The Multifaceted Potential of Competency-Based Education

In a recent Lumina-organized workshop on competency-based education (CBE), it was remarked that CBE will succeed where massive open online courses (MOOCs) have not to truly revolutionize higher education. In one of his Inside Higher Education blogs, Paul Fain called CBE the next big thing. The growing interest in competency-based education spans institutions (close to 250 this year, up from 20 a year ago), accreditation agencies, and the Department of Education. Although many of the institutions embracing CBE are offering adult education and are operating somewhat independently of the traditional academic walls, there are many potential benefits for CBE that are at the heart of the mission of post secondary education.

Quality assurance on the outcome. The book Academically Adrift, published in 2011, rang a very loud alarm when it reported on its findings of the level of learning in our colleges. The documented lack of significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in one-third of graduates was unsettling. If nothing else, it pointed to a deep flaw in our system of accountability. What if we shifted graduation requirements from credits and grades to actual learning and demonstrated competence? What if degrees were defined in terms of the outcome rather than the process? Competency-based education is meant to do just that. This is a major philosophical shift for the faculty and the students. For faculty, it focuses on what the graduates will be able to do upon graduation; for the students, it puts higher expectation of competence rather than just passing classes. For both, the onus is on them to support students’ learning and competency.

Competent in what? Accountability on higher order skills. Along with the focus on the outcome, CBE raises the question of the nature of these competencies. With the deepening of our academic disciplines, we have experienced an increasing specialization and sharpening focus on the growing amount of disciplinary knowledge in the design and delivery of curricula. Even so, interviews and surveys of employers are consistently valuing higher order skills over the specific disciplinary domain in which the graduates learned to practice them. In a recent AACU Report It Takes More than a Major, nearly all those surveyed (93 percent) say that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.” Although not a panacea to all problems, CBE can help us bridge the disconnect by explicitly identifying both types of competencies and designing around them. Instead of designing a curriculum around domain knowledge and hoping that other competencies will emerge as a byproduct, curricula will be designed specifically to hone domain knowledge and higher order capacities. The latter become part of graduation requirements and curriculum design in the same capacity as disciplinary knowledge. Students will no longer graduate with one type of competencies or another. They will attain and demonstrate both.

Empowering the students with their learning. The clarity on expectations and the inherent asynchronicity of CBE puts the students in the driver’s seat when it comes to their learning. Students are presented with clear specifications with what competencies they need to demonstrate to graduate. They can then establish how and when they will acquire these competencies. They can attend live classes, use abundant materials online (e.g. MOOCs), work independently, and manage their own capacities and constraints. Some students may be able to go much faster; some will choose to acquire additional competencies outside those prescribed by their curriculum and have them credentialed; some will choose to go at a slower pace, more appropriate for their preparation or outside demands on their time. The sense of control nurtures the students’ intrinsic motivation and helps them explore and deepen their learning. From our one-semester-long experience with CBE we have seen many students attempt higher numbers of competencies and explore areas outside of their recommended plan of study.

Designing for diversity; we built it and they did not come. One of the visible signs of higher education's growing pains is its continuing struggle with diversity and the representation of all segments of the population in the student body. This unequal representation is not attributable to lack of trying. In the STEM disciplines in particular, many efforts have been invested in attempting to increase the number of women and minorities. Still, the problem proved to be almost intractable, at least in its present form. One possible hypothesis is that the whole system has evolved around a specific type of student profile. Many of its features are therefore a reflection of that profile. The slow progress in diversifying students may be a symptom of the shortcomings of retrofitting a system to students for whom it was not specifically designed. CBE, with its potential for flexibility, openness, and personalization, can lead to a breakthrough in finally breaking barriers for all, making post-secondary education more accessible, more appealing, and more successful.