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Vantage Point


Education Model Calls for Interconnectivity

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Imagine a university with no terms or semesters, where students can start learning when it fits their schedules and move through the program at their own pace. Now try to imagine designing a business system that works not only with that system, but also with the more traditional trimester or semester terms. That’s the challenge Brandman University faced in 2013, when it began creating Brandman MyPath, a competency-based education (CBE) degree program.

Based in Irvine, Calif., Brandman University is a multicampus and online nonprofit comprehensive institution that began educating students in 1958 as Chapman University College. Many of its programs have long been geared toward nontraditional adult learners and are offered on an eight-week/two-sessions-per-trimester schedule. While those programs have registered great success, university leadership identified a group of students being left out: Adult learners who do not have degrees or have already earned some college units, but not a degree.

Those students need the flexibility to start a degree program when it suits them. They also want to utilize what they have learned in life without having to sit through classes that essentially review what they already know. Research conducted by Brandman also pointed to a mismatch between the skills demonstrated by university graduates and those sought by employers. And finally, Brandman’s research confirmed the critical need to deliver quality, relevant education at a lower cost.

Thanks to technologies unavailable 10 years ago—including high-speed networks, big data, and sophisticated adaptive-learning software—we understood that Brandman could provide more than free online programs by moving toward a robust experience that delivers mastery. CBE emerged as a promising pathway to increase accessibility and affordability for adult learners seeking higher education and to address employers’ need for real-world experience.

In designing Brandman’s competency-based program, we drew heavily on the iDEAL (Instructional Design for Engaged Adult Learners) model that already supported many of the university’s blended and online-only classes. The model incorporates best practices and adult learning theory to create an engagement-focused approach. To preserve Brandman’s reputation for providing a quality education, CBE students must prove that they really know the material through standard assessments, such as tests and writing assignments, as well as projects related to their current employment.

While many universities with competency-based programs rely on the traditional credit-hour model, Brandman enables CBE students to progress as they demonstrate mastery. Learning is personalized and self-paced, with competencies and assessments relevant to the careers that students are already pursuing.

New Approach Needed

When development of Brandman’s CBE program began, we quickly discovered that none of the existing term-based systems used within higher education would support the self-paced, nonterm, direct-assessment approach. Instead, we identified the need to create a CBE ecosystem to support the program academically, administratively, and from a business perspective.

To address this need, Brandman—working in partnership with N2N Services—designed and built a CBE middleware platform called One Stop Middleware Portal (OMP). The middleware serves as a “translation engine,” providing real-time integration of both term and nonterm components of the CBE ecosystem. For example, it enables connectivity between our term-based ERP system (Ellucian/Banner), our nonterm-based Web learning management system (Sagence), and our financial aid system (Regent 8). We also license a CBE badging software product (Credly) that connects to our CBE ecosystem.

Because the cloud-based middleware brings together various applications, students have a single point-of-service portal. The OMP allows students to apply to the program; begin completing their competencies once enrollment is complete; and easily access information about financial aid, student accounts, and billing. On the university side, additional middleware functions include centralized communications with students, attendance tracking, and converting competencies into courses to produce a traditional transcript. Students also have the option of presenting a potential employer with a detailed CBE transcript showing the competencies that they have mastered.

Multilevel Student Support

Each CBE student is assigned an academic coach, who tracks the student’s progress through an individualized dashboard. As the student earns “badges” that signify the completion of a specific series of competencies, the academic coach can unlock new competencies for the student to master. Another dashboard within our learning management system enables tutorial faculty members to track a student’s academic progress and intercede should that student encounter any difficulties in completing a competency. Because the one-stop portal updates all systems simultaneously, students, academic coaches, and faculty have access to the same information without any delays.

In addition to dedicating a full-time IT staff member to CBE, we partnered with several vendors to build the CBE ecosystem as Brandman faculty—serving as the subject matter experts—were developing the curriculum and identifying the related competencies. We began implementation of the CBE program via a series of beta launches starting in fall 2014. The university currently offers two CBE programs—branded as Brandman MyPath degrees—one for a bachelor of business administration with multiple emphasis options and one for a bachelor of science in information technology.

Brandman currently has 150 students enrolled in CBE, most of whom participated in the beta phase and learned of the new program through partnerships we have with employers. We recently began promoting Brandman MyPath degrees through various social media vehicles and are progressively adding at least a dozen students per week. Compared to Brandman’s total enrollment of approximately 12,000, the number of CBE students is small—but we expect it to eventually reach several thousand students. The annual tuition for Brandman’s CBE program is $5,400 and based on a subscription model ($2,700 per six-month payment period). The program offers an “all you can learn structure,” with each student setting his or her own pace.

Several Benefits

The expected benefits of a CBE program include a reduction in cost to students and their employers, a quicker path to graduation, improved educational quality and relevance, and a more user-friendly system. Equally important is giving employers a true measure of a student’s knowledge, skills, and abilities through the availability of dual transcripts. In fact, of the 102 employers surveyed by Brandman, 91 percent indicated their workforce would benefit from the CBE educational model. In addition, 92 percent believed their employees would be interested in attaining a degree through CBE.

Brandman University’s middleware, which integrates the back office into a competency-based education system without having to modify the university’s ERP system, was recognized with a 2016 NACUBO Innovation Award. With the assistance of partners that helped develop the learning management and middleware systems, we are providing a solution for those who choose this self-paced style of education and for our corporate partners as well.

SUBMITTED BY Phillip L. Doolittle, executive vice chancellor of finance and administration and chief financial officer, Brandman University, Irvine, Calif.