Recent reports suggest that over 500 colleges and universities are preparing to launch new competency based education (CBE) programs, up from an estimated 52 last year.
In the coming months, a cadre of next generation degree programs will tap emerging technologies to customize learning and offer newfound flexibility to students who can progress through courses at their own pace. Freed from the confines of the credit hour, nontraditional students will race toward a degree in record time, and at just a fraction of the cost.
With a value proposition like this, students should be flocking. But as far as we can tell, they’re not. To date, of the handful of CBE programs that have launched, few have enrolled more than 1,000 students. Outside of Western Governor’s University, a twenty-year overnight success story that is unique and un-replicable, the gap between the hype and the harsh enrollment reality raises a fundamental question: are the hundreds of schools currently working hard on their own CBE programs barking up the wrong tree?
Some argue that CBE programs are insufficiently differentiated from traditional online degree programs in the minds of students. Dozens of online programs already allow students to progress at their “own pace.” Many allow students, including military veterans, to accelerate the time-to-completion by earning credit for “prior learning experience.”
But higher education’s usual heuristics may not apply to competency based learning. In fact, they may miss the point entirely. The transformative potential of competency based education lies in more than any one product or application.
CBE is the new operating system for higher education; we’re just awaiting the apps. As with smartphones – the development of iOS and Android were necessary, but not sufficient for adoption. Innovative and useful apps drove massive demand. We expect to see the same in higher education as new CBE-based apps reveal the true utility of CBE and usher in a Golden Age of American Education.
While many employers request college transcripts, particularly for entry-level positions, transcripts are used for degree verification, not to specify competencies or skills that match the employer’s needs. This is because transcripts are opaque to employers. No HR or hiring manager is equipped to decipher a particular transcript from a particular institution. No employer is able to forecast job performance from student transcripts.
A CBE operating system opens to the door to the “double-click” degree, or what Blackboard founder Matt Pittinsky refers to as the clickable credential: employer facing apps that allow employers to infer competencies from transcripts.
These apps will allow employers to double click on courses to learn more about the competencies that graduates have demonstrated. Graduate schools will have unprecedented visibility into the collegiate experience of prospective students. Outcomes will look less binary as these apps allow students to articulate their capabilities along a continuum of course level competencies, badges and certificates.
As CBE platforms are adopted, new apps will give colleges and universities the opportunity to make the competencies of all students visible to employers and graduate schools well before graduation. Making competencies visible will allow an emerging army of pre-hire training intermediaries (as well as some proactive employers) to begin contacting students –even freshmen and sophomores – suggesting relevant coursework or extracurricular activities, and offering virtual internships.
Match.com-type apps for employers will transform career services from an office students aren’t expected to visit until senior year to a function that’s integrated into students’ lifecycles from freshman year. Given that only 12% of graduating seniors have job offers prior to graduation, there’s a lot of room for improvement in this area.
Colleges and universities are under attack because they can’t articulate why a degree is more valuable than its component parts. Arum and Roksa’s study of 2,300 college graduates from two dozen universities found 1/3 showed no improvement in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, or written communication.
Most studies indicate students are spending less time on academic work than prior generations. Colleges and universities still aren’t able to answer what we call the “Dystopian Counterfactual”: What if 100 percent of the supposed benefits of higher education are a result of self-selection bias?
What if the pool of individuals who earn college degrees would have demonstrated higher employment levels and incomes simply as a result of their initiative, talent and grit (without regard to whether they earned degrees)?
New CBE apps will enable colleges and universities to answer this existential question once and for all by demonstrating what students are actually learning. And they will provide institutions with a crucial quality assurance mechanism: programs that don’t produce an acceptable level of learning will need to be improved or scrapped and true continuous improvement will be within reach for the first time.
While 1.5M freshmen require remediation each and every year, only 1-in-10 of these students will ever complete a postsecondary credential. Higher education’s promise of social and economic mobility will not be met unless colleges and unviersities can better meet students where they are and put them on a path to completion.
The good news is that higher education has reached consensus that co-requisite remediation is a better model (i.e., providing targeted remediation while students are enrolled in credit-bearing courses). The bad news is that there isn’t a good way to do it.
As with other critical challenges, CBE is a game-changer. Colleges and universities that are adopting CBE platforms are beginning to build curricula aligned not only to intended competencies, but the supporting co-requisite skills.
As students progress through their coursework, they will be directed to specific appropriate reinforcing or co-remedial content. A New America Foundation paper released last week showed that this approach can improve community college course completion by double-digit percentages.
To date, Comptency-Based Education is an app-less platform. But as innovative and useful apps come to market, the difference for students will be striking. The best news is that many of these apps are within reach. It only took a few years for iOS and Android-based smartphones to become the norm. In a few years, we’ll be able to say the same for CBE-powered smart-universities.
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