Competency Based Learning

One of the regrets I had while writing that upcoming MIT Press book on MOOCs was that the laser-focus of the Essential Series did not offer the chance to include a wider discussion of how Massive Open Online Courses fit into a wider ecosystem of educational experimentation.

Long before “The Year of the MOOC” (previously known as 2012), the standards and accountability movements, authentic assessment and a variety of pedagogical innovations were all playing out (with varying degrees of success, and not without controversy) in both K-12 and higher ed. But one idea that has been making steady progress, even as other programs rose and fell, has been Competency Based Learning (CBL).

This article will give you a better sense of the ideas behind CBL and this one highlights interest investors have shown in programs and companies bringing CBL products and tools to market. But, in a description that won’t do the concept full justice, CBL replaces common standards for educational progress, such as seat time (measured in units like credit hours) and broad and cumulative measures of success (like letter grades) with fine-grained teaching, assessment and reporting that measures individual competencies as a student moves through a subject.

The appeal of such a system is obvious, given how much detailed information a competency approach provides students, parents, teachers, school administrators and employers vs. a single summative number like a GPA. And given that individual students can be stronger than their age cohort in one subject, but weaker compared to peers in others, CBL provides a means to track students as they move at their own pace gaining mastery of material one competency at a time

Like many educational innovations, CBL has been made practical by technology that allows students to move through dynamic learning pathways, allowing their study schedule and learning peers to be defined by what they know and don’t know, vs. their age and neighborhood.

The fact that computing technology enables CBL as a practical option might make the concept seem like an innovation that could only have emerged from our digital age. But the problem Competency Based Learning is trying to solve can actually be traced back at least a century and a half.

This intriguing essay on the history of A-F grading (a system which actually combines three types of measurement – letters, percentages associated with each letter, and the 0-4 scale that boils those letters into a single numeric GPA) explains how units we take for granted today (including not just grades but also credit hours) emerged after decades of educational reform in the 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries.

During eras when few attended school, and students who did go learned a limited number of subjects, grading systems intrinsic to a particular institution (such as Latin honorary titles or rank within a particular class) could suffice. But once the educational system became defined by mandatory public education (which exploded the number of students and public schools) followed by massive expansion in higher education, the need to communicate achievement between academic constituencies became vital. And as the article linked above highlights, today’s system of grading and seat time is neither obvious nor ancient (the A-F system, for instance, only took hold well after World War II).

Even today, a child’s elementary school report card (which reports progress in explicit academic and non-academic areas) more resembles a competency model than does the letter grades that same child will start getting in middle and high school.   Which means that CBL should not be considered as lacking historic precedent or contemporary familiarity.

That said, having spent time in the trenches with regard to standards, curriculum and assessment development (not to mention working with employers) I can think of a few major hurdles modern CBL efforts face if they are ever go mainstream.

For starters, not all subjects neatly boil down to an explicit list of competencies. And, even when they do, not all competencies are easily measurable. For example, most US states have actually done good jobs creating standards in subjects like English and social studies (as well as more fact-focused subjects like math and science). But within most of these standards (all of which required years of input from dozens of experts to create) you will find learning outcomes that are easy to teach, but very difficult to assess.

The effort that goes into creating a quality standard and assessment also highlights another challenge for CBL: cost. To cite one example, years ago I worked on a curriculum project that defined Digital Literacy as a set of teachable and measurable learning outcomes, and then used those outcomes as the blueprint for a set of valid, standardized exams. And while the six-figure investment we made in this program was well worth it for what has become a multi-million dollar certification program, it’s not clear the same economics can work for academic subjects that don’t have a mass (and paying) audience.

Finally, while employers love to criticize higher education for not turning out students with competencies needed to succeed in the workforce (and talk a good game with regard their desire to see more and better proof of skills from job applicants), over twenty years of selling to the employment market taught me that employers are a pretty conservative bunch.

For the most part, the academic information that appears on a resume consists of the name of a school (which tells employers a student was smart enough to get in and committed enough to complete a degree), graduation year (which lets them guess the age of an applicant) and, in some instances, a GPA. And, as I realized when I blew the dust off a PDF of my original college transcript, no one (including me) has shown the slightest interest in the grades that went into that GPA in decades.

So expecting employers to jump from narrow (but familiar) summative information to complex dashboards that map explicit competencies (especially multiple non-standardized dashboards from different institutions and companies) is a pretty tall order for an industry which has seen a number of educational fads come and go over the decades. Which means that advocates for CBL have to walk not just educators (another conservative audience) but employers over a learning curve, as well as convince everyone to change processes in a way that requires more vs. less work on their part.

As a centrist anarchist regarding educational experimentation, I like the notion of letting lots of flowers bloom (or perish) as cool ideas encounter cold, on-the-ground reality. So whether or not any one approach to Competency Based Learning (or CBL itself) succeeds in becoming mainstream, it’s always good news that lots of people are ready to experiment with something as fundamental as educational “workflow” – even if the ultimate end product remains unknown.

, , ,

No comments yet, your thoughts are welcome »

Leave a Reply