Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” This poet, philosopher and professor’s words can also apply to institutions. The idea of competency-based education is changing higher education. And it will never be the same as it was.
The idea of competency-based education is quickly becoming a tangible practice. The American Enterprise Institute report “The landscape of competency-based education: Enrollments, demographics, and affordability” defines CBE. Author Robert Kelchen says, “It is a form of higher education in which credit is provided on the basis of student learning rather than credit or clock hours.” (https://www.aei.org/publication/landscape-competency-based-education-enrollments-demographics-affordability/)
CBE models are at the core of higher education purpose, says Fatma Mili, Associate Dean of Education Research and Development at Purdue University.
• First, there is an element of quality assurance about the value of a credit. Students must demonstrate their competence in what they have learned and can do, rather than receiving a credit for attending and passing a class. A credit in a traditional class doesn’t ensure the quality of what was learned. It represents the process of learning. A demonstration of competency assures the quality of the education.
• Second, higher order thinking skills are part of competency. In the AACU report “It Takes More than a Major” employers said they want employees who can think critically, communicate and solve complex problems. In a CBE structure, defined educational outcomes can include demonstrated competence of these skills, along with discipline knowledge.
• Third, students are empowered with their own learning. The competencies that students must demonstrate are clearly stated, and it is the students’ responsibility to acquiring them. Students can move quickly through areas where they already have skills. They can take more time in areas where they need more education. Because CBE programs generally offer students a mix of face-to-face classes, online classes and resources, students can access what they need to acquire competence, and even go beyond. Fatima states, “From our one semester-long experience with CBE we have seen many students attempt a higher number of competencies and explore areas outside of their recommended plan of study.”
• Last, CBE may help increase access to education and diversity. For example, wide gaps exist between the numbers of majority and minority students completing degrees. There are gaps in the number of women, men and minorities entering STEM fields. This may be the result of students trying to part of a system that isn’t designed for them, Fatima suggests. First-generation students, minority population students, or adult learners may have different needs than traditional students. Because it is flexible, CBE can remove barriers to access to higher education. (http://www.evolllution.com/opinions/multi-faceted-potential-competency-based-education-benefits-cbe/)
Common Factors Create Benefits
The Competency-Based Education Network announced February 9, 2015, that 15 new colleges have joined the network. C-BEN now has 30 schools and four public college systems that offer competency-based degrees or are creating them. These schools work together to develop programs and address the challenges that are involved. This growing acceptance has implications for students and businesses.
Generally CBE programs share common factors – they are flexible, online, and focus on the outcome rather than the process. For working adults CBE flexibility could make achieving higher education goals possible. Students can have a class schedule that complements their other life responsibilities such as work and family. With online classes they don’t have to be in a certain place at a certain time.
Focus on the outcome of the educational experience can save adult learners time and money. Many adults have acquired valuable skills and competencies as they worked. CBE programs don’t require that students attend classes they don’t need to; they don’t need to follow one defined path to a career. Class lengths are long enough to achieve the outcomes rather than meeting attendance requirements. When students demonstrate competency then they can move forward and take classes where they gain new knowledge and skills.
A focus on the outcome makes competency-based models valuable to employers and business owners as well as their employees. A credit in a class may represent passive learning. A CBE education represents a defined outcome. Employers have some assurance in their employee skills since students must demonstrate their discipline knowledge along with the critical thinking and communication skills to apply it.
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