Competency Maps

Implementing an institution-wide student dashboard.  

GUEST COLUMN | by Scott Kinney

CREDIT Capella Competency Map Oct 2013For all the talk about “competency-based learning” in higher education circles these days, there is still much confusion as to what exactly it is and what it looks like. Although competency-based learning isn’t a new concept and many great institutional exemplars exist, adult college students, the people who could benefit most from this type of learning, are largely unaware of the approach and how it works.

A recent article in the New York Times, “Are You Competent? Prove it,” highlights the emergence of competency-based learning as a potential game-changer in demonstrating that students are actually learning what’s required in their chosen professions. More importantly to all those whose eyes glaze over at the “competency” concept,  it highlights an intuitive new “competency map” developed by Capella University that visually brings the approach to life for students.

Capella, which is an online university that has been building its competency-based learning infrastructure for more than a decade, launched this first-of-its-kind competency map to all of its students in October 2013. The competency map is a visual dashboard that lets adult learners track their demonstration of career-relevant competencies throughout each of their courses.

As students complete assignments, the competency map compiles a picture of the career-relevant competencies being demonstrated. Using an intuitive visual display, the map reveals a real-time view of where students are, what lies ahead, and where they should focus to be successful. Each student’s competency map is updated as soon as faculty grade an assignment using criterion-referenced scoring guides, and is accessible 24/7.

When it comes to measuring knowledge and skills, traditional grades provide a limited understanding of a student’s learning. That is why we launched our personalized competency maps. With their competency maps, students have a new and much more detailed way to show current and future employers exactly what they have mastered in their degree programs as it relates to their professions.

Our competency map is unique in higher education, and more than just a dashboard, because it is built upon a fully-embedded assessment model in which every course assignment’s scoring guide criterion is aligned to a specific curricular competency. The institution committed to this model by incorporating competency assessment into its institutional grading policy and investing in its proprietary course and curriculum authoring environment, called Celeste.

Over the last several years, Capella faculty, curriculum specialists, instructional designers, assessment specialists, and research analysts have collaborated to improve authentic assessments. Specifically, small collaborative teams were formed for each course to independently analyze and revise each assignment and scoring guide, as well as the overall course and curricular alignment.

The result has been a sequence of multiple authentic assessments distributed across each course measuring key aspects of competency demonstration, creating a powerful and relevant learning experience for adult learners and a robust set of metadata required for the competency map visualizations. Technically, the competency map solves a common challenge in online education by efficiently communicating a tremendous amount of data to students in order to promote their success.

Online education generates a lot of data (Capella faculty rated over 4 million competency demonstrations in 2012). The field of learning analytics has shown that some of these data are highly relevant to student’s success, but are not readily accessible or well-utilized in higher education. Capella’s competency map design went through several iterations of user-testing.

Initially, the intent was to show the entire curricular structure to students at once. However, focus groups revealed that the amount of information was overwhelming to students. Capella also tested providing only competency data to learners via an email version of the competency map and found this method to be effective. The design team went through several additional design iterations before landing on the innovative “circle” design to communicate both a learner’s progress and status on each competency.

Because the competency map touches every aspect of the university, it has been essential to have vocal and consistent advocacy across the university’s leadership team.  Structurally, the competency-map project is co-sponsored by Capella’s chief information officer and chief academic officer; their cooperation has helped build the close cross-department partnerships needed for the project’s success.

Being that the competency map initiative affects every student and intersects with faculty grading practices, an experienced change management lead was charged with overseeing execution of the many collaborative efforts and initiatives required to launch the project.

A key tactic used to ensure internal buy-in and employee enthusiasm for the project was a robust and early internal communication roll-out, using many different approaches (including a leadership conference, faculty meetings, cross-functional change management team, contests, presentations, and email campaigns). These communications enabled Capella to mitigate any organizational resistance to a project of such magnitude and establish a basis for future adoption.

While competency-based learning is not a new concept, leveraging it effectively in an online environment certainly is. Doing it right is not an easy task, but it is a critically important one, both to adult students and their current / prospective employers, who deserve to know exactly what competencies they have mastered and how those competencies are relevant to their careers.

Scott Kinney is the president of Capella University.


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