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Benefits and Challenges of Competency-Based Education: An Interview With Dr. Jeremy Korr

By August 20, 2015 Q & A One Comment

Dr. Jeremy Korr has served as Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Brandman University since 2011. With master’s and doctoral degrees in American Studies from the University of Maryland, Dr. Korr has published, taught, and presented in the areas of urban and transportation history, food and culture, cultural geography and competency-based education. Recently, he spoke with us about competency-based education and what it means for students and institutions.

How do you define competency-based education (CBE)?

Let’s start with a definition of credit hour-based education. In that traditional model, achievement of student learning is determined by a combination of how many hours students attend class, how they perform on various assessments, how late they may or may not arrive to class, how they behave in class, and how much extra work they do if given the opportunity by any given instructor, among other factors.

By contrast, in competency-based education, achievement of student learning is determined by mastery of assessments. Period. The time it takes to achieve mastery of particular skills, knowledge, or abilities is no longer relevant. Extra credit, attendance, and tardiness are no longer relevant. Squeaking by with a D- is no longer possible. Plain and simple, students must demonstrate mastery of every applicable competency, regardless of how long it takes.

What challenges could CBE programs pose to students? What problems may they pose to instructors?

In CBE programs, learning is fixed and time is variable. Most students are used to the reverse, with a class ending after 15 weeks no matter how much the student has learned. Since a competency doesn’t end until a student demonstrates mastery, students must be mentally prepared to work for as long as it takes. They must also be committed to studying and practicing until achieving mastery, since sliding by with a C or D no longer suffices.

Much as online learning compelled instructors to modify their approach to teaching and implement a new set of best practices, CBE programs offer a similar opportunity. The CBE approach inherently embeds a “guide on the side” stance, rather than a “sage on the stage.” Instructors must be prepared for changes in their traditional roles, for unbundled faculty models, for an academic calendar and workweek different from the traditional academic ones. When these dynamics are considered thoughtfully and carefully by faculty and administration and appropriate new or revised policies are implemented, the outcomes can be productive and constructive for both instructors and their CBE students.

What happens if you can’t really get more than a C+ or B-? Does this mean you can’t get an M for the competency? If so, how do you complete your degree?

Institutions are handling this in different ways. Some CBE programs allow students unlimited attempts to demonstrate mastery of each competency. If a student hasn’t demonstrated mastery in a challenging competency after seven tries, it’s time to keep working and prepare for an eighth attempt. This approach leaves it to students to decide when to throw in the towel. Theoretically, the student never loses the opportunity to complete the degree; if the student decides after 15 tries to withdraw from the program and institution, that is the student’s decision and not the institution’s. In the meantime, the student continues paying tuition, and the institution continues to provide services, even if the student doesn’t progress.

A second approach, in place at Brandman University, is to limit students’ attempts at completing each competency. In this framework, students who can’t achieve higher than C-level work on three consecutive attempts are no longer eligible to continue the program. Those students are encouraged to transfer into a different modality of the same program, which provides a higher-touch learning experience at a higher price point, since the low-touch CBE experience may not be effective for those students. In other words, a student beginning the Bachelor of Business Administration program in CBE modality may end up completing it in credit-based on-ground or traditional online modality. However, this approach requires that an institution offer programs in additional modalities beyond CBE.

How can higher education institutions differentiate themselves from competitors who also offer competency-based education programs offering to prepare students for the same careers?

The same question could be asked with respect to traditional credit-based programs, or to online programs. For programs in any modality, institutions can maximize the quality of their faculty and curriculum, support services, and implementation of academic best practices. For competency-based programs in particular, institutions can hire dedicated personnel to serve students, such as full-time faculty and advising staff specific to the competency-based programs. They can also provide options such as non-term based financial aid via direct assessment.

Are there any subjects that show the most potential for being turned into a competency-based form? What kinds of subjects may not lend themselves to it at all?

The knee-jerk reaction to this question is to say that certain subjects aren’t conducive to a competency-based approach, because of inherent needs for face-to-face, group, or synchronous interaction. However, looking at what’s happened in the past, I wouldn’t rule out any subjects from being viable in a competency-based environment.

Remember that not long ago, few people thought that online learning would be viable for clinical training, natural science labs, or foreign language courses. Evolving technology and best practices have since made it clear that all of those can indeed be taught and learned effectively in an online learning environment. While the emerging wave of competency-based programs have so far tended to favor a select set of subjects such as business administration and information technology, I would expect to see a much wider range of subjects within a decade.

What does the transcript that CBE graduates will bring to employers look like? What opportunities are there for CBE to improve on the traditional transcript to make it more informative of what a student knows?

While various transcript models are possible, a promising approach is the dual transcript, which speaks to both the credit-hour and competency-based worlds. On a dual transcript, student mastery of a specific competency is notated twice: first, with a competency name (and course number, if applicable) and the standard grade the institution has designated for competency mastery such as A or B; second, with a full description of the competency that the student has mastered and a standard mastery grade such as M. For example, a student completing an oral communication competency might be notated first as “oral communication, COMM 101: A” and second as “oral communication: deliver a well-organized oral presentation using appropriate delivery techniques, effective and audience-appropriate language choices, and appropriate supporting materials: M.”

Compare two students who are applying for jobs. Both of them passed coursework in oral communications and business management. The credit-hour student earned a C in COMM 101 after absorbing a penalty for missing five class sessions, and earned a B- in BUSN 450 after doing two extra credit projects to bump up what would have been a C-. The competency-based student achieved a mastery-level threshold on assessments in oral communications and business management, and her transcript spells out exactly what skills in those areas she demonstrated mastery in. Which transcript conveys more useful information to the students’ potential employers?

Is CBE for everyone?

I’ll answer that with a qualified no. Generally speaking, CBE requires students to be self-disciplined, self-motivated, and able to plan and work independently and ask for help when needed. For example, CBE is ideal for those adult learners who have demanding work and family schedules, and who thrive on working at their own pace without someone watching over their shoulder. Those students benefit from being able to earn their degree through using their computer or tablet, and through interactions with faculty and fellow students, wherever and whenever they want. In contrast, a traditional-age college freshman who hasn’t yet developed time management skills and who appreciates learning in a face-to-face environment would probably not find CBE to be the most effective learning environment.

However, that assumes that we’re talking about a full-fledged, self-paced, online CBE program. There are certainly other opportunities to incorporate a competency-based approach into traditionally delivered programs in ways that would benefit a broad range of students. For example, the competencies identified in the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile, and the cross-cutting skills listed in AAC&U’s Essential Learning Outcomes, can be readily embedded and assessed within credit-hour programs.

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: