Best Practices for Implementing Competency-Based Programs - Webcast Transcript

How Rasmussen College Implemented a CBE Program

Tawnie Cortez: This is an introduction to competency-based education as Rasmussen College learns and embarks on this venture with many others.

Rasmussen College was founded in 1900. We are Minnesota based, but multi-sided. We have campuses in five other states in North Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois and in Florida. We are accredited in the North Central Region and we work just with the Higher Learning Commission. From a credential perspective, we are baccalaureate degree granting and we are public benefit with a direct focus to serving the public good.

"We needed to combine the wisdom from institutions that have been the trend setters"

I want to share with you out of the gate that one of the first things we realized when we began to experiment and have conversations around competency-based education. We realized with great immediacy that there were so many things we simply did not know. We needed help. And we needed guidance and collaboration. We needed to combine the wisdom from institutions that have been the trend setters or the pace setters in competency-based education with others who were on their own journey in CBE. And so for us, collaboration is key.

So we began with a number of areas that we are highlighting here today. But we did apply, were accepted and have been working with the Competency-Based Education Network, the folks known as CBEN. The CBEN colleagues have been an absolute wealth of information both for us personally and professionally, but certainly as an institution.

"CBEN really mines the wealth of the institutions that are working on a competency-based education process"

One of the guidance points we would give to folks is to watch for press releases and memos in the field. CBEN really mines the wealth of the institutions that are working on a competency-based education process and are in varying degrees of implementation. Also watch for the information that comes from those institutions through FAQs and checklists.

One key topic, some that is already published in academic and delivery models, more information coming out in assessment, technology and services. Some time ago, CBEN published a full financial aid FAQ, which is incredibly helpful. So I would watch for those press releases and more as a real bit of information and guide post in that process.

"We also collaborated with EDUCAUSE through the Breakthrough Models Academy"

We also collaborated with EDUCAUSE through the Breakthrough Models Academy really seeking best practices in the field and opportunity to learn from some folks that are out there. And we did apply and were accepted as an experimental site in Limited Direct Assessment and Full Programs.

As a result, the United States Department of Education provides guidance through their colleague letters and information in publications. So our encouragement would be for folks considering or along the path, to go out to all three of those. All three of those areas have been really fabulous guidance for us as an institution.

The question then becomes why is CBE such a disruptor? Is it folks who have worked in competency for some time? When we embarked on this adventure, I was one of those folks who said oh my gosh, we have been talking about competencies in the classroom for years.

There are other realities. So as we talk about competency-based education it is a disruptor and Brooks will spend more time talking about this because in our world today in American higher education, time is everything. We literally set up our terms in very specific time periods. At the end of that time period that is when we assess learning. We assess it along the way.

But at the end we draw the line to determine how much learning has occurred. We measure everything in traditional, but also in online instruction in time on task. How fast does the student get to graduation and time to completion? We talk about everything in timeframe. We award credit hours and class hours. And we refer everything in ratios of time.

"competency-based education is a significant departure as it begins to reflect the concept of time"

We even and most specifically refund and award our financial aid based on last dates of attendance and percentages of time. As a result, competency-based education is a significant departure as it begins to reflect the concept of time. I am going to pass to Brooks now who is going to spend a good part of time about what competency models actually look like in non-time based instruction.

Brooks Doherty: I am going to talk about the learning and what the faculty model looks like and some of the assessment. Branching off what Tawnie was just saying about time, when I was first introduced to competency-based education a few years back, an analogy that really helped me understand what exactly we were talking about, why it is such a disruptor and why it had the great potential to be such an important model is what you see in front of you.

So if you think about the traditional and really clock based traditional way of learning in American higher education, you have constant time, which means constant instruction along the way. That equals variable learning. So what that means is a normal semester or class might be something like 14 weeks or 40 contact hours, presence with the faculty member and each step along the way and then variable learning meaning A, B, C, D, F.

"the student should be achieving competency, proficiency and mastery around this specific skill and how to demonstrate it"

With competency-based education that model is in some ways flipped. So really importantly at the heart of that you have variable time, constant learning, which means provided that the student does not give up the student should be achieving competency, proficiency and mastery around this specific skill and how to demonstrate it and then variable targeted instruction.

I want to be really clear on the variable targeted instruction. What that means is there is going to be regular and substantive faculty interaction along the way. The question is how long is it going to take the student to achieve it? Thus, how much time will that student be spending with a faculty member? I was having a question about CBE with a friend of mine a couple of days ago. This friend has about 20 years’ experience in the accounting field but never went to college.

"It is about the student showing what she knows as soon as she knows it."

And so an example for my friend if she were to enter a competency-based education accounting program and she would enter Intro to Accounting. She would have to spend probably very little time learning a bit of targeted instruction, but way less than me someone with an English background. So the learning is still there. It is about the student showing what she knows as soon as she knows it. But the question is how long is that going to take? So that is the essence of the model of competency-based education.

I also do not mean to suggest that there is any single monolithic definition of competency-based education. I think as you hear from us and talk to other people in the field, if you are exploring competency-based education, you may find that it looks very different from institution to institution. And that does not necessarily mean that one institution is less CBE so to speak than the other. But as Tawnie mentioned, the institutions, including us, are still learning.

"regular and substantive faculty interaction is a really important tenet of this"

I think there really are at least tenets that are central to what competency-based education is. And so in most of the models across the field you will find these three things. So you are going to see flexible, non-linear learning, which really is a more student controlled learning environment whereby the student may be able to start at Point A and work through to Point Z in a flexible period of time. But if the student wants to start with G and then bounce back to A and then C, the student may have that ability to work that way as well in a non-linear flexible learning format. Again, regular and substantive faculty interaction is really central to this. And that is the thing that separates competency-based education from other modes of learning like PLA, for example. So regular and substantive faculty interaction is a really important tenet of this and we will talk more about the faculty moment in a moment.

Then meaning and measurable assessment as well. One of the things that excites me most about competency-based education is its ability to really have consistent, valid and reliable measurement of what students know and how they demonstrate it. That has the ability to do great things for employability, for learning in the classroom and it also has the potential of spilling out into other ways of learning as well and just making all of our institutions better at meaningful and measurable assessment.

So if I were to tie all this together, I would imagine you walking into a classroom for the first day. It is introduction to that semester’s learning. The professor is at the left turn and says welcome to class everyone. Here is the syllabus. Here are the expectations for the course. Here are the things that we are going to be learning and doing. By the way, here are all of your assessments, all of your tests that you are going to be taking throughout the term.

"you are working in a flexible and non-linear learning environment that really gives the student more control"

You can have them all right now. You can look into them. You can start working on them. Work at your own pace. We are going to be meeting here in this class with your peers and with me the faculty member throughout the term. But again, you are working in a flexible and non-linear learning environment that really gives the student more control as we start to take away emphasis on the clock.

"There is no single faculty model for competency-based education."

There is no single faculty model for competency-based education. I will say that a lot of institutions right now are using a so-called disaggregated or unbundled faculty model for competency-based education. So what that looks like in a lot of institutions is you take really the three main – that is not to say that these are the only three things that faculty do. Anyone who has been a faculty member or is a faculty member (and that is how I started at Rasmussen College was in the classroom) knows that faculty are doing many, many things to support and teach and learn with their students.

The really important things are the three that you see in front of you here. So the instruction of content, the delivery of content and interacting with the students, the assessment of student work and then building the courses and building the programs or the content to support this. So this aggregated faculty model that we are using here at Rasmussen College, and other colleges are using as well, pulls those three components apart.

And the student is interacting with one instructional faculty model in a CBE course or a CBE learning environment. That instructional faculty member is only interacting with students and content. So responding to student questions, delivering synchronous collaborative sessions, whether those are in person or online, and really being there and forming relationships for the student.

"you have the assessment faculty member who is really focusing on the meaningful, measurable assessment of student work"

Then separate from that, you have the assessment faculty. That is to say the instructional faculty does not grade student work. Separately you have the assessment faculty member who is really focusing on the meaningful, measurable assessment of student work and making sure that the student is demonstrating what the competency-based education learning experience expects and is giving rich, substantive and regular feedback to how they are performing. Then separately you have faculty who continue to do the work of building curriculum and course material for the competency-based education learning environment. So that is the disaggregated faculty model.

You may be asking yourself why we need to pull these things apart. I will point to a couple really good reasons. Different institutions have different motivations for unbundling. But I will say two really important ones especially at Rasmussen College; one is increased objectivity of the assessment. Since the assessment faculty member is only interacting with the work and not the student, there is not that relationship to taint or bias the results of the assessment.

That is one good reason. It increases the objectivity and the accuracy of the assessment. It’s not to say that the student does not have a relationship with a faculty member. The student is going to have a very good relationship with that instructional faculty member, but that relationship is not necessarily going to bias the assessment. So we are increasing the accuracy.

"unbundling gives the institution and the courses more flexibility to work with this non-linear format"

The second point is the unbundling gives the institution and the courses more flexibility to work with this non-linear format. When you have multiple people working in the same course, the same learning environment, you are better able to support students as they move through that learning experience and potentially unpredictable or at least non-linear fashion. So those are two really good reasons.

I will say that we at Rasmussen College and a lot of other institutions are still working with this model. We are still testing it. We are still learning its strengths and weaknesses. And through CBEN and other partnerships, of course, we will be reporting back. And anyone who wants to check in with us and see how things are going, absolutely, we would love to have those conversations.

We talked a lot about disruption and turning models on their ears and all of the change that potentially goes along with competency-based education programs, courses, whatever your experience may be. But let us not forget about the point why this innovation exists in the first place. It is not change for change’s sake or innovation for innovation’s sake. And also no one is suggesting that CBE is going to fully replace everything completely and it is going to take over in its entirety the traditional ways of learning.

"This is really about alternatives for students, alternative pathways for students to reach graduation"

This is really about alternatives for students, alternative pathways for students to reach graduation in students young and old. The 18 year olds right out of high school to the 35 year old that may have some college credit, but no degree, the students for whom the traditional system thus far has not worked for them. This is about the 37 million Americans according to the Lumina Foundation from a 2014 study, 37 million Americans with some college credit, but no degree. Thirty-one million of those are between the ages of 25 and 55. Those students in particular have some work experience that they can certainly apply to the classroom but no degree to show for it.

This is about providing the alternative pathways to students so the United States can return to the top global position in completion rates. A lot of the modern momentum behind competency-based education dates back to 2009 when the Lumina Foundation came out and really challenged United States higher education to return to that top spot in global completion rates 2025. A couple of months later our then new president Barack Obama, in his first State of the Union Address, really doubled down on that and said he wanted to achieve that by 2020. So colleges are looking for innovation and alternate pathways.

"CBE has the ability to improve higher education beyond just the competency-based learning method."

CBE has the ability to improve higher education beyond just the competency-based learning method. We have the ability in general to do better, more accurate assessment, to be more flexible and meet the needs of our adult students so we can achieve higher learning outcomes, better learning outcomes, more graduation and start to close; that perceived skills gap that employers are talking about.

This movement can help us become better designers and assessors of the student learning experience and more focused on the skills and knowledge. This represents both liberal and professional learning. It’s about the transferrable skills that come out of the liberal learning tradition, but also those workforce skills that students really need to flourish in the world.

I am going to pass it back to Tawnie. The tone that we set at the beginning that I just want to remind everyone of is that this is not about us answering all the questions for you. This is about making sure that you at your institution are asking the right questions that need to be answered.

Tawnie Cortez: As we embarked on this journey several years ago I think the very first time that I attended a professional conference, or it might have been a CBEN meeting, I walked in the door thinking okay here they are going to give me the answers. What I found out was they were going to ask me the questions. Here I was going to have to think about how this works for us an institution.

So the approach that we have really taken is what are those points to ponder? If as an institution you are part of the way there, out 12 months, out 24 months, not thinking about it at all or thinking about it, but have not embarked on yet, what is the thing you might want to consider as an institution?

"First and foremost, institutional culture and change is important."

First and foremost, institutional culture and change is important. We happen to work in an institution where we like change, sometimes to a fault. We like to problem solve. At one juncture in our lifetime, and it strikes us still today, an accreditation team said you really like to solve problems do you not? We live in that sort of culture. But it does not mean that it is easy.

Being an institution that embraces change, as we think about new models to educate students, we think it is an important question. And to ask yourself and your institution, do you like to embrace change? What do we think is really fundamental to our mission and to delivering our mission? We are all mission driven institutions. But the direct focus is knowing what we need to do in the world as we serve our students and we serve the communities in which we live and work.

What is fundamental to us? This is not negotiable. This is key to who we are. And what is the change in process? It is just the new way so really thinking about that process and that ability to make institutional culture shift and ability to manage.

"important questions to ask is will the existing curriculum work for competency-based education?"

Brooks Doherty: On the academic side some important questions to ask is will the existing curriculum work for competency-based education? That goes beyond just curriculum. That could go down to the level of which assessments will work for CBE. Which course content, which of our existing media will work for CBE? Basically what I was suggesting is if you are getting into this space where you want to explore the potentials of competency-based education at your institution, it is not always necessary to start from zero.

You do not need to. You may have to. But you do not need to say okay, nothing that we have been doing over the last one hundred years has been working. That may not be the case. You may have some really good curriculum in place that is already mostly meaningful, measurable, actionable and conducive to competency-based education. You may have some really good assessments.

Do not recreate something that is already very good. It is a waste of valuable time and most certainly a waste of resources. So evaluate your curriculum, your courses, your assessments and your competencies or course objectives to see what is going to work for competency-based education.

What will the faculty model look like? Once you determine what that learning environment is, maybe your program selection, which student are you aiming to serve to teach and learn with the competency-based education? Then what will the faculty model look like? We talked about the disaggregated or unbundled model, which is one that is being employed at a number of different institutions right now? Is it right for your institution and the way that you want to deliver content? Will you award grades? If so, how?

"we need to make sure that how we are communicating learning makes sense to all of your stakeholders"

This is a really important one because as we build understanding within higher education, but also outside of higher education, we need to make sure that how we are communicating learning makes sense to all of your stakeholders. For example, if you build (as we have as Rasmussen College) a competency-based learning environment that grades students on a scale of zero to four with zero being you did not submit anything to four being mastery, how are you going to communicate that to students for whom this may be a new way of learning, and to faculty who may have a learning curve and also super importantly to employers?

It is really important to remember that a lot of our students have tuition reimbursement opportunities. We need to make sure that that is being accurately communicated. Transfer of credit, we need to make sure that other institutions understand how you are teaching and learning. Let us not forget that communicating to all of our stakeholders is super important. And in a lot of ways that starts with grades. A related note is how are you going to transcript those competencies so that when the student graduates from the CBE program, what will the transcript look like?

On one hand, as I said, tuition reimbursement, employers and other colleges may want to see letter grades because they understand that language. On the other hand, we are really trying to push the envelope on communicating not just what a B minus in American Literature means, but also what does the student know in terms of critical thinking, in terms of information literacy and digital fluency. So specific skills and how the student has demonstrated those over the years. Who advises the students and when, when the student has questions about curriculum, maybe about scheduling something outside of the classroom? What do those conversations look like?

"do not reinvent things if you do not have to"

This is another really good opportunity to remind yourself hey; maybe we do not have to change our current model at all. Maybe our current advising structure actually fits CBE and there is nothing that ties it to the clock right now. So again, do not reinvent things if you do not have to. And then will you need a partner to help build the CBE learning experience? I will tell you for a lot of institutions who are early adopters of competency-based education, they are partnering with someone to build the courses.

We at Rasmussen College have partnered with Collegis Education. They have been a fantastic partner in helping us to develop our thinking, technology partners and really create the optimal experience for students. Other institutions are a partner and other folks as well. So again, do not think that you need to start from zero and do everything yourself. Explore all your options inside and outside your organization.

Tawnie Cortez: As we look really at figuring out the instructional pieces and then really working to systems, service and all of those pieces of the puzzle, it pauses us to begin to think about how will students be admitted to the institution? It looks different for competency-based education. Will we have other kinds of requirements? Will we have ways in which we are able to gauge students’ abilities to work in a non-linear progression? What is it that we are looking to find out? It is an important puzzle and an important question to ask your institution. Obviously, we begin to look for programs. Brooks alluded to what kinds of courses. But what kinds of programs really lend themselves to a competency-based education environment?

I know in our own environment we think a lot about programs where initially you might think gosh that does not apply well whether it is in health sciences or one of those types of programs. We have discovered as we begin to think more about it that there are a lot of opportunities where a student is almost ready to go out into the world to do internship work, but could just use another three weeks. And there are other students who quite honestly could have been ready six weeks ago. And so really challenging ourselves to think about what types of programs will make sense for our institution and for yours.

How will you prepare students to be ready? What will things like orientation look like? How will we expose them to their new environment and make sure that they are prepared and have accurate expectations? Then obviously training with our admissions staff and the nuances and all of those types of things as we embrace competency-based education or begin to launch new programs is critical.

"Systems become an integral part of the process."

Systems become an integral part of the process. We alluded already to the academic calendar. It is likely from a systems perspective the first question. What are we going to use? Are we going to be term based? Are we going to be non-term based? Are we going to be non-standard term based? What does that look like? What will beginning and end dates be? And how does that work if it is a world in which we are unfamiliar?

If we are required to measure attendance even in terms of financial aid reimbursement or if we happen to be in the states in the country that we refer to as attendance thinking states. If you are required to do so, how will you do so?

As we think about non-term based, how do things like satisfactory academic progress work? And will the systems that we have support a process that is non-clock hour or less structured? What will those systems be? How will IT systems, student information systems and relationship management systems work in a competency-based environment?

We do underscore every one of the questions about directly impacting the way we award, disburse and refund Title IV and state based financial aid. So an absolutely critical path that our partners cross functionally are working in institutions side by side. Financial aid with admission and services folks with our systems people so that we are solving together.

"So in light of all this, why do it? It is about improved student learning outcomes."

Brooks Doherty: So in light of all this, why do it? It is about improved student learning outcomes. It is about persistence. It is about completion and increasing completion for all students, especially those adult learners, the tens of millions with some college credit, but no degree. But it is also about maybe the 18 – 19 year old first generation college student. For those of you who have or have not read Amy Laitinen’s great essay “Cracking the Credit Hour.” Her story starts out by sharing the experience of an 18 year old student who is looking for a new way of learning that is going to get her a conferred degree and out into the world and workforce with this great learning under her belt.

So in a lot of ways this is about the adult learner. But it does not just have to be. It is about completion for all. It is about job readiness, reducing student debt, employability, competencies, easier for employers to understand.

So again, what has the student achieved based on what she or he has known? How is that being demonstrated and communicated in a transcript that all stakeholders inside and outside the classroom can understand? And then super importantly so students can speak to their skills, as well. So when they sit down with a potential employer to say here is what I am good at. Here is what I can offer your organization. After a class is over, can the student say yep, here is what I have learned? That is something that today students have vocalized they want to do a better job of. They want clear learning outcomes. And CBE I think can take us to the next level.

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