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Are post-pandemic campuses finally ready for competency-based education?

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Competency-based education has been one of the big ideas reshaping education for some time. Supporters of the approach say the change caused by the pandemic is a good time to take a closer look at it.
The basic idea of competency-based education (CBE) goes like this: What if the way to earn a degree or certificate is to prove to the school that you’ve learned the knowledge and skills you need? It doesn’t matter how or where you acquired this knowledge or ability. Universities will be responsible for certifying what students know and providing them with the necessary tutoring and materials to fill in the gaps in their certification.
In this week’s EdSurge podcast, we talk to a longtime supporter of competency education: Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University. His latest take on this approach is laid out in a new book, Students First: Equity, Access And Opportunity in Higher Education.
Leblanc, himself a first-generation college student, has long been experimenting with ideas to help expand access to higher education. Over the years, he led Southern New Hampshire University into a large online University, with more than 130,000 students online, for students who could not get on traditional campuses.
He also introduced competency-based education at his university, in a program called The American Academy in southern New Hampshire. But he admits that the CBE experiment is not moving as fast as he would like. That’s because moving to this model is a very big, very difficult change for universities. But he thinks the approach could expand, especially after the pandemic, and he has a suggestion for how to do it.
Listen to Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitch, Google Play music, or whatever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.
If you think about higher education today, people joke that the “D” still stands for degree. We always let students walk slowly, and in many cases our graduates are not clear about what they know and what they can do. To most outsiders, the record is a black box. If I’m hiring someone and I say, ‘Oh, you studied management accounting. “Maybe I can deduce what you studied, but I don’t know how good you are, what skills you have, what practical knowledge you have.”

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Take nurses. We train nurses. We know what it’s like. They have to take a state licensing exam with their state board.
But if you talk to the heads of the clinical staff in the health system, they will tell you that nurses are not ready to work when they graduate. They say, ‘They don’t really have the skills we need for us to put them to work. ‘
I think the real power of this [competency-based education] model is that it forces us to be more clear about what we stand for.
I think it’s a virtue, and everyone loves a “speed” story — you know, someone who did a two-year associate’s degree in just one year. We have stories like this. But I want to tell the story of a student who took a year and a half to pass a writing test. The reason I tell this story is that when they’re done, I can back up my claim that students can actually write. Maybe not like Hemingway, but they are able to write in the workplace, which we define as a core competency for a particular project. That’s why employers like competency-based education. It provides us with a common language, but it also reassures them [that students have the required skills].