The Problem with Snowflakes

This winter, many Americans became reacquainted with snowflakes in a big way.  Violent storms dropped as many as 120 inches of snow on some cities.  The vast amount of these tiny, uniquely shaped frozen water droplets was overwhelming.  Similarly, colleges and universities throughout the country were also recently overwhelmed by another kind of tiny, and uniquely shaped entities: competencies.

snowed in

Competency-Based Education has become one of the most popular buzzwords in higher education conversations at the institutional, state, and national levels.  Even President Barack Obama has taken an opportunity to preach the virtues of competency-based education.

But what is competency-based education?

That answer can be found in dozens of blog posts and articles so I’ll just briefly summarize it here:

Competency-Based Education is the notion that students should receive credit for what they know rather than how long they sit in a classroom.  What they know should be classified in a way that is easy for employers to understand and value, so that students can leverage their education more effectively in their job search.  The whole experience should be self-paced, allowing students to advance as quickly or as slowly as they need to, to properly understand different topics.

So far four schools have received approval from both their accreditors and the Department of Education to offer a competency-based program.  Apart from them, about two dozen schools are currently claiming to offer some form of competency-based program.  And on top of that, according to a recent Lumina survey, over 350 schools are working towards the development of a competency-based program.

This is a serious problem.  And it’s a problem that no one wants to deal with.

Why is this problematic? Institutions all over the country have vastly different requirements for different majors.  There is no one standard Bachelor’s degree.  Every college puts their own unique spin on it, between Gen Ed, electives and required courses.

However, what brings them all together is the Carnegie Unit.  Students need approximately 60 credits for an associate’s degree, and 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree.  No matter what combination of courses a particular institution assigns, the output is always the same.  A competency-based program, however, could and should be different.

We aren’t trying to decide which 40 courses Johnny should take before we hand him a slip of paper. We are trying to decide what Johnny should actually be capable of doing once he leaves our institution.  That is a profoundly different question, and a question that schools aren’t going about answering in the same way.

This issue was highlighted for me at a recent Lumina-funded Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) event.  Here the lack of a consensus model was not only accepted, it was lauded as one of the strengths of the CBE model.  Some schools have a dozen competencies, while others have hundreds.  Some folks have various levels of competencies nested beneath their “core competencies.”  Others have simply substituted the words “course objectives” for “competencies” and gone to lunch.  Each individual model is treated as its own special snowflake.  But the lack of consistency in the way we slice up the college degree pie is going to have serious ramifications down the road.

For instance – how will students transfer competencies from one school to another if competencies are all different sizes and fit into different hierarchies?  One solution (and the one that normally comes up in conversation) would be to map everything back to the Carnegie Unit and use that as the medium of exchange between schools.  While this is currently required by most regional accreditors and the Department of Education, it is not only unwieldy from a back-end administration standpoint, but it forces us to make rather sketchy equivalencies to a model that doesn’t focus on student learning.  Worst of all, it binds us into perpetuating the Carnegie Unit, and prevents us from moving past what should be an outdated relic.

Another issue arises when we talk about explaining competency-based education to the rest of the world.  For most students, parents, and employers, this idea of competency-based education is a new one.  How successful do you imagine we will be at getting those unique stakeholders to understand what competency-based education is, when we have 350 different explanations?

One of the purported benefits of CBE is that a competency-based transcript will be easier for employers to understand, and a more accurate reflection of what students know and can do.  However, most employers spend just six seconds reviewing each resume.  What employer is going to spend the resources to train their HR department on how to read 350 different versions of the same competencies?

Even if a school forms a direct workforce pathway for its CBE students (like Southern New Hampshire’s College for America), what happens when that student wants to move on to another employer?  Without a uniform way of communicating what CBE is, and how it works in practice, students are going to be left trying to explain their bizarre new qualifications to future employers, or find themselves undeservingly eliminated from consideration.

Finally, the lack of a consensus model opens the door to people outside of higher education to come up with one for us.  Education technology companies, for instance, know that there are potentially billions of dollars to be made with an LMS that caters to the competency-based format.  The problem for them is deciding which competency-based format to use.  Without a coherent vision from institutional innovators, we’re going to be left with whatever they decide, and find ourselves designing to technology, rather than allowing the technology to build around what’s best for the students.

To a certain extent, regulators are already starting to make some of these decisions.  During a recent webinar about the Department of Education’s new Experimental Sites (which include an experiment that grants credit for competency-based education programs), DOE Analyst Michael Cagle rightly pointed out that there is no one definition for competency-based education.  Each school that they are speaking with is going about CBE in a slightly different way, which is why it has been so difficult for them to write coherent regulations for their experiment.  So instead, they developed a set of waivers and conditions that confused many, and didn’t provide effective support to students.

Despite all of this, I’m not advocating for a uniform set of competencies across institutions.  I think that the unique style and content of America’s higher education system is one of its great strengths.

What I am saying is that if we want competency-based education to flourish and succeed in a way that is sustainable, and in a way that gives students the best opportunities, we need to confront the growth of these diverse models.  We need to, as a community, develop a set of standards in the way we divide the college degree, and the way we scaffold competencies.  Otherwise we risk being buried by all the unique little snowflakes.


2 thoughts on “The Problem with Snowflakes

  1. Great post. The image of snowflakes here will stick with me. Seeing CBE this way gives rise to a number of thoughts. One problem, as you suggest, is the role of regulators in shaping colleges’ programs so that they all look the same. But what is the advantage of a system in which, no matter how unique you as an institution claim to be, you still have to put out a product that looks like everyone else’s? Why must we embrace the mechanistic system of interchangeable parts? Maybe a true education system is one that is idiosyncratic and diverse. What if accreditors just looked at outputs and not inputs?

    1. Thanks for the comment Marc; I’m glad you liked the post. And while I agree with you that the educational experience should be uniquely suited to the individual student, I don’t know that it’s practical to allow institutions to have complete autonomy in the delineation of a college degree.

      My main concern is that whether we want a standard or not, one will emerge, fashioned by foundations, ed tech companies, and regulators, rather than institutions and faculty. Once new laws are established it will be very difficult for a school to innovate in different directions.

      Even if this isn’t decided by laws and regulators, it could be decided by employers. If a form of CBE emerges that they value over others, student’s who go through similar programs will have a better shot at getting a job. How long before other schools modify their programs to follow suit? How much will pedagogy be considered at that point?

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