This weekly multi-part series of blogs by our instructional designer, Dr. Martin LaGrow, will share the technical, logistical, and academic approach to building MLC’s first competency-based education program.

How is a CBE Course Different from a Traditional Online Course?

Where We’ve Come From

Most of us have had some kind of experience with online education or training in our lives, whether it be through taking an online class, completing training for work, or Covid-era remote education. The truth is that the traditional structure of online education has not changed much since online programs and courses rose to prevalence in the 1990s. Often, those tasked with designing online courses were classroom teachers who were well versed in the methodology of face-to-face instruction, and they adapted what they knew to try to fit the online modality with the limited interactive tools that were available to them in early learning management systems such as the first iterations of BlackBoard and Canvas.

For years, the construction of an online course was very similar regardless of which LMS you used! Typically, an online course was divided into “modules,” which represented a week, a unit, or a lesson. Having seen hundreds of online courses myself, I’ve become very familiar with the traditional pattern of online courses. The typical structure of the course would look something like this:

  1. The instructor provides a brief introduction to the module, typically in a written paragraph or two. The information would be followed by all the content for that module: a list of textbook readings, articles, web links, videos, and any other pertinent content. The student would be expected to review all the content provided.
  2. A discussion forum would be provided with a prompt for students to respond to. The prompt would be related to the weekly content. Students would typically be told to respond to the prompt by the third day of the week and return by the end of the week to respond to their classmates once or twice. A grade would be assigned based on their interactions. Teachers may or may not choose to be very active in that discussion forum.
  3. An assignment/assessment of some kind would follow and be due by the end of the week. Often the assignment would be a paper of some type. At other times, an exam or quiz from a question bank could also be used as a means of assessment.
  4. Depending on the format of the course and the expectations of the university, teachers may choose to offer online synchronous sessions typically used for lectures or recitation sessions. Many times, instructors would provide a video lecture or PowerPoint presentation for students to review as an alternative.

With some variation, this is the structure of online education most of us are familiar with. Though sound instruction can and does certainly occur online, the formula above has created certain frustrations for students over the years. Professors have been hard-pressed, especially during COVID-19, to become fully versed in the andragogy of online instruction. What’s different about it? What works well online? What doesn’t? Left to their experiences and vast knowledge of their area of expertise, they’ve often relied on the comfortable predictability of this model across higher education, whether at a community college, a private college, or a state university. So what are the challenges with this model?

Content Is King

When building an online course, there can be a tendency to attempt to make up for less interpersonal interaction and class time by adding more content. It has become common to frontload a module of a course with textbook readings, supplemental articles, websites, and YouTube videos, all of which contain helpful and useful information. The wealth of information available online, often for low or no cost, makes it tempting to continue to add tantalizing tidbits of knowledge to enhance the existing content. While it appears to be a wealth of information to equip the student for learning, new challenges are presented.

  • It is very easy to overwhelm students with multiple sources, creating too much cognitive load. Often, readings and resources provided amount to hours and hours of review time if the student is to diligently attempt to follow them all. Students become jaded to the quantity and end up as “picky shoppers,” glancing through the resources they think may be the most helpful.
  • Information provided at the front of the module without context and the expectation that the student simply ingests it all fails to provide the student with a purpose beyond “covering the material.” Attempting to master too much material without enough purpose provided means students learn less about more.
  • The presentation of content assumes that all students are starting at the same point and need to cover the same material. Lack of personalization of learning stretches students’ focus even more beyond what is necessary for them to achieve.

Assessment Follows Content

The discussion tool is often used to present a question directed toward the mastery of content. When students are instructed to read content and respond in three days, they then wait another two or three days before a response is required from their peers. By the end of the week, the student may or may not even return to read the feedback provided to their initial response. There is a possibility that no real discussion has occurred—simply asynchronous replies without the opportunity for expanding depth. Whatever quizzes or assignments follow are often mapped to ensure that students have read the book, watched the video, and possibly used that newfound knowledge to construct something meaningful. Whether students have truly become proficient in that knowledge or not is irrelevant to moving forward; the next module with new content begins, and the cycle repeats.

Where We’re Going

The biggest shift that we are making in the approach we are taking at MLC is to reduce the focus on rote content knowledge and to increase the focus on the means of demonstrating proficiency in meeting the competencies. CBE asks learners not just to “know” but to demonstrate their proficiency in identified knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors.

Essentially, CBE fosters a strong foundation in knowledge, the discernment to apply that knowledge, and the skill to put it into daily practice.

Learners entering a competency-based course of study will already have varying degrees of proficiency in the required competencies. As we are allowing for the opportunity to leverage existing knowledge and experience, the “module” of learning in a CBE course will look very different than what is described above.

A CBE module of learning will still begin with a brief introduction, but it will also often begin with an ungraded no-stakes knowledge check. This is not to bypass any content or instruction; rather, it is to inform the student of areas of strength and weakness to help them target their efforts as they advance.
Content, no longer king, is served in smaller, strategic, and targeted doses. A student in a science course that pretests poorly on photosynthesis but at a mastery level of mitosis can be directed to the areas of emphasis necessary for them to shore up their knowledge on one while spending less time on the other. They are not restricted by a predetermined pace or cohort of learners who may have a different basis in knowledge. Discussion is still an option but not so much as a basis for determining content mastery. Individual practice and reflection, supported by the instructor and their mentor, take center stage as contrived discussions fall to the side.

Content can be broken up or chunked into smaller amounts. Pages in Brightspace support active learning, allowing the instructional designer to build in a variety of tools such as self-check questions and flip cards to engage the learner in a response to their reading or viewing. When the student is comfortable
to proceed, an active assessment is presented and tied to the competencies required for the completion of that course. Upon instructor review, the student either demonstrates they’ve met the competency and are prepared to move on, or they are redirected to review and grow in their understanding with instructor guidance before making another attempt. In this sense, CBE does not allow a student to fail a concept but then move on with the class; as the saying goes, “Failure is not an option!”

It is important to recognize that there is a distinction between how the theology component (CBTE) and the education component (APPLE) are designed. The CBTE courses are cohort-based, and while we are still interested in learners demonstrating proficiency in competencies, we are also focused on genuine dialogue and interaction at a consistent pace with their cohort. The intention of the cohort is to foster growth in faith and understanding of doctrine with men and women who will serve in the public ministry alongside (even if at a distance) them. However, when the APPLE program launches, there is a greater likelihood that learners will have transferred in courses or readily meet some course competencies quickly based on previous experience while needing additional time to meet one with which they have less background. Demonstrating competency in the APPLE courses will be much more individualized.

A Look Ahead to Next Week’s Post

In the next blog post, we’ll introduce some of the people who are involved in the course development process and talk a little bit about what that looks like as we prepare to welcome the first learners into our new program!