of those streams, gap funding, a timeline for return on investment, and staffing, especially faculty, compensation models.

Tip 4: Anticipate policy review and revisions

Competency-based education touches each part of an institution’s life from the business office to admissions to financial aid to academic advising to career services. One of the most challenging aspects of CBE is that our institutions are overwhelmingly built on the credit hour and CBE has a tendency to tug at the credit hour until it becomes unraveled. As Amy Laitinen wrote in Cracking the Credit Hour, despite the fact that credit hours were never meant to serve any function beyond determining eligibility for faculty pensions, “The standardized nature of credit hours makes them convenient for a number of critical administrative functions, including determining state and federal funding, setting faculty workloads, scheduling, recording coursework, and determining whether students are attending college full time.”

CBE’s shift to talking about competencies rather than credits is more than simply a linguistic change; it is challenging the very foundation of most of our colleges and universities. It should be no surprise, then, that all of the academic policies and business processes of an institution would need to be reviewed. Those areas that are usually at the greatest risk of breaking once we move away from credit hours are policies around full time/part time enrollment, financial aid eligibility and satisfactory academic progress, and faculty workload and compensation. Also integral in this process is working through any accreditation or Department of Education approvals.

Tip 5: Recognize and prepare for a CBE program’s impact on processes and technology

Closely related to policy review and revisions is the development of new business processes for CBE and the integration of various technical and business systems. This may mean creating new processes and pathways for students to access offices such as career services, veteran affairs, library services, tutorial services, and accessibility services.

The integration of technologies are especially important for CBE programs as they often hold the key to student success and program scalability. This area is also sometimes one of the most challenging for institutions to navigate as many institutions have technical systems that have been patched together over the years. In addition to challenges associated with student information systems, especially around the transcription of competencies and credits, there may also be challenges with the learning management system, and the financial aid system. Also of note for institutions to consider in this area is the development and use of customer relationship management software that can track interactions with students across a team of support staff and instructors and the use of student and advisor dashboards that track student progress.

More to come

There are a number of institutional preparedness issues that should be considered when developing competency-based education programs as they touch and transform every piece of an institution. Over the next several months we will be doing a deeper dive into many of these issues as well as curriculum and assessment development. Competency-based education is a response to all of the calls for higher education change to improve quality, accessibility, and affordability for all students. CBE disrupts our traditional thoughts about teaching and learning and helps us re-examine epistemology, pedagogy, and technology, all with a focus on the student. It is a powerful engine for getting higher education focused and clear about bringing value to the lives of our learners.

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