Colleges embrace “competency-based education” to meet the needs of a changing workforce.

Columbus State Community College is a good place to watch the evolution of higher education in Ohio. As employers push educators to up their game in preparing students for the workplace, more colleges are emphasizing “competency-based education,” the idea that students can demonstrate competencies developed in partnership with business and industry. Programs focus on what students know and can do, with their progress measured by actual demonstrations of competencies rather than the amount of time spent in a classroom.

CBE advocates think such an approach will help students, especially older ones looking to transition to new careers, earn degrees faster and save money on tuition bills. It also jibes with efforts to boost the number of working-age adults in Ohio who have post-secondary credentials, such as professional certificates and college degrees.

The Ohio Department of Higher Education, which got the ball rolling on CBE in 2016, has created a network of public colleges and universities interested in learning more about competency-based education or even developing a CBE program. That's where Columbus State enters the picture.

Last July, the college began working with Dayton-based Sinclair Community College to adopt and expand a CBE model designed to improve academic and economic outcomes for students. The pilot program, funded by a $706,859 grant from the Department of Higher Education, will draw on competency-based education best practices, says Rebecca Butler, a senior vice president at Columbus State.

Under the CBE model, students progress through classes based on when they master course concepts rather than the amount of time they spend in the classroom in a traditional semester-based approach. “As they master a particular competency, they move on,” Butler says. “It means the way we teach needs to be far more nimble as we will have technical mastery done in chunks versus semester-long instruction.”

She believes competency-based education has a definite place in higher education and will help colleges become more responsive when working with their partners in business and industry. She feels CBE can also build on how Columbus State traditionally has worked with businesses to develop programs that teach skills needed in the workplace.

Competency-based education can help alleviate concerns that students are not graduating with the knowledge and skills needed for success in the workforce, says Stephanie Davidson, a Department of Higher Education vice chancellor who is heavily involved in its CBE efforts. “Competencies are typically identified by faculty working in collaboration with business and industry,” she says. “Since CBE requires mastery of those competencies, students should be well-prepared to enter a job and career and to meet the expectations of their employers.”

In addition, competency-based education, with an emphasis on online courses, is designed to help working-age adults earn degrees faster than in traditional programs. Davidson says that attribute addresses the issue of students who want to attend college but can't find the time or money to do so.

She says the CBE initiative grew from the need to boost the number of Ohio workers ages 25 to 64 holding a post-secondary credential, such as a certificate or associate or bachelor's degree. That number now stands at 43 percent of working-age adults in Ohio, but she says workforce data shows 65 percent will need to have a post-secondary credential by 2025.

Sinclair Community College has been implementing CBE programs since 2013, Davidson says. Lorain Community launched CBE certificate and associate-degree programs in 2017, while the University of Cincinnati has a program in the pipeline. Even though the Department of Higher Education's competency-based education efforts are focused on public colleges and universities, at least two central Ohio private universities are involved in CBE-related efforts.

Franklin University and the Columbus College of Art & Design are partners in the “Credit for Life Integrated Portfolio” program. It allows students to submit a digital portfolio of prior learning that can be assessed for college credit. The schools hope to share the program with other Ohio campuses, providing a model for assessments of prior learning, competency-based and e-portfolio strategies.

Patrick Bennett, vice president of Franklin's International Institute for Innovative Instruction, expects CBE to expand across higher education.

“But competency-based education is what we've always done at Franklin,” he says. “We've always had close connections with business and industry.”

For example, Franklin has curriculum advisory boards in which business experts provide input that helps the university develop courses and programs that are relevant for students and employers. “Those partnerships are invaluable,” Bennett says. “It's one thing to teach theory, but another thing to determine how it's applied in the working world.”

Franklin also conducts research on best practices of instruction, course design and delivery. The goal, Bennett says, is to remove learning barriers for students so they have the skills and competencies needed for success in their working lives.

Other schools, including Ohio Dominican University, don't have a competency-based education model per se, but may use CBE elements in the classroom. For example, ODU mathematics professor Anna Davis says her development of what she calls a “one-room schoolhouse” model is helping math students make faster progress toward graduation, possibly saving money on tuition in the process.

She uses a “flipped” classroom approach in which students read her lectures and do required readings in advance of class. That frees time for her to interact with students on a one-on-one basis during class time, evaluate their competency with course concepts and teach multiple math courses simultaneously like in a traditional one-room schoolhouse.

Davis says lumping together related courses is important at a small university such as Ohio Dominican where required courses can get cancelled because of low enrollments. That forces students to wait a semester or two to get into a course, delaying their progress toward graduation and adding to their college costs.

Ohio State University has been talking about competency-based education but doesn't have a CBE model yet. “It's something institutions of higher learning are wrestling with,” says OSU Provost Bruce McPheron, who notes a big obstacle is how to provide credits to students for past experiences in a standardized way across colleges and universities.

At the same time, McPheron and President Michael Drake say the idea of providing students with the skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace is certainly not a new concept at Ohio State—and the university is committed to becoming even better at it. Evidence of that was the creation of the Institute for Teaching and Learning in 2016. Led by OSU English professor Kay Halasek, the institute is designed to increase the adoption of successful teaching techniques and modern methods that enhance student learning.

“It was not about fixing something that's broken,” Drake says of the institute, “but asking, ‘Can we make [teaching and learning] even better?' This is really an opportunity to be best in class.”

McPheron says the institute and other teaching improvements, including wider use of technology in classrooms, are aimed at building “a more successful Buckeye graduate.” An example of the technology push was the launch of the Digital Flagship University last October through a collaboration with Apple. The effort, which provides students with access to learning tools on iPads, is focused on teaching and learning plus research and innovation.

McPheron also says part of that learning process for student involves competencies in so-called “soft skills” sought by many employers. They include an understanding of civic responsibility, the value of working in teams and the ability to communicate effectively. “We focus on teaching the requirements of the degree,” he says, “and also make a conscious effort to add skills that really jump-start success in a career.”

Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.