This is the third edition in our From the Field series, featuring interviews with expert practitioners of competency-based education.
Name: Michelle Solér, Ph.D., MBA
School: University of North Carolina, General Administration
Title: Director of Competency-Based Education and Assessment
What makes her awesome: Dr. Solér’s work helps to clear the path to success for schools across UNC’s 17 campuses as they consider, design and implement competency-based programs.
Dr. Solér provides strategic assistance, communication and program development support for student competencies. She aligns assessment efforts in the Division of Academic Affairs with the Office of Learning Technology and Innovation initiatives to help ensure campus and student success. Dr. Solér works with faculty and staff across the university system on collaborative competency-based programming and assessment projects.
How did you become involved in competency-based education?
Everybody just lands in CBE; no one seems to have it as a goal when they initially think about their career. Those of us who end up in CBE often do so because we find that in higher education, we need to adjust to meet the needs of our learners and instructors.
My business background was pivotal in developing a solid foundation for understanding competency-based education because it is the business processes that have to evolve to support a new concept of student mastery of content.
I did not enter higher education through traditional pathways. Instead, I began working with universities through business process consulting work that I was doing with a large tax and audit firm. What I have noticed through my years working in higher education administration and teaching is that this strong connection between business processes and innovative pedagogy comes together in competency-based education programs and degrees.
Why competency-based learning?
Colleagues have reported spending time teaching upper level students how to write from a grammar perspective instead of getting to teach writing around a concept. Competency-based education has the potential to develop systems that address the learning needs of individual students and allows instructors to address issues that emerge early on by providing customized support.
What’s great about CBE is the inherent flexibility deliberately designed into the delivery model. Students can learn anytime, anyplace and at their own pace. What would learning look like if we didn’t hold students to seat time during a semester? What if a student needed a couple more weeks to master content? What is the domino effect on supporting business processes? Student success in any field is likely with increased flexibility of pushing out the semester and pulling in an academic coach. These key components are found in successful implementation of CBE degrees and programs.
If colleges and universities are going to survive in today’s changing academic environment, we have to ensure our students have the skills they need to thrive in their careers. And those same competencies that make a student attractive to a future employer also make for better students and a better teaching experience for faculty.
Students achieve mastery based on personal learning achievement and not time spent enrolled in a semester credit hour course. For example, you may be able to quickly work through the competencies inherent in an accounting degree while I may need a bit more time. We will both arrive at the same endpoint: accounting content mastery levels determined by disciplinary faculty. Einstein said, The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once, like at the end of a semester. On the academic calendar, if a student makes it to the end of the semester with anything above an F, credit is awarded. With competency-based education, time spent in a seat does not result in credit earned. Student mastery of content equals credit earned. Time is relative.
UNC recently hosted a CBE Summit—why? And what did it include?
We came up with the idea to host a summit because of the emerging interest in competency-based education in higher education. There was real desire to involve and teach people at all levels of the university what is involved in CBE pedagogy and delivery models. The ultimate goal of the CBE Summit was to teach and communicate to diverse constituencies about available information and resources. The Summit brought together national experts who have successful CBE programs and can answer questions about financial aid, as well as pedagogy and advising. I wanted UNC faculty and staff to know the essentials of what to pack for the CBE journey.
From a logistical viewpoint, we didn’t want to give directives and mandates to implement CBE on campuses. Within the UNC system, our diverse campuses maintain unique missions. CBE will work better for some campuses than others, and will work better for some degrees than others. We just knew we had to provide that space in which to share and create new knowledge around CBE.
How is competency-based education connected to student success in the real world?
There are a lot of questions that come with standing up a competency-based program. They often sound similar to the types of questions that were asked 20 years ago when we saw the emergence of online learning. Similarly, this disruptive change to the status quo of content delivery in higher education is causing institutions to find ways to provide a more affordable and accessible learning experience for their students. Our adult learners are entering an increasingly complex global market that demands their proficiency in industry skills, knowledge, and abilities.
When I first began teaching in higher education,16 years ago, my background in marketing was an asset as it helped me establish the vital connections with students online. Similarly, many business programs seem ready-made for CBE since they steadily focus and reflect on industry standards.
In my freshman classrooms, I would say to students, “On your resume this is how the activity we’re doing now translates,” so that they knew why they were doing what they were doing. In higher education, we have to communicate to our students so they understand the real-world value and significance of what they are learning with the goal that they will connect it to their life and career aspirations.
My work as the Director of Competency-Based Assessment and Education is driven by my interest in connecting students to this broader picture of their place in the world. With available statistics that show students are graduating from programs and remain unemployable, it has also become increasingly more vital on so many levels that we ensure students know how to find a job after earning a degree.
There is so much that campuses are doing to make CBE a reality and it is wonderful when we all come together to help shape the future of education. It is amazing to see some great schools across our university system really pushing the boundaries of traditional education business models and doing such cool things to help students on so many levels. I’m looking forward to the year ahead.