Making Education Affordable: A New Vision for Community College, using OER and Competency-Based Education

Interview with John Milam, Executive Director, Knowledge To Work/ HigherEd.org

John Milam and his team at the Knowledge to Work (K2W) initiative of Lord Fairfax Community College (LFCC) have created a new education tool for self-directed learners. Leveraging the flexibility of Competency-Based Education (CBE) and Open Educational Resources (including Saylor Academy resources), HigherEd.org partners with employer associations to create personalized learning geared toward real-world careers.  Saylor.org chatted with Dr. Milam to learn more about transforming the course model, personalized learning, and partnering with employers to provide career-ready education.

Key Takeaways

  • Converting learning objectives into competency frameworks has allowed HigherEd.org to provide a more flexible and personalized learning experience for students and faculty who want to use resources.
  • Saylor OER readily aligns to competencies, given detailed curation of materials aligned to commonly used learning outcomes.
  • Saylor OER garners top 10 search queries on the HigherEd.org competency portal.
  • Assessment of prior learning and competencies to provide credentials is a more flexible higher education model and will allow more students to complete credentials quickly and affordably.

SA: For the benefit of our audience, what is HigherEd.org?

John Milam: Highered.org represents a vision for personalized learning through competency-based education (CBE) using free and affordable open educational resources (OER). LFCC received a U.S. Department of Labor round four TAACCCT grant of $3.25 million in October 2014 called “Knowledge to Work” (K2W).  With K2W, we’ve created direct assessment CBE programs in information technology (IT), health information management (HIM), and Administrative Support Technology.  

We currently offer the only direct-assessment, CBE programs available at a community college. As you may know, there are only six institutions approved for Title IV financial aid for direct assessment CBE in the country and we are working hard to be the seventh. With Knowledge to Work, we developed personalized learning plan software, case management software, and we mine different types of OER repositories to provide as many instructional materials as possible.  As part of our grant objectives, we’ve taken everything that was developed for our programs and pushed it up onto the web to create a new type of learning ecosystem or portal for everyone to use.  We’re also about to launch a Spanish version of the HigherEd.org portal and the KnowledgetoWork.com site.

JM: The backbone of HigherEd.org is the search engine, a kind of “Amazon for Higher Education,” where you can find resources by specific competency or keyword. You can use a lot of different filters, such as cost and delivery mode (video, text, etc).  You can create a personalized learning plan, monitor your progress on a custom dashboard, save resources to use later, set goals, and do your own kind of project management about learning.  We think this vision of personalized learning with competencies using OER should be a model for all of higher education.  While the portal is restricted for now to the disciplines with high growth/high wages jobs funded by our TAACCCT grant, HigherEd.org is the embodiment of learning anytime/anywhere with OER.

SA:  How have Saylor resources specifically helped HigherEd.org, and what are things  we could do better?

JM:  Saylor is a perfect example of what we are trying to do.  We really appreciate and promote the Saylor vision of making online courses available for free, of mapping courses to the American Council of Education (ACE) course credits, and of employer partnerships that Saylor has with JetBlue and Thomas Edison and others. You make free and affordable college available and significantly reduce the course cost of learning.  

Plus you are using assessments and rubrics created by faculty in the discipline.  We are very pleased and excited about promoting those courses to our students. It is exactly what we want to do.  I think the more that content providers can adopt national standards for competency frameworks the more beneficial it would be for everyone. This also cuts down on costs, since it is time-consuming to curate a learning object and map it to competencies in a way that is IMS compliant.  We have been incredibly pleased with our partnership with Saylor.  This is the very thing we are trying to promote with the portal.

SA:  How did the use of OER factor in the creation of HigherEd.org?

JM:  We’ve benefited enormously from Saylor making its content available, as we have with OER from MERLOT, the Learning Registry, OER Commons, and other repositories.   Here at Highered.org, individual learners can go find OER tied to competencies. Faculty can also reverse-engineer the whole approach and say “Hey, I’m teaching this course that has specific competencies as student learning outcomes,  help me search specifically for OER supporting this course.”  Our new model, though, is non-course based.  The course is very much like the credit hour; it is an artificial construct.  Life and learning do not start and stop in 15-week increments, 3 credit hours or 9 hours of educational activity per week.  

SA:  Who do you consider your key stakeholders for HigherEd.org?

JM:  Individual learners, because it is the only search engine out there for people who want to find, evaluate, and curate their own learning. I get pushback for using the word curate. We can go through and find resources and catalog with different types of metadata; but it is individual learners who know how they prefer to learn.  It’s kind of a disruptive business model. Some of the key content providers create content, but they only sell to institutions. So we are kind of disrupting the supply chain.  

I think a lot of the reason college costs so much is that every one of 7000+ colleges is giving the same 15 weeks of lectures on the same topics. Here we take the best OER and we make them available for all students anywhere for free or low-cost. People can pick and choose which ones they want to work on and on which platforms. What really matters is the assessment of learning and tying learning to credentials. We have a relatively small bandwidth of subject areas with IT, HIM, and administrative technology.  IT includes cybersecurity and networking.  We are adding employability skills as well.  You can imagine with all the hundreds of disciplines in higher education, this is just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg as it were.

SA: You’ve described HigherEd.org as the only direct-assessment competency-based education offered within a community college in the nation. Can you clarify what this distinction means?

JM:Knowledge to Work is the grant which makes possible the seven direct assessment CBE programs that LFCC offers with regional accreditation approval from SACSCOC.  The HigherEd.org portal is different.  It gives you access to OER and all kinds of instruction materials. It does not have assessments built in yet, which is something Saylor Academy does very well, building assessments and linking learning outcomes to credentials.

SA:  How did you decide to map the credentials available to competencies?

JM:  We created an LFCC direct assessment faculty committee to review the types of program student learning outcomes we use in our traditional programs and understand how they relate to national competency frameworks.  The programs our faculty were most interested in are ones with national frameworks.  These include the Association of Computing Machinery, AHIMA , and the International Association of Administrative Professionals  are all organizations our faculty were involved with.  Our faculty mapped those competencies to where they are being taught in traditional face-to-face classes and online through student learning outcomes and course assignments. Faculty then unpacked the domains and subdomains further to look at the objectives in and around those competencies.  Additionally, as part of our accreditation review, we have had to make sure we had really good, consistent rubrics in terms of scoring an artifact, and claiming it meets or exceeds expectations for a competency.  We are continuing to improve our institutional effectiveness processes to meet accreditation requirements and have learned a lot from this effort.

SA: What opportunities do you see for higher education institutions such as Lord Fairfax Community College to develop and incorporate CBE learning into their programs?

JM:  We are a member of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), and I am a member of their board of directors representing community colleges.  We think CBE is the way to move the needle and increase completions and credentials.  It is a way to reduce cost, to increase a significant number of graduates and credentialed completers, as well as have credentials completed much more quickly and more affordably for individual learners. One of the barriers to education that many students encounter, is colleges telling them “You can’t take a certain course unless you complete remedial work first.” We know students who get stuck in remedial courses take a lot longer to move on to traditional college courses.

With this approach, you are working on the whole continuum of competencies. For example, you might learn competencies which address a few basic skills or even digital literacy, but at the same time you would learn competencies aligned with your career path. The beauty of working on badges or short term certificates, even the bootcamps, is that they stack and layer as part of a career pathway over time; because the world is just too complex, there’s just too much knowledge for one-size-fits-all.  

Any college and any individual faculty member can share their materials in this portal.   We want to keep increasing the number of materials as much as possible and eventually grow into other disciplines because we are actively trying to find a way to grow and to be sustainable.

SA:  What are your long-term goals with HigherEd.org and Knowlege to Work?

JM: So our long-term goal is to make it sustainable. We are looking at partnerships where we can maybe have some content providers. We have looked at advertising and we have some potential there for people to advertise, to co-brand.  We really would like to expand into other disciplines.  We really believe this model which Saylor provides, of free and affordable college for everyone, is doable. We are looking for partners and investments and grants to continue.  

Knowledge to Work has just been approval to use military education benefits from the state (of VA) for CBE.  We are still waiting on Title IV financial aid approval, though, and it will take time.  That’s a really big deal and something worth working for with what direct assessment means.   We believe this is the ideal place to be, it’s just taken a lot of risk, a lot of energy and a lot of faith in the process to address all of the accreditation and federal requirements.  

JM: At some point we will want to talk about adding assessments and credentials to the portal too, mapped to competencies.   We have been talking to CompTIA and Microsoft is a grant partner as well. We would like to list every potential credential available which is tied to these competencies.  If you pay attention to things like the Credential Transparency Initiative, Connecting Credentials, and other efforts by Lumina, these initiatives still have a way to go before they can realize the vision.  It just takes time.

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