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New courses stress competency to meet workforce needs


Dan Phelan, president of Jackson College (Michigan) and a member of the AACC board of directors, noted the importance of competency-based education.

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Photos: Ellie Ashford

​Competency-based education (CBE) can be valuable in ensuring community colleges provide the right kind of training to get people into the job market quickly with the skills employers need.

That’s the consensus of higher education leaders at a forum on community colleges and CBE on Monday hosted by the New America Foundation and co-sponsored by the foundation, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), Western Governors University (WGU) and the American Council on Education.

The essence of CBE is “flipping time and mastery,” said Sally Johnstone, vice president of academic advancement at WGU. Under the traditional education model, everyone starts a course at the same time and finishes at the same time. Some students master the material, and some don’t.

With CBE, everyone masters the material, although some take longer to do so, said Johnstone, who describes CBE as “a platform that enables individualized learning.”

Talking through the concerns

Dan Phelan, president of Jackson College in Michigan and a member of the AACC board of directors, called the work to develop CBE models “important and urgent.” He said AACC’s forthcoming strategies to implement the recommendations of its 21st Century report will address the need to offer CBE as a way to provide stackable credentials with real market value.

The concept of ignoring grade levels and instead building courses around what employers want “is standing registrars on their heads,” he said. “This seems so antithetical to the way we’ve done things.”

For some faculty, one of the biggest issues is “the speed at which change is coming,” Phelan said. “These fears are real and they must be addressed.”

To smooth the transition, he urged faculty and administrators to hold plenty of conversations on the practical realities of CBE and how it will work.

On their way

WGU, an online university based on the CBE concept, is working with 11 community colleges to help them develop CBE courses. Three institutions—Broward College (Florida), Sinclair Community College (Ohio) and Austin Community College (Texas)—are already a year into adopting CBE as part of a project funded with a federal Trade Adjustment Assistance and Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant.

Eric Seleznow, acting assistant secretary for the Employment and Training Administration at the U.S. Department of Labor, said the department would like to see more industry-driven solutions like CBE in the next round of TAACCCT funding, which will be announced in early 2014.That will be the last round of funding in the $2 billion, four-year TAACCCT program.

“We would like to keep it going. We’ll see how that goes,” he said.

The other eight colleges WVU is working with include Valencia College (Florida); two Ivy Tech Community College (Indiana) campuses; Lone Star College (Texas); and four in Washington state: Bellevue College, Edmonds Community College, Columbia Basin College and Spokane Community College. WVU is providing coaches to help the colleges develop online CBE courses. The courses are all in technical areas tied to workforce needs and are in a mix of associate degree and certification programs. 

Johnstone listed a set of design principles for CBE, based on WGU's experiences:

  • The degree reflects robust and valid competencies.
  • Students learn at a variable pace and support services are critical.
  • Effective learning resources are available any time and are reusable.
  • There has to be a process for mapping competencies, and there must be alignment among competencies, courses and assessments.
  • Assessments have to be secure and reliable; there must be controls to ensure the student who takes an assessment is the same student who registered for the course.
    Faculty buy-in crucial
Broward College got started with CBE in information technology because the program was producing very few graduates, said Provost Linda Howdyshell. Twenty students have enrolled in the CBE course since August, and two have already completed it.
Buy-in among the faculty and deans is extremely important. There was a lot of confusion at first, as “faculty thought of this as a commercial model,” she said. “We had to make sure they understood that this is not a cheapening of education and that it will lead to more diversity.” 
Among the major challenges, Howdyshell said, is how to deal with grades and transcripts and make sure students get transferable credits. Other concerns involved how to fit CBE into a college’s union contract, the potential impact on accreditation and whether students will have more difficulty getting financial aid, although she said the financial aid piece wasn’t as much of a problem as she expected.
It’s important to recognize that CBE “is not right for every student,” Howdyshell added. "Some students, especially those just out of high school, need a face-to-face, cohort model.”
For accreditors, the key questions revolve around who will teach these courses, what supports will be provided and how will the courses be developed, said Belle Whelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Course modules
The Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) is developing CBE courses because the state’s community colleges weren’t reaching enough working adults, said Chancellor Jay Box. It’s difficult for that population to fit classes into their schedules and, because life issues get in the way, it’s difficult for them to persist, he said.
KCTCS is combining CTE with a process started five years ago to break down 16-week classes in business administration, IT and nursing into three or four-week chunks. Engineering technology will be added this spring.
Eight of Kentucky’s 16 community colleges are using this model, Box said. The courses start with an assessment of prior learning; if students pass, they can move on to the next module. Students get partial credit for completing a module.
Kentucky communitiy colleges that applied to develop CBE courses put together teams of faculty to create the content, provided student success coaches and developed a student services component that’s available 24/7 so students never have to set foot on campus, Box said.
Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, raised a note of caution. When it comes to rules on how CBE courses relate to regular courses, “nobody’s figured it out yet.” She expressed a concern that colleges are moving too quickly to scale up CBE without data showing whether it works or not.