Faculty members traditionally thought of learning as a process of dispensing knowledge to students by means of two primary formats, lecture and text. The resulting education prepared students for the workplace only in a broad sense, leaving the instruction of specific job skills to trade schools, community colleges, and vocational programs.

By necessity, this model is changing. Competency-based education (CBE), which creates partnerships with private companies and focuses on individualized learning plans, fulfills several important needs: creating job training for specialized skills, such as cybersecurity and medical technology; decreasing the cost of college tuition; and boosting graduation levels for non-traditional learners.

These changes won’t come without substantial cost and turmoil. Just part of the challenge administrators face when attempting to steer their institution in this direction is encouraging faculty who are entrenched in traditional teaching methods to get onboard and join them as agents of change.

While Traditional Universities Struggle to Make the Transition

That CBE is the barbarian at the gate of academe’s ivory tower is a main concern for faculty wedded to traditional learning models. With support for academia waning, and just over a third of Americans no longer supporting tenure for faculty members, teachers have reason to feel threatened.

Here are just a few of their concerns:

  • CBE will turn universities into trade schools, diminishing the quality of education.
  • Training to engage students with different learning styles will consume time traditionally spent engaged in research.
  • Partnerships with industry will give the private sector too much say in curricula and could place limits on free speech.
  • Connection with students will not be as meaningful, particularly when CBE is combined with online education.
  • Institutional change will lead to job insecurity and a transfer of authority from faculty to administration.

Institutions Founded on the Principle of CBE Are Successful

Western Governor’s University is a model of how effective competency-based education can be. The Utah-based online university has been growing at an astonishing year-over-year rate of 15-20 percent due to the fact that its business plan keeps tuition low and provides differentiated learning plans with streamlined efficiency.

Its current president, Scott Pulsipher, comes from an SaaS background – he worked at Amazon and was president of Needle —  and is comfortable running WGU as a product and service provider. In a recent podcast, he explains how the university became so successful: “CBE is a defined model that combines the ability to identify standards for learning while ensuring that all students meet those standards and recognizing that you have to have a combination of great content with great engagement [added emphasis] that’s adapted to each student.”

Pulsipher’s words might sound a bit like typical entrepreneurial hype, but they actually provide a key to how administrators might attract faculty to CBE. Maintaining “great content” simply means keeping the focus on high quality education, while having “great engagement” is designing curricula with different learning outcomes in mind.

Getting faculty engaged in the development of CBE programs from the outset is one of the best ways to guarantee undiminished quality while at the same time allowing professors themselves to continue to stay meaningfully engaged as they play an active role in thought leadership.