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The Growth Of Competency-Based Programs

The Growth Of Competency-Based Programs
In order to move higher education forward, we must leave time as a measurement of learning in the past. Image by Hartwig HKD.

Many institutions are embarking on the development of new competency-based degree programs.  As they do so, it is important that we try to  bring clarity and meaning to what will make these new institutions truly unique, and fulfill a market niche by providing high quality, low cost degrees to a large segment of the population currently ill-served by traditional higher education options. Competency-based degrees are particularly compelling for adult learners.

First, key to understanding competency-based education (CBE) is that it jettisons one of the principle constructs of traditional education—time. How education is organized, measured, constructed and evaluated needs to be reconceptualized in a CBE model.  The concept of time—whether operationalized in credit hours, seat time, contact hours, clock hours, time to graduation, or faculty workload—permeates our mental models about education.  We expect that students will need to spend X number of hours in a classroom (actual or virtual); that they will need to prepare, read, write, research, X numbers of hours per week to be successful; that they will need to accumulate X number of hours to attain a degree; that faculty will work X number of hours per week (in the classroom, conducting research, engaging in service).  The time construct is engrained in our administrative processes and models and in our reporting and accountability systems, in how financial aid is awarded, in how productivity (for students, faculty and institutions) is measured.

This is why CBE is—or has the potential—to be so radical and transformative.  For once we start to think about organizing learning not around temporal measures and inputs but rather around actual achievement of learning—not proxies for learning but real learning—a universe of possibilities opens up as we think about how to construct curriculum, how to deliver content and resources to students, how to support students, and how to measure actual student learning, not time spent on task.

Learning science research has demonstrated what is quickly becoming antiquated about the traditional learning paradigm.  The traditional or standard model emphasizes facts and procedures; the role of the faculty is the transmitter of these facts and procedures to the empty vessels (i.e. students); sequenced curriculum in which simpler concepts are introduced first to be built upon later by more complex facts and procedures; and all of this schooling occurs at the same time for all students, regardless of ability or prior knowledge.* This is very much an industrial model, suitable for an industrial age.  But, as we are all aware, the industrial age is giving way to the information age or the knowledge economy, calling for new models of learning and new structures for delivering and assessing learning—and expanding the access to that learning to an ever growing population of students.  And unless we radically rethink the time constructs embedded in our assumptions and accountability systems, we will fall short of our ability to reshape the educational landscape and optimize what learning science is telling us.

A definition of CBE offered by Sturgis, Rath, Weisstein and Patrick** emphasizes the following components:

  • Students advance upon mastery
  • Explicit and measurable learning objectives empower students
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.

Upon examining these three components, we note that mastery of content and skills—not time spent—is critical.  And mastery is self-reinforcing, as anyone who has played a video game (or watched a child play a video game) knows.  Students’ knowing exactly what they will be measured upon empowers them rather than leaving them in the fog of trying to guess what a teacher wants.  And assessment, rather than being the dreaded examination, is made meaningful as assessment is learning, not only measuring learning.  Assessment is also meaningful to students and external stakeholders because it is objective, valid, and free of bias.

Once we remove the artificial time restrictions on learning, we open up and expand the kinds of learning opportunities that can be effective with a broader range of students.  The standard model—assuming that all students learn at the same pace and with the same kind of materials—is replaced by a more expansive model in which learning resources and opportunities can multiply.  When students learn is not confined to a classroom (real or virtual); resources available to students are not just the recommended text or readings but can be culled from OER and supported in peer-to-peer sites and interactions.

As a recent study by the Innosight Institute asserts, “…competency-based learning allows students to progress at an individual pace.  Traditional models hold time constant and make learning variable.  But competency-based learning flips this:  learning is constant and time is variable.”***


* Sawyer, R. K.  (2008). Optimising learning: Implications of learning science research. OECD/CERI International Conference Learning in the 21st Century:  Research, Innovation and Policy.

** Sturgis, C., Rath, B., Weisstein, E. & Patrick, S.  (2010).Clearing the path:  Creating innovation space for serving over-age, under-credited students in competency-based pathways.

*** Staker, H.  (February 2012). The Engine Behind WGU:  Configuration of a competency-based information system.  Innosight Institute.

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