One of the big buzzwords in education reform is “competency-based education,” a very appealing alternative to traditional methods of student assessment. I’ve often been frustrated by the limitations of traditional semesters, knowing that for some students, all that’s needed to succeed is a little more time. I know that students learn at different paces, that life sometimes hands students obstacles and challenges that impede their learning, often at great personal and financial cost. Competency-based learning is thought to be one way to surmount some of the long-standing dilemmas in all levels of education, not just post-secondary.
What is competency-based education? The Center for American Progress defines it as:
“an outcomes-based approach to education where the emphasis is on what comes out of post-secondary education-what graduates know and can do-rather than what goes into the curriculum…students advance when they have demonstrated mastery of a competency, which is defined as “a combination of skills, abilities and knowledge needed to perform a task in a specific context.” Mastery is the sole determinant of progress, which means that delivery options multiply and expand since any instructional method or instructional provider that can move a student toward mastery is theoretically acceptable. In competency-based education, assessment is embedded in every step of the learning process in order to provide students with guidance and support toward mastery. This heightened level of assessment is designed to build competencies in real time.”
Some colleges, such as Western Governors University, have abandoned the “seat time” model of earning credits and are experimenting with competency-based methods in which evaluation is based on how long and how well it takes students to master course material.
A “Disruptive” Model- or a Dangerous One?
As much as I applaud this new method as a creative response to some thorny learning problems, there is one aspect of competency-based learning that raises concerns for me. Advocates argue that competency-based learning will “disrupt” higher education in a positive way by trading in ineffective instructional methods for greater student control of learning. But I worry that there is a disruption that isn’t being considered: according to Ryan Clark on CronkiteNewsonline.com, “supporters of competency-based learning – which focuses on the outcomes of learning and what students need to know in the workplace – argue that it would be more efficient than the current system of credit hours.”
It’s the phrase “what students need to know in the workplace”that troubles me, because it is yet another indicator that college is more frequently being viewed as strictly a careerist tool, and not a well-rounded opportunity to develop all of an individual’s learning capacity. This pragmatic, jobs-focused view of college is echoed by many of the reformers, educators, and politicians that advocate competency-based education. As Clark further reported, Amy Laitinen, the deputy director for higher education for the New America Foundation, a non-partisan public policy think tank, has argued that “There are more actors recognizing that we need a system that produces more degrees, faster degrees and cheaper degrees – but, most importantly, better degrees and credentials.” Similarly, the Center for American Progress cites Mozilla’s Open Badges Initiative as one of the competency-based examples that “differ from traditional education by focusing strictly on the demonstration of competency regardless of how long it took a student to gain that competency.”
But won’t this disrupt-and perhaps destroy-some of the other important aspects of higher education? Some of what students learn in college courses is not easily quantifiable because it is not just “skills, abilities and knowledge.” And isn’t it also important to use college as part of the process of individual development and the fulfillment of all aspects of human possibility?
This was the critique of American universities that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. As the military-industrial complex exerted a powerful influence on the economy during the Cold War, many students began to worry that they were viewed by university administrators and industrial leaders simply as fodder for the labor force and had no value as individuals. The Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley specifically criticized this about the way universities were conceptualized in the modern era, and more specifically about its president Clark Kerr, who was an advocate for universities as “factories” of learning that produced obedient and efficient workers.
More recently, Del Mar College English professor John M. Crisp pointed out that, “It’s been a long time since college was about much more than preparation for making a living. Still, the tension in the academy between “making a living” and “living” hasn’t disappeared entirely. College is still a place where one can acquire a little leverage to push back against the drive to turn human beings into ever-more-productive components of an increasingly profitable assembly line…colleges – even community colleges – should still be places that look for ways to esteem the human being over what he or she produces.”
For those who will argue that this is an idealist’s view of college, that most people cannot afford to go to college just for the mere pleasure of intellectual development, I would argue that while that is clearly true, it may be much worse for a student to focus on developing skills competencies for a specific career, only to have a glut of similarly trained workers on the market, limiting employment opportunities, or for their skills to become obsolete in a few years’ time. What will they have to fall back on? Nothing, if their education has been entirely focused on the successful development of career-based competencies.
Considering Competency-Based Learning?
My concerns should be taken into consideration when considering the entire range of competency-based methods, however. As I wrote in my post The Pros and Cons of the Flipped Classroom, “it’s dangerous to think of any one method as the panacea that will cure all of our education ills, for all students… trained and experienced educators must rely on their own assessments and analyses of their classroom needs to decide what methods are best for their academic subjects and students.”
However, the benefits of this method may outweigh any concerns, so f you are interested in pursuing competency-based education, the non-profit organization Competency Works offers practical advice and resources from practitioners of this new assessment model, including:
- a blog by practitioners that includes opportunities for any teacher to contribute their experiences.
- political updates on how competency-based learning is changing education at the state level, and how state boards of education are adapting to the new technique.
- a monthly email update with news and teaching tips.
- briefing papers on pedagogical and policy issues, followed up by a webinar on the topic.
Whether educators decide to implement competency-based education in full or in part, it is important to remember that the individual instructor is usually the best informed on their subject and their students’ learning needs. I just hope that, whatever teaching methods we use, we don’t lose sight of some of the other valuable aspects of higher education along the way.