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Competency-Based Education at Peirce College: Bachelor of Science in Information Technology

Scheduled to launch in September 2016, Peirce College’s Bachelor of Science in information technology (networking, administration, and information security) is a competency-based degree program that will provide experienced adult learners with an affordable path to degree completion and professional success in the IT field.

A CBE case study

This case study is part of a series on competency-based degree programs that have been emerging in recent years.  The case studies are prepared by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) with funding from Lumina Foundation.

AN OVERVIEW

Scheduled to launch in September 2016, Peirce
College’s Bachelor of Science in information
technology (networking, administration, and
information security) is a competency-based
degree program that will provide experienced
adult learners with an affordable path to degree
completion and professional success in the
IT field. 

According to the college’s website, Peirce
“equips adult learners, in a personalized, student-centered
environment, to achieve their goals and
successfully fulfill workforce needs.” In pursuit
of this mission, Peirce converted an existing
Bachelor of Science in information technology
degree to the non-traditional, competency-based
format designed specifically for working
adults pursuing degrees on a part-time basis. The
traditional IT program was chosen as the target
for the CBE initiative due to the high workforce
demand for jobs in information technology as
well as the robust nature of the existing degree
structure. Dr. Rita Toliver-Roberts, one of the
leaders of the initiative says, “Peirce’s CBE
program focuses on what matters the most to
adult learners and their employers—gaining the
actual skills and knowledge to do their job better
or advance in their careers.”

The learning outcomes within the traditional
degree were used to develop a set of
corresponding competencies for the CBE
program that emphasize industry relevance.
The competencies were used to guide the
development of credit-based, self-paced courses that students interact with on an online learning
platform developed by Sagence Learning. Competency
mastery is assessed through a variety of
objective and subjective methods which are
graded by program faculty. The all-you-can-learn
model allows students to advance through the
program at their own pace, taking as many or
as few courses as they can manage, while being
charged the same flat rate per term.

BACKGROUND

Throughout its history, Peirce College has
demonstrated a commitment to the adult learner
and to fulfilling workforce needs. In the past, this
commitment led Peirce to be one of the first
institutions to offer all programs in an online
format, positioning the college as an expert in
online learning delivery. The strategic plan for
the CBE Bachelor of Science in information
technology with a concentration in networking,
administration, and information security was
designed with the same mission in mind, to serve
as an innovative workforce solution for adult
students. Dr. Rita Toliver-Roberts, vice president
of academic achievement, said, “We spent some
time looking at our history and reflecting on
prideful times in which we were leading in online
education. We saw CBE as an opportunity to
continue that legacy of innovation.” 

Likewise, Peirce College has always
emphasized flexible and affordable academic
options. However, with an understanding of
the impact that high tuition costs have on
accessibility and degree completion, Peirce
administrators identified competency-based
education as the natural next step in fostering
an adult-friendly institution. Under the
leadership of Brian Finnegan, assistant dean of
information technology and general education,
and Dr. Rita Toliver-Roberts, faculty and staff
set out to create a bachelor’s program that
would attract experienced professionals without
credentials and reach students unable to pursue
a traditional degree. 

Due to a high workforce demand for jobs
in information technology and the quality of the traditional Bachelor of Science degree,
this program was chosen as the starting point
for the CBE team. Toliver-Roberts, Finnegan,
a CBE program development team, an
internal instructional design team, the learning
management system vendor Sagence Learning, faculty,
and a CBE coach were involved early on in the
process of transitioning the traditional program
to a competency-based one. The non-CBE
degree’s focus on career-relevant learning
outcomes, reviewed and revised by faculty
every three years, proved invaluable in the
development of the competencies and the
concomitant strength of the new CBE program.
However, particularly important was the support
of such a robust team spanning multiple
departments committed to and experienced
with the unique needs of the adult learner.

THE PROGRAM COMPETENCIES

Instead of starting from scratch, Peirce was
able to benefit from the rigorous review and
accreditation of its traditional Bachelor of
Science in information technology degree to
develop the competency framework for the
new program. The CBE team deconstructed
learning outcomes already present in the nonCBE
degree to build sets of competencies
conveying information deemed necessary for
success and job security in the workforce. Each
competency was carefully designed to elicit
work-relevant application of learning, without
the verbs like “define” and “compare/contrast”
found within the traditional learning outcomes.
For example, competency requirements related
to HTML5 and CSS3 ask that students “create a
fixed website using established design principles”
and “create a website usable across a variety of
devices of varying screen sizes.”

The process of identifying competencies
began with assigning specific courses from
the traditional BS program to faculty course
coordinators, who then sketched out draft
competencies for iterative review and
discussion. The development team drew on
learning outcomes and rubric materials from the Lumina Foundation Degree Qualification
Profile (DQP), American Association of
Colleges and University’s (AAC&U’s) Value
Rubrics, Department of Labor Competency
Clearinghouse’s Industry Competency Model
Initiative, and Association of Computing
Machinery. It took 6 months to complete the
framework. However, Brain Finnegan stressed
that although Peirce has competencies ready
for the commencement of the program in the
Fall 2016 term, the development continues. He
says, “I don’t think it is a good idea to think of the
process as ever complete exactly. Refinements
are still ongoing as we work for better clarity,
student-focused language, less jargon, and closer
connections to the world of work.”

Peirce College has an active and sizeable
program advisory board that includes
representation from two-year colleges,
articulating partners, educators, recruiters,
and employers. This body acts as a maintaining
mechanism for the learning outcomes and
competencies at Peirce to ensure that they
align with academic standards as well as
employer needs.

RELATIONSHIP TO THE CREDIT HOUR

Each competency within the CBE information
technology degree is clearly mapped back to
the credit hour, but some competencies are
scoped differently than others. In some cases,
the demonstration of a single competency is
sufficient to receive credit for the traditional,
three-credit-hour course. In other instances, a
three-credit-hour course may equal up to four
competencies. Each competency is then defined
by one or more sub-competencies and one or
more objectives.

Figure 1 shows the example of how one
traditional course is mapped to individual
competencies and its various sub-competencies
and objectives. BIS402 Systems Analysis and
Design is the name of the three-credit course
in the traditional program. To earn credit for
that course in the competency-based program,
a student must complete three competencies:
Systems Planning and Analysis; Systems Design,
Implementation & Support; and Using Visio. Each
of the competencies is then made up of various
sub-competencies and objectives.

Depending on successful demonstration of
all associated course competencies, the student
is awarded the credit hours for the course on
their transcript.

The structure of the CBE program parallels
that of the traditional degree, with courses
offered during the standard fall, spring, and
summer 15-week terms. To graduate, students
must complete 15 credit-based general education
courses and 36 competencies, all of which
total 120 credit hours (see Table 1). A portion
of general education courses will be offered in
the CBE format, while the remaining general
education content is being developed for CBE.
Students can complete the general education
requirements through traditional credit based
courses, with prior learning assessment
offered as an option for students with applicable
prior learning.

Of the 26 IT program courses, 10 compose
an associate degree in information technology.
This is an important milestone for students as
it ensures that if they are not able to complete
the program past this point, they are still able
to leave with a degree that has value in the
labor market.

There are only four elective courses even
offered within the CBE degree, leaving very little
of the curriculum to student choice.

Policies and procedures for the transfer of
credit into the CBE program are consistent with
those of traditional degrees at Peirce. If the need
arises for a student to transfer out of the CBE
program into a non-CBE degree or to another
institution, Peirce is able to provide them with
a transcript of their completed courses and the
credit hour equivalents to the competencies
that the student has demonstrated.

CURRICULUM DEVELOPMENT
AND THE STUDENT EXPERIENCE

Prior to enrollment in the program, prospective
students are required to complete an initial
assessment to determine if they have the skills
and experience to be successful in the degree.
The curriculum caters particularly to adults with
no degrees but at least two years of professional
experience in the IT field. This fact, along
with the self-paced, online delivery, makes
the degree best suited for independent adult
professionals who are able to take advantage of
the program’s flexibility.

Curriculum development was undertaken by IT
faculty members at Peirce in collaboration with
representatives from the learning management
software vendor, Sagence Learning. Through an
online format and open educational resources
recommended by faculty, the team was able to
construct the curriculum without the constraints
of the credit hour, academic calendar, or required
textbooks. Instead, they made a concerted effort
to ensure that the courses conveyed realistic,
work-relevant material to students through
the use of projects, case studies, and industry approved
topics. Representatives from Sagence Learning proved instrumental to the development
of the curriculum as they trained faculty,
through onsite retreats and weekly webinars,
on the learning management platform and its
instructional design capabilities.

After successful completion of the initial
online assessment and admission to the program,
students register for competencies with their
CBE coach.

Students who work quickly through the
competencies can complete multiple courses
within one term, with no limit. Conversely,
students who require more time to demonstrate
competencies need only take the equivalent
of 6 credit hours per term and can progress at
their own pace without being penalized. Thus,
time to degree is expected to vary depending on
the student’s experience, learning style, and
transfer credits.

One summative assessment is administered
for each competency and is designed to test
mastery of all the included sub-competencies
and objectives.

For example, Table 2 shows how assessments
address two different courses. For MIS110, there
are four competencies, each of which have
multiple objectives. To earn credit for MIS110,
the student must successfully complete four
summative assessments, one for each of the
four competencies. Along the way, the student
will take formative assessments for each of the
objectives. In contrast, students in ITN130 will
take four formative assessments, but only one
summative assessment, since there is only one
competency associated with that course.

There are formative assessments for each
objective, but they are only offered as a way for
students to monitor their progress and prepare
for the final competency assessment. Because
the CBE learning framework is constructed as a
series of competencies rather than a traditional
network of learning outcomes tied to courses,
the design team made it a priority to develop
assessments that could test the competencies in
isolation to fairly capture a student’s mastery of
each skill.

The CBE program uses both subjective
and objective assessments. The majority
of the competencies are tied to subjective
assessments, such as projects, presentations,
and writing assessments developed by IT faculty.
Faculty grade the materials according to a
rubric that students are provided with prior to
the beginning of each competency. They are
categorized on a 4-point scale, with 2 or below
failing to demonstrate competency and 3 or
above being competent. Additionally, the degree
program includes objective assessments either
pulled directly from industry certification tests
(Network Plus, Security Plus, etc.) or closely
aligned to them. In cases where the assessment
for a particular competency relies heavily on an objective, external industry certification,
Peirce also requires a subjective component
in the form of a case study, opinion piece, or
research paper. This addition was important to
the design team in order to emphasize that the
program is for a professional degree and not
merely an assessment preparation program for
industry certifications. Instead, the assessments
within the program are designed to elevate
graduates in their respective fields by requiring
demonstration of soft skills like critical thinking
and communication as well as industry-specific
technological skills.

BUILDING SUPPORT
FOR THE PROGRAM

Peirce College was chosen to participate in
the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning’s
CBE Jumpstart program, an initiative funded
by the Lumina Foundation that offers technical
training and assistance to institutions developing
their competency-based education programs.
Dr. Rita Toliver-Roberts noted that although
Peirce already had a commitment to supporting
its adult learner population through CBE,
having that choice validated in the eyes of the
institution’s community was invaluable, as every
one of Peirce’s departments and offices were
represented at the training. The CBE Jumpstart
program provided faculty and staff with the
assurance that they were on the right track, a
sense of the innovative nature of CBE nationally,
a wider discussion about CBE among the various
departments, and a clear pathway to beginning
their own program.

Within the College, internal communication
about the CBE program began among faculty
across the institution, stakeholders, and the
greater Peirce community. Administrators are
also currently discussing the program with
Peirce’s corporate partners in the hopes of
establishing a pipeline between the degree and
IT professionals in the workforce.

In marketing CBE to students, the college
aimed to keep the message clear and simple. By
stressing that the competency-based structure
allows students to put what they already know to work for them, Peirce conveyed the affordability
and flexibility of the program for the adult
learner. Prospective students are able to access
additional information on Peirce’s website along
with the initial CBE assessment. An e-mail
communication sent out to current students and
alumni attracted a sizable group of prospective
students interested in starting classes in the fall.
Additionally, an animation video that informs
prospective students about the advantages of
CBE is available on Peirce’s website.

FACULTY AND STUDENT
SUPPORT STAFF
 

The role of faculty began with curricular design
and will continue with instruction and substantive
student interaction upon commencement
of the program. Initially, IT faculty members
were assigned traditional courses according to
their area of expertise. They were tasked with
constructing competencies and corresponding
assessments from those traditional courses, in
conjunction with Sagence Learning and the CBE coach.
During the program’s implementation, faculty will
be responsible for instruction as well. Instructional
responsibilities are likely to include holding
office hours and tutoring sessions, providing
timely feedback on assessments, participating
in online discussions, and maintaining consistent,
substantive communication with students.

A full-time CBE coach complements the
academic assistance that faculty members
provide by monitoring student progress within
the competency-based structure and providing
support for a caseload of 100 students. The
coach meets once a week with the enrollment
specialist to look over the assessment that
prospective students complete prior to
admission into the program. Once they are
enrolled, responsibilities include hosting a
student orientation two weeks prior to the
beginning of the term, monitoring progress on Sagence Learning, maintaining weekly contact with
students, and engaging with the IT faculty on
student-related concerns. The current CBE
coach is in fact a member of the underlying IT
faculty, with a master’s degree in information
technology as well as a master’s in mental health counseling. This overlap allows for continuity
between advising and academics and will be
pursued with future CBE coaches. However,
although coaches may be members of the faculty,
they are kept strictly distinct from assessment
administrators to avoid any integrity issues.

COST AND PRICING

Consistent with their mission to provide
affordable and accessible academic options for
adult learners, Peirce College made a strategic
investment in the competency-based education
program. The initiative currently does not have
any external funders, meaning that the start-up
and continuing costs will be absorbed by the
institution. Revenue from the degree program is
expected to cover its costs by 2019.

Students pay a flat rate of $3000 per term
under the all-you-can-learn model. This flat rate
per term includes the cost of tuition, which is
$2700, and a student services fee of $300. At
minimum, the CBE student will enroll in 6 credits
per term. Comparing traditional and CBE tuition
pricing, the CBE price point is considerably lower
in cost to a traditional student taking 6 credits
per term (a charge of $3,768, not including the
cost of textbooks). In addition, the all-you-canlearn
model aligns more closely with the needs
and interests of Peirce’s target population. Most
of the students at the College attend part-time
while maintaining full-time jobs and families,
and many cannot afford to take more than two
courses in any given semester. The CBE pricing
structure allows motivated students to receive
more instruction for their money without
accruing additional costs. Peirce College is
hopeful that this will allow students to complete
their degrees more quickly by taking as many
courses as they can manage for the same low
cost as those students only taking a few.

FINANCIAL AID AND ACCREDITATION

Because the competency-based IT degree
maps directly back to traditional, credit-based
courses held according to the standard Fall/
Spring terms, students are eligible for financial aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act
of 1965 as long as they earn a minimum of 6
credit hours per semester. Additionally, Title
IV requires that programs provide substantive
faculty/student interaction. Although the
exact nature of this interaction has not been
finalized, the CBE team and faculty have
established policies and procedures that align
with the substantive faculty-student interaction
requirement to ensure that students will remain
eligible for financial aid.

Because the CBE degree is designed to map
back to the credit hour, and because students
enroll in the competencies within the existing
term structure, it was not necessary for Peirce
to submit a substantive change application
to its regional accreditor, the Middle States
Commission on Higher Education.

LESSONS LEARNED AND NEXT STEPS

In considering advice for other institutions
wanting to develop their own CBE programs,
Peirce leadership stressed that the learning
management software vendor should be chosen
early and wisely. The Sagence Learning staff was able
to provide general guidance not only on the
platform’s capabilities but also on using the
system to enhance and enforce the strengths
of the competencies themselves. In particular,
Finnegan noted that their commitment to the
articulation of the competencies, even to the
point of challenging the college when necessary,
made a qualitative difference in what students
will experience in the program.

A second recommendation from the Peirce
design team is to involve the coaches and
advisors early in the design and development
process. Peirce’s CBE coach was hired early
on, and the team believes that being involved
from the beginning allowed her to lend her
expertise to the expression of the competencies,
processes, and procedures throughout, rather
than becoming familiar with them post-launch.
The Peirce team also felt it necessary to
acknowledge the immense time commitment required to convert courses and corresponding
learning outcomes to competencies. Initially,
the assumption was that since the college had
a pre-existing Bachelor of Science degree in
information technology containing robust and
work-relevant learning outcomes, the mapping
of competencies from this traditional structure
would be relatively simple. Although decidedly
easier than developing a framework from the
ground up, Peirce still spent significant time
and resources on this stage of the program’s
design. Not only should the time commitment
be seriously considered in any strategic plan, but
it is also important to recognize the opportunity
for reflection and quality improvement within
the traditional program as learning outcomes are
analyzed and restructured for CBE.

Peirce College has expressed a commitment
to the reworking and reevaluation of the
competencies developed thus far, with the
expectation that after the launch of the degree
program in September 2016, they may find
the need to make the program more student
centered or update the content to better
meet industry demand. Peirce plans to first
learn from the new degree program as much
as possible and make improvements that will
inform competency-based education programs
at Peirce going forward. However, considering
their dedication to the unique needs of the adult
learner and enthusiasm for innovation, this is just
the beginning for Peirce.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This case study was written by Meaghan Green and benefitted from interviews and
correspondence with the following faculty and staff at Peirce College: 

• Dr. Rita Toliver-Roberts, Vice President of Academic Advancement
• Dr. Brian Finnegan, Associate Professor and Assistant Dean, Information Technology
and General Education • Christa Donato, CBE Coach

Special thanks to Lumina Foundation for its support of competency-based degree program
development through CAEL’s Jumpstart initiative.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of
Lumina Foundation, its officers, or employees.

We advocate and innovate on behalf of adult
learners to increase access to education and
economic security. We provide adults with career
guidance and help them earn college credit for
what they already know. We equip colleges and
universities to attract, retain, and graduate more
adult students. We provide employers with smart
strategies for employee development. We build
workforce organizations’ capacity to connect
worker skills to employer demands

©2016 CAEL
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Chicago, IL 60603
Ph: 312-499-2600
Fax: 312-499-2601
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