BC to offer competency-based courses

In the winter of 2014, Bellevue College will offer a competency-based course in business technology as part of a competency-based education (or CBE) pilot program. To do this, BC is partnering with Western Governors University, a college where all degrees are attained through CBE.

Last year, WGU received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to teach 10 community colleges nationwide how to do CBE. Of the 10 colleges selected, four are in Washington state. Edmonds Community College, Spokane Falls Community College and Columbia Basin Community College will participate alongside BC.

According to Suzanne Marks, business technology faculty at BC, this is happening now because a group of college presidents on the State Board of Education called a visioning committee works to look for future trends in higher education. CBE is one of them. Additionally, the Department of Education recently decided to fund financial aid for courses offered in a CBE format, and the Carnegie Foundation, which formed the current credit hour system, is looking at redefining the definition of a credit hour, which has not happened since 1906.

“CBE focuses on measuring learning rather than measuring time,” said Marks.

CBE classes are similar to online classes in that they are delivered in an online medium, but there are also many differences. Instead of taking a course for 10 weeks and earning five credits and a grade, CBE students work on their coursework for as long as they want until they can pass assessments at an 80 percent proficiency level.

The role of the professor is also different in this format: instead of having one instructor that teaches and guides students and writes and grades exams, the role of the professor is split up among multiple people. First, there is a course mentor who acts as a success coach. They call the student they are assigned to on a regular basis and ensure that the student is caught up on all of their work. Course mentors can also help with personal problems in the students lives, and follow students through their entire program of study to provide support.

Next, there is a faculty mentor, who is in the traditional teaching role. Finally, there are the graders and assessors who write and grade the assessments the faculty mentor administers.

There has been a mix of excitement and trepidation in the BC community regarding the implementation of CBEs. Many people have raised concerns over the fact that the faculty mentor and the assessor are two different people, but Marks says this is actually a benefit.

“The teachers are teaching to the program outcomes, not teaching to the test,” she said.

Another concern is that the way instructors are paid will change. Marks says there is no set plan for how this will play out, but the Washington State Board of Education is currently working on it.

Also, since students pass classes once they reach an 80 percent level of competence, all students graduate from WGU with a 3.0 GPA, the equivalent of straight Bs. While for many students this is not a problem, for those going on to grad school and need a higher GPA, this can be problematic. According to Marks, BC is looking into having a grading system that shows a pass at a B-level and an A-level.

Despite concerns, WGU has seen huge success in the program. They have over 40,000 students nationwide and conduct frequent surveys on both student and employer satisfaction. So far, all of these numbers have been high.  WGU also uses third-party validations, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment which is used in over 900 universities nationwide, and the National Survey of Student Engagement.

“It’ll just be another delivery path,” Marks said. If the program is successful, CBEs will be offered alongside online courses, hybrid courses and traditional courses in the future.

WGU President Jean Floten agreed, saying these classes might not be the best option for everyone. “CBE is an especially good fit for mid-career adults who have developed field expertise on the job,” she said. These students might have all the skills of someone with a degree, but no degree to show for it. “The competency-based model permits students to identify what they already know and can do, progress through that quickly and focus on what they need to learn to complete their degrees.” said Floten. “I believe we will be seeing many programs migrate to the CBE model in the future.”