Competency-based Education: Strategies for Change Leadership (Part 1)

Office with workers mapping out strategy for project

For many in higher education, Competency-Based Education (CBE) is synonymous with change, big change. But one of the most important — yet often overlooked — aspects of developing a successful CBE program is change leadership. Effective change leadership can mean the difference between success and failure in mobilizing and energizing the vital human resources that drive CBE innovation. We have identified six strategies that illustrate the kind of intentional and thoughtful change leadership essential for developing innovative CBE programs. I will cover the first three in this blog post and the next three in a subsequent blog post.

Why Change Leadership?

Regardless of how much CBE programs may depart from traditional educational practice and delivery, they still rely heavily on critical human interactions between students, faculty, mentors, and other support staff. Driving this interaction requires a committed group of faculty and staff just as passionate about student success and achievement in a CBE program as they are for traditional learning. That passion only comes as a result of effective change leadership.

What is Change Leadership?

Change leadership is different than change management. John Kotter draws a sharp distinction between the two. Conventional change management, he says, usually focuses on getting stakeholders to buy into change, ensuring the process stays under control, minimizing risk, and keeping the initiative on budget. In contrast, change leadership endeavors to articulate a vision for the future, mobilize and coordinate resources necessary for the change, and create engines for accelerating innovation. Change leadership is the pathway to foster the same driving passion for student success through CBE that fuels traditional approaches.

Six Strategies for Change Leadership and CBE (1-3)

  1. Be clear about the particular need for a CBE program.
    CBE is on the radar screen, partly because the notion of disruptive innovation has captured the attention of campus leaders looking for a silver bullet to complex challenges and partly because of the highly visible and scaled success of institutions like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire’s College for America, and University of Wisconsin’s FlexOption programs. But before you enter the rush to design a CBE program you first have to answer clearly, what is the precise problem, or set of problems, for which CBE is the most effective solution? Is the problem reaching adult learners who have attempted college but found traditional models too inflexible, or to meet rising demand in growing career fields, or to encourage further educational attainment by offering clearer pathways from secondary to post-secondary attainment, or some combination of the above? Participants in the development process will need continual reminders about the precise needs and goals, of learners, of employers, and of the institution.
    The Institute for Transformative Learning (ITL) at the University of Texas System “guides development of next-generation programming models, high impact, technology-enhanced pedagogies, and robust data analytics,” including CBE programs. But prior to launching CBE programs, the ITL spent considerable effort to identify key employment needs in Texas as well as the profile of learners – and their particular needs – that the CBE programs needed to serve. Unlike other CBE efforts that focus on adult learners, the ITL is currently targeting programs in health care to students coming out of high school. The ITL issued a call for proposal to campuses in the system to address both the employment and student needs, with a clearly articulated need firmly supported with data.
  1. Question all of your assumptions in a formal way.
    Author and former college president Jeffrey Buller recommends a formal process for examining key assumptions using ten analytical lenses to view the proposed change and asking deep questions to surface and test these assumptions. The ten analytics lenses allow change leaders to ask a series of probing questions that can help:

    • Provide objectivity and clarity
    • Correct for nearsightedness
    • Correct for farsightedness
    • Scan distant horizons
    • Permit close analysis
    • Take an optimistic view
    • Take a dim view
    • Enhance social interactions
    • Take in the whole view.

    For those advocating a CBE approach or initiative, it may be tempting to roll up the sleeves and begin describing in detail what a program might look like, thinking that such clarity inspires confidence in the idea. But faculty, staff, and other stakeholders need to be more engaged in the process of thinking through change. Using the key questions posed through the ten analytical lenses to engage faculty and staff will go a long way to clarifying fundamental issues, creating a case for such an innovative program, and also building collective ownership of the proposal.

  1. Allow time for debate, dissent, and questioning.
    Don’t underestimate the degree to which CBE programs threaten traditional assumptions, perceptions and attitudes. Clayton Christensen defines disruptive innovation as a response to products or services that are actually too sophisticated, too expensive, and too complicated for many customers in their market. And CBE programs tend to target populations of student with just that response to traditional higher education. Understandably many faculty, staff, and alumni whose experience lies primarily with traditional higher education may likely view it as a devaluation of traditional educational experience. Even willing faculty and staff who understand the need for CBE may experience challenges embracing CBE practices like self-paced learning, direct assessment, and prior learning.
    The key risk in failing to adequately understand and validate legitimate concerns and criticisms is that it can short circuit innovation, creativity, and lateral thinking on the part of faculty and staff. So allow time for plenty of discussion prior to adopting a detailed program model. Make liberal use of leaders, faculty, and models from successful CBE programs to illustrate how others have addressed concerns. Try to inform discussion with data as much as possible. But most importantly honor and recognize criticisms openly. View them as challenges to overcome through creativity and ingenuity, not as opinions that require stifling. Engage in collaborative activities such as sponsoring teams to research issues and propose not one, but several potential solutions. Ask other teams to evaluate and prioritize which approaches might work best.

We also invite you to join the CBE employability conversation in a webinar, taking place November 10th as part of National Distance Learning Week. Edmonds Community College and Texas A&M University will share strategies for developing employer partnerships and increasing the employability of graduates from CBE programs. Event details can be found here.


About the Author

Paul Bowers is a strategic consultant for Learning Strategies with Pearson Higher Education and has worked at the forefront of educational technology and distance learning for 32 years. Paul has served on the Board of the Instructional Management System (IMS, now IMS-Global), the Board of Advisors for the Monterey Institute NROC open courseware project, and on the Iowa Educational Telecommunications Committee. His approach to online education is informed by seminal philosophies and strategies for engaging students in rich and meaningful learning communities that produce deep learning outcomes. Paul has served in a variety of roles at public and private higher education institutions, including 22 years as a faculty member as well as serving as Director, Dean, and Vice President for online and adult learning at several institutions, including Buena Vista University, Cleveland State University, and Hiram College. Paul also has worked extensively with community colleges and universities as a consultant for educational technology in private practice.