Monday, October 20, 2014



When Michael Dukakis ran for President, his slogan of “competence, not ideology” didn’t exactly stir the blood.  But I saw competency stir the blood of some smart people on Monday, and it gave me hope.  NEBHE - the New England Board of Higher Education - hosted a conference in Boston on Competency-Based Education, and it was one of the best I’ve attended in years.

Competency-Based Education doesn’t have a standard definition yet -- which several speakers noted over the course of the day -- but it generally refers to programs in which student learning is measured in accomplishments, rather than time.  The idea is to invert the credit hour.  Under a credit hour system, time on task is fixed, and learning is variable.  Under a CBE system, learning is fixed and time is variable.  

CBE has existed in various guises for decades, but has hit its stride only in the last few years.  Many colleges allow students to “test out” of certain courses, whether through CLEP, AP, or departmental exams, for example.  Clinicals, in Nursing, are largely competency-based, as are co-ops.  Self-paced developmental classes are a variation on competency-based, as are practicum courses.  Licensing exams, such as the bar exam or the NCLEX, function as a competency-based form of quality control.  For that matter, outcomes assessment is a close cousin to CBE.  So the basic idea isn’t new.

The new twist is remaking entire programs without reference to seat time.  Online education makes that much easier, since it eliminates the need for classroom scheduling.  (Try making a schedule without any reference to time, and you’ll see the challenge.)  By allowing students to move at the speed their talent and drive will take them, we can remove the barriers that slow down the highest-achieving students artificially.  

From a policymaker’s standpoint, the shiny promise of CBE is that, under the right circumstances, it promises good, fast, and cheap education.  (Readers of a certain age will recognize the old joke about home contractors: “Good, fast, and cheap: pick any two.”)  If students are able to blaze past the stuff they already know, or which come easily, then they can finish more quickly.  Baumol’s cost disease can be vanquished, the opportunity cost of education can be reduced, and everybody wins.

And that actually happens for the top tier of students.  As several speakers noted, though, the more common case is the student who moves more slowly.  As Paul LeBlanc of SNHU put it, in traditional classes, it’s possible to pass even while remaining weak on certain topics.  Requiring a student to show strength in every topic before moving on may take longer upfront, but will position the student better for success in later courses (and eventual employment).

The “slow success” model will probably create some legislative panic, as the savings from fast finishers are more than consumed by the added expense of gradual completers.  At that point, the seeming “win-win” will show itself as a more complicated choice.  But we’re not there yet.

I was heartened by the candor and thoughtfulness of most of the presentations.  The opening panel, of which I missed the first few minutes due to Mass Pike traffic of Biblical proportions, was one of the best I’ve seen since Kay McClenney retired.  Amy Laitinen, of the New America Foundation, was characteristically nuanced in her description of the political drivers of CBE, as well as the likely abuses that would follow a too-abrupt opening of the financial aid rules.  Paul Fain, from Inside Higher Ed, set a positive, thoughtful tone, and kept the discussion moving.  But the breakout star was Alison Kadlec, of Public Agenda.  In the context of noting that “shared standards of quality and practice” haven’t emerged yet, she moved fluently from political critique to detailed implementation tips to a rousing bit of democratic theory and back again, all while cracking jokes.  Color me impressed.

Paul LeBlanc gave the keynote, offering an update on College for America’s version of CBE.  I was struck by the stronger focus on peer mentoring than I’ve heard before; either I just didn’t notice previously, or it’s evolving as a more important part of the College.  I had to smile at his discussion of the question he usually asks at employer advisory boards: “Show of hands: how many of you have hired someone with a bachelor’s degree who has horrible writing skills?”  He made the point that insisting on hitting every competency, including writing, will ultimately result in fewer hands going up when he asks that question.  As degrees gain greater credibility, he argued, some of the more pointed questions about cost will have less resonance.  I hope he’s right.  To his credit, he also acknowledged that some faculty fears about the “unbundling” of the faculty role in a CBE setting are well-founded, and that advocates of CBE should stop dancing around the issue and address it directly.  My guess is that the truth is far less scary than some folks’ imaginations.  He also noted the frustrating reality that current financial aid rules allow for all-CBE programs or all-credit-hour programs, but don’t allow for hybrids.  It’ll be hard to make progress on back-office systems if the only option is to jump in with both feet.

CBE has shown promise in small programs; its next challenge will be to perform at scale.  I don’t know if it will succeed, but it strikes me as one of the most promising avenues we have.  If the caliber of discussion can remain this high, and this thoughtful, I like our chances.  Well done, NEBHE.

This is definitely intriguing, but I'm wondering how it will function in some of the "softer" humanities and arts classes. In subjects like history and philosophy, the intellectual journey itself is as important as the measurable goals that are to be hit. Yes, I know how corny that sounds, especially to pundits and politicians, but bear with me. In these subjects and others like them, students aren't just remembering facts and demonstrating skills; they are weighing ideas, considering different perspectives, and engaging with both the material and classmates on an ongoing basis. At the end of the term (whether 8, 10, or 15 weeks), they will ideally be thinking in a much different, more nuanced, and more empathetic way than they were on the first day. So it strikes me that a student who writes an essay that demonstrates a white-hot mastery of, say, world history and the techniques of historical thinking and writing after three weeks will not gain as much from the course as someone who takes the standard 15 weeks to do the same. Or am I just clinging to hopelessly romantic ideas of the educative process?
I'm glad to see you notice the value of Learning Outcomes. As someone who was reluctant to take on the extra work required by our reaffirmation of accreditation, I've learned a lot about what students actually learned in traditional classes that are only taught in one format, and been enlightend by a direct comparison of a traditional and a self-paced class. I now can see that they offer a benchmark to affirm that the threshold for passing has similar value in different formats.

This doesn't quite work when there is no internal point of comparison at one of these CBE-only programs, but there must be a way to cross institutional boundaries to do that. We already effectively do that when a private university decides that our physics or calculus class meets their standards for transfer.

BTW, my own data show that the highest performing class format is a compressed semester like we use in summer. The learning may not last beyond a few weeks, but the in-semester assessment results are spectacular.
This is definitely intriguing, but I'm wondering how it will function in some of the "softer" humanities and arts classes. In subjects like history and philosophy, the intellectual journey itself is as important as the measurable goals that are to be hit. Yes, I know how corny that sounds, especially to pundits and politicians, but bear with me. In these subjects and others like them, students aren't just remembering facts and demonstrating skills; they are weighing ideas, considering different perspectives, and engaging with both the material and classmates on an ongoing basis.

In those humanities classes, the competencies/skills demonstrated are weighing ideas and considering different perspectives. It's important not to conflate "demonstrating competencies" with "remembering facts to take a standardized test". Students develop important academic competencies in humanities classes, as you emphasize; I think people are just getting hung up on the buzzwords ("competency based education") here.
Would love to hear from someone who has found a CBE approach to solve the problem that Anonymous 7:48pm notes. I'm involved in a CBE pilot at the moment (prior learning, really), and continue to be troubled by my belief that this approach is not universal to all disciplines, which may mean that some disciplines (humanities and arts) are left out politically and financially. They already take a lot of political heat and I don't want to attract more by making them the "long" degrees: degrees that you have to finish in a certain amount of time, even as the other degrees might speed up.

Also, CCPhysicist, are lab and research skills that develop over time in the sciences an analog to that kind of process that Anonymous describes?
CCPhysicist brings up a good point about compressed classes and long-term retention of information. I worry that if CBE measures are not designed thoughtfully this will become a big issue with them as well.

I once filled in as a long-term sub at an alternative school that flirted with a "proficiency based" model, and a big issue that I ran into is that the person I was subbing for was perfectly happy to have a kid come in after school, show them how to do exactly one skill they'd missed (say, factor a quadratic of the form x^2 + bx + c with nice integer factors) and then immediately let them take a "proficiency test" on that exact thing. This pretty much tested if they had short term memory skills and a basic ability to follow directions, and was much less successful at seeing whether or not they had any ownership of math skills.

As a math teacher, I'm much less interested in whether or not someone can repeat the specific thing I just taught than if they can tell which of several methods they should use to solve a non-obvious problem and then remember how to use that method even if it's been a while. I'm worried that if we go to just measuring specific skills on-demand it'll make math education even more of a mess than it is already.
@ Milo Minderbinder: and this leads us back to what the time-based credit hour is supposed to help students achieve: enough exposure to and practice with the "weighing ideas" and "considering different perspectives" that are embedded in a good humanities (or social science or even hard science) course that they are able to demonstrate those competencies through a broad range of discussions, term papers, and essay tests, PLUS the ability to marshal content and skills for these demonstrations.
My reaction to Anonymous @7:48pm is "those are the reasons humanities classes have value in the overall curriculum for the sciences and engineering". You are forced to do some deep analytic thinking long before you know enough about your own field to tear into it, and you hone writing skills that (should) enable you to display a logical structure to support your thesis. Ah, if only students writing lab reports could transfer that skill to the lab! Some do, immediately, so take that as an invisible win for your field.

My other thought is that a student might show those white-hot insights because of prior learning or experience. You don't need to be in a classroom to read history (or physics), and you might use blogging to get your ideas attacked and vetted. The plus of the time-based system is that both prof and student benefit from extended engagement that moves well past that class to the next. But then why take the next one?

As for the time involved, a graduate program in the sciences is basically CBE. Those who get it quickly (or got it before they arrived) and can also write quickly are done and gone. I think the minimum number of "reserach hours" is really just a way to make sure the best students are around long enough to make up for the slowpokes. ;-)

As for standardization, in another comment, there are test designs where remembering facts will do you little good. The existence of bad tests is not a reason to write them yourself.

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