What’s Keeping Competency-Based Education Out of Higher Education’s Mainstream?

The EvoLLLution | What’s Keeping Competency-Based Education Out of Higher Education’s Mainstream?
Competency-based education is on higher education’s margins and, until regulators and accreditors begin to recognize the value of dynamic and evolving education models, it will unfortunately remain there.

Though not a new concept, competency-based education (CBE) adoption and integration is still in its early stages in most postsecondary settings. A primary reason for this is that competency-based education (CBE) is inherently anchored to outputs—demonstrations of knowledge and skills. Historically, schools are structured as input driven with the teacher and prescribed curriculum guiding the learning path for all students. Measures of success focus on quality of the inputs that provide students with the opportunity to learn. CBE focuses on what the students have actually learned. It is this tension between a system designed for inputs and an output-anchored educational model that inhibits the espousal and implementation of CBE models.

In its purest form, CBE measures success wholly on the breadth and depth of learning a student can demonstrate. It is an educational model oriented toward learning rather than teaching. To be clear, excellent teaching is essential to effective learning so the value and role of a great teacher should not be minimized. However, CBE models acknowledge that students can gain the knowledge and skills required to become competent from many other sources and experiences. CBE practitioners are comfortable relinquishing the traditional tight control of the learning path to allow for multiple and diverse paths to competence. Quality CBE models provide the traditional teacher-directed path to students who need that, but also recognize as legitimate other paths that lead to requisite knowledge and skill attainment.

One significant barrier to CBE becoming commonplace in postsecondary settings is that it requires a foundational shift in traditional philosophies about teaching and learning amongst faculty. The act of teaching and guiding is a primary responsibility of many faculty members. The idea that CBE may threaten this part of their job in some way causes concern for some. While the angst is understandable, in a well implemented CBE model, faculty expertise is even more essential as it can be best utilized in higher-order cognitive tasks that promote deeper learning and application opportunities for students. Additionally, faculty expertise is critical to valid and reliable assessment of competency.

This assessment of competency is a core component of CBE. Many institutions lack skill and/or confidence to create and use competency assessments. Additionally, valid and reliable assessments of competency require that individual courses and programs have clearly articulated learning objectives. Because diverse learning paths are acceptable in a CBE model, course learning objectives must be generic enough to stand alone as topics or sub-topics and operationally defined well enough to be observable and measurable. They cannot be tied to a single textbook or created with the assumption that all students will access all the same resources in the same way. This can be a challenge in an established traditional postsecondary setting.

These challenges are intensified and prove to be barriers to adoption because institutions lack the expertise, infrastructure and time to make the transition from a traditional teaching-driven model to a learning-driven model anchored in well defined learning objectives. Above all, one of the most profound barriers to implementation is that the accrediting bodies and federal regulators with control over financial aid do not recognize as legitimate models that are not traditional teacher-driven models. For example, the requirement that to be eligible to receive federal financial aid, a school must ensure that students have regular and substantive teacher initiated interaction. While that is a hallmark of a strong education program, the problem is that the regulators only accept a traditional conceptualization of that. That means that essentially the only acceptable instructional delivery model is one where a teacher leads a regular (weekly) class meeting where all students must attend. Hybrid models or any other regular and substantive interaction model—synchronous or asynchronous—are not considered legitimate. This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense given that we live in connected digital world where information is available from a plethora of credible sources and modalities.

Unfortunately, until the accreditors and federal regulators who control postsecondary funding sources evolve to recognize more dynamic educational models, the widespread adoption of CBE will remain slow.

Readers may be interested in reading a report recently published by Eduventures that highlights some of the institutions that are successfully implementing CBE, called Deconstructing CBE: Portraits of Institutional Practice.

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