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Competence-Based Education Q-and-A

May 14, 2014

Graduation cap and diploma

Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America recently unveiled a $10,000 online bachelor’s degree. In order to earn this degree, students must demonstrate mastery of “competencies” in required subject areas. Students move through courses at their own speed, with test scores – not time in class – determining how quickly they move through the material.

Over the past few years, there has been increased attention to such so-called “competence-based” educational programs, with The Atlantic even dubbing it a top trend in education for 2014. Could this learning-outcome-based model be the solution to the problems that higher ed has faced in recent years, or is it too good to be true?

DrexelNow checked in with Amy Slaton, PhD, a professor in the Department of History & Politics in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, who has been critical of this no-frills form of education, and has been quoted in the New York Times and Inside Higher Ed, among other outlets, on the topic. Slaton has long been interested in emerging issues of competence-based education, the rise of online higher education and the role of community colleges in American technical education, workforce preparation and global economic competition.

In an environment of ever-growing tuition and student debt, competence-based degree programs that save students time and money sound like a dream come true. Should we all be running out to enroll?

I think we have to be careful. What’s really being offered here in these sped-up, reduced-rate degrees? If we took a deep breath and recognized that these programs are actually urging America overall to spend less time and less money on higher education, I doubt anyone would see that contraction of resources as a terribly promising path toward individual or national prosperity.

These programs seem like they would level the playing field by helping people with lower socioeconomic statuses to get higher education. Is that the case? What do these programs mean for growing inequities in U.S. society?

In two decades of college teaching, I’ve learned that every student can profit intellectually from taking a wide range of courses taught by well-trained, well-compensated instructors. Sure, folks have different learning styles, but smaller classes, well-equipped labs or studios, and lots of face-to-face time with professors and other students enhance every student’s learning. Unlike in the heyday of secure public university funding and programs like the GI Bill, the higher education that reaches the market today with a lower sticker price is achieved by systematically limiting those enriching experiences. It is simply not comparable to the college experience available to (and most often sought by) more affluent families.

We should provide everyone with the highest-quality college experience, but instead we are saying we need a stratified product line. The people with the least to spend will get the least amount of education.

One of the benefits being touted about competence-based education programs is the effectiveness of the metacognition – thinking about thinking – it employs. Do non-competence-based programs utilize this approach? If not, why not? Is this something they should incorporate more of?

That’s definitely one of the more intriguing claims made for competence-based programs: that they build in student reflection about learning methods and aims. I’m all for that. But unfortunately, in order to work, these new programs must pre-determine what counts as valuable knowledge for students. But it is precisely the opposite sort of experience — student time spent grappling with the messy concept or unmeasurable finding, and arriving at the unpredicted outcome — that induces truly critical thought.

For example, in a competence-based program a history student may be encouraged to ask, “Would the four main causes of America’s entry into World War II be better expressed in a video or in a conventional written paper?” But that student isn’t guided to frame questions that are truly “metacognitive” such as: “Why frame these events in this way? Why not treat all American wars as part of a longer historical pattern, instead? Or compare nations?” The deepest critical questions about course content are entirely antithetical to competence-focused curricula: “Why am I being taught this? Is there something else I could be asking here instead?” Most of my colleagues today in the humanities and social sciences, and an increasing number in the sciences and engineering, see those reflective questions as the ones that produce truly sophisticated and energized students.

What would a shift toward this type of education mean for professors? For brick-and-mortar institutions?

In the growing advocacy for competence-based higher ed, we see only a very narrow vision of how today’s university might reduce its costs and carry savings to its users, and that’s with fewer facilities and lowered faculty and staff wage costs. There’s no indication that lowered salaries for upper administration, for example, might instead be a step worth taking. Even if I believed that the pedagogical consequences of these trends were negligible, I’d still want to know why it is labor (instructors and staff) and consumers (students), rather than management, who need to reduce their expectations, to bear the brunt of a national higher education system operating on a lowered budget. What if our schools, which after all are run by some very influential figures, moved away from the goal of cost-saving altogether, to lead a nationwide movement to induce Congress to shift more funds toward higher ed? We should acknowledge that politics are in fact driving these new programs and that other choices are possible.