A Brief History of CBE

Feedback welcome!  Segment of lit review on CBE.  You know – for a little light reading!

A Brief History of CBE

The dominant model of higher education – and the model by which students receive federal financial aid – utilizes the Carnegie Unit as a proxy for student learning.  The Carnegie Unit was created in the early twentieth century when Andrew Carnegie established the first pension system for college professors through a donation of $10 million to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  In order to determine what colleges and professors were eligible to participate, institutions needed to meet specific criteria, one of which was the completion of a high school course of study (Silva, White & Toch, 2015).  The Carnegie unit was born of the effort to codify what the completion of a high school course of study would entail (Freeland, 2014).  One Unit was determined to be a year of study in a field for five days a week (or 120 hours of contact time); fourteen units was determined the minimum preparation encompassing four years of English and foreign language, three years of history, science, and mathematics (Silva, White & Roch, 2015).

The result of this was that time itself became the core metric for the measurement of learning; this became known as “seat time” (Freeland, 2014; Ordonez, B. 2014).  This interpretation of time as equivalent to learning became the default system in higher education as well.  The Carnegie Unit in colleges and universities is dependent upon the number of “contact hours” per week per semester.  For a typical, four-year bachelor’s degree this translates to a student earning fifteen credit hours per semester for around 120 total credits (Silva, White & Roch, 2015).

Criticism of the analogy of the equivalence of time and learning came within decades of the creation and implementation of the Carnegie Unit by none other than the Carnegie Foundation itself.  The Carnegie Foundation conducted a study on the results of an assessment given to college students at the conclusion of each year of study in college.  It indicated that students’ level of knowledge remained constant throughout the four years of education, rather than increasing each year (Laitinen, 2012.)  In response, the then-president of the Carnegie Foundation Walter A. Jessup wrote that “the passing of the system of units and credits, which, useful as it was … is not good enough for American education today” (Laitinen, 2012, p. 5).  This critique of the effectiveness of the Carnegie Unit came in 1938.  Nearly eighty years later, the Carnegie Unit is still the overwhelming mechanism serving as a proxy for learning in higher education and in high schools, despite Walter A. Jessup’s exhoriation that colleges should base student development on “the attainments of minds thoroughly sorted and competent” (Laitinen, 2012, p. 5).

Even before that study, in 1934 the then-president of the Carnegie Foundation – Henry Suzzallo – wrote in the annual report that educational systems should allow for more flexibility and individualism in learning while being more transparent about the standards of performance to be achieved in as little time as possible (Silva, White & Roch, 2015).   In the meanwhile, however, the initial encouragement of the Carnegie Foundation for colleges and universities to utilize the Carnegie Unit beyond the classroom as a mechanism for the improvement of “administrative efficiency of schools and colleges,” aligning to the focus on the historical development of “scientific management” during the early 1900s entrenched the use of the Carnegie Unit in the administration of colleges and universities themselves (Silva, White & Roch, 2015).  Previous U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in remarks delivered to the American Enterprise Institute, stated how “A century ago, maybe it made sense to adopt seat-time requirements for graduation… But the factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century” (U.S. Department of Education, 2010, para. 22).  Seventy-five years earlier, two previous presidents of the Carnegie Foundation agreed.  More recently, in the report The Carnegie Unit published by the Carnegie Foundation, concluded that “American education’s reliance on the Carnegie Unit is indeed an impediment to some of the solutions sought by today’s reformers” (2015, p. 11).  The authors specifically note the challenges to innovation in educational systems based on the use of the Carnegie Unit by the federal government for financial aid for students.

Though gaining ground in discussions, experimentations, programs and policy, CBE itself is not a new concept.  Some of this interest can be traced back to the Higher Education Act of 1965 when college became accessible to a wider student audience (Larsen McClarty & Gaetner, 2015; Klein-Collins, 2013).  Many of the characteristics of these newly developed CBE programs are the same as programs originally was developed and implemented in the 1970s.  The U.S. Department of Education through the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) funded the creation of many CBE programs in an attempt to serve the needs of post-traditional, adult learners who were not well served in the typical college structure and research the effects (Larsen McClarty & Gaertner, 2015; Klein-Collins, 2013).  Additional elements contributed, including education being viewed as more individualized, the concept of “mastery learning” gained momentum, and “aptitude” being redefined (Hall & Jones, 1976, p. 8).

Some of the rationale behind those initial experiments will sound familiar to those aware of the contemporary expansion of CBE programs.  Hall and Jones (1976) reference four unrelated factors in the original development of, and focus on, CBE, particularly related to the field of teacher education:  (1) a surplus of available K-12 teachers, (2) questions about the need for, and value of, a college degree, (3) taxpayer calls for accountability in educational spending and (4) research and development (R & D) efforts supported by the federal government.  Funding for educational research included not only teaching methodology, but also instructional media.  Twenty educational laboratories and eleven research and development centers were built from the mid 1960’s forward and supported some of these efforts (Hall & Jones, p. 4-5).

A consortium of Minnesota community colleges received one of these FIPSE grants in 1973.  The evaluation of student performance determined that those educated in the CBE program demonstrated “improved performance for beginning teachers, and higher levels of teacher and student satisfaction” (Larsen McClarty & Gaertner, 2015, p. 1).  Other initial recipients of FIPSE grants for CBE included Alverno College, DePaul University School for New Learning, Empire State College and Regents College (since renamed to Excelsior College); the work of these institutions were foundational in the development of CBE (Brower, 2014; CAEL, 2013; Klein-Collins, 2013; Book, 2014; Council of Independent Colleges, 2015; ).

Alverno College began working with CBE programs in the late 1960s, introducing their first CBE degree program in 1973 (Larsen McClarty & Gaertner, 2015; Council of Independent Colleges, 2015; Klein-Collins, 2012).  Alverno College is a Catholic women’s college founded by the School Sisters of St. Francis in 1887 (Alverno College, n.d.; Council of Independent Colleges, 2015).  In the late 1960’s a faculty survey was sent out that solicited feedback from faculty on what learning outcomes were seen as the most critical for both departments and courses  (Klein-Collins, 2012; Larsen McClarty & Gaertner, 2015).  Initially, four global learning competencies were created (Klein-Collins, 2012); these were expanded through further discussion to eight core competencies (Klein-Collins, 2012; Larsen McClarty & Gaertner, 2015; Alverno College, n.d.).  The language used by Alverno College for these competencies is “abilities;” they call the approach an “Ability-Based Curriculum” (Council of Independent Colleges, 2015).  These eight core “abilities” are communication, analysis, poblem-solving, valuing, social interaction, developing a global perspective, effective citizenship, aesthetic engagement (Alverno College, n.d.).   They have been revisited over 13 times since the creation of the original four competencies (Klein-Collins, 2012; Larsen McClarty & Gaertner, 2015).

The progress of students in their achievement of the abilities “is articulated as a series of developmental levels through which individual students progress over the course of their college careers” (Klein-Collins, 2012, p. 17).  Alverno College does not award grades, rather they provide students with a “narrative transcript” – which “showcases growth, painting a detailed picture of your accomplishments for parents, graduate schools and employers” (Alverno College, n.d., para. 1).

Empire State College – part of the SUNY system – was established by the SUNY Board of Trustees in 1971 (SUNY Empire State College, 2015).  Heavily influenced by the desire to serve underrepresented groups in higher education, the pedagogy of the College from its conception has been highly individualized, enabling students to design their own degree programs in partnership with faculty mentors in one of 12 broad areas  (Benke, Davis, & Travers, 2012; Laitinen, 2012; SUNY Empire State College, 2015).

The learning paradigm there was significantly different than that embraced by the vast majority of higher education institutions.  At Empire State College, “co-developed learning contracts presumed that learners had unique goals and interests and were active partners in the design of their own learning” (Benke, Davis, & Travers, 2012, p. 145).  Though not yet developed as a learning science at the time, this foreshadowed the formalization of heutagogy, rooted in andragogy and highly leveraged by the advances in distance learning technologies, whereby learners self-direct their own education with a great amount of autonomy; individualized learning contracts are indicative of this process (Blaschke, 2012; Hase & Kenyon, 2001).  Empire State College also has a defined process for implementing PLA (Prior Learning Assessment) in order to enable students to obtain credit for prior learning, which can account for up to 75% of their bachelor’s degree (Benke, Davis, & Travers, 2012; Laitinen, 2012; SUNY Empire State College, 2015).  This personalization is now more commonly referred to as “mass customization” whereby “students can approach the degree programs entrepreneurially, designing their own degrees and taking advantage of different methods of instruction and content delivery” (CAEL, 2013, p. 9)

Empire State College has offered online courses since the 1980s (Laitinen, 2012), and is currently “redefining and repositioning the college as an “open university” in a digital age” (Benke, Davis, & Travers, 2012, p. 146).  Most recently the college has innovated through the use of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), further expanding on their “open” philosophy; students could gain college credit for the MOOC after paying a fee (Benke, Davis, & Travers, 2012).

Also established in the 1970s was Thomas Edison State College (Council of Independent Colleges, 2015; Laitinen, 2012).  Their focus is also on meeting the needs of adult learners “whether it is for professional advancement or personal fulfillment” (Thomas Edison State College, 2015, para. 2).  They employ a variety of methods for structuring, enabling, and documenting learned knowledge and skills including PLA, credit transfer and credit by exams (Laitinen, 2012; Thomas Edison State College, 2015).  They were also early adopters of online courses, piloting their use in 1987 (Laitinen, 2012); they are highlighted currently on the college’s website (Thomas Edison State College, 2015).  In addition to online courses they have an independent study program called “FlashTrack” wherein students receive course materials on a flash drive along with exam software.  Students can currently engage in a fully online degree program at the college  (Klein-Collins, Sherman & Soares, 2010).

Excelsior College is an example of an institute dedicated to CBE and founded during the previous investment period in CBE.  It was founded in 1971 by the New York State Board of Regents under the name of Regents External Degree Program or REX.  The Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation originally funded the creation of the college, which in 1998 became a separate functioning private, nonprofit college.  Previously it had functioned as a program of the New York Board of Regents, and in 2001 it changed its name to Excelsior College (Excelsior College, 2015).

Charter Oak State College was established by the Connecticut legislature in 1973 (Brower, 2014).  “Degrees Without Boundaries” was designed to meet the unique needs of women who were returning to college.  Credit-by-exam and prior learning assessment enabled these underserved women to successfully complete degrees, with instruction being added in 1998.  With approximately 2,000 students, the majority now utilized online courses (Laiten, 2012).  Charter Oak State College is among the institutions that require a three-credit portfolio review course (Klechen, 2015).

DePaul University’s School for New Learning (SNL) was established in 1972 as a liberal arts-focused institution for working adults, age 24 and older (DePaul University, 2015; Klein-Collins, 2012).  Still their largest degree is their Bachelor of Arts with Individualized Focus Areas.  It enrolls about 2,000 students.  Their framework includes 50 competence (or “competency”) statements in three main areas:  (1) Lifelong Learning Area, (2) Liberal Learning Area, and (3) Focus Area (Klein-Collins, 2012).  DePaul University’s SNL utilizes a combination of competence-based and course-based learning experiences (DePaul University, 2015).

Little within the confines of CBE programs occurred beyond these first adopters who embraced the concept and formulated their programs around the needs of post-traditional learners until the mid- to late-1990s, when Wester Governors University was founded.  It is important to note that other fields did continue to implement other forms of education that also embrace the term “competency-based” but that do have some distinct differences from the contemporary programs that are being explored in this dissertation.  Chief among these is medical education, IT education, and some business fields.  These will be discussed in brief in further section.

Western Governors University (WGU) was established in 1995 by the nonpartisan Western Governors Association, made up of the governors of 21 Western states.  Originally called the Western Virtual University, it was created to address concerns about the need for increased access to higher education in the West for both high school graduates and post-traditional learners at a time when there was limited state funding (Mendenhall, 2012; Meyer, 2005; Paulson, 2002).  WGU has one of the foundational examples of a direct assessment programs whereby students progress through their education by proving their skills and knowledge on competency-based assessments.  Students utilize curated online content and are supported by faculty coaches in order to successfully complete their assessments (Klein-Collins, 2013).  WGU was conceptualized as a way to scale higher education utilizing online learning while focusing on demonstrable skills as the founders believed that “the credit hour was not sufficiently measuring what graduates know and can do, and that their new university would have to be competency-based to measure those skills” (Mendenhall, 2012, p. 115).

Currently, WGU has more than 50,000 graduates, 55,000 current students, and boasts an impressive average time to degree of less than 3 years for an undergraduate program, far below that of typical universities (Western Governors University, 2015).

Why the resurgence of CBE?  Some of the recent momentum in CBE can be attributed to a combination of loud calls for reform of higher education, suspicion about the value of higher education, the financial support of programs by influential funding agencies in higher education reform, and finally by the technology catching up with the philosophy of the model (Gallagher, 2014; EDUCAUSE, 2014).  Additionally, the growing focus on student outcomes and knowledge that led to the expansion of Prior Learning Assessment contributed to the advancement of the CBE movement (Larsen McClarty & Gaertner, 2015).

The 2005 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act enabled colleges to use “Direct Assessment” through acceptance as an experimental site for federal aid (Porter, 2014).  In 2013, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) became the first college to be approved for this Direct Assessment provision (Klein-Collins, 2013).

And then, a whole bunch of references…..

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