Competency Based Education: Alverno College

Carol Geary Schneider had it right. In her Fall 2012 Liberal Education essay “Is It Finally Time to Kill the Credit Hour?” Schneider makes a persuasive case that we are very far from a coherent national plan for education. In light of that reality, taking the opportunity to review examples of existing competency-based learning programs is time well spent. “We need to take the time and learn from the assessment experiments that are going on all over higher education. We also need to build broad and compelling agreement on what twenty-first-century markers of student accomplishment actually look like. And, soberingly, that work is still in draft form.”

Models for Review and Consideration. Competency-based education is not new. Examining the development and attributes of programs currently in place will be critical to understanding their relationship to emerging online education, curricular development, and the roles of faculty and learner. Most important, such a review will provide context for making informed strategic decisions about digital scholarship and online education at your campus.

Some interesting models include the Western Governors University, founded in 1997 by nineteen state governors, which has been steadily developing and extending a program of online degree offerings for over a decade; Southern New Hampshire University, which more recently made significant strides in implementing new models accommodating the needs and academic ambitions of contemporary learners; and—fully a quarter century before the founding of WGU—Alverno College and Empire State College, which began developing bold approaches to ability-based learning assessment. In order to properly study the question of whether or not, or to what extent, to implement competency-based programs, we need to review established ones, including their intellectual, pedagogical, technical, and policy frameworks. The following review of examples highlight what can be accomplished after hard and honest evaluation of institutional strategy and educational opportunity.

Alverno College. The roots of competency-based education stem from traditional face-to-face learning in brick-and-mortar campuses. In 1973, after nine years of focused development, Alverno College launched its Competence Based Learning program. The new program had at its core the idea of “teaching students to learn, internalize, and then externalize and apply knowledge gained in the classroom to their life and their workplace.” The genesis and development of the program is recounted in the July 1985 Alverno Magazine: “Beginning in 1964 and continuing through 1969, the Alverno administration recognized the impact that rapid changes in technology, the economy, politics and sociological shifts were having on the process of educating college students. The complexities of modern society were eroding away the effectiveness of traditional teaching techniques that had been used for centuries.”

Keenly aware of the impact of these changes, Alverno administration scheduled a three day workshop for faculty and students to review and (eventually) rebuild “Curriculum integration and reorganization, the traditional grading system and the learning process itself.” In support of this effort a “new academic planning committee was developed to analyze and make recommendations based on all of the data collected at the meetings.”

This description of the forces encouraging development of Alverno’s program would sound familiar to all of us forty years later. Significantly, the hallmarks of the program (as it has evolved since 1973) closely resemble components of “emerging” online learning models that incorporate programmatic systems enabling assessment, feedback, and individual performance data.

In support of the transformative program, Alverno worked to develop specific components, assessment, and support models. As described in “Out of Crisis, Opportunity” (From Reform of General Education to Transformation: Creating a Culture of Learning, Alverno College Institute, 2009), “The core of Alverno’s new curriculum model would consist of eight abilities, experiential learning, mastery and assessment . . . Assessment and the eight ability levels would become the means for determining the depth of understanding and learning a student experienced while at Alverno College….”

What most clearly distinguishes Alverno’s learning process and assessment from testing is best described in the following quote from Sister Austin Doherty: “Because assessment focuses on the application of abilities, students learn to tie knowledge, theory, motivation and self-perception to constructive action. They discover early that assessment is not a concluding step to learning; it is a natural part of every learning step we take.” In essence, each assessment concludes one step in the learning process while beginning the next.

In order to “bridge the gap between the classroom and practical application within the workplace and community,” the college fostered a culture of self-evaluation culminating in individual demonstration of competency and learning outcomes based on a common currency expressed in the Eight Abilities:

Communication makes meaning of the world by connecting people, ideas, books, media and technology. You must demonstrate and master the ability to speak, read, write and listen clearly, in person and through electronic media.

Analysis develops critical and independent thinking. You must demonstrate and master the ability to use experience, knowledge, reason and belief to form carefully considered judgments.

Problem Solving helps define problems and integrate resources to reach decisions, make recommendations or implement action plans. You must demonstrate and master the ability to determine what is wrong and how to fix it, working alone or in groups.

Valuing approaches moral issues by understanding the dimensions of personal decisions and accepting responsibility for consequences. You must demonstrate and master the ability to recognize different value systems, including your own; appreciate moral dimensions of your decisions and accept responsibility for them.

Social Interaction facilitates results in group efforts by eliciting the views of others to help formulate conclusions. You must demonstrate and master the ability to elicit other views, mediate disagreements and help reach conclusions in group settings.

Developing a Global Perspective requires understanding of — and respect for — the economic, social and biological interdependence of global life. You must demonstrate and master the ability to appreciate economic, social and ecological connections that link the world’s nations and people.

Effective Citizenship involves making informed choices and developing strategies for collaborative involvement in community issues. You must demonstrate and master the ability to act with an informed awareness of issues and participate in civic life through volunteer activities and leadership.

Aesthetic Engagement integrates the intuitive dimensions of participation in the arts with broader social, cultural and theoretical frameworks. You must demonstrate and master the ability to engage with the arts and draw meaning and value from artistic expression.
Based on local experience as well as inter-institutional collaborations in project teams and as consultants, Alverno faculty and administrators developed an empirical analysis of successful student transformation, identifying “how and when students’ learning is most strongly a product of their curricula.” Three “stances” or “postures” inform the process:

1. The more local study and evaluation of teaching and learning, particularly at the course and department level that are part of any ongoing educational enterprise in a particular place.

2. The periodic program and institutional evaluations that are part of both formal accreditation and special larger evaluative projects, in which outside or external information begin to inform practice.

3. And finally, and perhaps most significantly, a more comprehensive scholarship of teaching and learning in relationship to institutional culture in general, where we learn from our own studies and those of colleagues at other institutions and bring those findings back to inform analyses of questions on our campus.

In Learning That Lasts (Mentkowski & Associates, 2000), Alverno College articulated these three postures as standing in, standing beside, and standing aside the educational practice of the college:

Standing in: Developing an integrated understanding of what kinds of learning frameworks, strategies, and structures work at one’s own campus, arrived at through analyses of practice and campus documentation.

Standing beside: A continuing analysis of practice in partnership with other institutions that can shape one’s own transformational acts and guidelines of institutional transformation.

Standing aside: Tailoring literature and practice review to specific campus issues.
Alverno’s curriculum enables faculty to thoroughly document individual student accomplishment, using common assessment tools and persistent feedback. Echoing the intent to position Alverno graduates to be successful citizens, the program is established to parallel the workings of the “real world.” Grades are eschewed. Mastery of content is demonstrated and acknowledged in narrative transcripts detailing the individual assessment of each student. More recently, Alverno has developed a Diagnostic Digital Portfolio (DDP) to provide an effective and manageable process for this program.

The DDP supports Alverno’s ability-based program as an integral component of the curriculum, not an afterthought or an add-on. Prefiguring some of the attributes of digital badge metadata, it provides accessible performance data enabling the student to follow learning progress throughout her career at Alverno. It helps process feedback from faculty and peers, and provides viewable patterns of academic work to ensure students’ control of their development and encourage development of authorized and autonomous learners. The DDP is designed to measure key “performances” in students’ work. Designed and activated by faculty, they may include activities, assignments, and assessments to be completed by each student as an integral part of degree performance. Within the DDP, each performance contains criteria and feedback critical to the self-assessment that is a hallmark of the program. Students use the system to review and document progress across courses and the “eight abilities,” and to set goals for further learning. The DDP provides a window into students’ work for faculty to view and assess progress, and to provide feedback and commentary on observed patterns of performance. The commentary informs student goal-setting and faculty mentoring. Ongoing course curriculum development relies on aggregate data from student portfolios to evaluate program objectives and outcomes. In this way, the curriculum of Alverno College undergoes continuous review and renewal.

The components of the Alverno College curriculum and supporting systems anticipate the development and implementation of online competency-based programs and digital scholarship. The DDP is a practical tool to be evaluated by any school interested in the potential of actual tools used in facilitating online learning with competency-based elements. Alverno has made a version of the portfolio available for other institutions to use. DDP (v 3.2), available for download from the Alverno College website, is customizable; other institutions can define the assessment matrices they wish to use and how the developmental levels are to be defined.

NOTE: Alverno College works in various collaborative ways to assist other schools in defining competency-based programs of their own. Since 1980, the college has hosted the Institute for Educational Outreach to share its approach to competency-based education.

Next model to take a look at: SUNY Empire State.


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