Skills Learning Personal development Competency Based Education

What is Competency-Based Education?

When most people first hear about Calbright, they focus on the fact that we are free: Californians don’t pay for anything we offer. 

After that, they tend to focus on the fact that we’re an exclusively online community college.  Very few public higher education institutions are.  

After that, they tend to focus on the fact that we don’t offer degrees – we offer training designed to help students earn certifications that companies value and use to make hiring decisions for good jobs.

All of these are significant and unusual, but none of them are the most significant way in which Calbright is different from a traditional college. The way in which Calbright is most distinct is also the one people focus on the least: every program Calbright offers uses Competency-Based Education.

This is radically different, and an incredibly powerful way to support our students.

What is “Competency-Based Education?”

Calbright didn’t invent Competency-Based Education (CBE), but when we were re-imagining college to make it more accessible and supportive to the people who need it most, it emerged as a clear model to pursue. We joined the small but growing movement of schools using it to help students and apply it to every class we offer.

The Competency-Based Education Network defines CBE as:

“an academic model in which the time it takes to demonstrate competencies varies and the expectations about learning are held constant. Students acquire and demonstrate their knowledge and skills by engaging in learning exercises, activities, and experiences that align with clearly defined programmatic outcomes. Students receive proactive guidance and support from faculty and staff. Learners earn credentials by demonstrating mastery through multiple forms of assessment, often at a personalized pace.”

We can make that simpler. In traditional classrooms, students learn the material at the same pace. The class begins at the same time, it ends at the same time, and students are all assigned the same homework, at the same time, and it’s all due at the same time. 

What’s different is the final grades they get: some may get an A, some may get a B, some a C. But as long as they don’t fail, all that really matters is that they’ve spent the same amount of time in the class, doing the same thing as everybody else.  

CBE at Calbright is the other way around: there are no “grades” in the traditional sense – all that matters is whether students have mastered the material, which can be done as quickly as they’re able, while taking the time they need. Using the CBE model, classes at Calbright are flexibly paced and match the student’s life: students start when they’re ready, take breaks when they need to, can move quickly through sections where they already understand the lessons, and can take extra time on sections where they are struggling. All that matters is that, when they are ready, they have mastered the lessons.

Creating A College That Can Say Yes

Using the CBE model means that Calbright’s programs are accessible to everyone: they can be taken by people who work two jobs and don’t have a steady schedule; they can be taken by working parents who need to put their children first; they can be taken by people who only have time in the mornings or people who only have time on weekends. They can be taken in 15 minute increments or day-long stretches. They can be taken by people who already have experience and they can be taken by complete beginners who need extra support. All that matters is that people do the work and come out of it learning the material. 

The fact that Calbright is a free online community college makes it accessible to many people. The fact that it is a college that uses Competency-Based Education is what makes it truly accessible to everyone, and a revolutionary shift in the way we re-imagine college.

By combining these elements – making a public community college that is free, online, and uses CBE – Calbright has become a college that is truly accessible to everyone. Our focus is on helping students earn the certifications they need to improve their careers, and our programs can be completed quickly and simply, with no red tape or burdensome administration. Traditional college degrees take years: Calbright’s courses can be completed in less than six months.

But time isn’t the factor: Competency-Based Education allows us to focus on who our students are and what they need in their lives. And that is a truly significant difference. 

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