By Adrienne Way, Edcor CEO and Owner
Students and employees, their colleges and employers, are all facing challenges and disruptions caused by the coronavirus. Job qualifications, unemployment, college completion, and course credit are all snarled into an ever-changing ball of uncertainty right now. One way to straighten out the confusion is to take a closer look at one of higher education’s recent disruptors: competency-based education (CBE).
CBE is an education model that allows students to receive credit for their knowledge and skills, wherever or whenever they learned them. Rather than receive credit for a regulated number of hours in a classroom, students must demonstrate mastery and skills that they have previously learned from work or life experiences. In a traditional format, the time spent on learning, the number of hours students are in a classroom, is constant. The student learning is variable with students earning a grade from A to F. In CBE education models, time is the variable. Students progress quickly through material they master easily and more slowly through material that is more difficult. In CBE models, mastery of skills and knowledge is the constant.
CBE is beneficial to many learners, says Richard Price, a researcher at Christensen Institute, in “How competency-based education can help the nation recover from COVID-19,” It is especially valuable for adult learners. Working adults must juggle work and family responsibilities and schedules. These multiple responsibilities and time demands make it difficult to pursue education based on a strict time schedule. With CBE that allows working adults to earn credits on a flexible schedule, there is more opportunity for success.
Allowing employees to use education benefits for credit earned through CBE is advantageous for employers, says Price. “And employers should retain the lessons from this last economic recovery, namely that focusing on skills and competencies can lead to more diverse talent.” Employees who may not have had opportunities to move ahead in their education path can demonstrate what they have learned. Students hampered by financial restraints, minority students with less accessibility to higher education, or students who have stopped out along the way can make valuable contributions to their employers with credits earned in alternative ways. Credits earned through CBE will ensure that employees have mastered the skills employers need as markets and demands for services and products change during the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, with recognized CBE credit students can move ahead to additional education or advance to better employment opportunities.
“Competencies are the core of the CBE curriculum,” states WGU which has CBE programs that help students achieve their education goals. Competencies that students demonstrate must meet industry and academic expectations. This also aligns with Lumina Foundation’s Goal 2025. Goal 2025 calls for 60 percent of American to hold high-quality degree, certificates or other post-secondary credentials by 2025. CBE credits can lead high-quality credentials. These credentials must “reflect rigorous and relevant learning,” says Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie Merisotis. “You see, students don’t need just credentials. What they need — and what our global economy and democratic society increasingly demand — is the learning those credentials signify, the highly developed knowledge and skills that postsecondary education provides.”
A recent press release from the Department of Education talks about new proposed Distance Learning and Innovation regulation. It deals with the need for all higher education institutions to be able to teach remotely. It also addresses issues related to CBE and alternate ways for students to earn credits. The DOE talks about changing the definition of the credit hour from one that only considers seat time in a traditional setting to one that includes credits earned by CBE. It would make the credit hour one that “focuses on student learning rather than seat time and is flexible enough to account for innovations in the delivery models used by institutions.”
The DOE proposal clearly demonstrates the need for new practices in education. But changing government policies is a slow process. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t already forward momentum with existing CBE programs. These already give workers opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, and provide employers with evidence of worker job qualifications. Whether skills are acquired in the classroom, or through life and work experience, CBE gives workers career advancement opportunities and builds strong resilient workforces for employers.
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