The Changing Role of Faculty: From Traditional Ed to Competency-Based

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Over the last century, the role of the instructor has become ever more complex as technology, pedagogy, and student expectations have advanced with the times. Today’s teacher is expected to not only be a Subject Matter Expert, but to serve as their own Instructional Designer, provide high-touch student Mentoring, and analyze learning data like a Psychometrician as well. These competing responsibilities have been heaped upon the modern teacher while the traditional model of “one teacher: 30 students” has held constant. Unsurprisingly, instructors meet some of these expectations more successfully than others, and many of these important aspects of instruction routinely fall through the cracks.

One strength of Competency Based Education is that it “dis-aggregates” the faculty role, putting some of these responsibilities onto supporting staff and learning technologies, while allowing highly qualified instructors more time to engage in high-leverage student interactions around content and achievement.

Let’s talk about each of the competing responsibilities of the aggregated faculty in depth, then discuss how modern CBE institutions are disaggregating this role to provide a higher level of service to students.

Teacher as Subject Matter Expert

In traditional higher ed, instructors are normally subject matter experts first, and educators second. Their primary responsibility is “content delivery”. That is– making the information available so students can memorize and reproduce it on an assessment.

This often looks like lecturing during class meetings, then giving multiple choice exams or written essays to evaluate student understanding.

This role of the teacher is vulnerable to disruption by modern technology, as video recordings and LMS-based quizzes can perform these same functions at a fraction of the cost.

The many hats of the Traditional Teacher

How CBE can help
This is not to say that SMEs are replaceable. They’re not. In fact, their time needs to be used more effectively, engaging them in activities that enhance student learning.

  • Instead of repeating their own lectures over and over, they could work with Instructional Designers to evaluate and curate the best available Open Ed Resources (and homegrown content) into compelling course content experiences.
  • Instead of grading multiple choice exams, they could spend more time designing and evaluating performance-based assessments, sending students back for multiple revisions with personalized feedback until mastery is reached.

These functions are a better use of a highly-trained professional subject matter expert than forcing them to parrot their own lectures, term after term.

At CBE schools like Western Governors and College for America, subject matter experts focus on these high-leverage teacher behaviors while leaving other functions to specialized staff and technologies, improving quality in the process.

Teacher as Instructional Designer

Now that Learning Management Systems are the norm in higher ed, the job of designing attractive, interactive, student-centered learning experiences with that technology still often falls to teachers. In practice, though, advances in learning technology are infrequently and inconsistently implemented in the classroom. Most edtech use in higher ed is limited to the most basic functions like making and sharing PowerPoint files, using the LMS as a glorified file dropbox.

From collaborative cloud documents to social media to classroom response systems, wikis, blogs, text annotation tools, video chat — the technology is free and appears everywhere… everywhere but in your online courses. Why? Could it be that staying abreast of all these technology tools (much less devising effective strategies for using them to improve learning) should be a full time job of its own?

Instructional Designers (like me) are trained in effective pedagogy techniques, all while developing proficiency in the latest learning design and social collaboration technology. We think all day about how to design engaging, student-centered learning experiences to make course content come alive. We master the features– ALL the features– of our chosen LMS to promote high quality learning interactions, success interventions, and rigorous assessment.

The many hats of the Traditional Teacher

How CBE can help
Many Competency-based programs have figured out that the best way to offer compelling online learning experiences is to curate, contract, and iteratively modify the best content they can get. CBE schools routinely contract course content from publishers or build upon freely available open-licensed materials instead of building courses from scratch. As at Tusculum University, This is a collaborative process between your SMEs, IDs, industry employers, and the vendors to ensure that the content meets your standards for rigor and fits with your institution’s learning goals. The curriculum (along with the competencies and assessments) are routinely tested and evaluated for efficacy using student performance data, and problematic learning modules are reviewed and revised for greater efficacy.

This process stands in stark difference to the highly individualized, opaque process normally employed by traditional faculty. Faculty spend significant time “reinventing the wheel” by developing custom lectures, readings, and assessments from scratch, and seldom test or revise lessons for efficacy. The CBE method gives all relevant stakeholders a seat at the table, and the quality of instruction is the shared focus.

Teacher as Mentor

According to the College 2020 report, students are entering college with a variety of unique and challenging needs that require a high-touch approach to supporting them. Modern students are more likely to be the first in their family to go to college, requiring some content remediation upon entry, from a lower socioeconomic class, and of non-traditional age than ever before.

While informal coaching, cajoling, and mentoring have always been part of a teacher’s toolkit, they’re not widely viewed as a core responsibility of the traditional lecturer. However schools have learned that better student support leads to greater retention, achievement, and school satisfaction — in short, it’s good business to provide the help students need to succeed.

The many hats of the Traditional Teacher

How CBE can help
Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America situates the student within a web of support from dedicated coaches, peer networks, learning partners, and an employer or community partner. The support coaches make frequent contact with each student, helping them set goals and holding them accountable to meet them. The student also has a formalized Academic Plan that guides them through their course of study.

Teacher as Psychometrician

We’ve known for a long time that data-driven instruction can help teachers dynamically address misunderstandings and gaps in student learning. As more and more instruction happens within the LMS, it becomes possible to analyze individual student performance data for warning signs of failure or the need for targeted “just in time” success interventions. This system depends on students having frequent opportunities for assessment, both formative and summative, so instructors can offer the right services at the right time.

Designing, delivering, grading, and analyzing all that data (and then determining the appropriate course of action for each student) is a huge undertaking that (A) often doesn’t happen, and (B) is a perfect task for a computer.

The many hats of the Traditional Teacher

How CBE can help
Self-grading formative study quizzes can give students immediate feedback and even recommend readings students can do to clarify misunderstandings. Learning activities can be programmed for a high degree of interactivity and then deployed within the course to provide students with the feedback and interaction they require without taking up the human instructors’ time.

The burgeoning field of adaptive learning even promises to dynamically route students through different competency modules according to their performance. In all these examples, the learning technolgies are being used to provide students with real-time feedback on their work and to support their continued exploration of the content in a way that’s impossible for human faculty. Offloading these tasks to the computer improves the student experience while freeing human teachers to do what they do best.

The Disaggregated Teacher

The (Dis)Aggregated Faculty in CBE

Teachers have long grown accustomed to varied roles we have to play, and may feel threatened as these responsibilities are split off into separate job positions. This is also an opportunity for instructors to specialize in the aspects of they job they like best. Teachers motivated by research and publication can specialize in content, while teachers who thrive from the interpersonal interactions may choose to focus on student mentoring. I have very happily moved into the Instructional Designer role where I can use my creativity and problem-solving skills in exciting ways.

But beyond what instructors want, the real reason for this change should be to provide a competitive learning experience for students. These changes to the faculty role make better use of human teachers’ time so they can focus on high-leverage teaching practices for students. The transparent, collaborative, and iterative approach to curriculum design leads to more effective online lessons. And offloading significant tasks to the learning technologies can lower costs while offering a higher level of student feedback and more targeted support.

To learn more, we invite you to view a recorded webinar hosted by the Online Learning Consortium & Pearson titled “Are you CBE Ready? Assessing Your Competency-Based Education Program Readiness,” recorded November 14, 2014.


Pearson is proud to have celebrated National Distance Learning Week (NDLW), sponsored by the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA). We support the millions of faculty and students now teaching and learning online. If you were unable to join us throughout the week of November 10-14 as we recognized the many accomplishments and improved learning outcomes achieved with our partners in distance learning, you can view our recorded events at: http://www.pearsonhighered.com/ndlw/.