Pragmatic Approaches to Competency-Based Education

By Joel Hernandez

As a participant vendor in the Competency-Based Education Network’s TIP (Technology Interoperability Project) last year, I had the pleasure of serving on a panel at the 2015 CBExchange in Phoenix, Arizona. It was a lively panel with a good mix of questions, but one question has resonated with me in the months since: a community college president asked, “When will community colleges really be able to take on direct-assessment competency-based education?”


“I don’t know,” I replied. “And I have to be honest, I see a lot of barriers there: in addition to the normal Title IV issues, you have apportionment funding formulas, faculty contracts based on contact hours, transfer agreements based on credits ... that’s a lot of change — a big lift.” His shoulders sagged a little in disappointment at my answer, but before the air was sucked completely out of his question, it occurred to me to say, “But just because you’re not going to Mars doesn’t mean you shouldn’t avail yourself of the power of flight.”

What did I mean by that? Mostly I meant, and I talk to community college administrators every week, that the one group of institutions who are most likely to bring competency-based approaches to scale are the community colleges — because they’re already doing a lot of the underlying work. More importantly, if competency-based education is a platform, they’re the ones who need the applications the platform enables! Let’s look at three challenges community colleges face daily, and how their practices not only support a transition for competency-based approaches, but also lay the foundation for their adoption.

Developmental Education and Basic Skills Remediation

Students arriving at school unprepared for college work are a widespread problem in higher education — a recent estimate put just tuition costs for remediation at $1.5B/year. But nowhere does this problem manifest itself as in the community college, where, in no small part, it has become part of their mission.

Whether through the I-BEST model of the Washington state community colleges, the California Community College system of Directed Learning Activities, or more comprehensive systems of co-remediation undertaken by the Tennessee Board of Regents, co-remedial strategies are emerging as a much more effective way to close educational gaps in open-access institutions. Iris Palmer, in her March 2016 New America Foundation paper, “How to Fix Remediation at Scale,” found that among the many models tested in community colleges in a five state sample, “the co-requisite model was the only one that seemed to significantly improve student outcomes.” To sustainably succeed at scale, however, these initiatives need to be able to do the following:

  1. Map skills inventories/placement benchmarks to Gen Ed and CTE curriculum
  2. Align co-remedial/reinforcing curriculum to their standard curriculum
  3. Effectively deliver co-remedial content and assessment alongside standard teaching and learning

Each of these requires both institutions and individual faculty to think about —and put in place — structured learning around competencies. Course completion and grades become old-school metrics in this model, replaced, as in “Moneyball,” with more meaningful metrics such as competencies and demographics: if all we know about Johnny is that he got a ‘C’ in Biology, and all we know about Biology is its course code and catalog description, we can’t do much. But if we know that Johnny is a first-generation college student whose native language isn’t English and that he nailed the math competencies but couldn’t write a lab report, we know to send him to ESL or add in-course remediation in science writing skills.

Real-World Models of Attainment: Competencies, Badges, Certificates, Degrees

One of the biggest opportunities that competency-based approaches bring forward is the ability to more accurately lay down pathways, but also represents attainment of appropriately meaningful credentials in the community college. As Deborah Everhart, et al., state in their 2016 American Council on Education paper, Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials: “Credential earners have many different reasons for seeking credentials, but most want credentials as evidence that they are educated and possess certain skills so that they can secure further educational opportunities and/or employment and career advancement. They need to understand their credentialing options and the social and professional values associated with different credentials. Connected credentials help them define and follow career pathways to achieve their goals.”

The challenge is that we broadly have two step functions: the credential and the A.A./A.S. degree and that both learners and workforce are willing to accept more granular levels of attainment that we record — for learners and the institution — as failure.

When Susan takes two marketing courses and a tech writing course and gets hired by the local engineering company as a junior tech writer, she has fulfilled her and an employer’s goal. Yet not only doesn’t she have the Gen Ed for the A.A., but she also hasn’t completed the 35 credits for her certificate. Today she’s a failure — neither she nor her college can claim attainment — but in a world with competency-based badging and stackable certificates (Cert 1 is micro-credential; Cert 2 is the 35 professional area credits; AA is Cert 2 + Gen Eds), Susan shows up to ACME Engineering with a Social Media Specialist credential and a tech writing badge. If the workforce validates these credentials by accepting them into their ATS as well as endorsing them on platforms like LinkedIn, the community colleges now have a much better conversation with their funders and their workforces.

More importantly, movements like Guided Pathways while showing some means of success, would be better-implemented from the relationship of workforce agility to student experience - if pathways opened up or shifted in alignment with actual attainment and real workforce need, and not just as a function of what got entered in a degree audit system.

Sustainable Continuous Improvement — That Matters

Finally, let’s talk accreditation. No one likes it, but there has yet to emerge a better way of providing quality control to ensure confidence in delivery for funding sources — whether local, state or federal. So we have Assessment Day fire drills and “continuous improvement” — every five years, when we do program review. The most common outcome of which is to turn well-intentioned goals into rote and sporadic activity whose ultimate aim seems to be to drown people in D-ring binders and endless searches for thumb drives.

Some institutional cultures are better at it than others, but I have yet to talk with a VPAA who said, “every assessment, program review, and accreditation activity on our campus fills my team with meaning and purpose.”

More importantly, there have never been as many stakeholders for quality as there are now, with as many shifting agendas: TAACCCT funding, state workforce alignment, student success funding — and don’t think “free community college” will be anything but expensive from the standpoint of accountability reporting.

The good news is that if you’re doing the work to enable the two practices outlined above, you are well on your way to having outcomes assessment and PPA “baked in” and their reporting will not be a separate work stream on your campus but an emergent process of reflection and action on things you’re doing as a matter of course.

The adoption and delivery of competency-based approaches will, I think, cause the old cycle of accreditation to fade into the background because there will be a much more effective measure of quality in the institution: transparent and continuous delivery of competencies to learners and the workforces they join. Accountability will be an emergent process: a view into the work that you are doing daily and not a once-a-decade theatrical event.

So Let’s Go Do This ... Right?

Competency-based approaches look to revolutionize the effectiveness of teaching and learning — but what I’m seeing as I work with community colleges around the country is that we don’t need a revolution to effect the desired changes: we just need to cast a new eye at many of the problems and practices already in front of us — and look at them in a new perspective. As Alan Kay of Xerox PARC and Apple once said, “A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” By focusing only on the change in seat time versus attainment, the CBE discussion has obscured many of the reasons for adopting the model — reasons that obtain even inside the course unit and credit hour. The hype around CBE will fade, but I truly believe that by looking at the model as a platform and then developing the “apps” — co-remediation, continuous credentialing, the transformation of PPA into an emergent, truly continuous process — I think we’ll be amazed at how far it will take us.

Joel Hernandez is the CEO of eLumen, Inc., which supports more than 25,000 community college faculty members assessing more than 1,000,000 students per term in the United States. In addition, eLumen is at the forefront of emerging standards such as Open Badge Extensions for Education and the IMS Global “Extended Transcript” standard that will allow students to share institutionally-validated course, competency and badging records.
Comments & Ratings

There is no comment.

Issue 18.3 | Winter/Spring 2017

Southeast Education Network

Our Mission: to reinvigorate the spirit of American education