Community Colleges Offer Self-Paced Learning, Eliminating the Need for Traditional Classes

Jaqueline Yalda, a campus police officer at El Paso Community College in Texas, sought a promotion earlier this year. However, in order to be eligible, she needed to complete a college-level course in criminal justice, which made her a little nervous as she hadn’t taken a college class in many years. Despite her initial apprehension, Yalda successfully completed the “Introduction to Criminal Justice” course and even earned an ‘A’ grade. Her accomplishment led to a promotion to the rank of sergeant, and now she has set her sights on becoming a lieutenant, which will require her to finish her full associate degree.

Yalda was able to achieve her goals by participating in a “competency-based education” program offered by El Paso Community College. This program allowed her to take the course online at her own pace and complete it in just four weeks, which was faster than the allotted eight weeks. Yalda appreciated the convenience and ease of the online platform and praised the professors for their quick online responses to her questions.

Supporters of competency-based education see it as a valuable opportunity for working adults and nontraditional students who wish to enhance their skills and advance their careers. However, there are critics, including some professors, who believe it is an inadequate substitute for traditional learning methods.

While a few colleges across the country have incorporated competency-based education into their curriculum, California is set to become the first state to coordinate competency-based programs across eight community college campuses using state-approved curricula. This move may pave the way for other states to follow suit in the future, according to Amber Garrison Duncan, executive vice president of the Competency-Based Education Network.

One of the key distinctions of competency-based education is that it does not require students to attend traditional classroom lectures. Instead, students have the flexibility to complete coursework at their own pace. They are evaluated based on their mastery of the material through projects, papers, or exams.

Another significant aspect of competency-based education is its affordability. Unlike private, for-profit online universities, competency-based courses offered at public community colleges cost about the same as regular courses. These courses often have prerequisites based on life experience or specific skillsets rather than class standing.

The implementation of competency-based education programs has received interest from a wide range of institutions, from community colleges to four-year universities and across various disciplines. However, there are concerns among instructors who value personal relationships with their students and worry about a potential loss of connection in a competency-based model.

In California, seven out of eight participating community colleges have received accreditation for the competency-based programs. Early childhood education, business administration, kinesiology and wellness, technology, automotive tech, and culinary arts are among the courses offered across these campuses. These programs have been designed to cater to the needs of working adults, older adults, and underserved students.

The biggest challenge in implementing competency-based education has been obtaining accreditation for these courses, as they often rely on knowledge gained outside of traditional learning settings, such as job experience. Nevertheless, states like California have recognized the benefits of competency-based education to address worker shortages in fields like healthcare, education, and specialized trades.

Several states, including Texas and Kentucky, have taken steps to fund and support the implementation of competency-based courses in community colleges. Even some four-year state schools, such as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, offer degrees through competency-based courses.

While there is growing interest in competency-based education, concerns have been raised by faculty members. A survey conducted among El Paso Community College students revealed that the majority completed their competency-based courses in just three to four weeks. Though most students planned to enroll in more courses, some students found the format to be less suitable for their learning style. Faculty members welcome the flexibility provided by competency-based education but express concerns about a potential disconnect with students.

Faculty involvement in the course design process is considered vital to gain their support for competency-based education. It is also important to ensure that faculty members are compensated appropriately for their work, just as they would be for teaching an in-person class. Collaboration and communication between faculty and administrators are key to a successful transition to competency-based education.

However, some faculty members at a California college expressed concerns about the shift to competency-based courses, fearing that it could worsen inequities among students. There were concerns about potential changes to faculty pay and evaluation methods.

Measuring the success of competency-based education programs can be challenging since they differ from traditional programs in many ways. However, early attempts to measure enrollment and retention rates have shown positive outcomes in competency-based programs. As interest in competency-based education grows, it is expected that more institutions will adopt similar courses to meet the needs of a diverse student population.

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