Episode 68 - Competency-Based Education at Utah State University: A Pilot Program

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith sit down with John Louviere and Rene Eborn, AVP/Exec Dir for Academic & Instructional Services and SAVP for Strategic Initiatives at Utah State University, to discuss the innovative approach USU is taking to competency-based education, specifically with general education assessments and online course offerings.

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, good morning.

Scott Wyatt: Good morning, Steve. It’s a great morning. 

Meredith: It is a great morning. We’ve been having a set of conversations around an…I don’t want to say “new” because it’s not new, but newly emerging and important discussion about competency-based education. And we’ve had a couple of podcasts about this and we’re going to have another one today featuring some people in the state of Utah at one of our sister institutions that have embraced this idea and are running ahead with it full-throttle in one particular academic area. So, I’ll invite you to introduce them. 

Wyatt: Thanks, Steve. Yeah, we are delighted to be joined by John Louviere, who is the Assistant Vice President and Executive Director and Rene Eborn, who is a Special Assistant to the Vice President at my alma mater, Utah State University. Welcome. 

Rene Eborn: Thank you. 

John Louviere: Thank you, nice to be here with you. 

Wyatt: it’s always fun to talk to somebody from Utah State University. 

Meredith: You’re a Cache Valley boy, you’re from that part of the world. 

Wyatt: Yeah, that’s where I grew up. How’s the weather in Logan today?

Louviere: It’s lovely as always. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Lovely as always? Except for maybe on that mid-February morning with an inversion. Other than that, it’s always lovely. 

Meredith: It is. 

Wyatt: Hey, we are talking about competency-based education and the two of you are engaged in developing some pretty innovative programs at Utah State University. Before we jump into that, we’d love our listeners to be able to learn something about you to become a little familiar. John and Rene, can you give us each, maybe starting with Rene and then John, tell us a little bit about how you came to your current jobs? Just a little bio? 

Eborn: Yeah, we’d be happy to share that with you. So, I as well, am a northern Utah girl. I grew up in Bear Lake, in the Bear Lake valley and I just live here at Utah State and I actually started here, my career here, at Utah State ad I worked here for ten years in, at the time it was the Distance Education and Extension area doing extension and regional work for the institution. And I’ve pretty much grown up in higher education within the state of Utah. I worked at Weber State University over the online program over there, I’ve worked for the University of Utah for ten years in the IT division and I also worked at Western Governor’s University in the early days when they were starting up for a few years to help get started with the Western Governor. And then I left the state and I went and worked for Southern New Hampshire University in England and come full circle and now I’m back at Utah State and I’m very happy to be back. 

Wyatt: You have been around a bit. 

Eborn: I have, I have done quite a few things. It’s been exciting. 

Louviere: And we’re very fortunate to have Rene here to work with us. Her experience is fantastic, especially with regards to our competency-based programing efforts. 

Wyatt: Yeah, the…

Louviere: So…

Wyatt: Yeah, go ahead John. 

Louviere: Yeah, just a little bit about my background, actually, I’m from the Seattle area. I graduated from Issaquah High School and I was recruited down here to run track and cross country. And I came down on a very snowy, February morning and that is why I am still here. [All laugh] I loved it, it was fantastic. But, I did graduate here in the secondary education program from Utah State and took a job at Box Elder Middle School over in Brigham City and then I found myself after graduate school, again, here at Utah State University, over in the state of Colorado working under the direction of Governor Owens at the time, and the Secretary of Technology, Marc Holtzman, had started the Colorado Institute of Technology and this was right around 2000 and they were attempting to…essentially the MIT of the west, to counter a lot of the tech bubble that was at the time. And it was driven by industry and had industry partners, and so, while I was there I kind of helped stand that up and then I was a program officer there, and then we started our family so my wife and I really liked the snow in Utah and so, we thought we would move back from where you would think Boulder Colorado would be a great place to Cache Valley which is a better place. [All laugh] And I actually took a job here. Interestingly, my career has varied. I came here and thought I would deviate from my career and I started to run the outdoor recreation program and we went broke after a couple of years in adopting a couple of children and so I had to do what I was trained in. And so then I became an instructional designer and took over our instructional design program and then have since stayed in that field and have worked with our Vice President, Robert Wagner, for quite a few years now, to support our online programming and our classroom programming and technology and even a company that we’ve spun out of our center that supports instructional technologies and have now found myself in my position that I’m at today. 

Wyatt: Well, you’re a man after my heart. In fact, just this last weekend I led a student group on an outdoor rec overnight campout, Friday night and Saturday night. 

Louviere: Well, you couldn’t be in a better place. Now, there’s two places that I would live and there in Cedar City would be one of them. 

Wyatt: You know, what’s so neat about Cedar City is that I can go on a hike every day of the year. 

Louviere: Right. 

Wyatt: Within just a few minutes of my home. Logan and Cedar City are very similar in that there’s a great outdoor ethic. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: It really adds a lot of the community. Well, let’s jump into this competency-based…competency-based education. Utah State has a grant, don’t you? 

Louviere: Well, we did. We…there was some talk a couple of years ago that was initiated by Senator Millner and she was actually out there promoting this and talking about how the state of Utah or Utah institutions should really be thinking about competency-based programming. And Salt Lake Community College had received a large, I think federal, grant to help with their programming and they were ahead of all of us and so we were looking to their leadership and they were part of that conversation, so they, being a bit ahead of us and more mature in that, they were able to receive some…a good, substantial amount of money from the state, from the Legislature, to help with their programming, but USHE also had a little extra that year and we were committed something that eventually sort of fades into or scale into to help compliment the Land Grant mission of Utah State University. And so, we wanted to be able to use competency-based programming as a way to find those students that may not have completed…to use it as a finisher degree program or essentially just to provide more access and flexibility to the students that haven’t been able to finish across the state coming back to our Land Grant mission. So that’s where USHE was kind enough to give us a small grant to help us really kind of tackle the process of identifying really the degree program that we would like to do and then get the right faculty on board and the leadership that was necessary to initiate this phased-process. 

Wyatt: I was looking at Utah State University’s general education requirements online, I don’t mean online, I mean I was looking at them online. [Laughs]

Meredith: Right, you were online and looking at them. 

Wyatt: I was online looking at them, and I noticed that it appears anyway that a student, in theory, could show up, take a bunch of tests or assessments, and have all of the general education requirements completed with a competency-based test. No seat-time or anything else. Why don’t you talk about that just a little bit? Help us understand what that means?

Louviere: Sure. Without going into a lot of detail, I will just assume our listeners understand competency-based education, it really comes down to…time becomes the variable and it comes down to assessments. So, the requirement is that we can provide an appropriate and valid assessment that students can demonstrate the respective abilities and skills and knowledge that are necessary to receive the credential. And, as you were talking about, we have our general education courses would be those credentials. So, one of our objectives and the gap that we saw in the state is Salt Lake Community College was doing…they were providing a competency-based Associate of Applied Science and that’s definitely transferable, we accept the AAS degree here at Utah State and I believe Weber does and some others, but it’s not as transferable as an Associate of Science. So, we felt that we would differentiate ourselves and that’s what was convincing enough to USHE to help provide a little funding behind it, but we would go after the Associate of Science. Now, there’s a reason that there’s not very many…or very few competency-based Associate of Science programs across the nation and it comes down to the challenges of developing assessments for these general education courses. And so, the kind of quick history here at Utah State and within the state of Utah is that we have a very comprehensive and accepted set of general education requirements across the state and general education outcomes and associate rubrics. And we have Norm Jones who was previously here, recently retired out of Utah State, and Dan McInerney were the two leaders around that at the state and they had participated quite a bit with that, so we reached out to them to see if it was even possible to do this, if it was realistic. If 1) we could develop these assessments that would be adequate to satisfy the credential requirements and 2) if our faculty had the appetite to do that, to be able to support that and get behind it. And so, they convened a group of their colleagues here within our institution and were able to come back and respond with these…and I wouldn’t to say it was an easy response, there was a lot of negotiation and a lot of discussion of, “What does this mean? How can we really accomplish this? Does this threaten what we are trying to do here at the institution? And what sort of impact does this do?” And then more importantly, “How does this align with the Land Grant mission?” And after those conversations were had with our respective faculty in the different departments, we decided that we could accomplish this and so, we decided to move forward and we now have…I think Rene can share those gen ed courses. We have 11 and we’ve almost completed all of those in the past year with our faculty. 

Eborn: Yeah, we have 11 fully online general education courses. We have four of them being piloted this fall. We have four of them that actually have students enrolled and we’re piloting this fall and the rest of them will be ready for spring 2020. 

Wyatt: And those courses, competency-based?

Eborn: Yes. 

Meredith: So, for our listeners, what would be different for a student taking an online course that was competency-based versus one that was not? Because that’s one of the great things about online education is that there’s a certain flexibility of time built-in to the model…what’s different between an online CBE course versus just a standard online course? 

Eborn: So, there’s…you’re right. There’s a lot of different definitions of CBE programs and across the nation, there’s a lot of different hybrid approaches and a lot of different interpretations about how that works together and how it is approached. For our initiative here at Utah State, the way that they’re different is that they are optimized for non-traditional learners. They are fully online and our students are expected to demonstrate student mastery through project-based assessments. And so, they are...they’ll go into the…because we’re not an experimental site, we’re not…we don’t have the special license like SLCC has, so, we have to…there are some things that we have to do differently. So, we do have to follow the standard semester term. So, we have to start them at a certain time and end them at a certain time, but during that time, the difference is that students can complete those assessments at their own pace. The times are variable. So, they can go through them as fast as they need to or as slow as they need to and they’re more personalized and paced for their needs and for their learning. 

Meredith: So, working within the framework, the typical time framework of the university that your accreditation allows and the definitions of the institution federally allows, you’re trying to give students that maximum flexibility that competency-based education does, with the understanding that there are certain frameworks that you still have to stay within? 

Eborn: Yes, exactly.

Louviere: That’s actually a good point you bring up, because Salt Lake Community College, which is also an experimental site, so they can receive financial aid for their students and go across terms and be open, whereas we cannot, which would threaten our financial aid options for those students, have actually selected to stay within the term. And they do that just for the logistics on the administrative side. So, as much as we want to be very student-centric and student centered in terms of providing these services and doing this, we’re still bound by those terms, but there are some logistics that are going to be very expensive to change in a big lift. It doesn’t mean that we are not trying to go there, we have a vision for that, which we do and we think we can get there within a reasonable timeframe and within a reasonable budget, but it’s going to take some creativity and ingenuity on our end to do that. 

Eborn: Yeah, we’ve got to be very innovative and it will be re-looking at processes as well, you know, administrative processes of the student life cycle and how we manage that. So, that’s a big change in culture as well, so we have to do that slowly and carefully and be very methodical about it. 

Wyatt: So, if I was signing up…this is one of those things that I keep hearing, that non-traditional students who are engaged in an online program are far more likely to be successfully if they can start out with some credits. Either credits that they earned a long time ago or a recognition of competency-based, and I expect, Rene, that’s something that you’ve been involved in for a long time. 

Eborn: Yes. Yes, and many of the students, where we’re using this as part of our land-grant mission to finish and graduate, a lot of them have started and then they’ve come back, and so, we are actually as we work with these students that are going to be entering into the CBE, we make sure that we have good articulation with all of the different colleges, we’re working very closely with our registrar to make sure that those articulation agreements are there so we can transfer in the credits that they need and make sure that they’re applied for the right courses so they don’t have to redo that work. In addition to that, we’re really looking at our prior learning assessment, PLA, policy here at the institution and we have found pathways to help give prior learning assessment and credit for work that they’ve already done for adult learners. So, many of them come in and they have industry certification or they have other work experience that’s valid and so, we’re trying to create a way to accept those credits to help them finish faster and to have that experience count for the things that they need. 

Wyatt: So, let’s assume that I’m a student that’s…let’s pretend like I’m 58 years old…

Meredith: OK. 

Wyatt: Maybe I am 58 years old. 

Meredith: It’s possible. [All laugh] That perfectly describes it, yes. 

Wyatt: And I’m interested in going back and getting my bachelor’s degree so I can advance my career or something, whatever it might be, and I sign up for your online program and I get into my first general education class…can I take the competency test that first week and then have completed the class? 

Eborn: You could take the assessment in that…say it’s an English class because you have a lot of English. So, you could enroll into English 1010 and you could start at the very…you could take an assessment at the first, and if you pass that final assessment, theoretically, yes, you could get credit for that and then move on. Currently, here at Utah State, we have like three assessments that they take right now rather than just one because of the way that our faculty approach this, but, potentially, yes. That could be something that we could grow into. Right now, most of our courses that we’ve developed, like the four that we’ve developed for the fall, there’s actually three or four assessments that they would have to take. But yes, theoretically you could take those three or four assignments and assessments in that week and get credit and then be done and move on. 

Wyatt: This is kind of like what you were doing, I’m assuming, with Western Governor’s. 

Eborn: Yes, it’s similar to that. And I…with Western Governor’s and then the work I did at Southern New Hampshire, I learned a lot about the adult learner and competency-based education and that’s why the Associate of Science and general education, it’s the hardest one to tackle because you do have a lot of people that come in and have a lot of knowledge, but there’s pockets of maturity of those knowledge. So, they might be really good in the social sciences, but the life sciences they’re not. So, it just is making sure…because no one can come in and be truly competent in every single area, right? 

Wyatt: Mhmm. 

Eborn: And that’s a big shoe to fill, but if we could come in and assess them early on and then let them, in the areas that they are competent, let them excel and then let them take the time for the rest of them, it really does create a very good, personalized experience for that 58 year old person that just needs to come in and get his English and his communications done quickly but then spend more time in his math and his statistics course, we’ll say. 

Wyatt: How does this relate to when I look at the general education requirements at Utah State, for example, and I wish…I’m not looking at it right now, but for example, math. If I have a certain ACT test, the math requirement is considered waived or I get credit it for it one way or the other, but it’s satisfied. How does that relate to this? 

Louviere: The only way…well, it doesn’t really relate to this because they still need to demonstrate that skill and knowledge through our assessments. 

Eborn: Whereas if they’ve taken Math 1050 at another school, it will transfer. 

Louviere: But that ACT test doesn’t transfer. 

Eborn: Yeah. We have not yet tackled the prior learning credit for the ACT and the SAT. That’s on our list of PLA policy that we need to review with our registrar and our leadership, but it is on the list of things after we do this pilot, those are things that we are going to be looking at as well. 

Louviere: However, there…similar to that, we do have the elective courses that are part of the degree and we have built into that the option of students that can come in with some professional certifications or the programs that we’ve been able to articulate towards credit. 

Eborn: Right. I think it’s up to…

Wyatt: So, if I’m doing…oh, go ahead. 

Eborn: I was just going to say, I think it’s up to 12 credits that they can bring in that’s prior learning. 

Louviere: Mhmm. 

Eborn: Yeah. 

Louviere: Through a professional certificate. 

Wyatt: So, help us…explain to us how it works for the general world in general education. When I look at your requirements online, each general education requirement has four or five or six assessments. 

Meredith: Right, different optional ways of…

Wyatt: Tests or something. 

Eborn: Yes. 

Wyatt: How does that work? 

Eborn: So, for instance, the student would register for English 1010 and they would come in and they would take, there’s a pre-assessment to see where they fall, and then there’s content and casing material that the faculty members have developed for these courses that the students then move through at different speeds and variables, and then they move into the next assessment and the next assessment on their own time during the term and they have that flexibility during the term. They can take the whole term to do it or they can do it in the first two weeks and the faculty member works with them individually to help them learn the materials and move through the course or to demonstrate their competence into the course. 

Wyatt: OK, so here, I’ve just pulled this up. So, for example, Communications Literacy on your website, it says, “Take English 1010 Introduction to Writing or take one of the following exams: ACT English Test: Score of 29 or higher; RSAT Reading Test: Score of 34 or higher; SAT Critical Reading Test: Score 640 or higher” and another four or five tests. How does that work? 

Meredith: Do students opt to take one of those prior to signing up? Or…?

Eborn: So, I think where there’s the confusion…sorry, we’re looking confused, but I think where there’s confusion there with what you’re looking at, so, with our CBE pilot, we’re not mixing our campus students in this program with our other CBE students right now because of the way that we’re running the pilot. And so, if the student…the students that are enrolling in our CBE courses right now are currently our workforce partnership…

Meredith: OK, that makes more sense now. 

Eborn: Yeah, and our employees are in this pilot program. So, we haven’t launched this program to the full community yet because it is a pilot, so I think that that’s where there’s confusion. Sorry about that, but yeah. 

Louviere: Yeah, that’s right. And I just went to go look at in in our catalog also. And we’re not deviating from the existing Associate of Science degree requirements, so, what you’re describing there where a student can take English 1010 or satisfy it through any of those following, and English 2010, if they can satisfy it through any of those ACT, RSAT and so forth, options, then we just follow those same guidelines and we would provide them English 2010. 

Eborn: Correct. 

Louviere: To follow that example. 

Wyatt: OK. I’m…

Louviere: Yeah, we’re not deviating at all from the existing degree requirements. 

Eborn: Yeah. 

Louviere: Or shortcutting any of those in any way. 

Wyatt: Well, I’m looking at…so, Breadth in Humanities, three credits required, and there’s a list of about 20 courses. And then it says, “Or, take the AP Art History with a score of such and such or the CLEP test or the IBO history test…” And when I…

Eborn: Yep, in those they can do that. 

Wyatt: Yeah. So, in theory, somebody could get every single general education class through one of these alternative tests?

Meredith: Although that would be highly unlikely. 

Wyatt: Highly unlikely. 

Meredith: Yes. 

Eborn: Yes. 

Louviere: And so, what you’re pointing out is something that’s already been in existence here at the institution for a very long time. And this is part of the discussion that we had when we were talking to our gen ed faculty about these, we were bringing up some of these examples. Another good example is the minor that I have that I received here from USU in Czech. So, I came in and was able to demonstrate with tests and some assessments the ability to essentially test out of what is now a minor in the Czech language, and that didn’t exist at the time, I just went through an assessment. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Louviere: So, that’s something that’s been in existence here at the institution for a very long time, we’re just now formalizing it with a competency-based package. 

Meredith: That’s actually a very common thing in the state of Utah for returning LDS missionaries to have a minor in the language that they…yeah. 

Louviere: Yeah, and BYU didn’t have a Czech test…

Meredith: Well, there you go. 

Louviere: Which is what most often [Inaudible] you send them down to take the test at BYU and then we articulate those. It didn’t exist. So, I sat down with some native Czech speakers in the department at the time and demonstrated a proficiency and was able to do it that way. So, it’s that type of authentic assessment is what we’re after. 

Wyatt: Yeah. So, we’re really talking about two different pathways. And the one has existed for a long time. 

Eborn: Yeah. 

Meredith: We’ve been doing CBE for a long time. I mean, if you look at it this way, right? 

Eborn: Yeah. 

Louviere: And in our vocational programs, we’ve been designing our courses at the competency level for a very long time and assessing this way also. So that’s…like, our Career and Technology Education programs, which we have at USU Eastern, have been doing this and when we have these discussions, those folks or our ag science folks, it resonates and they understand it very quickly and they’ve been designing and developing their courses that way. And so, doing a lot of the elective courses, we actually went to the ag science department to get some of those courses for the electives because we knew those would be a lot easier. But, like we started out, the gen eds were the toughest ones, we started with those.

Wyatt: Yeah. So, there’s kind of two pathways that I think—if I’m understanding this clearly—and one is the traditional, which really is kind of a competency-based or prior learning assessment for general education at Utah State which is AP or one of these other tests that somebody can take, the ACT or SAT. So, that’s always existed and I don’t know how many students take advantage of those opportunities. I remember I had a brother that got a lot of credits through AP. 

Meredith: Yeah, I CLEP-ed out of almost all my general education at the University of Utah. 

Wyatt: You’re talking about…

Eborn: And…

Wyatt: Oh, go ahead. 

Eborn: No, go ahead. 

Wyatt: And then we’re also talking about this new innovation that you’re doing that’s unrelated to these tests, and that is this online program for primarily adult learners. 

Eborn: Correct, yeah. This is an Associate of Science of General Studies, it’s completely online and it’s for our adult learners out in the state or wherever they are who need to finish their degrees or they want a degree and they need the flexibility and they need the opportunity to be able to have that avenue further education. 

Wyatt: It sounds like the first one is primarily for—what you’ve been doing for a long time—is primarily for students coming out of high school.

Eborn: Yeah. 

Wyatt: And the one you’re talking about now is primarily for adult learners. It’s hard for them to cross. 

Eborn: Yes. 

Louviere: Yeah, and another way to even look at it is those CLEP tests or the prior learning, those are all or none. So, either you pass it or you don’t and that’s part of the AP exam which is kind of a threat versus concurrent enrollment in getting college credit. 

Eborn: Right. 

Louviere: But…and then…but the model that we’re developing right now is what I could call “all or some.” So, they may be able to test out of the whole or be able to test their way through all of it, but our anticipation is that they won’t. They will test out of some of it, potentially, and then they can gain the learning material and participate in the course and get the knowledge that they need to then complete those requirements. So, it’s the all or some model. 

Eborn: Yeah, and I do like to point that this really is focused around an adult learner and that’s my background, that’s what I got my master’s degree in is education focusing on the adult learner and technology. And with my experience early on at Western Governor’s and then at Southern New Hampshire, adult learners, they come with a vast amount of experience, they have a lot of knowledge. Their self-directed most often, they’re motivated by relevance, and so, we’re trying to make these courses so that they work for the adult learner. That they fulfill that need so that they…and a lot of adult learners don’t do well in high stake direct assessment tests, similar to the AP tests and stuff, so, these courses allow them the opportunity to come in and take the time to learn the content and then take the assessment but maybe in a shorter amount of time. So, they really are focused around the adult learner and people out in the workforce. 

Wyatt: So, they may have two or three or four assessments and they take them when they feel prepared to take them and in theory, they could complete all of a semester, for one class anyway, they could complete it within a week or two? 

Eborn: Yes. 

Wyatt: And the advantage…

Meredith: Or take the normal 16 weeks. 

Wyatt: Yeah, or take the whole time. 

Eborn: Yeah, if they need the whole 16 weeks because they need to learn the content and work with their faculty member, they have that opportunity to do that in a flexible way. 

Wyatt: The amazing part of this is that, as you have already discussed, that if I want to take three or four classes and two of them I really basically understand, I can move through them quickly and then devote all of my time on the class or two that I’m struggling with. 

Eborn: Yeah. Yeah, and that’s how we learn. That’s the true…the background of how adults learn, that’s the way we have to…we’re very relevant and motivated by relevance and by our life situation and so, there’s a lot of factors that are considered. We’re just trying to make this as flexible as possible so that it can meet the needs of the adult learner. And our military, our veterans come to us a lot with a lot of prior learning that they…that this helps them as well. So, we’re trying to make this just be a stepping stone to help them finish their education and obtain their education and better their life. That’s our hope is that we aim to make everyone’s life better than can improve their life. 

Wyatt: That’s the business we’re in, isn’t it? [Laughs] 

Eborn: Yeah. 

Wyatt: The upward mobility. 

Eborn: Yeah.

Meredith: Rene, you had mentioned working for two of the really big national leaders in competency-based education, Western Governor’s and Southern New Hampshire. 

Eborn: Mhmm. 

Meredith: And part of this that is driving our discussion is…it’s always based on what’s best for the students there at SUU and I suspect that that would be the ethos that drives Utah State University and hopefully all of our USHE sister institutions, but the reality, too, is that some of this is market-driven. In other words, students are opting to go to places like Southern New Hampshire and Western Governor’s because of this type of flexibility and because of the prior learning credit that they can get. Are you sensing that the…that you’re going to be able to add additional programs to this? Because I suspect that students…I know you’re just very much in the pilot stage, but, as we’ve seen be wildly successfully at these other two institutions, geez, Western Governor’s said they want to have a million students, and their growth pattern seems to indicate that they might actually be able to get there. So, is there some sense that the universities are going to have to move this way to be able to compete? Is there some market force driving this also?

Eborn: Yes. I guess you were asking me so, yes. I do think that this is very market-driven. I think that the students that are coming to us now are different students than they used to be and they are very consumer driven. They do a lot of research before they come and then a lot of our adult learners are looking for that flexibility as well. And so, yes, I think it’s very much market-driven in that regard. Also, our industry providers, we seem them…they’re taking a political stance as well saying, “We need…[inaudible] our roles that need to be filled.” And they’re trying to find ways to do that as well. So, I think that it’s really important that higher education starts moving into some of these more innovative and more flexible type of opportunities for people to finish their degrees. If not then I think that we’re going to see Google and Amazon that are creating these educational programs now, I think that they’re going to do very well and I think it’s important that we, in higher education, that we start meeting them where they need to be met and help find ways to do that. And we’re doing that right now with this program. The students that we have in our pilot are actually…they’re working with two of the companies in our geographical area up here in northern Utah and providing that opportunity through an employer. 

Wyatt: Where do you think that this is going to lead us all? Where does your crystal ball say we’re going to be in 10 or 15 or 20 years? 

Eborn: John’s going to answer this one. His crystal ball. 

Louviere: Yes, my crystal ball. Well, the first thing in the short term, this activity, and just the activity of going down the path of developing a competency-based…an infrastructure that will support competency-based learning is catalyzing a quality improvement of our teaching and learning here at USU across the board. So, what this is requiring us to do is be very introspective of whether our instructional designers and those who actually have the professionalism or the ability to design the course working with the faculty member at the competency level and they organize the content and the learning paths in such a way that we can guide the students directly to that competence. And then the other piece that we’re realizing or have realized is the need to develop our assessments at a much higher quality and level. Because it really does come down to the assessments. And so, we’re spending a lot of time…we’re training our instructional design team to become not only instructional designers but psychometricians. We’re bringing in psychometricians that are working with our faculty members to write better test questions that are more authentic and more appropriate. And then the next thing that is also coming pervasive is within our testing centers, so our proctoring and our remote proctoring, has improved immensely as a result of this. In addition to the secure testing strategies that we’ve developed or are developing right now. 

And so, all of this is catalyzing an overall improvement that’s now cascading into our traditional classrooms and our broadcast classrooms across our statewide campuses and all the faculty. So, initially, what I see this in the next five and even ten years is an improvement of our teaching and learning processes here at Utah State University as a result of this activity. Now, the other sort of beneficial piece to this and the carrot for a lot of our faculty is this type of design also provides them more information that they can use to defend their teaching role statements and even do research on their teaching that we haven’t had before because now, when we develop a competency-based online course, we need to provide real-time reporting back to the student, back to the system to be able to personalize the learning experience for the student and back to the faculty members. So, that level of detail is something that we haven’t been able to pull out very easily but it will…it’s starting to become more ubiquitous in our other systems that we’re integrating within the teaching infrastructure. So, we see…what I’m anticipating is as our faculty are going up for promotion and tenure, we’re see a better level of defense that they’re able to provide and even more research that we can bring back into our programs. So, I don’t know if that’s really what we’re thinking about in our crystal ball of whether we think USU is going to have this large Western Governor’s, international program, I don’t anticipate that. What I do anticipate is a stronger industry partnership in many of our rural locations where the land-grant footprint is and seeing more non-traditional students in our statewide campuses that are enrolled in these types of courses than we have otherwise. We’re seeing growth there anyhow. But we think those statewide campuses are there are provide a great value to support those students as a location-based option. So, I see that as the future here for Utah State University in supporting these. So, that’s as far as I’m thinking right now being mired down with the development of all of this. 

Wyatt: It’s interesting…one of the things that really struck out when you were describing where this is taking you and the future is not just simply an expansion of courses that are available online and not just an expansion of competency-based education that brings some of these adult learners back in, but you’re describing how this is actually helping your face-to-face, traditionally education programs. 

Louviere: That’s right. 

Eborn: Yes, yeah. And what was great about this…working at Western Governor’s and at Southern New Hampshire, we always…I always had big grants or I had lots of…I had a lot of money sometimes to be able to roll out some of these programs, but it’s been wonderful to come back to Utah and come back to Utah State with their focus on their land-grant mission and try to do this from the inside out with our boots strapped. With hardly any money but just by getting the faculty buy-in and having the faculty take the lead on this and it’s been really phenomenal, actually. It’s probably one of the most unique things I’ve ever been a part of and I’ve been really excited about it because it’s like truly making change happen and the culture changing within the higher ed model. 

Louviere: And it’s been very helpful with our…Noelle Cockett who is now president, but previous provost, and now provost Galey who is very committed in the teaching role statement and is very supportive of us doing this but really wants a system-wide approach and a systemic perspective that it’s not just a niche program. 

Eborn: Yeah. 

Wyatt: We hear so many times from—and understandably so—we hear so many times from faculty members who got their degrees in a face-to-face, in-classroom, on-campus experience and then have spent their careers teaching that way, fears that they have that as we moved towards competency-based or online education that it will diminish the face-to-face experience in one way or another or that it shifts the culture of a university into something that it wasn’t and that it becomes an online school instead of a face-to-face school. But what you’re discovering is just the act of moving in these directions has strengthened the face-to-face environment and if I was an 18-year-old student, I might actually get a better education face-to-face than I would have before you started down this path?

Louviere: I don’t know if it’d be a better education, but you may have more options to be able to get through your education quicker. 

Wyatt: OK.

Louviere: I mean, many of our…one of our objectives and our performance metrics is time to graduation and when we have bottleneck courses that are constrained by physical classrooms and we can’t scale those up as an option—I’m now not speaking competency-based, but of our online technologies and so forth—then we slow students down and we can discourage students and there are often times I can show where we’ve lost students as a result of some of these bottleneck courses. So, we’re trying to alleviate pressures there and help give the students options holistically, whether it’s online, face-to-face, or broadcast.  

Wyatt: I interpreted your comment about how the competency-based assessments have helped you do better assessments for face-to-face courses and some of these outcomes…

Meredith: And some of the data…

Wyatt: That you use…

Meredith: Is more real-time, yeah. 

Wyatt: That might help the face-to-face experience improve in quality, too. But you’re saying it may not help the quality there, it will just help with options. 

Louviere: That’s right, yeah. 

Wyatt: Well, and Utah is, in fact, a leader, aren’t we? We are the leader in “some college but no degree.” The percentage of our adults that have some college and then didn’t finish. 

Eborn: Right. 

Louviere: Yeah, as a state we’re doing a really good job. We have a good culture to support this and I think we can build on it quite a bit. What we also have is a good, cohesive [inaudible] that the Utah systems [inaudible]. For example, we meet with your colleagues there at SUU and even Dixie and we meet often with our Centers for Teaching and Learning and we discuss some of these faculty development programs that we’re having to revise and improve as we are re-training our faculty and training all of our faculty using these same principles that we’re doing for CBE and we’re collaborating together on this and that’s extremely unique and something that you don’t necessarily see in other states and other systems. 

Wyatt: I remember when I was living in Logan practicing law, this was a long time ago, actually teaching distance classes for Utah State. 

Eborn: Yep. 

Louviere: Were you one…did you get on an airplane? 

Wyatt: Nope, I would would sit in a room with a video that would take a still shot every…

Louviere: Oh, yeah. 

Wyatt: Ten seconds or 15 seconds or one minute or…I don’t remember how frequently it was, but it would take an image once a minute and then send that image on and I was broadcasting my class to the prison and all over the state, I had students everywhere. And I remember thinking, “I hope that my face is in a reasonably good position when it takes that snapshot because it doesn’t go away very fast.” [Laughs] Wow, we’ve come a long ways. 

Eborn: Well, I’ll tell you…

Meredith: We have. 

Eborn: I was just going to say, I actually credit distance ed for me…I’m a first generation student that grew up on a ranch over in Bear Lake and the distance ed programs helped me get an early start on my education and I remember doing the same thing in high school, taking those distance ed classes. I think at the time they were called “ComNet.” 49:22

Wyatt: Yeah, that’s right. 

Louviere: That’s right. 

Eborn: They were called ComNet back in the day. 

Wyatt: Yeah. Yeah, so…it seems like rural high schools have taken more of an advantage of those, partly because of the need to have more options for their students with limited budgets. 

Eborn: Yeah, yeah. 

Louviere: Yeah, and we provide…the outreach that’s provided with our live broadcasts go clear down to Monument Valley and across the whole state and that’s a fantastic other option that’s out there. It’s also a very expensive and intensive infrastructure to support. 

Wyatt: Well, and if we go back even further, my father, who was a faculty member at Utah State, took a correspondence course back in the 1950s. 

Eborn: Yep. 

Wyatt: Math class. 

Meredith: Yeah, my mother, too. She got her interior design certificate via mail correspondence. 

Wyatt: We have sure come a long ways. 

Eborn: So, this is just a next step for us. And I actually…part of this is I encourage any of the higher ed institutions, if they’re thinking about competency-based education or doing some different things, to pilot stuff because even if you decide…it’s the best way to learn. You’ve got to learn and you’ve got to educate and create awareness and teach and then pilot things and you take the good things you learn and move it into something else. If that’s anything, at the end of the day, that’s the best thing that we have is we’re learning. We’re learning what we’re doing well, what we’re…what’s working well for our students, we’re getting learning analytics and it’s making us do our jobs better. So, that’s our hope is just to be able to just do better and I encourage others to do so as well. 

Wyatt: So, we’re going to see pretty soon a full Associate of Science degree…

Meredith: Associate of Science. 

Wyatt: Associate of Science degree at Utah State that’s competency-based. You’ve begun with the general education courses, some of the more difficult ones and then you’re moving into the content courses related to the degree.

Eborn: Yes. 

Wyatt: And then we’ll see where it goes from there. We’re all just learning from this and it’s good for our faculty and our staff to understand what great innovations our sister institutions are doing so that we can get a sense of where the world is going because it’s changing. 

Eborn: Yeah. 

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 as our guests today, joining us via telephone from their offices as Utah State University, John Louviere and Rene Eborn. We thank John and Rene for joining us and we thank you, our devoted listeners, for tuning. As always, we’ll be back again soon. Thanks for listening, bye bye.