Competency Based Education: SUNY Empire State College

             In March of 2013, the State University of New York (SUNY) board of trustees announced a bold vision outlining how prior-learning assessment, competency-based programs, and MOOCs will inform a plan to ensure that students complete degrees on time and for reduced cost. According to the announcement, the new initiative—Open SUNY—would “bring all online courses offered at each of the system’s 64 campuses onto a shared and comprehensive online environment, making them accessible to all of the system’s 468,000 students and 88,000 faculty.”

Significantly, the pre-existing prior-learning assessment and competency-based programs of SUNY’s Empire State College were to serve as the mechanism driving that initiative.  Nancy L. Zimpher, SUNY chancellor, cited SUNY Empire State College’s expertise in this area as the foundation for the system-wide initiative: “The prior-learning expertise at Empire State would make it possible for the New York system to undertake the new effort.”

What is it about Empire State that is relevant to the development and implementation of successful online learning programs? Much like Alverno College, Empire State College was born of the educational innovations of the 1960s and 1970s.  Founded in 1971, by Ernest Boyer, Empire State forged processes and programs to provide alternative paths to higher education for students outside the mainstream. As Meg Benke, Alan R Davis, and Nan L. Travers explain in “SUNY Empire State College: A Game Changer In Open Learning,” (Educause, 2012), this included

“forgoing classes in favor of independent and group studies; rejecting traditional disciplinary departments; eschewing grades for narrative evaluations; and, with faculty mentors working with learners individually, devising unique and personalized degree programs that incorporated learning acquired beyond the academy. Unlike prescribed curricula and course outlines, co-developed learning contracts presumed that learners had unique goals and interests and were active partners in the design of their own learning.”

The Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) website defines prior learning as “learning gained outside a traditional academic environment.” Prior learning is acquired through living one’s life and includes (but is not limited to) work experience, training programs, military service, independent study, non-credit courses, volunteer or community service, travel, and non-college courses and seminars. The Empire State model recognizes that traditional academic accomplishments are but one component of the continuum of education, and that this “prior learning” is relevant to the development of the whole person.  Fundamental to the Empire State program is the acknowledgement that some of an individual’s prior learning represents college-level knowledge and thus should be assessed and credentialed as part of the degree completion process.

Like mainstream colleges and universities, Empire State recognizes that the institutional experience is a significant driver in educating individuals and creating engaged citizens, and that the successful acquisition of a college degree is a hugely important milestone in this quest. Minimizing barriers to reaching that milestone is an important tenet of Empire State.  (This is not to reduce college to a “milestone,” but rather to place it on an experiential trajectory.) In this context, creation of a programmatic approach to assessing and awarding credit for prior learning helps to minimize redundancy, and reduce what is perceived to be unnecessary time and cost in attaining a degree.

Assessing and awarding credit for prior learning is not new and is not exclusive to schools like Empire State College. Institutions have long participated in a cooperative network of learning environments that include traditional schools, colleges, universities, and credentialing oversight from agencies like the American Council on Education (ACE). As Benke, Davis, and Travers note, there are a variety of means at the disposal of all institutions to recognize prior learning:  “Credit for prior learning can be awarded based on a number of assessment options. These include training or exams that have been pre-evaluated through outside organizations, such as the American Council on Education (ACE), through the college’s own evaluation, or through an individualized prior learning assessment process.”

As William K.S. Wang noted in his 1981(!) essay “The Dismantling of Higher Education” (Improving College and University Teaching 29, no. 2 (1981): 55–60), the existing cooperative network that facilitates assessment and credentialing across institutional boundaries may be viewed as part of the “unbundling” process that many predict will impact higher education as it has other commercial and not-for-profit industries (see Clay Shirky’s oft-cited essay Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable). This unbundling—specifically separation of the acquisition of knowledge from institutional credentialing of that acquisition—has been the topic of much discussion and debate, especially with the irruption of MOOCs into our discussions. On one level, institutions already agree that it is acceptable to credential a graduate who has not received his or her entire college education from a single college or university. Colleges have long accepted some percentage of transfer credits in the credential process. At this point, we may be dickering about the scope and the scale of that process.

            Unbundling knowledge and the college credential: look to the past to decipher the future. In 1981 Wang outlined a bundle of five core services provided to students by traditional colleges and universities, including imparting information, counseling, credentialing, “coercion,” and “club membership.” Wang suggested how elements of these services might be provided by alternative means and agencies.  With respect to imparting information and credentialing, Wang described how the traditional institution provides information and knowledge via classroom lecture, traditional texts, and the library. Wang proposed that the unbundled model would provide information via hired lectures, commercial tutoring firms, and commercially developed course materials.  He also suggested that credentialing would be managed and delivered via external credentialing agencies that would assign and grade papers, develop and grade examinations, and assess progress towards the degree.

In 1981 Wang could not see (or perhaps he could) the future developments of the “adjunctification” of faculty, developments in online education, and the policy decisions of agencies like ACE reviewing and certifying online courses for credit—all developments that reflect much of his thinking at the time.  Online education as we know it is part of a long, persistent progression of educational and institutional change. In her 2013 “Unbundling . . . and Reinforcing the Hierarchy?”, Margaret Andrews noted that Wang’s article foreshadowed some of what is happening now as networked technology and the agencies and corporations that support and provide it are increasingly integrated into the provision of the college and university experience. Andrews notes that, unlike the environment in 1981, higher education now has an expansive for-profit sector, student access to internet and web services and applications, interest in the development of badges and certificates, and continued work on how to award credit and credentials.

At Empire State College, this unbundling and the assessment of prior learning set the stage for programmatic development of personalized degree programs that mesh broad guidelines for majors, the academic and professional aspirations of the student, and the body of knowledge the student brings to the college experience.  Students and assigned faculty mentors collaborate to create individualized programs that lead to degrees representing successful completion of requirements outlined in the major. Students share responsibility and accountability for their education as co-creators of the program. As at Alverno College, consciously connecting the educational program to the student’s life in a comprehensive manner is designed into the system.

That system of individual review and student accountability is supported by the learner’s portfolio. The e-Portfolio at Empire State is used by the faculty-mentor and the student to reflect, assess, recommend, and plan an unfolding educational program. Faculty and learners both contribute to the narrative in the portfolio. The process results in a partnership of assessment and accountability, and aggregated data from student portfolios contributes to a continuous curricular review process.

As Benke, Davis, and Travers explain, “Within this personal degree plan, a learner can design individualized, independent studies in partnership with an appropriate faculty mentor, either face-to-face or online. Learners are expected to be active partners in the design of the learning contract associated with any study, with the faculty mentor acting as a learning coach, posing questions, and helping the learner think through the issues.” The students have more “skin in the game” in this model, and with increased authority comes accountability and a new authenticity that is integral to their future: “In the college’s mentor-learner model, learners examine what they have learned, where they want to go in their education, and what it takes to get there. Learners note that although the degree planning and prior learning assessment processes are difficult, they develop self-awareness as learners and the capacity to continue their learning in work and other educational settings.” This expansive faculty role is key to the development of the learning-centered university.

            Lessons from Learning-Centered Institutions. The decades-long trajectory and evolution of the institutions in these recent posts on competency based education illustrate successful transformation from learner-centered to learning-centered organizations. The former successfully move the learner to the center of the process but retains the traditional boundaries and barriers between faculty and learners.  The latter move learning to the center. The faculty-learner dynamic is changed, becoming less hierarchical and more concentric in structure and intent around the real objective—learning. Significantly, these institutions have fully integrated metrics for prior learning and competency into the curricular programs proper, rather than including them as add-ons or afterthoughts. A culture of assessment and curricular review, supported by organizational and systemic tools, permeates the operations and academic work of students and faculty. Alverno College and Empire State College developed themselves as learning organizations—inherently reflective and collaborative—effectively altering their institutional DNA.

As a side note, there may be an  interesting connection here to cMOOCs—the version of MOOC developed and implemented by faculty like Siemens and Downes in the connectivist mode and distinct from the more visible and highly advertised xMOOC model of the likes of Coursera and Udacity. The interactive, participatory design of the cMOOC has a great deal in common with the faculty-mentor/learner partnerships in these open colleges. Students in both models are required to take active responsibility for the shape of their education.

The systems implemented to facilitate assessment of student progress provide a comprehensive narrative of knowledge gained and competency with the materials in the student’s coursework.  The measurement of knowledge and competency in open education environments  requires active and disciplined utility of these achievement systems. Alverno College and Empire State College demonstrate that metrics of academic accomplishment need not rely on seat time and credit hours. Whatever one may think about open education, there are lessons to be learned from these institutions about the mechanics of collaboration and innovation. In response to Carol Geary Schneider’s 2012 call to explore success stories in this mode, reviewing these structures and functions will help any campus working to make strategic sense of the opportunities and pitfalls of online learning and open educational resources.