Transforming Higher Education through CBE

In the early, heady days of building College for America (CfA) at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), we were thrilled to be joining forces with our fellow pioneers in the competency-based education (CBE) movement, especially the small group pursuing “direct assessment” CBE. This approach insisted on the demonstration of competency, not inferences drawn from time spent in class.  We imagined that inevitably, higher education would be transformed by core principles of CBE: transparency, connection to external or industry standards, focus on performance,“not simply knowledge” (in the memorable phrasing of the Council on Regional Accrediting Commissions), flexible pacing, and the assessment of evidence.

Did these precepts, which we saw as self-evident, actually end up transforming higher education? As we said back in those days — not so much. At least so far.

So what happened?

Was competency-based education not the right direction?

It was and is. The original impetus behind CBE — the rejection of credits and seat time as proxies for learning; the disconnect between higher education and employer expectations; the tyranny of time over flexibility; and the need for better evidence to show what students can do with what they know — remains more relevant than ever.  The pandemic has exposed the painful limitations of simply transferring an analogue educational experience (i.e., place-based, faculty-focused instruction) to a digital format. CBE’s original focus on doing, through projects and authentic performance assessments, inherently fosters agency, in stark contrast to simply watching a (virtual) lecture to acquire content knowledge. Without a competency lens, students at a digital remove have even less agency, less reason to be engaged. But agency is not only critical to engagement, it is also essential to learning.

To be honest, in our zeal to convey the transformational potential of competency-based learning,a few things got lost in translation.  We often made statements like “CBE holds expectations fast but makes time flexible,” meaning that you couldn’t be a little bit competent; there was a bright line between being able to do something and not able to do it. The accreditors described this tenet as performance judged to be at or near the ‘excellent’ range for each competency,” which at many schools become an 80% passing requirement. This blurred the bright line between mastered and — in CfA terms — “not yet” mastered. Setting the passing rate at 80% rather than 65% further helped perpetrate the notion that CBE was limited to “good” students, rather than useful and accessible to all students. In addition, the policy that students only needed to master 80% of the competencies, rather than “each competency,” sent the message that a fifth of the competencies were not so important after all.  In contrast, the CfA model required students to demonstrate mastery of each competency in a specific program.  But because time was flexible, CfA students had as many opportunities to submit work, get feedback, and resubmit as they needed.

Obstacles to Broader Implementation of CBE

The first direct assessment CBE programs like CfA, Capella, and Northern Arizona University were strongly supported by the Obama administration. But there proved to be a huge disconnect between the pro-CBE, pro-innovation agenda of the Secretary of Education and the punctilious approach of the actual regulators.  In addition, the ludicrous finding of the OIG in 2017 that Western Governors University was providing correspondence, not distance education, had a significantly chilling effect on the development of new CBE programs. No one knew what the rules really were, especially around the required “regular and substantive” interaction with faculty.

The most serious problem is that CBE became seen as an end in itself, not a means to an end. In the process, the focus shifted to how to do it, not why to do it.  And “how” was — and remains — often very difficult and expensive.  CBE and conventional, course-and-credit-based courses speak a different language, especially when it comes to learning management systems, registrar protocols, and SIS requirements.

Why CBE Still Matters

The “why” remains as compelling as ever: helping students develop the competencies they will need to continue learning throughout their academic and professional careers. But guiding students toward the development of self-direction and a capacity for continuous learning cannot be accomplished by simply focusing on passing classes. A true commitment to competency means a commitment to nurturing student agency — which is not compatible with the traditional faculty-centered model in which the instructor delivers and the student receives.

And let’s be honest: the conventional teacher-focused model of higher education was in trouble long before the pandemic — at least from the perspective of employers who found so many college graduates not yet ready for the workplace. Now the very value of higher education is being publicly questioned and many students will simply not bother to enroll.

Spring 2020:  What Might Have Been

Let’s imagine a counterfactual:  what would have happened if seven or eight years ago, competency-based principles had been adopted more broadly?  What if the conventional paradigm had shifted, so that by the spring of 2020, students were not expected to watch videos of lectures but were accustomed to having responsibility for and agency over their own education?  What if higher ed had committed to developing engaging hybrid or online learning and to meeting the needs of working adults? What if students already had access to and were using technology that seamlessly furthered — not interfered with — their learning, which gave them anytime, anywhere access to their education?  The spring of 2020 would have looked very different.  And we might now be facing a very different fall.

A New Vision for Digital Learning

Let’s  take what we learned this spring — and what we learned over the past eight years — and make a commitment to learning strategies and the supporting technology that do not depend on time or place. Or Zoom. We know how to engage learners through digital modalities with meaningful projects that foster engagement, self-direction and the capacity for continuous learning.  We know how to help students develop and demonstrate workforce-relevant competencies through authentic assessment. It’s called CBE.