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Overview of Competency-based Education

The National Convergence Technology Center’s (CTC) was recently invited to attend a presentation on competency-based education (CBE) hosted by Information Communication Technologies and Digital Media Sector Team for California Community Colleges. For those unfamiliar with CBE programs, they “measure student progress towards a credential in terms of learning attained rather than time completed.” Curriculum is built around competencies, not hours and courses. Mara Lockowandt, senior program manager at JFF, discussed the essentials of CBE and elements colleges should consider when developing a CBE program. You can watch the webinar in its entirety here (as well as download her slide deck which is full of useful charts and tables).

Below are a few highlights of Mara’s presentation.

* Credit hours as a curriculum standard emerged out of the need to measure seat time in order to calculate faculty pensions and workloads, financial aid, and degree completion. Credit hours are not a learning unit.

* CBE programs require a demonstration of mastery. Compare that to the traditional model that embraces “varied learning.” Some students earn an A and master the content, while others can still pass with only a C.

* Student cohorts may start together, but they will not finish together. This is a big change from the traditional model. Students have to complete one curriculum bundle and pass the direct assessment before they can move onto the next bundle.

* A big myth about CBE programs is that they are a form of independent study. That is not the case. Students are not left on their own. Faculty provides “intense” 1:1 support akin to coaching.

* CBE programs require approval by both the Department of Education and also the regional accreditor.

* The “startup” cost for CBE programs can be big. It can take 3-5 years to see a return on the investment because the model is so different than the traditional lecture-based format. Students work through packaged material – videos and other resources – on learning management system (LMS) with faculty checking in on them.

* One meeting attendee wondered how faculty could handle 40 CBE students each learning at different paces. Mara explained that the faculty role is different in the CBE model. They could be supporting fewer students more intensively or more students with less frequent check-ins. Mara reported that faculty typically prefer the CBE model once it’s up and running because they have more time to spend with students. Many administrative tasks are taken off their plate.

* CBE programs do require more work on the operations side to make it all work smoothly for the learner. This will often require several instructional designers to create and deliver the content. A robust technical infrastructure is essential.

* Some schools offer a hybrid model, with both traditional classes and CBE elements.

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