Four Lessons for Launching a Competency-Based Degree Program

Jul 9, 2015 · 5 min read

By Shannon Chapman, Director of Strategic Program Implementation

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

I came to the Institute for Transformational Learning (ITL) approximately six months ago with 13 years of experience in education in the business and health care areas. During those 13 years, I was lucky enough to gain a broad skill set in program operations, program creation and launch, student support, marketing, and enrollment management.

I was immediately drawn to the mission of ITL, which is to make exponential gains in student success, access and affordability. Throughout the interview process, it was evident that the ITL leadership team was trying to accomplish something truly exciting and very different than anything that has been done in higher education in the state of Texas. After accepting the offer to serve as Director of Strategic Program Implementation for the Fall 2015 launch of the reimagined BS in Biomedical Sciences (BMED) program at the new UT Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) campus, I was confident that I would be able to successfully conquer any operational challenges that would come my way with grace and ease…

Then came Day 1.

I’ll admit, there were a few things I underestimated in the interview process: both the truly groundbreaking nature of this educational initiative, and the unique moment of launching such a revolutionary program at a brand new campus in the UT System.

Here are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned during the creation and launch of the UT System’s first competency-based initiative:

Lesson 1: Delivery Strategy

An integral part of the new BMED program is TEx, a mobile-first learning environment of technology and services designed to support CBE initiatives by allowing students to learn and engage directly from their iPad. This revolutionary platform requires many different operational points of integration and other considerations having to do with our hybrid program delivery strategy. Due to my lack of experience in device deployment, I found this area particularly challenging when faced with unfamiliar considerations such as:

  • BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) or prescribe a certain device for all students?
  • Lease or buy?
  • Device renewal cycle — when to refresh the device to ensure the learning platform can function properly.
  • Making strategic decisions on various Apple considerations that were completely foreign to me such as: DEP, VPP, MDM, iOS, SSO, etc.
  • To AppleCare or not AppleCare?
  • Facilities requirements to support simultaneous iPad use by 50+ students in a classroom.
  • Access points in the Rio Grande Valley area to ensure all students have the ability to experience the program through TEx as intended.

I could go on and on about this specific challenge area and can say that I’ve learned a lot about device deployment! I would encourage anyone working on deployment strategies to utilize Apple’s team of experts, in addition to campus IT resources every step of the way to ensure each step is completed properly. From MDM to DEP, each consideration is critical to success.

Lesson 2: Coaching Infrastructure

A main feature of the BMED program is a multi-factor student support structure that includes both campus resources in addition to student life coaches and instructional facilitators/academic coaches. When creating a coaching infrastructure for maximum impact, we had to consider: cohort size, online coaching vs. face-to-face, local coaches, clarifying the roles and responsibilities of each coach type, recruitment, and coaches’ access to TEx.

A lesson learned here is to onboard early. Hire the coaches and make them a part of the team early on to expose them to the core mission and overall hopes and dreams of the program. It is important that they feel part of the team and realize they are an integral part of the program’s success. Another word of advice is to prescribe as much of the coaches’ initial communications to students as possible, as well as the responses to critical student actions (such as responses to student’s who have been showing signs of distress or troubles with the course content), to ensure consistency in responses. However, you want to be sure to hire experienced coaching professionals who have the ability to build a relationship with the students based on trust, respect and reliability.

Lesson 3: Degree Mapping

Working with UTRGV faculty leadership, a new and innovative BMED curriculum has been created to enhance the traditional curriculum in very unique ways. Mapping the new modules to the existing curriculum was an extensive process that required points of integration and communication with campus leadership.

The main lesson learned here is again, start the process as early as possible to ensure timely submittal of degree plan changes to the curriculum review committee.

Lesson 4: Course Materials and Academic Cost

Every decision we make has student success at the center. Through the use of iPads and the CBE design of the BMED program, it is estimated that we are able to save UTRGV students more than $700 per semester on books and materials (yes, even with the iPAD!). In addition, we feel that controlling the purchasing and distribution of materials will ensure that every single student has the resources needed at their fingertips to excel in the program. Given those savings and our desire to pull every lever on student success, we worked with UTRGV leadership to push for course material costs to be part of the total academic cost for students.

Any changes to tuition and fees require the involvement of many individuals from the campus: department, provost’s office, board, etc., so it is essential to start the process early. It this case, it was essential to communicate the big savings that are being passed down to the students as part of this new program design — to reduce their cost of course materials this significantly is a huge win for the program and touches on one of the elements of ITL’s core mission: affordability.

Countdown to Launch

The BMED program launches in a little less than two months, and I’m beyond excited to have the first class of UTRGV students in the program. I’m appreciative of the challenges we’ve faced so far, and see each day as a huge learning opportunity. All of these lessons are preparing us for the future launch of the nine additional programs in our CBE portfolio in Fall 2017.


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Driving student success and access through the innovative use of technology. Part of the UT System's Institute for Transformational Learning.

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