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Hacking Competency-Based Education

Hacking Competency-Based Education

3 June, 2016

Recently, hacking has gone from vice to something of a virtue. Hackathons refer to strongly productive coding sessions. Facebook’s Like button was developed at a hackathon and Mark Zuckerberg’s letter that accompanied Facebook’s IPO filing stated:

We have cultivated a unique culture and management approach that we call the Hacker Way. The word “hacker” has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers. In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done… The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration.

By Zuck’s definition, much of higher education could use a good hacking. Competency-based education (CBE) is one such effort, and a vital one. Rather than starting with what faculty want to teach, wouldn’t it make more sense to start with the competencies employers expect, then determine the assessments that demonstrate the requisite competencies, and only then turn to the question of the curriculum that best equips students with those competencies? By reversing the seat-time model, colleges and universities should be able to produce more competencies in less time and for significantly less money.

Hundreds of schools think CBE is a worthwhile hack and have either launched or are preparing to launch CBE programs. This is great, except for three inconvenient truths:

  1. Students don’t care. Outside of Western Governor’s University, only a handful of CBE programs have enrolled more than 1,000 students.
  2. The CBE efforts underway at hundreds of institutions are for new programs only. There is no institution that would retrofit existing programs as CBE. This goes for programs that are delivered 100% online, and mainly for the many more certificate and degree programs delivered on ground, for which a good model for delivering (by definition self-paced) CBE programs at scale has yet to be developed. This point is critical. Competency-based education is complex and needs a partial if not complete disaggregation of the faculty role (design/teach/assess/advise). Does anyone believe faculty members will buy into retrofitting courses they’ve been teaching for years? Not unless their jobs are at risk (and by then it will almost certainly be too late for CBE to be a viable solution).
  3. CBE is under regulatory attack. An audit report issued by the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found one accreditor had failed to assess whether CBE programs ensured “regular and substantive interaction” between faculty and students. Without such a finding, CBE programs should be reclassified as correspondence programs, which means students are classified as attending half-time (with a concomitant reduction in federal aid). At the same time, many early leaders in CBE have supposedly received notices from OIG that their programs are properly correspondence courses, causing these schools to scramble to defend their programs and students.

Still, the possible advantages of CBE are undeniable. CBE can make competencies visible to employers and students, resulting in greater clarity as to what postsecondary education is required, and when it’s required i.e., not universally necessary or beneficial to do four consecutive years before the age of 25, and then stop for life. CBE can power co-requisite remediation: leading students to proper reinforcing or co-remedial materials when required, allowing them to keep swimming towards the finish rather than treading water in remedial academic limbo.

So what to do? Is there a way to hack the hack? One theory is that CBE will be hacked by competency-based assessments (CBA). Applying a range of short, specific competency-based assessments to students along their postsecondary education trajectory – and critically at the point of credential completion – could provide many of the benefits of CBE without any of the hassle of changing faculty roles or retrofitting programs and courses.