Trending Now: Postsecondary

Maybe it’s just me being laser focused on competency-based education (CBE).  We’ve decided to focus the 2014 Next Generation Learning Challenges Breakthrough Models Incubator on bringing forth more CBE models (applications will be available on or about November 1, 2013).  But as we gear up, it’s clear we have company.
CBE is on the minds of lots of people lately ranging from kids on the corner like Zach Sherman, a community college drop-out turned college grad in just under 100 days to President Obama, calling out Sherman’s new alma mater, Southern New Hampshire University, in a recent address. How could something – anything – attract attention from such a diverse group?
I think CBE is gaining steam because it appeals to a cultural character trait that cuts across class, race and political lines – pragmatism.  Americans like solutions.  And CBE presents an intriguing one as higher education institutions struggle to provide quality education to more people at less cost.  With CBE, students – mainly utilizing online delivery modes for instruction – can develop knowledge and skills at their own pace and be assessed by demonstrating those skills and knowledge whenever they are ready. Employers, who often play a role in helping institutions develop the competencies, are helping make the degrees meaningful and valuable by infusing workplace expectations into academic programs.
CBE isn’t new to higher education – Western Governors University has been on the scene since 1999.  What is new is mainstream institutions like University of Wisconsin and Northern Arizona University stepping into the arena to offer degrees that are based on directly assessing what students know and can do, rather than awarding degrees based on seat-time.  What is new is bi-partisan legislation from the House Education and Workforce committee to clear the way for “…innovative colleges and universities to explore ways to deliver education, measure quality and disburse financial aid based on learning, rather than time.” What is new is the Department of Education issuing advice, muddy though it feels to those in the field, in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter.
About two weeks ago in Chicago, the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation drew institutions curious about CBE into a room with a couple of accreditors, a couple of administration officials, and a handful of interested industry observers including EDUCAUSE, represented by yours truly, to talk about using the “experimental sites” authority in the Higher Education Act, to test out waivers of certain Title IV regulations for institutions wanting to offer direct assessment CBE programs.  It was a packed couple of days with an agenda that included presentations and discussion ranging from the high-level overview to the highly technical look at financial aid regulations.
Twenty-four hours of thrashing around in the weeds of Title IV left everyone fairly well convinced that noble though the purpose of the regulations is, their unrelenting focus on time-based units – the academic year, the schedule of disbursements, the credit hour – poses huge challenges to experiments in funding CBE with Title IV funds.  The standard list of worries about CBE – the risks of diploma-mills, the lack of depth in tests, the clunky disconnects created by transfer students and the very real and radically different roles for faculty – made their appearance, but the prevailing sense was “we can handle those problems” and it’s worth trying to figure them out.  Because with the weeds cleared away, there is growing recognition of the promise for a gorgeous garden of graduates that includes many more people – working parents, self-directed people who just don’t fit the standard school mode, and first-generation college students the traditional system has left behind – at a lot less cost.

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