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Competency-Based Education: A Primer for Today’s Online Market

As I described in my most recent post, the competency-based movement is finally gaining momentum based on recent announcements. But what actually is “competency-based education” and why has it taken so long to expand beyond Western Governors University?

I’m not an expert in the academic theory and background of outcomes and competencies, so in this post I’ll summarize the key points from various articles as they relate to the current market for online programs. Links are included for those wanting to read in more depth.

What is Competency-Based Education?

SPT Malan wrote in a article from 2000 about the generally-accepted origins:

Competency-based education was introduced in America towards the end of the 1960s in reaction to concerns that students are not taught the skills they require in life after school.

Competency-based education (CBE) is based on the broader concept of Outcomes-based education (OBE), one that is familiar to many postsecondary institutions and one that forms the basis of many current instructional design methods. OBE works backwards within a course, starting with the desired outcomes (often defined through a learning objectives taxonomy) and relevant assessments, and then moving to the learning experiences that should lead students to the outcomes. Typically there is a desire to include flexible pathways for the student to achieve the outcomes.

OBE can be implemented in various modalities, including face-to-face, online and hybrid models.

Competency-based education (CBE) is a narrower concept, a subset or instance of OBE, where the outcomes are more closely tied to job skills or employment needs, and the methods are typically self-paced. Again based on the Malan article, the six critical components of CBE are as follows:

  • Explicit learning outcomes with respect to the required skills and concomitant proficiency (standards for assessment)
  • A flexible time frame to master these skills
  • A variety of  instructional activities to facilitate learning
  • Criterion-referenced testing of the required outcomes
  • Certification based on demonstrated learning outcomes
  • Adaptable programmes to ensure optimum learner guidance

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning put out a paper this summer that examines the current state of CBE. In this paper the author, Rebecca Klein-Collins, shows that there is a spectrum of implementation of competency models.

One subset of institutions uses competency frameworks in the context of a course-based system. By course-based system, we mean that students take the same kinds of courses that have always been offered by colleges and universities: instructor-led and credit-hour based.

These may be offered on campus or off, in the classroom or online, accelerated or normally paced. These institutions define competencies that are expected of graduates, and students demonstrate these competencies by successfully completing courses that relate to the required competencies. In some cases, institutions embed competency assessments into each course. In most of the examples presented in this paper, the institution also offers the option of awarding credit for prior learning, and usually [prior learning assessments] is course-based as well.

There seems to be a fairly big jump, however, once the program moves into a self-paced model. For these self-paced CBE initiatives, which are the subject of recent growth in adoption, the current implementations of CBE tend to be:

  • Fully-online;
  • Self-paced;
  • Flexible to allow for retaking of assessments until competency demonstrated; and
  • Flexible to allow passing of assessments up front and not even need instruction / activities, thus allowing credit for life experiences or prior learning assessments (PLA).

What is driving the current growth in competency-based models?

In a nutshell, the current emphasis and growth in CBE is driven by the desire to provide lower-cost education options through flexible programs – lower cost is the driver.

The investment community is not playing as big of a role in CBE as they are in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) like Coursera and Udacity, although StraighterLine has this spring raised $10M in venture funding to expand their concept of affordable online education. While StraighterLine is not fully CBE, their self-paced program shares many of the same attributes.

Perhaps playing a bigger role at this point is government at both the federal and state level. As described in the New York Times last year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, when asked about low-cost CBE options stated:

While such programs are now the exception, Mr. Duncan said, “I want them to be the norm.”

Paul Fain wrote this summer at Inside Higher Ed:

But [Ochoa, assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the Department of Education] said the Obama administration supports quality competency-based approaches, which can expand student access while trimming college costs and the amount of time it takes to earn a degree. “The department is looking to see competency-based education develop and flourish.”

In a whitepaper from the University of Wisconsin Extension and the governor’s office describing their upcoming CBE initiative:

The University of Wisconsin System (UW) will develop a new, flexible college option, using online instruction and other innovative methods, to deliver the competencies students need at an affordable UW price. [snip]

This unique competency-based model will allow students to start classes anytime they like, work at their own pace, and earn credit for what they already know.  Students can demonstrate college-level competencies – no matter where they learned the material – as soon as they can prove that they know it.  By taking advantage of this high quality, high flexibility model, and by utilizing a variety of resources to help pay for their education, students will have new tools to accelerate their careers.

Why has it taken so long for the model to expand beyond WGU?

Despite the history of CBE since the 1960′s, it has only been since the early 2000′s that CBE has started to take hold in US postsecondary eduction, with a rapid growth occurring in the past year. From my earlier post:

Consider that just two years ago Western Governors University stood almost alone as the competency-based model for higher education, but today we can add Southern New Hampshire University, the University of Wisconsin System, Northern Arizona University, StraighterLine and Excelsior College.

Why has it taken so long? Although there is a newfound enthusiasm for CBE from the Obama administration, the biggest barrier thus far has been tacit resistance from financial aid and accreditation bodies.

In Paul Fain’s article at Inside Higher Ed, he described some of the policy-related challenges pertaining to CBE.

Competency-based higher education’s time may have arrived, but no college has gone all-in with a degree program that qualifies for federal aid and is based on competency rather than time in class.

Colleges blame regulatory barriers for the hold-up. The U.S. Education Department and accreditors point fingers at each other for allegedly stymieing progress. But they also say the door is open for colleges to walk through, and note that traditional academics are often skeptical about competency-based degrees.

In 2005 Congress passed a law intended to help Western Governors University (WGU) and other CBE models, defining programs  that qualify for federal financial aid to include:

an instructional program that, in lieu of credit hours or clock hours as the measure of student learning, utilizes direct assessment of student learning, or recognizes the direct assessment of student learning by others, if such assessment is consistent with the accreditation of the institution or program utilizing the results of the assessment.

Despite this law, no college or program has yet used this “direct assessment” clause to fully distinguish itself from the credit hour standard. Thus, there is no consistent definition of CBE.  As Doug Lederman described at Inside Higher Ed in April:

And while WGU instead earned federal approval for students to receive financial aid for a competency-based education by using the existing credit-hour rule – theoretically blazing a trail that other colleges might follow — none yet have.

To higher education officials like Peter Smith, vice president for strategic initiatives at Kaplan Higher Education, those facts show that for all of policy makers’ stated enthusiasm about competency-based education and other forms of curricular innovation in higher education, roadblocks remain to any institution that wishes to try to break the link between the awarding of academic credit and the time a student spends in class (in person or online).

In addition, I would add that the integration of self-paced programs not tied to credit hours into existing higher education models presents an enormous challenge. Colleges and universities have built up large bureaucracies – expensive administrative systems, complex business processes, large departments – to address financial aid and accreditation compliance, all based on fixed academic terms and credit hours. Registration systems, and even state funding models, are tied to the fixed semester, quarter or academic year – largely defined by numbers of credit hours.

It is not an easy task to allow transfer credits coming from a self-paced program, especially if a student is taking both CBE courses and credit-hour courses at the same time. The systems and processes often cannot handle this dichotomy.

I suspect this is one of the primary reasons the CBE programs that have gained traction to date tend to be separated in time from the standard credit-hour program. CBE students either take their courses, reach a certain point, and transfer into a standard program; or they enter a CBE program after they have completed a previous credit-hour based program. In other words, the transfer between the competency world and credit-hour world happen along academic milestones. Some of the new initiatives, however, such as the University of Wisconsin initiative are aiming at more of a mix-and-match flexible degree program.

The result is that the implementation of a competency-based initiative can be like a chess match. Groups need to be aware of multiple threats coming from different angles, while thinking 2 or 3 moves at a time.

It will be interesting to watch the new initiatives develop. However difficult their paths are, I think this is an educational delivery model that will continue to grow.

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