Competency-based learning has received widespread recognition as a way to better align higher education to careers. Rather than measuring “seat time” for traditional credit hours, colleges and universities are tracking student progress on demonstrated capabilities. Today some 600 higher-ed institutions are developing entire CBE degree programs in career-related fields of study like biomedical sciences and criminal justice.
Long before CBE was trending, Southern New Hampshire University gave it a test drive, largely in part to the vision of its president, Paul LeBlanc. On a flight from Kuala Lumpur to New York in 2011 LeBlanc wrote “a little white paper” that set the stage for SNHU’s foray into direct-assessment programs.
“The game-changing idea here is that when we have assessment right, we should not care how a student achieves learning. We can blow up the delivery models and be free to try anything that shows itself to work,” he wrote during the 21-hour flight. Not long after, SNHU launched College for America, which partners with employers to offer competency-based online degree-programs for $3,000.
Under LeBlanc’s leadership, in 2012 SNHU was the only academic institution on Fast Company’’s World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies list. The university is one of 40 “experimental sites” that received approval from the Department of Education to use federal financial aid dollars for competency-based education and prior learning assessment initiatives. And in 2015, the Obama administration tapped LeBlanc to advise Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell on competency-based education.
EdSurge CEO Betsy Corcoran sat down with LeBlanc and Rusty Greiff, a partner with 1776, a seed fund and business incubator, at an event hosted by 1776 in Washington, D.C. earlier this month. LeBlanc spoke about SNHU’s work to close the chasm between what students learn and what the workforce wants. For the full conversation, tune in to our EdSurge Extra! podcast. What follows are excerpts from what LeBlanc had to say:
On serving nontraditional college students:
The job that 18-year-olds are supposed to do in education is different than the job that a 35-year-old is asking us to do when they’re stuck in their job and they can’t take care of their families in the way they need to. Those are very different from one to another. If we were trying to build an institution to serve adults—non-traditional aged students who didn’t have a lot of resources and who had to make this work in their busy lives—trying to simply take what we do for 18-year-olds and drop it into an online role isn’t the answer. In fact, most of the not-for-profits have tried to do that have failed.
On higher ed’s biggest weakness:
Philosophy is probably the single most important major any institution can offer in terms of intellectual training. … And it does a terrible job in terms of the claims it makes for learning. When you ask students to prove the existence of God, it’s like, no, you’re going to talk about logic models, you’re going to talk about stuff that eccentrics cry out for. If that’s the world we’re moving towards, the huge failure, the place where we are most weak is the assessment of higher ed. Competencies shift the limelight from what students know to what they can do with what they know. That’s a competency. What can you do with what you know?
Performance-based assessment is really, really terrible in higher ed. I think we’re really vulnerable if we can’t say with great confidence: ‘This is how we can stand behind our claims, this is how we know.’ The question I guess I would ask of every institution is: You think you do certain things, how do you know, really?
On how he thinks about competency-based learning:
If you think about higher education as being a faith-based initiative for the last 600 years… the notion was that if you had enough volumes in your library, and enough PhD’s on your faculty, and enough students with high SAT scores, what came out of the other end was going to be fine. It’s going to be great, actually. What happens if we could reverse that? What if we were really clear about the claims we make for our learning and how we know? Those are the two fundamental questions at the heart of competency-based education.
What claims do you make for your students? How do you know? And if you can answer those two questions with great clarity, you open up a whole world of possibilities for how you get students there. You get into things like bundling, you think about OER and alternatives to expensive content.