October 24, 2014

Competency Created Opportunities for Academic Librarians | From the Bell Tower

The Department of Education recently ruled to give colleges and universities more flexibility in allowing competency-based programs for degree credit. This rethinking of how students can earn credit creates new opportunities for academic librarians to help students accumulate those competencies.

Who says higher education is the most change resistant institution? Admittedly, some of the traditional practices, such as face-to-face lecturing, majors, and credit hours, remain the same after hundreds of years. But throughout that time there are notable pockets of experimentation. One of the big ones is about to commence. Change indeed! The United States Department of Education recently decided to clarify its rules so that students enrolled in competency-based programs could qualify for federal financial aid. Put another way, students could soon be earning college credit based on what they know or when they can demonstrate competency, rather than based on the amount of time spent in classes. Changes like this one tend to raise more questions than they answer, but there are already colleges and universities willing to adapt to these new rules.

Higher Ed Innovator

There’s a reason that Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) was the only academic institution that made Fast Company’s list of Top 50 Innovative Companies in 2012. Described as a “hotbed of ideas for reimagining higher learning,” SNHU is exploring a variety of alternate approaches aimed at decreasing both the time to graduation and the overall cost of earning a degree. It’s also a good example of the few institutions structuring their curriculum to accommodate competency-based learning. Their goal is to enable “direct assessment” for learning, so that it no longer matters where or how it occurs. As long as it is properly assessed in order to demonstrate that the appropriate competencies are achieved, that learning applies toward a degree. A uniquely designed entity called “College of America” will award accredited degrees based on students completing 120 different competencies. In the first two years there are no courses or faculty—and probably no need for librarians as well.

Will It Work?

While this new government rule offers great opportunities for colleges and universities to develop educational programs that could free them and their students from the bounds of conventional methods, it’s reasonable to expect questions about how it gets implemented, who monitors the programs to ensure the learning is happening, and what safeguards are in place to prevent abuse by students or institutions. That is where we encounter uncertainty. In his column about competencies, Matt Reed raises some of the issues, such as how institutions will determine competency standards so that those earned at one institution are accepted elsewhere. He refers to it as a “hairy” situation. No one knows exactly how it’s going to work, but Reed and others see the potential for positive change. For example, remedial education is currently a costly mess that is often ineffective, and the students earn no credit while adding to their student debt. This is a problem ripe for experimentation. Instead of being forced into these courses, students could work at their own pace to earn the competencies outside of the institution. That would take them one step further on the path to a degree.

What’s In It for Them?

One of the banes of our existence is getting students engaged with the library. Anything outside of a pre-arranged course-related instruction activity is often doomed to failure for lack of interest. Connecting with a librarian for research help may be just a last ditch effort for the completely lost. With little more to offer them than our advice, expertise, and guidance—great help admittedly—I can hardly blame students for choosing other options, particularly those that lie down the path of least resistance. What’s the motivation factor for the student? Knowing that better research would likely lead to a better grade should offer plenty of motivation. The link between the two is less obvious to students who already think they know how to do research; getting “A”s on all those high school cut-and-paste jobs never helps.  And let’s face it, the cool factor of hanging out with the librarian is just not there for most students. What about earning credit toward a degree and saving money while doing it? That sounds like a great motivating factor to me.

What’s In It for Us?

What excites me about competency-based higher education is that it affords new possibilities for academic librarians to help students develop and get credit for research related competencies. All those barriers to library engagement for students could evaporate if the activities we offered were tied into mastering research skills for competency credit. Badging technology appeals to me as a platform for mounting the systemic experience of developing and providing evidence of accumulated research competency. It offers students a way to maintain and track their progress, while providing some of the inherent incentivization of gaming technologies. In conversations I’ve had with colleagues in other areas that encounter student resistance to their offerings, such as the career center, computer services and even recreation, there is significant interest in using badging to allow students a mechanism for building skills, showing they’ve earning mastery, and applying it to progress towards graduation.

Gaining Administrative Buy-in

The primary barrier to my vision is getting the administration to agree to it all. Every lost credit means lost tuition revenue. If students had the option to earn some sort of library competency, it would need to be connected to tuition. It depends on the type of payment system used. For example, at SNHU students pay a fixed tuition, and then must earn an agreed upon number of competencies with a set number of years. Under that system, allowing one library/research competency seems entirely reasonable, especially when so many employers speak to the importance of graduates who are effective researchers. I think the case for a library-related competency is a strong one we can make to our administrations. The remaining question is whether many of our traditional universities, embedded in the culture of credit hours, can incorporate competency-based degrees into their current academic structure. If innovators like SNHU, Northern Arizona University, Capella, and others find success with it, our parent institutions may have no choice but to make it work.

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Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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