Competence-based education is one of the great ideas on how to transform education that has been around for a while. And fans of the approach say that this time of change caused by the pandemic is a good moment to take a closer look at it.
The basic idea of competency-based education, or CBE, is this: What if the way to get a degree or a certificate was to prove to a college that you have learned the necessary knowledge and skills. It would not be very accurate exactly how or where you learned knowledge – or skills. Colleges would be in the process of certifying what the students know and giving them the coaching and the material needed to fill in any gaps to obtain the credentials.
For this week’s EdSurge podcast, we checked in with a longtime advocate for competency-based education: Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University. And he presents his latest thoughts on the approach in his new book, “Students First: Equity, Access and Opportunity in Higher Education.”
LeBlanc himself is a first-generation college student who has long experimented with ideas to help expand access to higher education. And over the years, he has made Southern New Hampshire University a mega-university online to serve students who cannot get to its traditional campus, with more than 130,000 online students.
He has also brought competency-based education to his own university in a program in southern New Hampshire called the College for America. But he admits that his CBE experiment has not grown as fast as he had hoped. And that’s because moving to this model is a really big and really hard change for colleges. But he believes the influx could grow, especially in the wake of the pandemic, and he has a suggestion on how to get there.
Listen to Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Below is an edited excerpt of the conversation.
EdSurge: In your book, you say that the biggest challenge for competency-based education is that it requires more from everyone in the system – professors and administrators, but also from students. What did you mean by that?
Paul LeBlanc: If you think of higher education today, people joke that “D” still stands for degree. We let students slip past all the time, and we graduate people with in many cases not much clarity about what they know, what they can. The printout is a black box for most outsiders. If I hire someone and I say, ‘Oh, you took management accounting.’ I may be able to deduce what you studied, but I do not actually know how good you are, what skills you have, what actual knowledge you have.
[Take] nurses e.g. We train nurses and we know what it looks like. They have to take a national licensing exam, their state government.
But if you talk to the heads of the clinical staff in the health care system, they will tell you that nurses are not ready to hit the floor when they are fully trained. They would say, ‘They actually do not have the skills we need to put them to work.’
I’m thinking of some of the things that are really powerful about this model [of competency-based education] is that it forces us to be much clearer about the claims we make.
You say in the book that just tackling the problem in high schools is like cleaning up pollution downstream, while the factory upstream continues to put chemicals in the river. What changes do you recommend to K-12 to better prepare students for the competency-based college you are in favor of?
On one level, they have the same problem. Which is that they look at progress in a kind of structured, sequential way that has to do with what age you are.
We know the same set of grade inflation [happens]. We know that 50 percent of students arriving at university campuses are not actually ready to do math or English at the university level. So it will lie bare. It will shed light on the issues of preparation. So it will force greater stringency to K-12.
And you have K-12 systems, including here in my home state of New Hampshire, that are moving to competency-based frameworks. So the other thing this of course allows is that children can move faster or slower through the system.
I think that was one of the virtues, and everyone loves the stories of speed – you know, the person who completes the two-year associate degree in just one year. We have those stories. But I like to tell the stories of the student who took a year and a half to get through the writing skills. And the reason I like to tell that story is that when they are done, I can stand behind the claim that the student will actually be able to write. Maybe not like Hemingway, but they will be able to do the kind of workplace writing that we define as a core competency in a given program. And that’s what employers love about competency-based education. It gives us a common language, but it also gives them security [that students have the skills needed].
For the full interview, listen to this week’s EdSurge Podcast.