The Journey to Competency-based Education with Sinclair Community College

How CBE and a new LMS helped Sinclair Community College prepare its students for the real world in less time

Overview

For an Iraq War veteran, it wasn’t a lack of skills keeping her from getting a job — it was a lack of certification. During the war, she worked as an information systems analyst, and spent seven years on active duty as a network engineer. But since she never received a degree or any credentials for her work, upon leaving the military she couldn’t find a job in her field. The impact was devastating for her and her family.

Going back to school seemed inevitable, but taking the time for traditional schooling often isn’t possible for those who are married with children. It also doesn’t work for those who already have the skills and are looking to progress more quickly through a program.

A promising solution to this problem was found at Sinclair Community College, where competency-based education (CBE) had long been in the cards. For 10 years, there was a growing appetite to implement the teaching style at the Dayton, Ohio institution.

CBE can enable students to learn at a flexible pace, and can give graduating students the knowledge and skills they need for the real world. The benefits are obvious, but changing curriculum over to CBE isn’t something that happens overnight.

Like any great change, Sinclair needed a catalyst to bring life into the project. For the school, that catalyst was a grant from the US Department of Labor. When applying for the grant, Sinclair’s key decision makers needed to sit down and outline its transition plans. This resulted in a staff committed to the project and excited about its potential — a difficult find in many transition stories.

With a capital infusion and a plan, Sinclair began turning some of its Computer Information Systems (CIS) programs into competency-based programs in 2012.

A new search begins

In 2014, in the midst of its transition, Sinclair faced another problem: its existing learning management system (LMS), ANGEL, had been acquired by Blackboard. While Sinclair was still able to use ANGEL, the company would no longer be offering support for the LMS. Sinclair now needed to find an LMS that could provide the right support for this CBE program.

Christina Amato, CBE Program Manager at Sinclair, says there were three different LMS platforms under serious consideration. Amato describes the need for an LMS when implementing competency-based programs as being about “change management” — all the pieces in this changeover need to work well together.

In the end, it was Brightspace that won out. From the perspective of Sinclair’s instructional design team, Brightspace had the right educational tools to meet Sinclair students’ needs. In particular, Brightspace’s Learning Object Repository (LOR) allowed Sinclair to meet the increasing demands for online programs.

“The technology that supports the process has to be a standout — it has to work — or you can’t even get to those big conversations,” explains Amato. “It’s the thing that’s hidden in the background, but it’s our foundation. We’re relying on that to be able to do the really tough work of having conversations about this new way of learning.”

Working together

Armed with Brightspace, Sinclair now had the proper toolset to get to work.

At Sinclair, a challenge had been releasing the proper course material to students as they progressed through a competency-based class. In its CBE classes, students must maintain an 80% standard on every assignment, lab, and quiz before they can proceed to new material. Using Brightspace, Sinclair’s instructional designers have set up courses that now can release the right material based on students’ progress.

Sinclair has also seen an impact when it comes to student intervention. Its new system employs academic coaches, who each work with 80 to 100 students, providing support throughout the entire program. Using Brightspace, the coaches and faculty can monitor students to see how many times they’re logging in per week, their level of engagement, and grades on assignments.

As one coach described, having live data out of Brightspace allows for “enlightened” advising. For the first time, coaches can have “knowledgeable conversations with students regarding their progress” and classroom performance. Coaches understand which students they need to have immediate, serious conversations with, and which ones simply need a nudge in the right direction. Now, faculty and coaches can work together, using the same classroom data and information to teach and advise.


“[The technology is] the thing that’s hidden in the background, but it’s our foundation. We’re relying on that to be able to do the really tough work of having conversations about this new way of learning.”
Christina Amato, CBE Program Manager at Sinclair Community College

Better, faster, stronger

In the first three years of implementation, Sinclair reported that its CBE programs had a significant impact on student success and completion. CBE students averaged two terms to complete their first program, while non-CBE students took twice as long — averaging around four terms. Those completing degrees are finishing in an average of four terms, which is 35% faster than non-CBE students. In addition, graduation rates for CBE students were double that of non-CBE students over the three-year period of Sinclair’s first CBE program offerings.

Building upon its success, the college has subsequently expanded CBE offerings to include Advanced Manufacturing, with additional programs in Retail Supply Chain and Unmanned Aerial Systems under development and slated for 2017.

And the impact on individual students is just as distinct.

For Sinclair’s Iraq War veteran, the new CBE model allowed her to complete her program in 18 months, with a dual major in Network Engineering and Secure Systems Administration. She then earned a paid internship in her last semester and was permanently hired upon graduation.