Why Competency-Based Education Stalled (But Isn’t Finished)

Exclusive | Digital Learning

Why Competency-Based Education Stalled (But Isn’t Finished)

By Jeffrey R. Young     May 1, 2018

Why Competency-Based Education Stalled (But Isn’t Finished)
Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire U.

The phrase “competency-based education” is quite a mouthful, but it was all the rage a few years ago among college leaders looking to expand access to their programs. The idea can sound radical, since it often involves doing away with course structures as we know them, to focus on having students prove they can master a series of skills or concepts one at a time.

It’s safe to say that competency-based education hasn’t caught on as widely as its promoters hoped, and these days you rarely hear much about it. In part that’s because some serious questions have been raised about the model.

So what’s up with CBE, as it’s known? To find out, we talked with one of the pioneers of bringing the approach to a traditional university, Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, which a few years ago started a competency-based program called College for America. And LeBlanc has helped shape policy around CBE on a national level as well. In 2015 he spent a few months on leave from Southern New Hampshire to advise the U.S. Department of Education.

He has some surprising things to say about competency-based education, including that he’s learned not to call it that with students. He also talks about how he does explain it, and where he thinks the trend is going. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

EdSurge: A few years ago, Southern New Hampshire spun off College For America, with the idea of expanding access to higher ed by trying a competency-based model. You had ambitious enrollment goals. Have you seen the demand that you expected?

LeBlanc: Not at the velocity at which we originally hoped. It takes a while, and it’s longer than we would like because we have been a B2B offering [partnering with employers, who subsidize the program for their employees]. You know, it's easy to get pilots, but it takes a long time to then move through the corporate organization, the approvals at every level. But the flywheel's now turning much faster.

Even when we roll out [with an employer] it will take a while internally to get on people's radar screens. Students ask, what is this thing again? And how does it work?

We have almost stopped using the phrase competency based education with students. Because that's kind of a term of art within the industry. Students don't know what it means. But if you say project-based-learning. They say, oh, I get that.

So the original idea of College For America was to bring college out to communities that are underserved. It wasn't the idea of bringing them to us, it was really kind or about how we can serve populations that are underserved. So even in the workforce, we've always aimed it or pointed it at the bottom 10 percent of wage earners in very large companies. How do we upscale them and give them more opportunity?

Because it is hard to explain, can you walk us through what the education itself looks like?

Yeah, so we don't do exams. It's all project based, and those projects look like the kinds of work you would be asked to do in the workplace. One of the things that students report that they like best about the program is that it feels relevant—it feels real. And if they are one of our adults who are working, they use those skills the very next day.

When students enroll with the program, we help them understand what the full range of the competencies are—about 120 of them—for the Associate's Degree. They're grouped, so it's not like we just throw a long list of 120 items at you. There's a cluster of competencies around quantitative methods, math, etc. And we go through those and say, where are you strong? Where do you already know these things? If you work in your family's store and do all the books, well, maybe that's a place we want to start. Psychologically we wanna give you an early win.

Then as students look at the projects, they have a learning coach. So [this person] feels like an instructor, even though they're not. They're really like a coach or advisor. But that learning coach will walk you through the project and all of the content and ask, what are the learning materials? What are the competencies and what are the rubrics? There's full transparency so they see what success looks like.

So you're not gonna have that not infrequent experience of getting something less than perfection on an assignment and not knowing why. For instance: my instructor gave me a C but they didn't say very much about what I didn't do. You'll know that you got these six items on the rubric, and you didn't get these four.
We sometimes get criticized for being rigid, and that you have to demonstrate mastery on every item to move forward, to be considered competent or to have mastery.

So they go through all that, they get that transparency and then they start working on the projects. And they will have to sort of delve into the learning materials. They may realize that while they keep the books in their family's business, they don't know a given math concept. So, they might spend some time on that and talk their learning coach about it.

And when they feel they're ready, they can submit their project, which goes to a qualified faculty member. And that's where they get some of the richest feedback and engagement with a faculty member they've ever had. So they'll get back their projects and they'll get either “mastery” or “not yet” on every item on the rubric. Most projects are good for more than one competency, so they're usually working on three or four or five competencies within that context. And then they'll have a back-and-forth with that instructor.

One of the reasons I ask is because about a year ago now the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Education issued a pretty scathing report and audit of Western Governors University, which is another project-based, competency-based university. Their big critique was what they saw as a lack of faculty interaction. How would you approach someone who has that skepticism of your programs, and says, we’re not really getting instructors?

As you know, I spent time working for Ted Mitchell at the Department [of Education] and spent time at the OIG on this. And the item that they were invoking was the regular and substantive interaction rule. It is a rule not well defined. So understand that the OIG has done the most conservative reading of that rule. And the OIG, I think, is scarred by the genuine abuses they witness by correspondence programs, and what would be generally called “self-learning,” where students just shipped a bunch of materials they learned on their own. So that's kind of what they're guarding against.

WGU has extraordinarily good results. Their students are getting proactively monitored, they have learning coaches that are intervening. They use a different term [for them], but they have qualified faculty who engage in the learning when students need it. Students are not at all left on their own. And I think there's a not infrequent confusion of self-paced with self-learning. They are not the same thing.

I think there is a general lack of awareness of how rich now the underlying data analytics are. We monitor our students 24/7. We know when someone hasn't logged on. We know when someone has struggled with a project. We know when performance has dropped off. We actually have closer to a 360-degree view of our students than most traditional institutions do. Then, when those students are engaged in the work, they have ready access to qualified faculty if they're really stuck. We're never going to let somebody get stuck on a math concept, for example, and just say, well, just figure it out. We're going to get you help.

Back when you first started for College For America, competency-based education felt like it was a bit of a buzzword. And I hear a little bit less about it these days. Where do you feel like we are right now in this trend?

The OIG I think has had a bit of a chilling effect. I think Scott [Pulsipher], my counterpart at WGU, would argue that. But I talk to colleagues all the time who are working on their CBE programs.

And they're in various stages. I think they are not shining a light on it quite the way they would've when it was the hot thing to talk about. But they're genuinely seeing an opportunity to rethink their delivery models. And I also think it is the best response to the No. 1 problem that higher ed is being asked to solve today, because competencies give higher ed a lingua franca to share with the workforce that we've never had before. Employers think about competencies. They think about, What can my workers do? What do they need to do? What can't they do? What do I need them to do next year? And if you are asking those kinds of questions with CBE, now we're having a conversation that wasn't happening before.

You had a three-month sabbatical at the U.S. Education Department a couple years ago. And it was during the creation of the department’s EQUIP Program, as it's called, where the government grants exceptions to people for the typical federal financial aid rules to try some new models. How do you think the EQUIP Program is going?

Not well. The original notion was there’d be a couple of dozen EQUIP sites. And then there was a lot of resistance within the Department of Ed to Equip. And I think that was kind of a rear guard action, to dampen down the number. So the eventual number was only eight. And of those eight, only the first one has been approved.

I'm really pleased that they've approved it. But it's not really what was envisioned. EQUIP was mostly to envision shorter-term, more granular credentialing pathways to get people on ramps into better work. And so I know the bloom is off the rose of coding bootcamps, but in their heyday they were kind of the quintessential example. They’re 15 weeks, with big jump in earnings to follow. You know, great placement rates, but expensive and out of the reach of poor students. The idea was: Can we give them a way, a pathway to get access to these high productive programs?

I really would love to have seen more non-traditional providers playing in that space of new credentials—new pathways to work. And the other thing that EQUIP was meant to do was to stand up new quality assurance approaches.

You know, there is no single Department of Education. I think that if I learned one lesson in my time there, it was that we talk about the Department of Ed as it's a monolith, and it's actually a little bit more like Game of Thrones. It's a set of kingdoms. Sometimes they’re at war with each other, sometimes in a truce. But all of them have power, and all of them exercise it differently.

Sounds like quite a sabbatical if it was like Game of Thrones.

Alright, Game of Thrones might be a little too over-the-top as an analogy, but I do think it's a siloed organization in which many people can say no, but not a lot of people can say yes. And one of the people that I brought on board to work with us on this made an interesting observation to me. She said, you know, we mostly live in a world where you get rewarded for getting sh*t done. Excuse my language on a podcast. Interestingly in the Department, a lot of power derives to those who stop things from getting done.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up