Competency-based education isn't a new idea, but it's getting new found attention in the midst of an increasingly volatile debate about rising college costs, limited access and dubious quality in higher education. The concept has long languished under a system that grants degrees based on how much time students spend in the classroom, not how much they're learning while they're there.In his comments before the Kentucky Board of Education this week, former Ky Ed Commish and CCSSO honcho Gene Wilhoit echoed what I think we can count on becoming a familiar vision - a more personalized, competency-based approach to schooling that maintains a clear vision of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions students must possess. Seat time; not so much.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress can't seem to find much common ground on Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization, but they're coming together on this one. Lawmakers say competency-based education could have far-reaching consequences - possibly revolutionizing higher education as we know it.
Even the White House agrees. "Folks get that there really is this tension between innovation and integrity and you have to find that balance," said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation. "And I think experimentation is the way to go."
Bills have been pitched in Congress and the Education Department is prepared to clear an untold number of colleges to experiment with different CBE models while retaining their federal aid eligibility. But innovation isn't easy. Many institutions that might want to participate won't have the software or infrastructure to do so. And as lawmakers have acknowledged, much of the heavy lifting will show not just what works - but inevitably, what doesn't.
At EKU, teacher preparation in the College of Education is transitioning to a "clinical model" that is highly focused on the professional dispositions and specific knowledge and skills needed for students to become successful teachers. Faculty have been working for months, breaking down those essential skills and knowledge sets into a series of six "clinicals." Rather than offering course work along with some number of field hours, this approach features the clinicals which are then supported by the course work, where students can debrief, ask questions and deepen their understandings. The horse is arguably back in front of the cart. The new competency-based School of Clinical Educator Preparation will be rolled out before EPSB on Monday.
In March, Kentucky's KCTCS became a member of C-BEN, a cohort of colleges and university's committed to designing competency-based degree programs.
A recent paper from the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment found...
- Institutions that are using competency-based education are approaching it one of three ways: (1) embedding it into traditional curriculum; (2) redesigning the curriculum entirely around competencies; or (3) redesigning the credentialing process around CBE, using direct assessment.
- There are five common concepts in competency-based education (1)a focus on demonstrating knowledge; (2) clearly defined requirements of what graduates should know and be able to do in order to earn a degree;( 3) assessment practices that focus on real-life scenarios; (4) a de-emphasis on a traditional course format so that students can learn from open education resources or hands on, project-based environments. (5) customization of the learning materials for individual students, based on their needs, and the extent to which they might need additional help.
- Some of the primary challenges facing competency-based programs in the U.S. are (1)determining eligibility for federal financial aid, (2) gaining buy-in from faculty,(3) developing and sharing best practices, (4) understanding the variety of assessment practices currently being used by CBE programs across the country, (5) working with regional accreditors, and (6) identifying what data should be collected on CBE programs and how best to collect it for continuous improvement.
Competency-based education primer
Competency-based education is an outcomes-based approach to education where the emphasis is on what comes out of postsecondary education—what graduates know and can do—rather than what goes into the curriculum. With a competency-based approach, you do not begin preparing a course syllabus by identifying content and readings. Instead, you begin by identifying competencies and then select the content, readings, and assignments to support student attainment of those competencies.
With a competency-based approach, 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. The following figure, from the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative’s report “Defining and Assessing Learning,” provides a simple yet powerful visual of the competency-based approach:
As described in the report, the first rung at the bottom of the pyramid consists of traits and characteristics—these are the foundation of learning and depict the innate makeup of individuals upon which further experiences can be built. The second rung consists of skills, abilities, and knowledge developed through learning experiences broadly defined to include formal education, work, and participation in community affairs. The third rung, competencies, are the outcome of integrated learning experiences, in which skills, abilities, and knowledge are focused on the performance of a task. Finally, the top rung, demonstrations, results from the application of competencies. Assessment is deeply embedded at all stages of this learning process.
It is clear, given this description, that the design of the learning experience is dependent upon standardized and agreed-upon definitions for skills, abilities, and knowledge; competencies; and demonstrations. Once students, faculty, employers, and policymakers agree upon competencies that must be mastered, it opens up avenues for students to personalize their learning options by selecting among different providers. The ability to personalize learning options enables students to find the best instruction at the lowest cost. What’s more, as long as students can demonstrate mastery of a subject it no longer matters where they went to school. As it happens, standardized definitions of competencies are integral to whether or not competency-based education can be scaled up and “disrupt” postsecondary education.