VALDOSTA, GA -- Valdosta State University has stepped outside the traditional college experience box to answer the United States of America’s call to help cultivate and nurture elementary, middle, and high school teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
At the start of the spring semester, VSU kicked off its first online competency-based education (CBE) initiative by offering 10 elementary school teachers from the Valdosta City School System and Lowndes County School System an innovative way to add a science endorsement to their professional credentials. With this pilot endeavor, the university established itself as a leader in the field of higher education, one committed to ensuring the nation’s future economic prosperity by doing its part to increase student success in the STEM fields.
“VSU is the first, and currently the only, university in Georgia offering competency-based education programming online,” said Dr. Anthony J. Scheffler, interim associate vice president of the Division of Academic Affairs and a professor in the James L. and Dorothy H. Dewar College of Education and Human Services. “In order for VSU to fulfill its mission by providing postsecondary educational opportunities in its region and beyond, the university is committed to the ongoing exploration and implementation of innovative teaching and learning models.”
An alternative to the traditional college learning experience, competency-based education works by identifying the key skills, abilities, and knowledge required for a specific endorsement, certificate, or degree and distributes them across different lessons and subjects, with the intention of providing students the best learning experience possible. Students learn at their own pace, mastering one competency at a time and progressing based on their true understanding of the material. There are no strict deadlines and no schedules. Once a student demonstrates complete mastery of all of the required competencies, they earn their desired academic credentials and enter the workforce equipped with the skills, abilities, and knowledge needed to succeed in their chosen career field.
“From a teaching perspective, we have seen both benefits and challenges in the implementation of the competency-based education initiative,” said Dr. Sheryl B. Dasinger, CBE success coach at VSU.
“Students work through online resources and demonstrate their knowledge and skills through formative and mastery assessments. Because the students must master each and every competency — there is no averaging of grades — we feel confident that the students who complete this endorsement have the knowledge and skills to make an impact on the children they teach. This benefit can generalize to any academic program in any college — feeling that your students are not just skating by with Cs but really know the material.
“One of the challenges for us has been keeping up with providing feedback and grading assignments. Because the students are working at their own pace, they are all in different modules. This means that they are submitting assignments every day that need to be reviewed and graded within a 48-hour time period.”
VSU plans to expand its competency-based education initiative during the 2016-2017 academic year to include interested elementary school teachers who wish to pursue a mathematics endorsement. However, because this is a pilot initiative, space will be limited, as the university works to ensure that all online modules are thoroughly vetted and the necessary support services are available.
“If enough teachers in a school have the science and math endorsements, the school can qualify as a designated STEM School, which has great benefits for children across all grade levels,” Dasinger explained. “Children have made real academic strides in many states, but no state is on track to getting all children the STEM skills they need to succeed in college and careers. Low-income and minority students lag farthest behind. The development of STEM schools is an effort to address this issue.”
In November 2009 President Barack Obama launched Educate to Innovate, an initiative designed “to move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next decade,” according to a White House press release. He also called on the nation to develop, recruit, and retain 100,000 STEM teachers over the next 10 years and asked colleges and universities to graduate an additional one million students with STEM majors.
Competency-based education is not the only platform VSU has identified to accommodate the needs of nontraditional students who are unable to take advantage of the traditional college experience, Scheffler shared. The university is exploring a number of available options, including adaptive learning, which is a computer-based and/or online educational system that modifies the presentation of material in response to student performance; project-based learning, which is a teaching method that allows students to gain knowledge by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge; and alternative credentialing, which is similar to verified certificates earned by students completing work through massive open online course platforms.