Published on 2014/08/13

The Promise and Roadblocks of Competency-Based Education

AUDIO | The Promise and Roadblocks of Competency-Based Education
Competency-based programming provides a pathway to a credential for students who might otherwise be turned off by the traditional degree model.

The following interview is with Cori Gordon, assistant clinical professor of personalized learning at Northern Arizona University. Competency-based education has been on the higher ed scene for decades, but has really begun to capture the imagination of people industry-wide over the past two years. More and more institutions are introducing competency-based credentials, and accrediting bodies are coming up with new ways to accredit learning without tying it to seat time. In this interview, Gordon discusses the concept of competency-based learning and sheds light on the roadblocks standing in the way of its wider implementation.

1. What are the biggest problems with the traditional, seat time-based approach to higher education?

I don’t think there are major problems with traditional, seat time-based education, but there’s room in the higher ed climate where more students could be accommodated. Seat-time education really leaves out a majority of students seeking to complete a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree. There are a lot of students who are underserved or fly under the radar who also should have access to quality higher ed.

2. Which student groups are being underserved by the traditional approach to higher ed?

The population of students largely being underserved are the adult students who might already have full-time work, who might have a family, who might be bound to a certain geographical location that doesn’t have adequate higher ed opportunities to meet their needs.

There are a growing population of adult students seeking a degree program and they have varying reasons for doing so. Some really can’t get a promotion in their present position until they have that next degree or some don’t have an opportunity to move into a field that really interests them until they have the proper credential. The best things about looking to serve these students is that higher ed is being pushed to find new and different ways to bring education to that student and do it in a way that doesn’t compromise the quality of the educational experience.

3. How does competency-based programming address these issues?

[There are institutions that have] already demonstrated their ability to provide higher ed programming at a rigorous level that meets state expectations, that meets national expectations as well as student expectations.

We can get away from seat time for a student who’s going to stay motivated and dedicated to what they’re doing. We can offer them an opportunity to do things in a slightly different way where they’re not necessarily dependent on being in class for a three-hour time block on a Monday evening. They might find they can’t get to their class work until after midnight most days, and so that student has the opportunity, still, to pursue their degree but do it in their own time.

Many adult students say they’d love to go back to school but they don’t really want to sit in a classroom full of people that could be their children. This gives them an opportunity to pursue education in a way [that rewards] their experience and they don’t have to put themselves in the situation where they feel uncomfortable.

4. What are the biggest misconceptions about competency-based education that you have come across?

[There’s a] misconception that a student has to sit in a room with a professor for 50 minutes in order to really come to understand a concept. Certainly that’s true for some students, but there are a large percentage of students who are able to interact with a textbook or video material or with discussion questions. The biggest misconception about competency-based education is that it doesn’t provide students the same quality experience, that they’re somehow compromised because they don’t have the benefit of an instructor sitting right in front of them and a class of 20 people in the room with them as well.

5. How do these misconceptions impact the wider implementation of competency-based programming?

We have a very romantic vision of higher ed. I’ve taught from middle school up through college and it happens at all levels. We somehow miss the true measurement of student learning. We have tests and assignments and things we do assess about student content, but we also don’t fully know how to measure the student experience and what the student takes away from this. There’s learning confidence and learning to be articulate and learning to interact with others — that’s part of good learning as well.

One of the misconceptions that happens with the wider implementation of competency-based programming is that we rest on this romantic notion of the value of class time. I’ve been in the competency-based field for the last two years and I’ve seen more acceptance and more thought about what we can do institutionally to either accept or adopt or contribute to this growing genre of education. It’s a slow process but a lot of those misconceptions are going away.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Readers Comments

Cathy E. 2014/08/13 at 11:51 am

I’m surprised that seat time continues to be used as a measure of learning in many institutions. It’s about time we moved to a system that tests students for competency, not their ability to sit through a lecture or regurgitate facts. Competency-based assessments are a more accurate reflection of what they would be required to do on the job anyway.

Richard Choi 2014/08/14 at 10:13 am

I imagine there would be frustration among departments and faculty if competency-based education were to be more widely implemented. Currently, they have a lot of say in curriculum development, right down to which courses are offered each semester. However, a shift to CBE would likely require more involvement at the executive levels in defining “competencies” for each program and developing assessments for them, and I could see departments and faculty being uncomfortable with that.

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