We Can Innovate Responsibly While Protecting Students
Focus Magazine, Summer 2017: Real-Life Learning.
Earlier this week, we received welcome news from Phoenix, where the Competency-Based Education Network has gathered.
The network, which began several years ago as a project of Lumina Foundation to help build and grow these programs, is independent and has nearly doubled in size to 80 member organizations. Also, two states have reached out to C-BEN, as it’s called, for support as they expand efforts to educate working-age adults.
More than 400 people signed up for the network’s two-day CBExchange, which is open to the entire field. The network includes a broad mix of public, private, nonprofit, and for-profit colleges and universities, including everything from open-access institutions to the highly selective—as well as several public higher education systems.
For some time, they’ve been working together on a quality framework for competency-based programs. They’re in the process of briefing accreditors and leading higher education organizations on the thinking that went into this new framework. It was designed to ensure a quality education for students who choose competency-based programs.
The just-released audit of Western Governors University, which calls the distance-learning efforts of this competency-based provider into question, signals a need for increased awareness and understanding about how education beyond high school needs to change and evolve to meet the country’s need for talent.
C-BEN defines competency-based education as an intentional and transparent approach to curricular design with an academic model in which the time it takes to demonstrate competencies varies and the expectations about learning are held constant. Students acquire and demonstrate their knowledge and skills by engaging in learning exercises, activities and experiences that align with clearly defined programmatic outcomes. Students receive proactive guidance and support from faculty and staff. Learners earn credentials by demonstrating mastery through multiple forms of assessment, often at a personalized pace. For many students, especially those who do better outside of the classroom in experiential settings, competency-based education is a better way to plan, organize, deliver, and support their learning.
In this case, several things are worth noting. Western Governors University is one of many models out there. Lumina profiled several others in the most recent issue of its Focus magazine. The audit is not the end of the story: The Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid will have to decide how to respond, and Congress could step in to clarify the law. And many competency-based programs, even those offered online, have robust support programs in place to ensure students are learning successfully.
Also, the law requires programs accepting federal loans and grants must ensure “regular-and-substantive interaction” between students and instructors. This phrase is a term of art and is not well defined. Nonetheless, all online learning—or, distance education—programs are required to comply, regardless of whether they are competency based. The requirement does not apply specifically to competency-based programs unless they are offered online. Many of the C-BEN programs are able to effectively demonstrate that students are not being “left on their own” to learn, which is the definition of correspondence education.
The Inspector General’s interpretation, arrived at based on its independent interpretation of the law (the Education Department overall has been supportive of online competency-based programs), appears overly strict and likely to impede progress.
Competency-based programs often take a different approach to the design and delivery of curricula. They are innovative solutions to vexing challenges in education.
We believe the Inspector General is doing its best to enforce a law written for a prior generation of students and learning. We also believe we need to agree on ways to innovate responsibly or many of the nation’s talent needs will go unmet.
Response to Inspector General’s Report on Western Governors University | CBE Network | Sept. 21, 2017