This case study is part of a series on competency-based degree programs that have been emerging in recent years. The case studies are prepared by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) with funding from Lumina Foundation.
In October 2014, Brandman University launched a competency-based direct assessment program. Brandman University is a private, adult focused, non-profit institution based in California. The competency-based Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) is a low-cost and flexible alternative for adult and nontraditional students. This competency model draws on three educational frameworks: the Lumina Degree Qualifications Profile, the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) Essential Learning Outcomes, and industry standards as detailed by the Occupation Information Network (O*NET). Designers of the BBA program focused their attention on ensuring flexibility for the student through use of technology, offering high quality online content, and incorporating faculty expertise into design process.
The Brandman BBA degree takes place entirely online; it integrates text and video components, formative assessments within each competency, and faculty and academic coach interaction. Brandman developed a catalogue of over 80 competencies for the degree program. Students choose one of four specializations: information systems management, supply chain management and logistics, management and organizational leadership, or marketing.
Depending on the specialization, the student must complete between 56 and 61 of the 80-plus competencies to earn a degree.
Each competency is evaluated through an objective assessment that could take the form of an auto-scored test, student project, or portfolio, as appropriate to the specific competency. After graduation, which is expected to take about to and a half years for students with a previous degree or four years of study for students with no previous college credit, the demonstrated competencies are represented in dual transcripts that show both the competencies and the traditional course equivalents.
Brandman University, part of the Chapman University System, is an institution with 26 campuses throughout the states of California and Washington and includes robust online offerings. The institution serves nearly 12,000 students per year. A majority of Brandman students enroll with considerable transfer credit, and a primary focus of the university is to meet the needs of adult learners in dynamic and flexible ways.
Brandman first began looking at ways of incorporating competency-based education into its programs in 2011, after the release of Lumina’s Degree Qualification Profile (DQP). For its first endeavor with competency-based education, Brandman chose to revise and refine its general education requirements based on competencies drawn from not only the DQP but also the AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) Essential Learning Outcomes as well as from the institution’s own mission and values (Klein-Collins, 2012). Brandman students are required to demonstrate competency in several areas; broad, integrative knowledge; applied learning; innovation and creativity; civic engagement; global cultures and integrated learning. Students demonstrate competency through assessments that are embedded in all Brandman courses, with grading based on the AAC&U’s Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) rubrics. This adoption of a competency framework provided a foundation for building a wholly competency-based degree program at Brandman.
In 2012, Brandman administrators surveyed the landscape of higher education and concluded that the time was right to become involved in a major change initiative. Competency-based education had recently surfaced as a model with growing momentum, and Brandman leadership determined that CBE was a great way to respond to changing student needs. They believed that a CBE model would appeal to learners who are interested in moving at their own pace, having a subscription for unlimited access to academic materials rather than paying per credit, and using a variety of technologies- tablets, mobile applications, computers, etc.- in order to fulfill requirements.
As a first step in the development of a CBE degree, administrators at Brandman began by investigating what students themselves wanted and needed. The institution surveyed approximately 1,00 prospective students on the following five areas: 10 the viability of a CBE degree program; 2) the target market for CBE- millennials, newbies, adult learners; 3) the most suitable degree programs for CBE; 4) the preferred business model for CBE- accreditation, financial aid, self-service, online tutoring, liberal options for transfer of credit; and 50 the price that the market expects to pay. Based on the feedback from this survey, Brandman administrators and faculty began working on a competency-based bachelor’s degree in business administration with options for specialization.
From the earlier DQP initiative, the program designers already had considerable expertise in defining the essential competencies of a Brandman graduate and incorporating competency-based assessment approaches into degree programs. Therefore, when faced with the task of constructing an entire degree based solely on competencies, Brandman chose to lean heavily on its own internal expertise.
According to Laurie Dodge, vice chancellor of institutional assessment and planning, many institutions that develop CBE programs choose to follow a deconstruction/reconstruction model: begin with an existing program, identify its learning outcomes, and reconstruct the program in a way that reflects the outcomes of the original. In contrast, Brandman created the Bachelor of Business Administration from the ground up, or with what Dodge calls a “framework approach,” starting with the end result first by asking questions like “What should students be able to do, know, and understand upon graduation?” The designers built the degree by integrating competencies and outcomes from three accepted frameworks:
1. The Lumina Degree Qualifications Profile, which describes what students at the bachelor’s level need to know and be able to do:
a. Knowledge (broad, integrative knowledge and specialized knowledge)
b. Intellectual Skills
c. Civic Learning
d. Applied Learning
2. The Essential Learning Outcomes articulated by the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative:
a. Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World
b. Intellectual and Practical Skills
c. Personal and Social Responsibility
d. Integrative and Applied Learning
3. Industry standards as detailed by certain industry-specific certifications and by the Occupation Information Network, developed by the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration
The DQP and LEAP frameworks contributed to the building of a robust set of general education competencies to be embedded across all levels of the new competency-based degree program. First, program designers used these 2 frameworks to identify 13 general education competencies that would be required for the BBA degree. Then, for the major-specific competencies and the specialization requirements, program designers consulted a business advisory council; the standards of industry-specific certifications, such as the American Medical Association; as well as the publicly available database O*NET, which provides hundreds of occupational definitions and learning outcomes associated with specific jobs.
Informed by these three frameworks, faculty identified competencies in the form of outcome statements, which are robust statements of what the students should learn to do for each of the major academic areas of the degree. In order to ensure that the new program structure would not be a simple reconstruction of a traditional business program, administrators urged the faculty to avoid consulting the Brandman course catalogues and instead focus on relevant discipline specific outcomes. During this process, the faculty from multiple disciplines worked together to ensure that the larger University Degree Qualifications were embedded within each step of the program. Throughout the development process, the business advisory council provided feedback from the employer’s perspective, and the faculty members provided feedback from the university’s perspective. This process produced a list of over 80 unique competencies that are part of the overall BBA degree framework, divided among the three categories of general education, business core, and area of emphasis.
The general education competencies are comprised of 13 competencies in 6 subdomains. The business core has 34 competencies in 7 subdomains. Each of the areas of emphasis has its own subdomains and competencies. Examples of each type of competency are provided in Table 1.
The complete set of competencies for the BBA degree can be found in the online Brandman catalogue at: https://www.brandman.edu/files/attachments/2014-2015-Catalog.pdf
In order to complete a degree, students must demonstrate 13 general education competencies, 34 business competencies- referred to as the business core- and between 9 and 14 competencies in an area of emphasis (Table 2).
From the competency framework created by Brandman faculty, a completely new curriculum was designed that would successfully guide students through learning activities that would develop each of the 80-plus identified competencies. The trajectory of the program is such that the competencies are scaffolded, meaning that higher-level competencies cannot be accessed until a perquisite competency is first mastered. In this way, students build on their skills as they progress (see Figure 1).
The scaffolding of the Brandman BBA modules is seen not only in the bundle sequencing but also in the assessment process. Each module has both a cumulative/summative assessment at the end as well as formative assessments through- out. Summative assessments occur at the end of each module, and successful completion of a summative assessment signals the demonstration of a competency. Students also engage in formative assessments throughout their learning journey within each competency, completed through the use of an adaptive learning engine, which generates custom designed learning activities and subject matter content based on what students know and do not know. The formative assessments for all competencies are brief, objective-based assessments linked to the adaptive learning engine. These assessments not only test student progress within the module but also require students to demonstrate confidence in their answers. Students must both know the correct answers and be confident that these answers are correct.
The confidence index assists students in building trust in their learning, and it provides data for the adaptive learning engine. If a student does not pass a formative assessment, the adaptive learning engine will send students back to the content that they need to spend more time on in order to be successful the second time around. The formative assessments can be taken as many times as a student needs to in order to successfully progress through the module. “Assessment, or student demonstration of mastery, is at the heart of competency-based education,” says Dodge. In designing Brandman’s approach to assessment, the faculty team recognized that the format of each assessment needed to be appropriate for the learning outcomes and competencies. This is why Brandman employed a backward design, meaning that instead of basing the assessments on the learning activities, as in a traditional program, they opted to create the assessments based on the intended learning outcomes and then constructed the actual learning activities as foundational elements for the assessments. After viewing Brandman’s course outcomes through Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is a holistic system of classifying learning objectives in which learning at higher levels is dependent on first gaining knowledge at lower levels (Krathwohl, 2002), it became evident to the faculty early on that the competency assessments should be categorized into two separate levels (see Figure3). Level 1 competencies involve learning that is primarily focused on the understanding of information and concepts, processes which are found in the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, particularly Remembering and Understanding (Figure 1). Level 1 competencies, which make up about 40% of the competencies for Brandman’s BBA degree, are best assessed through an objective based final assessment through which students can demonstrate recollection and understanding of course material. Of the 13 general education competencies, 3 are level 1; and 18 of the 34 business core competencies are level 1. Level 2 competencies pertain to the application of learned concepts and skills as well as higher level analysis, which requires the integration of knowledge. These processes are found in the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, such as Applying and Analyzing.
Level 2 competencies constitute about 60% of the total competencies for the BBA and are assessed through performance-based projects, such as presentations, portfolios, or reports, which are graded using a rubric developed by the faculty and an in-house psychometrician. Of the 13 general education competencies, 10 are level 2; and 16 of the 34 business core competencies are level 2. In addition, nearly all specialization competencies are level 2.
From the early stages of the development of the competency-based BBA program, Brandman administrators planned for the program to be technology-driven and, therefore, easily accessible to working adult students. To accomplish this, Brandman partnered with Flat World Education, a digital publishing company that specializes in education and digital content. Flat World entered the scene to help create an online platform that was easy for students to navigate as well as to assist in the development of the online content. Since CBE was a new field for Flat World, Brandman worked hand-in-hand with them to create a customized and original platform that could hypothetically be used by other institutions interested in following a similar path. To make sure the platform would meet student needs and expectations, Flat World independently conducted research on prospective users while both Brandman and Flat World conducted joint research with the first group of CBE students. The cooperative research effort focused on how information would best be presented to CBE students, as well as how they best interact with an online educational platform. The resulting product of the partnership with Flat World was, according to Dodge, a “highly adaptive digital space” that students can access from a variety of devices. Tablets like the iPad are the most popular device, but many students also use laptops, and often both. Over 30,000 pages of content, much of it original, are available to students through the platform. This content is dynamic and can be edited or restructured if data analysis demonstrates that a change could improve student outcomes. Students have access to embedded text with videos integrated into the narrative and can participate in discussion boards and video-conferencing. Since it is so difficult to predict the needs or usage patterns of students in a brand new program, Flat World provides real-time updates and reports on the operations of the platform as well as student interactions with the embedded text. This way, changes can be made quickly if and when problems are identified.
The BBA program is offered as a subscription model, with students enrolling at any time for six-month terms. Students can start a term on any Monday during the year. The subscription model allows students to work at their own pace to complete as many modules or bundles as they can during the six-month period. Dodge expects that due to the self-paced nature of the program, the time to complete a degree may vary widely but the typical enrollee will be able to complete an undergraduate degree within 30 months, or about two and a half years. Tuition for the BBA is a flat, per-term fee of $2,700, which includes digital textbooks. Students completing the degree on schedule— within the expected two and a half years—would, therefore, expect to pay a total of $13,500 for the bachelor’s degree. A student going at a slower pace, and completing the degree in four years, would pay $21,600.
The program designers recognized that the competency-based BBA program at Brandman may be ideal for many students yet might present certain challenges for other students along the way. Therefore, it was important to make sure students have the support they need to succeed. The program designers addressed this concern by providing guidance to the students both before enrollment and throughout the program. Before a student enrolls in the competencybased BBA, Brandman requires them to complete the Competency Intro Module (CIM), which introduces the technology and how to navigate it, what to expect from competencybased coursework, and how to fit education into the students’ otherwise busy lives. Students who do not complete the three week CIM successfully are not admitted into the program and are advised that they may be better candidates for traditional or blended online programs. As noted earlier, faculty played a central role in the development of Brandman’s competency- based BBA program by identifying competencies, working with specialists to build assessments, and deciding the content of the various learning activities. The transition into a competency-based format also necessitated a shift in the traditional roles and responsibilities of faculty to ensure that students have the support they need to be successful. With the launching of the CBE program, Brandman University now has two faculty models: one model for its traditional credit-based programs and another model for the self-paced competency-based programs. In the traditional programs, full-time faculty teach and support the credit-hour blended and online programs. In the self-paced competency-based programs, full-time tutorial faculty are responsible for ensuring that students understand concepts and content. The university’s reassembled faculty model for the competency-based programs has four separate faculty roles:
1. Curriculum Developers: Curriculum developers are the subject matter experts who design the competency-based courses. These faculty members are primarily full-time academics employed by Brandman University who normally teach and provide oversight for the credit-hour blended and online programs offered by the university. 2. Tutorial Faculty: Tutorial faculty are the subject matter experts whose primary responsibilities include tutoring students in the university’s competency-based programs, maintaining currency in his/her discipline, and actively participating in the university’s continuous improvement processes. These faculty ensure that important concepts are understood and that student questions are answered. 3. Academic Coaches: Academic coaches are the advisors who counsel students regarding competency progress and program requirements. They manage student activity reports and ensure students are regularly participating in education activities. 4. Assessment Graders: Assessment graders are the subject matter experts whose primary responsibility is to accurately and consistently score student submissions of performance-based summative assessments. They are responsible for providing robust feedback on each scoring event. In addition to the interaction and support of the above staff, students in the competencybased programs also have access to online communities that can offer assistance when needed. Brandman University has established online writing and math communities that are open to all students, not just CBE BBA students.
While the BBA offers students a competency-based experience that is situated outside traditional time measured agendas like credit hours and 15-week terms, this innovative structure means that the program does not meet many of the credit-based regulatory requirements for federal financial aid. Brandman, however, successfully sought approval from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to offer the BBA as a direct assessment program (see box). This status for the BBA program permits some adjustments in the regulations to allow students to use federal financial aid for the program. The first step in the process leading up to DOE approval was to have the program approved by Brandman’s regional accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Because the BBA program differed significantly from Brandman’s credit-based and course-based offerings, the approval process necessitated a site visit for what is called a substantive change review, conducted by peers. In this thorough review of the program, WASC focused its attention on the details of the student’s educational journey as well as credit hour equivalencies. In particular, WASC required assurance that adequate academic support would be provided, that there would be appropriate use of technology, and that assessments would be rigorous. After a satisfactory site visit, the Structural Change Committee (a standing committee of commissioners) recommended to the WASC commission that the program be approved. This entire process, from notification of intent to final approval, took around 11 months. According to Laurie Dodge, the process of seeking accreditation through WASC ensured that every aspect of the BBA program was well thought out and intentional. In addition, the thorough review conducted by WASC, and their interest in the direct assessment nature of the program, helped Brandman find the best way to describe the program when seeking approval from the U.S. Department of Education. After the BBA program was approved by WASC, the next step in seeking direct assessment approval from the DOE was to apply to the Secretary of Education to have that program determined to be eligible for Title IV. This process required the submission of an application addressing how the CBE program meets a set of criteria outlined in a March 19, 2013, Dear Colleague letter. Institutions applying for direct assessment must explain its methods for “equating the direct assessment program to credit or clock hours and related parameters of the program, including minimum weeks of instructional time, payment period, how an academic activity will take place during each week, and the definition of a full-time student” as well as how students “will interact with a faculty member on a regular and substantive basis.” The institution must also “address issues such as how it plans to measure satisfactory academic progress (SAP) for students in the direct assessment program” (U.S. Department of Education, 2013). Once the application was reviewed, the DOE posed a series of additional questions to which Brandman replied in writing. At the end of this process, the application was accepted by a DOE committee, and Brandman’s BBA program was approved for direct assessment in October 2014, five months after application submission.
Direct assessment programs are not exempt from federal financial aid regulations; they merely have additional flexibility in meeting those regulations. There are two regulations that are particularly challenging for self-paced CBE programs: 1) those related to the student’s “satisfactory academic progress” and 2) those related to “substantive” interaction with faculty. In a traditional credit-based program, financial aid is disbursed term by term, and uninterrupted disbursement of financial aid is dependent upon the student making satisfactory academic progress, or SAP, which means successful earning of credit hours toward the degree within a given time period, such as a term. In the case of programs like the Brandman BBA program, there is no standard number of competencies that a student is required to earn during any one six month subscription period. For the purposes of federal financial aid as a direct assessment program, however, Brandman’s program administrators established a way to define SAP as a certain number of modules, or competencies, that a student is expected to complete during a given subscription period. The student must complete 67% of the competencies in the bundle opened at the beginning of the term in order to receive the next financial aid payment for the following six-month term. A student that does not complete a bundle in a previous term must catch up and finish the remaining 33% of the bundle in the next term in addition to 67% of the subsequent bundle. In this way, financial aid is based on learning and successful progression rather than time spent in the classroom, and also keeps the student on the path to a degree within four years. A second regulatory requirement for financial aid is that faculty must have substantive interaction with students at least once a week. Brandman’s program administrators addressed this by requiring that the tutorial faculty, in conjunction with the assessment graders, provide what the DOE calls a “regular and substantive interaction with students.” This faculty initiated interaction with students is meaningful and varied, conducted through required discussion boards and assessment feedback, and occurs at least once per week. Besides those two specific regulatory challenges, the program faced operational challenges related to financial aid as well. In particular, Brandman’s student information system (SIS) was not designed to work with flexible six-month terms nor different measures for satisfactory academic progress. The integration of financial aid with the SIS and the business office was a time consuming process for Brandman, but the system is expected to be ready for a spring 2015 launch, with all components automated.
Brandman’s regional accreditor, WASC, requires schools to have a system in place that allows the comparison of their courses to courses at other institutions so students have the option to transfer. This presents a special issue for CBE programs since the unit of currency is not a course but rather a competency. To address this concern, the university developed a dual transcript model in which students receive a transcript that shows the demonstrated competencies as well as equivalent credit-hour courses. This comparison is done with the use of a detailed crosswalk that articulates the relationship of competencies to existing courses at Brandman. The student can then use the resulting credit-hour transcript to transfer to another college or university as well as to the credit-based programs within Brandman. However, since credit hours and competencies do not perfectly align, Brandman advises students that there is the possibility that not all courses or competencies will successfully transfer. Similarly, students may also transfer previously earned college credit into the BBA program. Students wishing to enroll in the BBA program with some college-level coursework already completed can work with an advisor to establish which competencies have been met through prior coursework. Students must have earned a minimum grade of B– or higher to have courses from a regionally accredited institution evaluated for equivalency to a competency. This crosswalk of credit-hour courses to competencies is completed during the admission process.
Brandman University recognized that its newest program is in relatively uncharted territory and will likely go through some minor changes in its initial phases. For this reason, the university opted for a slow and deliberate launch. A total of 44 students began the BBA in October 2014 through a special partnership with over 25 employers providing 100% tuition reimbursement. Brandman plans for the next launch of the program to be a larger group of students coming from organizations and companies as well as community college transfer students. Prior to taking the program to scale, Brandman plans to continuously monitor and improve the content and structure. With assistance from Flat World, Brandman administrators are able to receive real-time feedback from students as well as data on their progression. If students tend to bottleneck in certain areas, the faculty will be able to make changes to facilitate a smoother experience. The formative assessments provide data on what specific areas might be left unclear to the learners, while the summative assessments can show which modules convey the content well and which could benefit from improvement. The end result of this ongoing real-time data analysis will be a CBE program that conforms to the needs of its students and employs the techniques and content that are most suited to achieving positive outcomes. It is expected that the program taken to scale will potentially have an enrollment of thousands of students.
The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of Lumina Foundation, its officers, or employees.
The authors of this case study were CAEL’s Richard Olson and Rebecca Klein-Collins. The case study benefitted from several interviews and correspondence with Laurie Dodge of Brandman University and further input from Hadassah Yang of Brandman University
Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2008). Liberal Education and America’s Promise essential learning outcomes. Retrieved from http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/EssentialOutcomes_Chart.pdf
Brandman University. (2015). Competency-based education: Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from https://www.brandman.edu/cbeducation/faq
Direct Assessment Programs, 34 C.F.R. § 668.10 (2011). Retrieved from http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR- 2011-title34-vol3/pdf/CFR-2011-title34-vol3-sec668-10.pdf
Dodge, L. (2012). Brandman University adopts the degree qualifications profile. Retrieved from https://www. wascsenior.org/files/Brandman%20University%20Adopts%20the%20Degree%20Qualification%20 Profile_January%2031%202012_final.pdf
Klein-Collins, Becky (2012). Competency-Based Degree Programs in the U.S. CAEL. Retrieved from http:// www.cael.org/pdfs/2012_competencybasedprograms
Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41(4), 212–218. Retrieved from http://rt3region7.ncdpi.wikispaces.net/file/view/8+Perspectives+on+RBT.pdf
Lumina Foundation. (2014, October). The degree qualifications profile. Retrieved from http://www.luminafoundation.org/files/resources/dqp.pdf
U.S. Department of Education. Information for Financial Aid Professionals. (2013, March 19). Applying for title IV eligibility for direct assessment (competency-based) programs. (Dear Colleague Letter GEN-13-10). Retrieved from http://ifap.ed.gov/dpcletters/GEN1310.html
U.S. Department of Education. Information for Financial Aid Professionals. Quality Assurance Program. (2014). Satisfactory academic progress. Retrieved from http://ifap.ed.gov/qahome/qaassessments/sap.html
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