Home » Higher ed graduates to competency-based degrees

Higher ed graduates to competency-based degrees

By Debra Gibson Isaacs

Beginning next year, the University of Louisville and Western Kentucky University launch the commonwealth’s first “competency-based,” fully online public postsecondary degree programs. UofL will offer a bachelor of science degree in healthcare management leadership and WKU a bachelor of science in advanced manufacturing.

The degrees are considered a next step in online learning. Dropping conventional semester or intersession time boundaries, students earn class credit hours when they prove they’ve acquired designated skills rather than passing or failing time-limited instruction sessions.

College Student Studying in LibraryTraditional online courses and programs – those offered online by a professor teaching a group of students simultaneously – have proven successful. Since the first such courses were offered to state students in 1997, the sector has grown 10 percent a year. Sixty-five percent of commonwealth students graduating with four-year degrees in 2010-2011 (the latest figures available) had taken at least one online course, according to Allen Lind, vice president for innovation and eLearning for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.

Competency-based programs take the two most popular features of online learning – accessibility and flexibility – and extend them further. The ability to earn an entire degree, not just a few course hours, takes online learning yet another step.

The term competency-based is an important distinction. Under the traditional postsecondary approach, even online classes occur during a fixed time period, and students must learn as much as they can during that interval, typically 16 weeks (a semester). In competency-based programs, time is no longer relevant. There still are certain tasks students must learn, but they can take as long as needed to absorb them.

The new method requires change at every level.

“The U.S. Department of Education is spending a lot of time to adapt its rules and policies to make competency-based learning doable and fundable at the federal level,” Lind says.

Among those sure it is time well spent is Jeffrey Sun, J.D., Ph.D., professor of higher education at UofL.

“I believe this to be the new format of delivering courses in the future,” Sun said. “This is a real movement in higher education. It is not the way we normally deliver education. It is a new access point.”

Designed around business sector’s needs

The new degrees not only flip the way credit hours are earned; both were created differently from the ground up. Each was designed to meet a specific need the business community in their area expressed, university administrators said.

UofL created its degree after talks with healthcare executives.

“So many employers talk about the skills and abilities they need from their workforce and the educational experience at the institution,” said Sun, who is leading the creation of UofL’s degree in healthcare leadership. “With competency-based education, the coursework is organized so students have to authentically display the skills they have learned.”

The goal and expectation is that outcome will be more valuable to the tuition-paying student and healthcare organizations seeking to hire effective managers.

“An employer knows they are competent in these areas,” Sun said. “It (the courses) start with skills and abilities. That’s why the involvement from employers has been so important. In focus groups, employers told us what skills and abilities the next level of leaders needed.

“The faculty members have taken that information to build course work. We have also been meeting with high achievers in healthcare to determine the skills and abilities they possess. This is a really important way of bringing higher education and employers together that is really meaningful.”

However, it has been time consuming, Sun said, and much more difficult than transforming a regular seat-based class into a time-limited online course. But it also has been worthwhile.

“It has been really exciting to think about myriad ways we can educate the population, because we know that education drives economic development. We want to provide opportunities that might not exist otherwise.”

Likewise, the new degree in advanced manufacturing got its impetus from the commercial community after the Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce launched an urgent call to action about manufacturing and the workforce required to staff business and industry in South Central Kentucky, said Beth Laves, associate vice president of extended learning and outreach at WKU.

Education built around work, not vice versa

“Over 30 percent of the workforce in our region is manufacturing. They saw a large, urgent need for trained people in the next five years,” Laves said. The chamber hired a consultant from the National Association of Manufacturing, who identified several areas where education would be vital.

“As part of those meetings, (WKU officials) talked with her,” Laves said. “ ‘What would be our best response to this?’ was the question we asked.

“The (existing) advanced manufacturing program had interested faculty. We knew it was going to take a huge amount of effort, so that was important. This degree also fit nicely with the need the chamber had identified,” she said. “That’s where it all began.”

Both degree programs also started with working adults as their target participant. Part of what makes this a significant market is that some 700,000 Kentuckians have earned college credits but no degree, according to the CPE. Degree-completion programs are an important part of online learning.

The new competency-based approach will offer working adults access to higher education on their terms, allowing students to work education into their lives rather than mold their lives around getting an education.

Perhaps the best news for business is that the degrees will allow business employers to see precisely which skills and competencies a person has.

Hiring managers will know what you know

“Competency-based courses set a higher standard,” Sun said. “In the past, if you took a class in biology, for example, how did an employer know what you really learned? They just knew you took the course for four months and passed a test at the end. You can finish in four months, four years or four days; that doesn’t really matter to someone hiring. What they want to know is what you are competent to do.”

Educational components of the two new degrees will be transparent to hiring managers.

“With a competency-based course, say a class about ethics,” Sun said, “a person would look at your transcript and see that you had modules in the ethics of leadership, organizational change, and training and development. They would furthermore know that you developed competencies in competing interests – understanding positionality (value changes that occur as relationships in a connected network shift), understanding the greater good versus individual needs, and financial and non-financial decision making.

“They would know you completed specific tasks to show your competence. Not all business degrees are equal. Competency-based degrees signal specifically what a person can do,” said Sun.

To further define competency, the UofL degree at each step will require students to take a pre-test and a post-test, called a hallmark test, showing what they know. This illuminates areas the student grasps or struggles with.

To alleviate potential conflict of interest, tests are graded by an assessor rather than the instructor, who wants to be considered an effective teacher. The assessor forwards information to the instructor, who then works with the student to shore up any areas still needing work.

“You can look at the hallmark assessment test and see how much they have learned,” Sun said.

 KCTCS forged the ‘competency’ trail

The two universities are not the first public postsecondary schools in Kentucky to offer competency-based education. The Kentucky Community and Technical College System has won national acclaim for its plethora of competency-based online programs.

Called Learn on Demand, KCTCS offers students 100 percent online degrees, courses and certificates as either full 12- to 16-week courses or as flexible module-based courses (competency learning where a module typically equates to a task or a group of tasks.) Courses start every week, and students get credit for prior education and work experience.

Private universities in Kentucky also have myriad online courses, but these two universities will be the first to offer a four-year degree online using the competency-based format.

Elsewhere, many universities are offering what are called MOOCs (massive online open classes), some of which have thousands of students at a time. These are especially popular at big-name universities such as Stanford and at Harvard, the bellwether most administrators are watching.”

“In the higher education community there is quite a phenomenon of reaching large numbers of students through online learning,” Laves said, “but I don’t think that will be where we see the next evolution of online education.

“I believe that our (Kentucky) population needs education, but not just education. There are lots of high-quality libraries where they can get educated, but people need degrees and demonstrated skills, actual competencies they can demonstrate and use to get better jobs and develop themselves professionally. They need degree programs that are accessible to adults, not delivered on a semester-based agrarian schedule where we go a few months then stop. People need personalized learning.”

New tools for age-old work

The WKU program will be offered first, possibly as early as late January 2015, according to Laves. UofL’s degree will be offered through the university’s College of Education beginning in fall 2015, according to Gale Rhodes, associate provost.

The time and effort required to create a competency-based program makes it a serious decision to start one. As Sun points, it has to be done correctly.

“It is a lot of work to get it right,” he said. “While I am a fan of competency-based learning, I am only fan of the approach if you do it right. I see this as a way for us to demonstrate to employers what individuals can do and accomplish.”

Higher education’s toolbox is changing, but its task is the same.

“It’s a delivery method,” UofL’s Rhodes said. “Our mission is to educate the population in the greater Louisville area. We have face-to-face, online, and now competency based. They are all means by which people can access their education.”

Laves agrees.

“Personalized learning back in 1940s and ’50s was about correspondence; it was an individual curriculum with the same learning outcomes. Then in the 1980s and early ’90s, online came along. That used more of a class model than a personalized model. There was engagement with the material and an instructor. We have always had approaches like this – technologies just make it so much better. It is pretty exciting.”

Competency-based education is the latest response an ever-evolving market.

“WKU’s primary mission, though, is still and always will be a traditional college experience,” Laves said. “That doesn’t happen for every person, so we are always looking for ways to make it easier for people to get an education.”

Debra Gibson Isaacs is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].