The prospect of transitioning a traditional educational program to a competency based model brings with it many opportunities for change, opportunities that some might view as threats to the field of education, or to their existing roles and responsibilities. This is the case with many faculty members at institutions that are considering competency-based education (CBE).
While providing CBE training to more than a dozen institutions over the past several months, I have witnessed faculty resistance at almost every one. In discussions with faculty members opposed to CBE, I have heard many of them say that they fear a CBE model will turn their institution into a vocational school, or that there will be too much emphasis on relating education to getting a job. Some spoke about a fear that employers will exert too much influence over curriculum. Still others are fearful about what a shift to CBE would mean for compensation models or tenure.
These are all valid concerns, and institutions that are considering moving in this direction would do well to consider them and engage faculty members very early in their discussions. The concept of competency-based education and assessment and the changing roles of faculty in such a model can be threatening to the very identity of most faculty members. There are, however, many faculty members who are excited by the CBE concept and the new opportunities it offers in terms of student interaction and models of education. These advocates can be instrumental in assisting with the development and acceptance of a CBE program, but there are many questions to be considered, even with an enthusiastic faculty. For example, how involved will faculty be in the development of the program? Will outside vendors be used to develop competencies in lieu of faculty? Will faculty be required to work with them?
Will the institution retain a traditional program and offer a competency-based option at the same time? Will faculty be expected to participate in both? Faculty who are used to the role of “sage on the stage” may not adjust well to the “guide on the side” function that is very important to most CBE programs. What are the alternatives for them? Can they remain in their existing role, teaching students enrolled in traditional programs, rather than the institution’s CBE program? Or would their talents be better used in the development of the competencies or the assessment of learning, rather than acting as course facilitators?
What initial training and ongoing support will be provided to faculty in the CBE environment? How will their role interact with traditional advisors? Where will support staff fit in?
The involvement of employers in program development or assessment is another important factor to consider. Some resistant faculty say they fear too much emphasis on preparing students for jobs, but isn’t that a main reason students enroll at a college or university? It is important to know the competencies that employers are seeking in your graduates. However, with many employers all crying out for the same capabilities (communication skills, dependability, strategic thinking, team orientation, etc.) programs that embed them will be preparing students for a wide variety of workplace opportunities; we will not need to provide employers undue involvement in curriculum development.
A reminder that many disciplines already employ something akin to competency-based assessment in their evaluation of student progress might be helpful in getting faculty to buy-in. Assuring that a student can properly install brakes or that programming code actually does something are two examples that we might see in technical programs, but these are not the only type of programs where this occurs. Student teaching or clinical rotations in healthcare are two more examples. Of course, competency is about more than being able to do something; it is about knowing how and when to apply this knowledge in varying situations. Assuring that this is the case is at the heart of competency-based programs.
Questions about compensation are vital to the discussion of CBE. Each institution will need to grapple with this issue and create a formula that makes sense for all parties. Equity will be required between CBE faculty and traditional faculty, or between the new model and the old if there will be an institution-wide change.
Dislodging a century-old (and then some!) system of educational delivery is bound to concern many who have dedicated their lives to that model; however, as we would encourage our students to explore new opportunities, we can also remind our peers and colleagues that change can be a positive and rewarding experience.