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Competency-Based Education Can Be a ‘Game-Changer’: Prince George’s Design Team Shares 3 Tips to Get Started

In one of our last Innovation Snapshots, A Silver Lining: State Funding Leveraged to Support Student Advising Innovation for Prince George’s Community College Micro-pathways, we shared how Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) began instituting a new noncredit/Continuing Education advising model for their three micro-pathways as part of the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund—CCGEF or the Fund for short. At the Lab, we define micro-pathways as two or more stackable credentials (21st century skills included) validated by employers that lead unemployed, displaced, and underpaid low-wage workers to median-wage occupations and on a path to a degree.

In addition to developing new noncredit and Continuing Education supports, Prince George’s is using the Fund as an opportunity to redesign their offerings toward Competency-Based Education (CBE) models. Through the design of three micro-pathways— Healthcare Technician, IT Support Specialist and Hospitality Leadership —Prince George’s seeks to give learners more agency and control in their learning by shifting to CBE.


What is Competency-Based Education (CBE)? 

Definitions for Competency-Based Education vary across the field, but they all share the following key features: 

  1. Curricula are designed around specific competencies; 
  2. Advancement through a program is based on demonstrating competencies; and 
  3. The time it takes to demonstrate a competency can vary. Key to these definitions is a focus on learning, rather than time, with learning tied to demonstration of competence rather than seat time or credit hours*. 


How is Prince George’s approaching Competency-Based Education (CBE) in their micro-pathways? 

CBE provides learners the flexibility they need to complete their program in their timeframe. June Evans, CCGEF design lead for Prince George’s Community College and director of the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Innovation Hub (INNOHUB), explains, “We see Competency-Based Education as a game-changer. Even though our micro-pathways have been established to be flexible to meet learners where they are, connect them to jobs, and earn higher wages, the best way for us to do that is within a CBE model.From what PGCC has witnessed, most people, particularly adult learners, don’t want to go back to school due to the lack of flexibility.

Prince George’s believes CBE is not about adding new components to existing programs, and instead sees CBE as an opportunity to re-imagine the role of faculty and how learners engage in the programs. Evans explains it this way: 

“Let’s say there are seven Introduction to Communications classes taught by seven faculty members. Learners would complete most of their coursework independently online, then meet individually or in groups with a faculty member at specific times. This would be based on identified areas where learners may be struggling or need help. Each faculty member would specialize in something different based on learner needs. With the CBE model, we would not need to hire more or use less faculty, but instead use them differently with a focus on learner needs.” 


3 Tips for Community Colleges Starting the Journey to CBE

The approach Evans has outlined and her vision for Prince George’s requires a mindset shift and significant change management across the college. The Prince George’s design team shares their three major tips for colleges embarking on their own CBE venture: 



Start with Stakeholder Buy-in
The transition to CBE requires a paradigm shift. Dr. Clayton A. Railey, executive vice president and provost of Teaching, Learning, and Student Success, has made it clear the college is steering the entire ship in this direction. Evans and the core design team are taking the lead with securing stakeholder buy-in across the college and with external partners. Internally, it has been important to help everyone understand the big picture of CBE and the focus on learner buy-in. Externally, team members are doing presentations and engaging stakeholders about the shift and the positive impact it will have on the community as a whole. Employers are excited about learners coming to the workplace having mastered competencies related to key job roles. Community-based organizations are on board with greater focus on client/learner needs and the flexibility of CBE. As Evans shared, the feedback the Prince George’s team has gotten makes it clear many are ready for change.



Institute Professional Development for Faculty
Critical to internal buy-in is providing faculty with professional development opportunities centered on understanding and building expertise in CBE. Doing so encourages faculty to design programs with this in mind, and makes the payoff clearer. The college’s eDeveloper has been leading the faculty training, starting with differentiating competencies and learning outcomes. Traditional learning outcomes center on the learner understanding content, whereas competency-based learning requires learners to demonstrate they can do something in a measurable way, like perform a skill that would be needed on the job. Through this training, Prince George’s faculty are slowly getting more comfortable with CBE course development, and learners will begin to see the outcomes of this buy-in in how their courses ask them to engage.



Use a Phased Approach
As a core element of change management, pacing the transition to CBE is going to be key to sustainable success and adaptation, hence Prince George’s using the design of their micro-pathways as an opportunity to introduce and test this shift in program design. This fall, the first three modules for each of Prince George’s micro-pathways will be accessible online in a self-paced format with learners having access to a faculty member for support. The remaining modules will be available in January 2022. In spring 2022, additional enhancements include the opportunity for learners to attend two virtual career readiness workshops, engage with employers on either a project, design challenge, and/or participate in industry appreciation discussions. Every learner that completes both career readiness workshops will connect with the Career Development Center to help secure internships and/or job placement.


Prince George’s is using the design and development of their three micro-pathways as an opportunity to shift the college towards a Competency-Based Education model. The college expects to implement CBE across the entire college in approximately five years.


This article is written by Valerie Taylor as part of a new mini publication series, Innovation Snapshots: Ideas in Action. This series dives into the many innovative ideas and models that we have co-designed with 135+ colleges and learning institutions to better center and support new majority learners in reaching their goals. Spotlighting our partners across different Lab-driven initiatives, each part of this series focuses on a process or framework and the resulting work of a different partner. Find the rest of the series here.


Learn more about the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund here, and follow the work on Twitter: #CCGEF.


 * Grant, 1979; Everhart, Sandeen, Seymour, & Yoshino, 2014; Competency-Based Education Network, 2018.

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