Competency-based programs in Higher Education

Ladder Of Achievement
I’ve posted my notes from today’s #CFHE12 webinar to DropBox.

The speakers’ programs were featured in Inside Higher Education a couple of weeks ago.

College for America @SNHU: Walking the talk, Yvonne Simon, Southern New Hampshire University
NAU: Personalized Learning, Fred Hurst, Northern Arizona University

These presentations kind of blew my mind, frankly.

I remember when Trinity started the brainstorming sessions a year ago about how to revise the common curriculum.  One of my first questions was “What is off the table?”  While the committee was advocating for open-ended brainstorming, I wanted to get them to think about the limitations on the revisions they could make within a semester, course-credit, accreditation-driven system.  My intention was to broaden their thinking to include institutional structures as well as course content. In the end, the proposal generated from a year of discussions is largely still a course-based checklist.

These two programs have thrown the semester system out the window.  Northern Arizona has devised a subscription system where students pay $2,500 every 6 months for access to the content.  They can move as quickly or as slowly as they need to, repeat modules they don’t master, choose from multiple modalities (e.g. lecture, reading, simulation, game) to complete learning modules, and test-out of areas where they have prior knowledge.  Right now, they are focusing on just a couple of programs, but one of them is liberal arts.  Within three years, they want to offer Masters degrees; Within 5, they expect to enroll 8,000 students.

My favorite part of the Southern New Hampshire University presentation is the binary rubric they will use to assess mastery.  The options are “yes” and “not yet”.  Right on!

So far, competency-based approaches seem to be the purview of online and community colleges.  I’ll have to take a closer look at the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile in order to get a better handle on them, but my initial impression is that Trinity faculty would find them too “basic”.  The IHE article highlights one of the qualification areas.

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.”

There are plenty of ways that Trinity faculty are already thinking about competencies outside the semester/course framework.  The Quality Enhancement Plan infused information literacy content throughout the curriculum.  Some of last week’s HHMI conference discussions centered around skills that transcended the boundaries of individual courses or even departments/disciplines.  The Environmental Studies program has designated “greenleaf courses” which certify that the material covered is related to conservation or sustainability.  Many of the brainstorming sessions around the common curriculum review were about things like financial literacy, critical thinking, international understanding and similar issues.  The ideas are there, all that’s missing is competency, or the assessment of mastery.

During the campus retreat last year, break-out sessions were asked to discuss what every Trinity graduate should:

  • know…
  • be able to do…
  • have experienced…
  • be…

The ideas generated ranged widely, from expected outcomes like strong writing skills, to less expected goals like graduating “visionaries”.  The last item in particular, highlights the notion that a liberal arts education should be transformative, that students should have certain outlooks, habits of mind, etc. Of the four, items, this is the most difficult to assess.  Apart from the area of psychological tests, the assessment of intrinsic characteristics, particularly how they change over time, is arguably underdeveloped.

I see a lot of resistance to competency-oriented ideas at Trinity.  There is a notion that liberal arts education is holistic, that it can’t be broken down into delimited tests or competencies.  I do think that Trinity will have to adapt at least in part to this idea though.  In a Hangout on Google+ today, Salman Khan talked about “microcredentials” or small units of competency certification.  This idea fits well in the context of lifelong learning.  In the future we will need constant retraining in new applications, skills and technologies to advance in our careers.  If we reframe a college education as an intensive start to this life-long process, rather than as self-contained and an “end” in its own right, then colleges getting involved in microcredentials makes perfect sense.  I see last year’s DML contest about badges as a very forward-looking initiative in this regard.


About Claudia Scholz

Higher education administrator in Charlottesville, VA specializing in research development.
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2 Responses to Competency-based programs in Higher Education

  1. Thanks for the summary – I was not able to log in…. Yet again…

  2. Howard says:

    Thanks for the review Claudia;
    I could see the discussed programs as an extension of the flipped classroom concept where some competencies are presented online and supported with social web-based and social physical-based support. The things that concern me are reductionist types of problems in how lists of competencies or micro-credentialing is thought of and handled. Also, I’ve yet to see an adequate resolution of transfer of learning problems, something I see as resolved through lifelong learning that not only extends one’s learning, but also revisits previous learning in the context of uses.

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