Competency Based Education

Students in our CMWEB program will soon be experiencing changes in the overall structure of our classes. I thought it would be worthwhile to provide an overview of why we will be making these changes and the implications.

Essentially, we will be moving our curriculum into a competency based format. This means that individuals taking a class must demonstrate they are competent in each of the topics presented in that class. Obviously there is much more to this.

Let’s examine a traditional class (perhaps CMWEB 220). We provide a course schedule and cover a number of topics. However, students must master these topics on a set time schedule. All work must be completed by a given date. However, it is possible to succeed in the class without mastering all the topics. For the sake of a simple explanation, let’s assume there are only 10 weeks in the course and only 10 topics. Let’s also assume there is no final exam and no project. Just a series of lab exercises and a quiz over each topic. Here are a couple of ways a student could earn an “A” in the course.

First, they could complete every topic with a grade of 9/10 points. They would earn 90/100 points over the term and earn an “A” (90% success).

Alternately, a student could complete 10/10 points on 9 of the topics and completely ignore the final topic (perhaps CSS pre-processors). Since they would have earned 90/100 points, they would also earn an “A” in the course.

If both students applied for the same job, the potential employer would see the “A” on their transcripts. The employer may ask to see a copy of the course syllabus or schedule. However, the employer would need to determine who knew about CSS pre-processors during an interview or series of tasks they asked the candidate to perform. If the job entailed working a lot with this technology (and they did not ask the correct questions during the interview), the employer could potentially pick the wrong candidate and be very frustrated when the candidate was unable to perform even simple tasks with the technology clearly listed on the course syllabus.

We will be moving towards competency based education over the next few semesters. There are a number of implications and changes coming.

First – there will be a list of competencies clearly provided on the individual student transcript. Yes, this means there will need to be changes made to PeopleSoft (eServices) for this to happen. However, potential employers will clearly see that an individual has demonstrated competencies in those areas which are needed in their business.

Second – students will eventually be able to take classes at their own pace (provided they make significant and sustained progress). They will eventually not need to complete a given class on a specific date. Instead, they will need to complete all competencies in a given class. If they need a little extra time to master a given competency, no worries. If they master two competencies where the average student is only mastering one, they will be able to finish the class more quickly and move on to another class. In the long term, all classes will be available so students could finish one class (mastering all competencies) and move immediately to the next (without having to wait for the next semester to begin).

Third – students will eventually have a mentor (coach) who monitors their progress and encourages them to keep up a steady pace. If the student falls behind, they will be working with this mentor to get back on track. They will also be able to pause their learning due to life circumstances (perhaps a family emergency or a need for extended business travel). They will need to clearly comunicate with their mentor what the event is and the planned duration they will be away, but they will be able to pick up where they left off.

Of course, students who consistently fall behind or have one life emergency after the next will be dropped from these courses. In this case, they would continue to take classes offered in the more traditional format (time constrained).

The big issue faced by many is that in our current model, the variable time is a constant and the amount of learning is up to the individual student. In competency based education, the amount of learning will be constant but it may take a bit longer or shorter time for an individual student to master the necessary learning.

We will start transitioning to this model in the spring, 2015 semester. Selected classes will have all the content available from ther start of class. Since this is a transition, there will remain a deadline of the end of the spring semester. However, those who wish to work a bit faster can do so. If a student knows they will be unable to participate in class for a given week or two, they can work ahead and complete the assignments before their planned absence. They can also catch up if the absence is unplanned (for example, a sudden severe illness).

Over the next few semesters, more and more classes will be available in this format. There will also be an application process so that students who demonstrate they can succeed in this model will be accepted into the program. Those who do not wish to follow this model can still take classes when they are traditionally offered.

The ultimate benefit to students is that they will be able to consume as much education as they are able in the CMWEB program at the pace which works for them. Think in terms of a Netflix sort of model. With Netflix, you purchase a monthly subscription and watch as many movies or shows as you choose.

There is one key difference with the current model. Since time is now a variable and learning is constant, each student must demonstrate competency in ALL the modules in a given class. In the initial example I mentioned, the option of skipping the CSS pre-processors would not be viable. The student would never complete the CMWEB 220 class until they had mastered this module.

Eventually, all our CMWEB classes will be offered in this format. This means that a student could start within a month of their initial registration (and would not need to formally wait until the start of the next semester). They would progress through classes at their own pace (guided by a mentor – this would not be the same person as their instructor). Their transcript would clearly show what ┬ácompretencies they have mastered. These would be shown on their transcripts.

We presented this concept to our Web Systems advisory committee (consisting of members of local business and industry who hire our graduates) and they were very enthusiastic. They indicated that seeing these competencies clearly listed on a transcript would likely move a candidate to a potential interview.

We see this as a great opportunity for our students to learn materials at their own pace and to progress from one class to the next. There would be less of a problem with canceling a given class due to a low enrollment as all classes would be eventually open all the time.

Yes, there are a number of hurdles to overcome. However, the first step will be to offer a few selected classes in the spring, 2015 semester with all materials clearly visible so those who wish to work ahead can do so. There would still be the deadline of the end of the spring semester for completion of all materials (since this will be a transition semester). The issue of individual comptencies will also be deferred another semester or so in order for necessary changes to be made to PeopleSoft.

I am curious what readers think of this approach and look forward to your comments.

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