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Aurora Institute

You Have to Start Somewhere

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Dorothy Wax

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Modernize HEA

VSUAmong the most common questions I hear when I am working with institutions on competency-based education (CBE) is where to start? Also, does it have to be a full program? Does it make sense to start with just one class? Here’s an example from one institution that is starting small with the hope of expanding its CBE efforts when the time is right.

Valdosta State University is leading the way toward CBE in Georgia, and they are starting with two post-baccalaureate endorsements for teachers in the STEM area, specifically in science and math for teachers of K-5. Each endorsement consists of three courses, and all three must be successfully completed for the teachers to be granted the certification. The CBE program officially kicks off with a pilot in spring 2016 but the preparations are already well underway.

Valdosta State’s Interim Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Anthony Scheffler is spearheading the CBE effort, which is being supported by the Georgia Department of Education and the State System of Higher Education in Georgia. The Georgia DoE has provided a grant of $198,000 for the project, and the State System is working on the technology to underpin the project. The funding has been used to cover the costs of Valdosta State faculty and instructional designers, and master teachers from two different school districts who are working on the project with them. There have also been a couple of visits from representatives of the University of Wisconsin’s Flexible Option CBE degree program who are providing some advice on the Valdosta State project.

Here’s how the Valdosta program will work: Each of the endorsements consists of three courses, and there are competency domains that have been identified across those courses. For the science certification, for example, those domains are:

  • Science content
  • Unifying concepts and principles
  • Assessment
  • Technology utilization
  • Social relevance
  • Science pedagogy
  • Professional development

Each course has specific competencies that have been cross-walked to the domains, and they build upon each other. The courses have master teachers as instructors and mentors/coaches to ensure success. Students will enroll in a paid subscription period and will progress through the competencies in a prescribed order. Once all the competencies for a course are mastered, the course will be transcripted as a “pass,” and the student may also request that the competencies be transcripted, as well. Competency is shown through the completion of project-based learning activities and mastery assessments. An example of a learning activity might be to build a lesson plan and implement the concepts of a class of organisms. The student might have to provide a video of him/herself teaching that lesson plan. The mastery assessment would be a more detailed, comprehensive activity that builds on the elements identified through the other learning activities. Students will be provided with the rubric for the competency so they have an idea of the requirements and depth they will need to exhibit. Each competency will have required and recommended learning activities. The student may elect to do the recommended activities, or the mentor might recommend that the individual do these additional activities to strengthen their learning. Before being recommended for certification, the students will be required to submit a portfolio and learning unit (the grouping of lesson plans developed in the learning activities) which provide a comprehensive picture of their competence, with the idea being that these units can then be used directly in the classroom.

Scheffler said the decision to use the post-baccalaureate endorsements was fairly easy. There is great demand for STEM-certified teachers and the school systems will sometimes pay for the teachers to participate. Schools with STEM-certified teachers are eligible for additional funding, so there is incentive for them to support teachers in this way.

Also, because of the nature of the program, it does not get into issues related to federal financial aid.

For the spring pilot, five to seven science teachers will be hand-picked and brought together as a focus group to provide feedback about their experience with the course along the way and at the end. The master teacher and the mentor coach will both be able to provide feedback to the students, and those roles will be more clearly identified after the pilot. Other changes may be made based on the students’ feedback, including content and technology

Scheffler said he believes the program addresses questions related to quality of CBE because the student has to succeed at each competency. There is no averaging based on assignments as there might be in a traditional classroom where someone might get a D on an assignment and still end up with a B for the course. In this case, you have to master each competency. He also said the team is looking at how the domains may be transferable to other courses so that, when they are ready to roll out an entire program, students won’t have to show the same competencies two or three times.

Overall, the project has been very positive for the Valdosta team. Scheffler said the faculty working on it are very excited about the possibilities to grow beyond the certifications, and the university’s instructional designers are invigorated because they are defining a whole new area of expertise.

Scheffler says he feels CBE is a “shot in the arm” for higher education, one that has been sorely needed. Once they assess the success of their “smart small” philosophy and make the needed modifications for the certification program, the next steps for Valdosta State will include integration into a full degree program, perhaps a master’s program, and development of badges for the competencies. The goal is to become more “student-focused” so they can assure a value-added experience.

Dorothy Wax is the Associate Vice President for Operations for CAEL. She manages CAEL’s CBE Jumpstart program, which is funded by the Lumina Foundation and is providing training to 21 institutions and systems of higher education on CBE.