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The Innovators Next Door: Empire State College-SUNY Ventures into Competency-Based Education

Last week, I served as keynote speaker for a colloquium hosted by Empire State-SUNY on competency-based education (CBE) — a topic that was their institution’s focus as part of the inaugural cohort of NGLC’s Breakthrough Models Incubator in 2013. Set in scenic Saratoga Springs, New York, amid lush parks and brick buildings in a quintessential college town, Empire State doesn’t necessarily look like a hotbed of innovation.

But behind its quiet façade, the college is venturing into a new strategy to execute on its mission to serve adult learners with flexible education options. During the Incubator last year, Empire State laid the groundwork for a new, competency-based BA degree in IT. The program is aimed at working professionals who have hit a roadblock in their career advancement simply because they lack a bachelor’s degree.

If you want to approach CBE at your institution, start by engaging faculty in the planning process immediately as Empire State did. Including professors on the Incubator team and bringing their perspective in at the beginning was the first step. Hosting the two-day colloquium was an excellent next step. Empire State effectively started the conversation about CBE in three smart ways that others could follow:

  • Create space for participation.

Empire State’s administration set aside two full days for exchanging information and collaborating, streamed the entire colloquium campus-wide for those who couldn’t attend and fed everyone there extremely well.  Believe me, conversation about faculty role disaggregation is better over wine.

  • Provide information for quality discussion.

A variety of speakers teed up the conversation and provided useful context behind the questions they were tackling. I answered some big picture questions, such as why this, why now, and what role can the faculty play? Others addressed how adaptive learning platforms can enhance instruction (Jim Thompson, CogBooks) and how CBE works from an accreditation perspective (Meg Benke, Empire State professor, commissioner for the Middle States Association for Higher Education).

  • Develop action steps to build momentum.

On day two, the group really got down to business, discussing how to define learning outcomes, teaching techniques, sequencing of competencies around key topics in specific disciplines and how to manage assessment.  It proved to be a great way to produce high energy and enthusiasm, engage with faculty, hear from them, work with them, and ultimately, to move forward in tandem.  

Although it was a productive two-day meeting, Acting Provost Deborah Amory assured me that there’s plenty left to cover in Empire State’s participation in the 2014 Breakthrough Models Incubator. “We have a good grip on the academic part of the program, but there is the whole ‘back end’ system to work out,” she said. “We’ll also want to spend more time on student support services.”

Spoken like a true innovator – successful events are great, but they are just touchstones in a process toward serving students better. 


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