Thinking about competency-based education: a definition, many promises, and some perils

Nate Thompson attended a forum on competency-based education and offers his takeaways below.

On September 15th, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), with co-hosts Excelsior College and Fielding Graduate University, gathered leaders for a forum on competency-based education (CBE).

The group met with the intention of affirming the methods and goals of CBE, collaborating on quality assurance in CBE, and discussing best practices for engaging the demands of a changing workforce in programmatic design and delivery. Certainly, there remains work to do toward expanding and refining competency-based programs and achieving productive consensus on its various concepts and constructs, but CBE matters for us because it matters for a large part of our community of students as well as most of our institutional partners, some of whom (like Excelsior College), have strong roots in the widening CBE field.

CAEL president Pamela Tate opened the event and made clear the stakes for CBE, noting that since the first meeting of this group last year, the number of institutions offering CBE in some form has doubled, climbing to just about six hundred.

Competency-based education and other methods as responses to the current college credit system

The prevailing method that American colleges and universities use to measure educational attainment is a seat-time-referenced metric called the Carnegie credit hour. This is the reason why the majority of traditional college courses that meet for about three hours per week carry three credits. The Carnegie credit hour is a quantitative measure — it can only reliably tell us how much time a student has spent in the classroom.

Time and again, higher education has called for a more qualitative and more descriptive alternative. Propelled in this case by the convergence of the student debt crisis, the recession, the changing demographics of the American student, and the evolving needs of the American employer, CBE proposes to measure attainment by the mastery of a curriculum of competencies – the skills, abilities, knowledge, behaviors, and attitudes that answer the question, “What should a student know or be able to do at the end of this program?”

CBE may inform curriculum design, course design, and assessment, but we ought to conceptualize it primarily as a way to capture and communicate educational attainment. Some of the biggest questions for CBE right now are: How ought we assess competency? What ought to be the method for determining the individual competencies that each discipline requires? How ought institutions standardize competencies, ensure consistency and reliability, and communicate competencies to employers and across institutions?

Several other higher education alternatives intersect with CBE in very creative ways, namely prior-learning assessment, credit-by-examination, and degree acceleration; workforce readiness, professional education, and training; and online and open education.

Evidence of students’ learning is found in whether or not they can accomplish some task or fulfill some request or otherwise demonstrate their knowledge in action. In other words, the proof is in the pudding. That’s true in the prior-learning assessment sphere as well. The credit-exam is the student’s one opportunity to show that no matter where they studied the material, they can succeed there on the exam.

Saylor Academy is a strong promoter of prior-learning assessment and credit-by-exam. Our work seeking credit recommendations for more and more courses speaks to that, as does our work with Thomas Edison State College, for example, to offer an open course pathway for TESC’s A.S. in Business Administration and to create courses which help students take the TESC challenge exams.

Implications of CBE for Saylor Academy

But in addition to supporting some of the other alternatives around the periphery of CBE, Saylor has also put a bit of thought into how we might use CBE principles to improve our courses. We have implemented Accredible certificates, to which you can attach specific evidence of your learning in the form of project files, writing samples, video demonstrations, etc. In some of our courses, we’ve begun to present time advisories differently; we are phasing out specific references to how much time you should spend on individual resources in favor of giving just a general snapshot of how long the particular unit or the course might take the average student (if the “average student” exists!). That accompanies an ongoing effort to foreground our learning outcomes, which are kind of like knowledge- and knowledge application-hued competencies. In fact, we tell you that “upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to “do this, that, and the other thing.

That’s what’s great about CBE: A unit or a course can be delivered as competency-based just as an entire major curriculum could be. (A student taking Saylor’s Art Appreciation and Techniques course could be said to have nine new competencies at the end of the first unit, have 13 competencies at the end of the second unit, and so on, having gained fifty or more by the end of the course.)

In general, popping the hood underneath curricula and course development and presenting “open competencies” is a major way that the open education and OER movements have participated in CBE.

Additional thoughts on CBE

The agenda of the event Tuesday was to position CBE as a way to connect the academy and the workforce. One purpose of higher education ought to be to prepare students for a bright work life; one which affords employees opportunities to apply their talents creatively, to understand their daily work in some wider context, to cultivate productive professional relationships, etc. But facing debt and a smaller job market, many students feel pressed to finish their degree and begin capitalizing on their education as quickly as possible. Why do something, especially a very costly something, for any longer than you need to? Accelerating students’ time to completion makes a lot of sense to us. But these economic realities also can cause our professed purposes in higher education to shift in some really significant ways, namely that success in higher education is reduced to our students getting a degree and a job.

CBE is prone to this reductionism as well, considering how easy it is to think of competencies only as something like a demonstrable skill (and the skills that are easier to measure, if we are not careful, become the only skills we do measure). Further, when we talk about creating curriculums of competencies and assessing competencies, I worry about who is dictating to whom. Yes, we need to collaborate with hiring managers and chief executives of industry and high performing incumbent employees to understand what the essential competencies are in a particular sector; and yes, we need to anticipate how those sectors and their attendant competencies will change so that competency-based curricula can be durable. But in the process, we should not commit the error of prioritizing any one particular learning domain — cognitive, affective, or psychomotor — over the others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *