Episode 63 - Competency-Based Education and General Education in Utah

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith talk with Julie Hartley and Greg Benson, Assistant Commissioners of Higher Education for Academic and Student Affairs in the state of Utah, about the delivery methods for general education and the various competencies gained through general ed courses.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again, everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and I’m joined in-studio today, as I always am, by President Wyatt. Scott, how are you? 

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, Steve, thank you very much. 

Meredith: So, as most of our devoted listeners know, we spent much of the last semester, Spring of 2019, talking about innovation in higher education. And one of the things that we circled back to was Gen Ed and also competency-based education and you and I have been talking about the fact that we might want to dig in just a little bit deeper on those particular subjects during this run of podcasts during the Fall semester of 2019. And so, that’s what we’re going to do. And we have a couple of people who are uniquely positioned to help us kick off this very discussion. We have some folks from our State Office. Why don’t you go ahead and introduce them?

Wyatt: Well, we’re delighted to be joined, from their offices in Salt Lake City, Julie Hartley and Greg Benson, both Assistant Commissioners of Higher Education for Academic and Student Affairs. Welcome, Julie and Greg. 

Julie Hartley: Hi. 

Greg Benson: Thank you, my pleasure. 

Wyatt: General Education is always a topic. What’s new? Anything? 

Hartley: [Laughs] There’s a lot going on with General Education in the state of Utah. 

Benson: There is. 

Hartley: In fact, Greg just met recently with the General Education Passport, which is comprised with people from all of the public colleges and universities in the state of Utah…

Benson: Correct. There’s been a long standing statewide General Education Task Force in Utah that dates back probably about 20 years now, established in Board of Regents policy, and they meet periodically throughout the year and really to discuss overarching issues. The General Education Task Force is comprised of faculty chairs, GE directors, people at other institutions with particular types of expertise, perhaps in assessment or other fields, and they look very broadly at what we want to include in General Education as far as essential learning outcomes, all that details itself to various core and breadth areas in General Education, but then also looking at ways to innovate as a collective across institutions. 

Hartley: And Greg mentioned being a collective across the institutions, one of the important things in the state of Utah is that a lot of our students move around. They get married, they move someplace else with their spouse, or they get a job and they move someplace else to finish their degree and so, we’re very concerned that, if students leave their first college and they end up someplace else that they can take their General Education credits with them and have them still count towards their degree so that they don’t lose any time after they transfer. So, there’s a lot of work going on at the state level to make sure that the credits transfer well between our public institutions. 

Wyatt: It might be helpful to pause for just a second and remind, because some of our listeners may not be familiar with the term “General Education,” but perhaps most are, but we really...when a student comes to get a bachelor’s degree, there’s three categories of classes, general categories. The one category is all of the...includes all of the courses required for a major, all of the accounting classes needed to get a degree in accounting, and the second category are all the General Education courses which are take one life science, take one physical science, take one math, take one American institutions, American government, history, writing, and on and on, and they total about 30 to 32 credits, don’t they? 

Benson: Yes. In Utah, a minimum of 30. You’ve listed the categories very nicely, and institutions in Utah can add to the minimum required core and breadth GE areas and include up to 39 credits by adding some categories that are unique to an institution. 

Wyatt: And then we have a third category of classes which are electives. 

Hartley: Yes. 

Wyatt: And that’s just whatever the student wants to take that gets them to 120 credits or however many credits they take to complete a bachelor’s degree, or less for an associate’s. 

Hartley: And just to add some further translation if people aren’t familiar with how credits are calculated at colleges and universities, generally, three to four credits translate into one class. So, if you have 30 General Education credits, that would be about 10 classes, depending on how the credits were assigned to a course. 

Wyatt: Yeah. So, what do you think is going to happen? We have both types of students. The type of student who absolutely loves these, because by taking them, they get a broader understanding, and oftentimes change their majors because of an experience they had in a General Education class. And then we have other students that see General Education classes as a hoop to jump through or a box to check off. And one of our goals is to help everyone see the value in them. 

Hartley: Yeah. 

Wyatt: But what do you think is going to happen in the next 10 or 15 years...5, 10, 15 years with General Education? Do you think...what kind of innovations do you see being explored out there? I was interested...I have a friend that is a former trustee chair of a very prestigious liberal arts school, Grinnell College, and they don’t have General Ed at all. And Brown University doesn’t have General Education, that’s a very prestigious liberal arts school and you would think that everybody has this, but not every school does. 

Hartley: Well, one of the foundation principles of General Education is exposing students to a breadth of topics. Make them more well-rounded and more adaptable. It exposes them kind of to the intellectual tradition that people expect of a college graduate. And when...a lot of times when businesses are looking for somebody who’s got a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree, they might be looking for certain types of very specific skills, but often what they’re looking for is that well-educated, broadly-educated person. So, they’re looking for...they often refer to those characteristics as “soft skills.” The ability to think well and to communicate and to adapt to their environment and to think through problems. There are different ways to structure that, embedding that breadth of exposure in different ways, and so, a lot of institutions are fairly innovative in how they go about their General Education structuring. But a lot of times when people are talking about, “I want this well-educated college graduate,” they are talking about those categories that you mentioned earlier, President Wyatt, the exposure to a major and getting a very specific, focused skill set, but also the breadth of intellectual experience. 

Wyatt: This is a unique thing because...in the world of higher education, it’s one of the defining differences from us and other places. When I travel or meet with people from other universities in Asia or Europe, one of the things that’s readily noticeable is our General Education requirement. It’s different. We have a…

Benson: I’ll add that…

Wyatt: Oh, go ahead. 

Benson: Excuse me, go ahead. 

Wyatt: No, go ahead, Greg. 

Benson: I was going to add that for a while now, the foundation of General Education across institutions in the Utah System of Higher Education has been a set of four essential learning outcomes. I can run down them pretty quickly here, starting with (1) acquire intellectual and practical skills, (2) gain knowledge of human cultures in the physical and natural world (3) develop personal and social responsibility and (4) demonstrate integrative learning. These are based somewhat on a set of essential learning outcomes that comes out of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. But at any rate, you mentioned that at Grinnell College and at Brown University they have done away with the traditional General Education program. I’m guessing, over the course of their education [inaudible] structure at those institutions, they address something like these four essential learning outcomes. A challenge, an opportunity, a charge to make this sort of learning more relevant is, I think, in hour you achieve those four essential learning outcomes or however they might be articulated or packaged in a particular learning system or a particular institution. And what we see in the Utah System of Higher Education for the most part is kind of a general approach: courses that fall into different categories that extend from and build upon these four essential learning outcomes. Yet, at the same time, we see innovations happening at different institutions where they’re kind of breaking down the traditional approach to list those courses in different, broad categories. 

Hartley: Yeah. So, at Brown, for example, if I understand Brown’s model well, they have eliminated what we would call a Gen Ed category and they allow students to kind of sample from some specified clusters of disciplines. So, they offer sample courses from the social sciences or humanities, life sciences, that type of thing, but they don’t have to have a specific Gen Ed category the way we have it structured in Utah. 

Wyatt: They still get something, but it might be...it might look very different in its organization. 

Hartley: Yeah. The students can kind of pick which courses out of the social sciences if I...or life sciences if I understand their model properly. Which is doubtful. [Laughs]

Wyatt: There’s a movement, Julie and Greg, to expand competency-based education. 

Hartley: Yes. 

Wyatt: Which, really, is a very different model from what we’re doing. Do you think that will have an impact on General Education? 

Hartley: I do. And competency-based education is something, I think, that sounds self-explanatory but really isn’t. So, we’ve been having conversations at the system level about how to do competency-based education and what exactly it means. So, let me explain some of the definitions that go into that so that people are following what it is that we’re talking about. So, there’s a movement in public education and in higher education to structure courses to measure competency as opposed to capture the amount of time that a student spends in a class. So, right now, high school courses may be set up on a semester or a year-long model, college classes are based on a credit which is based on seat time in the class. And there are learning outcomes that are supposed to be measured as a part of that course, but the credit is awarded based on the amount of time that you spent dealing with the subject matter in the course structure. A competency-based model switches that around, so that the amount of time spent isn’t as important as being able to measure what the student can do with the course materials, what their competencies are in that particular subject matter. So, it seems like you could switch a course from a seat time-based course to a competency model based on just giving them more examples and then turn in the final exam and seeing if they’re competent. But that’s not how most competency-based education is structured, because you have to provide multiple opportunities for students to practice demonstrating their competencies and then to move through the course material kind of at their own pace so that they can accelerate or decelerate based on how well they’re grasping the materials and demonstrating the competencies. So, from an instructional design point of view, a competency-based course is much more difficult to design because you have to create multiple forms of assessment for the students to move through and then ways of structuring the materials that you’re teaching the student around what they already do and don’t know. So, it’s a very student-centered model of teaching and therefore it’s much harder to do and kind of a bit more expensive at the beginning to structure classes in that way. We’ve been having a lot of conversations at the system office about how to do competency-based education well, and there’s an interest in all of our colleges and universities to offer programs through a competency-based model and then taking on the General Education portion of a degree, the institutions have talked about having one or two schools develop those Gen Ed courses on behalf of the other. Colleges and universities in the system so not everybody has to figure out how to do it all at the same time. So, that’s kind of the conversations that we’ve been having right now at the system office. How do we do that to make it more efficient for all of the colleges and universities to build their own programs on top of a competency-based education form.

Meredith: Julie, we’ve been having some interesting conversations down here at SUU about competency-based education and General Education, particularly around our new partnership with Southwest Technical College. It was interesting, as the faculty discussed the articulation agreements that formed the basis for that dual-enrollment partnership that we have with them, that right off the bat, the first discussions were about how do we translate credit hours, which SUU is based on, to clock hours and vice-versa because Southwest Tech is a clock hour based institution. Ultimately, despite the fact that clock hours really matter at Southwest Tech, the same way that credit hours really matter for us, at the end of the day at Southwest Tech, there are national tests typically in all of these areas, and if the student can’t show competency, even if they’ve taken all of the required number of hours, then they don’t pass. Ultimately, it’s all about the competency at the end, not about the number of hours spent in the classroom. So, I guess I have two questions. One is, are there any subjects at the university level, or particularly in General Education since that’s what we’re talking about, that you think lend themselves very well to this? And number two, is there anyone that’s already doing competency-based Gen Ed and doing it really well? 

Hartley: Yeah. So, I think intuitively, most people would jump to math first as the discipline that might lend itself well to a competency-based model because there are specific things that you have to be able to do within math and you can capture a lot of that through examinations and through showing your work on equations and other types of things. Math is very centered on competencies and being able to demonstrate those. And I think the technical colleges do a good job with demonstrating skill sets. But they oftentimes are still locked into the clock hour model where you have to put in a certain amount of time to finish off the program. And Competency-Based Education with capital letters kind of restructures that...the amount of time being spent on the program. 

Meredith: In their own way, they are just as locked into hours as we are. 

Hartley: Yeah. 

Meredith: It’s just we compute them differently. But, yes, you’re right. 

Hartley: Yeah. So, to answer your question, Steve, about institutions that are working on this, right now, Salt Lake Community College and Utah State University are working very intensively on developing some General Education courses through the competency-based model that I was just talking about. Now, Salt Lake Community College can do some innovative things that not all institutions can do because they have a special designation from the Federal Department of Education that becomes important for purposes of federal financial aid for students. So, they have what’s called an Experimental Site Designation, which means that they can break away from semesters and from credit hours and still have their students be eligible for financial aid for the courses that they enroll in. Utah State University is kind of still bound by the semester model, but they are trying to be as innovative as they can in giving students access to credits within the semester hour and letting them still work through a unit of competence at their own pace. So, both of them are this semester piloting some new competency-based General Education programs. SLCC’s is kind of an applied associate of science track and USU’s is an associate of science track. The idea is if we can get associate degrees structured in the state of Utah through a competency-based model, then the other institutions, like SUU, could stack majors on top of those General Education course through a competency-based model that they’ve developed themselves and make that form of education available to students. 

Wyatt: You mentioned Utah State, I was looking at their General Education requirements online and for every requirement, it has listed something between five and eight tests. So, kind of prior learning assessments. 

Hartley: Yeah, and prior learning is…

Wyatt: How does that play into this? 

Hartley: Oh, sorry. 

Wyatt: How does that play in? 

Hartley: Prior learning assessment is very similar to Competency-Based Education in that you’re demonstrating your competency. The difference between the two is prior learning assessment is measuring what students come to the institutions already knowing, either through work experience or life experience or student on their own, and Competency-Based Education with the capital letters is where the institution is still teaching the student new material and measuring their skills as they move through the material. So, the assessments that might be used for Competency-Based Education could very well be the same assessments that students use to demonstrate prior learning. The difference is whether a student needs to learn new material or whether they come in already knowing. 

Wyatt: It’s kind of a evolving thing, isn’t it? That we, 10 years, 50 years ago or 100 years ago, whatever the time was, the entire idea of higher education is that a student comes and then we add knowledge. 

Hartley: Yeah, the blank slate. 

Wyatt: And this competency and prior learning assessments shifts us from being 100% teaching to being part teaching and part credentialing, purely credentialing. We’re just saying, “We’re the group that says whether you’ve got this or not.” 

Hartley: Yeah. And as opposed to just having students check off boxes and sending them on their way, I prefer to think of it as tailoring the educational experience more to what the student really needs as opposed to making them jump through hoops. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Hartley: So, if they already know how to write extremely well and they can put together a portfolio and they say, “I don’t need the freshman English class, I’m ready to move on to the next level of writing” that’s great and they can move through their educational program in a much more efficient manner. So, making it more tailored to what they student really needs. 

Benson: Yeah. One thing I might add on the prior learning assessment, you mentioned that there were these new approaches that weren’t as prevalent in earlier years...just this past legislative session here in Utah, House Bill 45 passed and was signed by the Governor and has many segments, but prior learning assessment is one of them. And it specifies that credit granted by one of our USHE institutions for prior learning will transfer across the system. But we have some long-standing and pretty well-known forms of prior learning assessment. We’ve had advanced placement, a college level examination program or class and international XXX 24:21 for a long time. Students have been earning college credit by documenting their prior learning through those forms for quite a long time. But in addition to ask our institutions to facilitate the transfer of those type of credits that are earned, House Bill 45 also asks us to make it more apparent to students, which, again, is something we maybe haven’t done as much. It’s been there, but to what extent did people know about it. So, that’s something that the new house bill promotes and something that we’re busy in the Commissioner’s Office, Board of Regents, working with chief academic officers and others to write new policies so that we can facilitate this and also follow this with a new state law. 

Hartley: And one of the tricky things that we’re working through with this new state law in prior learning assessment is how to transcribe the credit that a student receives for prior learning so that they can take it with them if they ever had to transfer so that they don’t have to do the assessment again. For example, if they’ve moved to a new institution six months later, would they have to take the test over again? Or can we capture it on a transcript so that we show that they’ve met their requirement and they’re ready to move on? 

Wyatt: Part of this feels to me, Julie and Greg, like prior learning assessment would be most comparable to being a transfer student that a transfer student comes with a transcript saying, “I’ve got 30 credits from another school that I earned there” but prior learning assessment is, “I’ve got life experiences that are similar to having a transcript from another school. I’m a veteran, I’ve been working in industry” or “I studied really hard as a high school student and I’ve learned things that go beyond what I need to learn or meet what I need to learn.” And that’s the equivalent of having a transcript. We need to test them. 

Hartley: Yes. 

Wyatt: It’s...you mentioned, Julie, it’s like tailoring the education for them. It’s also like saying, “There are certain things you don’t need to do because you've already got them.” 

Hartley: Yes. 

Wyatt: “We’re just going to shorten the distance for you.” 

Hartley: Yep. So, I’ll give you an example of somebody I met last year. She’s a very competent newspaper columnist in Utah, she writes extremely well, she decided to go back and get a bachelor’s degree and the institution that she enrolled in made her start with the freshman English class, even though she’s been earning a living as a writer for a long time. And it just seems wrong to make her do that when she could, in theory, just pull together the portfolio of her writings and say, “Yeah, I can jump right in to be an English major right away.” So, that’s the tailored part. And I think it’s very influential for adults to come in with life experience. 

Wyatt: Yeah. It’s...why would you start as a freshman if you already know what the freshmen are going to learn? 

Hartley: Yep. 

Benson: And it’s requiring institutions, departments, faculty to make an approach to things differently. But if their courses are outcomes based, as they are, then it’s really just a task of figuring out how to evaluate achievement of those outcomes in ways that are different than we would do in traditional classes. 

Hartley: Yeah. 

Benson: But we have the outcomes. So, it’s really just the figuring out ways that work for all parties concerned to do the assessment, the evaluation part. 

Hartley: Mhmm. And a trick piece for university presidents and deans and department chairs and other people is if we’re asking the faculty to evaluate these portfolios and other assessments that the students bring in but the students aren’t registering for courses, how does the faculty have time to do that and how do we as an institution set it up to be able to accommodate [inaudible]? That’s one of the things that this new state law is forcing us to try to think through. 

Wyatt: It’s...I like to think of things in their logical extremes from time to time because it helps bring the point home, but a student could show up as a freshman without any of the learning outcomes that we expect of them and so, they have to take the whole 120 credits, but in theory, someone could show up with all of them, right? I mean, somebody could show up with all of the things they need and then just simply take the assessments and walk out with a degree. And I’m talking, of course, about the illogical extremes, but you can imagine, like your example, Julie, of somebody that’s been a writer for years. I’m not sure why they’d want to do it, but you can imagine somebody that had a Ph.D. in economics who moved into town and said, “I want a bachelor’s degree from your college in economics.” They could take all the tests, they would show all the competencies, prior learning assessments, and they would just be entitled to a degree. It would be interesting, wouldn’t it? 

Hartley: Yeah. And then it raises all kinds of ethical questions, too about whether an institution...if somebody came in and hypothetically tried to challenge all of the courses needed for an entire degree, it would raise all kinds of questions about the institutions accreditation and whether an institution can legitimately say that was their student if they didn’t actually do anything to teach the student. So, it could raise all kinds of interesting questions depending on how much prior learning assessment a student was trying to get. 

Wyatt: If you can waive one class, how many classes can you waive?

Hartley: Right. 

Wyatt: Based on prior learning assessment. There’s no difference between one and 10 or 20. It’s a very interesting thing to think about. 

Meredith: Forgive Scott, he’s a philosophy major. 

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Hartley: Yeah?

Meredith: So, he just likes to go all the way to the end of the earth for comparison. 

Hartley: Yeah. 

Benson: And, you know, presumably, someone wouldn’t come in having mastered all the competencies, but they very well could have mastered many of them and on that basis would probably have an easy, relatively easy time moving through the remaining ones. 

Hartley: Yeah. 

Benson: So, someone could do it very swiftly. 

Wyatt: I think that it, in some respects, points out the shift in the landscape. When it used to be that universities taught every single subject and then tested and you had to sit in a class for a semester and then we gave you a test, so that the university was imparting all the knowledge. To this prior learning assessment and to some degree, competency based education, which is the university not doing the teaching but assessing whether the person has the competencies, and the interesting philosophical part of that to me is how much of this can a university do and still say, “You’re our student?”

Hartley: Yeah. 

Wyatt: But we’re really exploring here is this shift of what the mission of a university is from being solely teaching to being a combination of teaching and simply verifying that a student has certain competencies. 

Meredith: Well, when information was really only available in one place, that was easy to verify. But now there are seemingly an infinite number of ways to learn. 

Hartley: And I think it reflects a bigger pedagogical shift too in our philosophies in teaching. For a long time, higher education was kind of seen as a gatekeeper of sorts. Something for people of elite status to have access to and not other people. And the teaching model is often referred to as “face on the stage” where a very smart person is up at the front just spewing out information for the students and the smart ones will grasp it and move through the ranks and the others will drop out and along the sideline. And there’s been a major shift in higher education and pedagogical strategies to being more concerned about teaching methodologies and making sure that the students are actually grasping the materials and that the faculty are educating them as opposed to weeding them out. And so, I think that the shift toward looking at competencies and assessments is part of that emphasis on, “What can the students actually do with this knowledge and how are the faculty members helping the students attain the knowledge and the skills that they really need themselves? As opposed to just weeding out those that are less qualified and not the ones that we want to go on?”

Meredith: So, I’d like to circle back to the issue of time. We’ve been talking about competency and we’ve been talking about learning, but I'd like to talk about time, which we sort of alluded to earlier in the podcast. Last year, we had the president of Western Governor’s University on and I think it’s safe to say that they're leading the competency-based education world, certainly in this part of the country, and he regularly mentioned that for them, learning is the constant and it’s time that is flexible. And so, I guess I’m wondering, you’ve mentioned that Salt Lake Community College has a little bit more flexibility because of the way that they are designated, Utah State University has less, as would we, and I’m wondering, do you ever foresee a day when time matters less than it does now? And we see a model like WGU where a semester is six months long and we require that you still do the work, but it doesn’t matter to us whether or not it takes two weeks or six months and if you can finish it in two weeks and if you can pass the competency-based exam at the end of it, then Godspeed and you can get on to the next part of your academic career. Do you foresee that ever being the case with the rank and file state universities?

Hartley: Yeah. And I know there’s a lot of conversations at the national level and with the Department of Education about giving more institutions the flexibility that schools like Salt Lake Community College have. I would not be surprised to see a shift in that direction in the future. 

Wyatt: We have a colleague who had never finished a degree, a bachelor’s degree, and so, she signed up for Western Governor’s University and in the first six-month period, I’m trying to remember, Steve, how many credits…

Meredith: It was over 30.

Wyatt: Yeah, it’s...I think it was over 50. 

Meredith: Was it? Oh, yeah, I wasn’t in those conversations. 

Hartley: Wow. 

Meredith: But, yeah. 

Wyatt: I think it was more than 50 credits and she just came in and there was a competency test for each course and as soon as she was ready to take them, she could take them. And what it did was is it made it possible for her to finish. It got her to the...it was able to test her at her current level, which was pretty high because she’d been working as a professional for...for years --  but just didn’t have a degree yet. 

Hartley: Yeah. 

Wyatt: So, it assessed where she was, basically, and then said, “You know, you’re 80% of the way to the finish line, so all you have to take from us is this final 20%.” That’s really a different way of looking at it. It’s different than what we have normally done in public schools, but it also seems...you know, and there’s two ways to look at it. Because one thing is is that we really think that there is un-assessable learning going on that, as students are in the class, they’re engaged with others, they’re developing these social skills, they’re developing discipline as they keep pushing through and all of these kinds of characters traits, soft skills, perhaps, is another way to describe them, all of those are really not measured well. But we think that’s part of the value we give out. 

Hartley: Yeah. 

Wyatt: That’s...on the one hand, we want them here and we want them to spend the time. And on the other hand, “Let’s move things along and be more efficient and more effective and get people to the end of the finish line as quickly as they reasonably can.”

Meredith: And if you’re 50 years old and a mid-career professional, it’s likely that you would already have picked up those soft skills elsewhere I think, right? 

Wyatt: That’s right. 

Hartley: And how do you demonstrate those? 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Hartley: And competency-based education done well is not just passing a simple exam or a complicated exam, but it’s demonstrating all those other things that are part of a regular college course as you move throughout a traditional semester. So, are you able to work in teams to get your projects done and are you able to communicate adequately with your professor and the other types of things that we often call the soft skills that you acquire through those types of experiences?

Wyatt: I may be reading Utah State University’s...we’re going to talk to somebody from Utah State University this semester about their General Education courses, but when I look online, it appears to me that the student could capture every General Education credit by taking a prior learning assessment. 

Meredith: Whether it’s an SAT or an ACT or a…

Wyatt: Or some other test.

Meredith: Or some other test. 

Wyatt: If your ACT score is a certain score then you’ve completed your quantitative literacy class, your math class, but then had a list of tests for every single one. So, it appears to us—we’ll find out soon for the listeners, hang on because within a few weeks, we’ll explore this deeper [All laugh]—but it appears from the surface that their entire General Education is prior learning assessment possible. 

Meredith: Compatible, yeah. 

Hartley: And if they’ve managed to identify that and communicate that to students, I will be very impressed that they’re that far along. 

Wyatt: Well, I…

Hartley: So, I will be tuning in to that podcast too. 

Wyatt: Yeah, well just go to their web page and look up General Ed requirements and it just pops right up. 

Hartley: Umm...you mentioned Western Governor’s a few minutes ago and that reminded me that one of the challenges that a lot of institutions that are working on competency-based education have been grappling with is how to structure the faculty and staff support for students moving through those programs. So, one of the things that Western Governor’s does really impressively is they have mentors assigned to students to keep contact with them on a regular basis. Because a lot of times, competency-based education is done in an online format and that can be very difficult for students to move through online programs when they’re not having connections with real live people in real time, and so the mentor model that Western Governor’s uses gives students a person who is charged with making regular contact with them, keeping them on track to move through their program, addressing any questions or concerns they might have. CBE models also rely heavily on tutors who can work with students and help them acquire the materials and then they also still need the faculty members who are actually doing the actual teaching and providing the instruction and designing the assessments. And often the assessments are done in construction...sorry, in collaboration with an instructional designer who knows how to structure assessments really well. Any new faculty member knows it’s very hard to create good examinations or portfolio assignments, and so having that instructional designer who can help them with that is often crucial. So, sometimes, CBE seems like it would be a faster and easier way than structured programs, but it does require a fairly significant number of staff members to pull off.

Wyatt: Yeah. All of these things take...all of these things take time and effort, don’t they? 

Meredith: And money. 

Hartley: Yep. 

Wyatt: And as we shift...time and effort is money, yeah. The cost of...well this has been fun. We’ve kind of circled around General Education and how competency relates to that and how prior learning assessments relate to that. Can you see any particular innovations that the System is going to propose? Other than its constant refining of General Education requirements? Do you think that there’s anything that will surprise our listeners in the next 10 or 20 years?

Hartley: Oh, I’m not sure if I can predict 10 or 20 years out. [Laughs] I can tell you what we’re focused on as a System Office though for the next year. So...and that’s making sure that we’re really making it as seamless as possible for students to be able to take their credits with them if they do have to transfer between institutions. We’re also working a lot on prior learning assessment and making it much more obvious to students how to go through that process, so I am going to go check out USU’s website when we’re done with this call. And then we’re also having conversations quite a bit that Greg helps lead about General Education and what it means to be an educated person. 

Benson: Yeah, what I’d add is taking it back to our statewide General Education Task Force, they met as recently as last Monday and it was preliminary, we weren’t getting into the specifics of what might lie ahead, but considering what the needs of students are, what the expectations of stakeholders are out there in our stake world, how we can be more responsive, more relevant in those certain situations and though that’s coming up, Julie mentioned an annual conference we call “What is an Educated Person” that is sponsored by the General Education Task Force, we’re going to have our 22nd conference here on November 7th and 8th in Salt Lake City at Little America and this year’s theme is, “General Education: Gateway or Barrier?” Are General Education courses themed and structured to foster success? Or are they unnecessary obstacles for students? So, there’s all that. Another thing I’ll add, this is really happening across all of our institutions, while we work within a largely traditional structure of categories and courses that fall within those categories, institutions are doing more and more, and SUU is probably among them, to redesign the way these courses are taught with greater focus on the four essential learning outcomes I listed off earlier and just making the courses more integrative in nature. So, I think those are sort of behind the scenes changes and innovations that are happening now, how we teach the courses within our more or less traditional structure. 

Hartley: And I’d love to just circle back to one of the things that we started off talking about and that’s the whole notion of the purpose of an education. Is it just to check the boxes so you can get a job? Or is it to help you become a more well-rounded, adaptable person? And I know for me, my education has been life changing, and if we just move to a series of exams that people can take the exams and be done, that’s not as life changing as the experience that you gain interacting with faculty and students of being in a classroom. So, we have to have the happy balance and make sure that the education is really that value proposition that we want all of our students to have. 

Wyatt: Yeah, Julie, it goes back to that question: are we the teachers and facilitators of learners, or are we just evaluators of what knowledge the person brings with them?

Hartley: Yep. 

Wyatt: Or to what degree each one? This is an interesting time. This is a very interesting time to be in higher education. 

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We’ve had joining us by phone from their office in Salt Lake City, Greg Benson and Julie Hartley from the Utah State Higher Education Office. We thank Julie and Greg for their participation, and we thank you, our listeners, for tuning in. We’ll be back again soon, bye bye.