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A ‘Disruptive’ Look at Competency-Based Education

A ‘Disruptive’ Look at Competency-Based Education

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Competency-based education could be the key to providing quality, postsecondary education to millions of Americans at a lower cost, writes Louis Soares.
Competency-based education could be the key to providing quality, postsecondary education to millions of Americans at a lower cost, writes Louis Soares.

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Published by: Center for American Progress on Jun 06, 2012
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1Center or American Progress | A ‘Disruptive’ Look at Competency-Based Education
A ‘Disruptive’ Look atCompetency-Based Education
How the Innovative Use of TechnologyWill Transform the College Experience
Louis Soares June 2012
Mozilla’s Open Badges Iniiaive and MIx—he Massachusets Insiue o echnology’scuting-edge iniiaive oering ree, high-qualiy college courses online—have pu a publicspoligh on alernaive ways o deliver possecondary educaion ha no only documen wheher a suden has achieved a level o compeence bu also validae he learning ha’soccurred. Tese wo innovaive educaion models dier rom radiional educaion by ocusing sricly on he demonsraion o compeency regardless o how long i ook asuden o gain ha compeency. MIx, or is par, is inroducing hese new mehods inohe well-heeled communiy o world-class universiies, while he Open Badges Iniiaive isa he ronier o documening and validaing learning ha happens anywhere and a any ime. Boh iniiaives poin he way o a uure where educaion can be high-qualiy andpersonalized ye so aordable ha i’s accessible o millions o addiional learners.Te quesion, o course, is wheher hese innovaive learning iniiaives and ohers likehem can ruly disrup he curren model o possecondary educaion—a model harelies on ime-based measures o srucure and und learning experiences.Te answer o ha quesion lies in wheher or no compeency-based educaion can beeecively aken o scale. I he answer is “yes,” hen he challenge becomes ideniy-ing wha ype o innovaions in policy and pracice are necessary o accomplish haoucome. One approach o he quesion—which is he ocus o his brie—is hroughhe lens o “disrupive innovaion,” a business heory ha considers how echnology canchange an organizaion, secor, or indusry.Te rs secion o his brie provides a shor primer on compeency-based educaionin possecondary educaion. Nex we inroduce he our elemens o disrupive innova-ion heory and use hese elemens as a guide o sudy educaion iniiaives ha could
2Center or American Progress | A ‘Disruptive’ Look at Competency-Based Education
promoe disrupive innovaion. Lasly, we ouline a number o recommendaions orpolicymakers on how o aciliae disrupive innovaion o ransorm higher educaion.
Competency-based education primer
Compeency-based educaion is an oucomes-based approach o educaion where heemphasis is on wha comes ou o possecondary educaion—wha graduaes know andcan do—raher han wha goes ino he curriculum. Wih a compeency-based approach, you do no begin preparing a course syllabus by ideniying conen and readings.Insead, you begin by ideniying compeencies and hen selec he conen, readings,and assignmens o suppor suden atainmen o hose compeencies. Wih a compeency-based approach, sudens advance when hey have demonsraedmasery o a compeency, which is dened as “a combinaion o skills, abiliies andknowledge needed o perorm a ask in a specic conex.
Masery is he sole deer-minan o progress, which means ha delivery opions muliply and expand since any insrucionalmehod or insrucional provider ha can move asuden oward masery is heoreically accepable.In compeency-based educaion, assessmen isembedded in every sep o he learning process inorder o provide sudens wih guidance and supporoward masery. Tis heighened level o assessmenis designed o build compeencies in real ime. Teollowing gure, rom he Naional Possecondary Educaion Cooperaive’s repor “Dening and Assessing Learning,” provides a simple ye powerul visual o he compeency-based approach: As described in he repor, he rs rung a he botom o he pyramid consiss o 
traits and char-acteristics
—hese are he oundaion o learningand depic he innae makeup o individuals upon which urher experiences can be buil. Te secondrung consiss o 
skills, abilities, and knowledge
developed hrough learning experiences broadly dened o include ormal educaion, work, and paricipaion in communiy aairs. Te hird rung,
 , are he oucome o inegraed learning experi-ences, in which skills, abiliies, and knowledge are ocused on he perormance o aask. Finally, he op rung,
resuls rom he applicaion o compeencies. Assessmen is deeply embedded a all sages o his learning process.
DemonstrationsCompetenciesSkills, abilities, and knowledgeTraits and characteristics
Assessmentof performanceAcquired skills,abilities, andknowledgeDeveloped in thelearning processFoundation
Learning experiencesIntegrated learning experiences
A   S   S   E   S   S   M   E   N   T   
FIGURE 1A conceptual learning model
Source: U.S. Department of Education, 2001.
3Center or American Progress | A ‘Disruptive’ Look at Competency-Based Education
I is clear, given his descripion, ha he design o he learning experience is depen-den upon sandardized and agreed-upon deniions or skills, abiliies, and knowl-edge; compeencies; and demonsraions. Once sudens, aculy, employers, andpolicymakers agree upon compeencies ha mus be masered, i opens up avenuesor sudens o personalize heir learning opions by selecing among dierenproviders. Te abiliy o personalize learning opions enables sudens o nd he bes insrucion a he lowes cos. Wha’s more, as long as sudens can demonsraemasery o a subjec i no longer maters where hey wen o school. As i happens,sandardized deniions o compeencies are inegral o wheher or no compeency- based educaion can be scaled up and “disrup” possecondary educaion.
A very short history of competency-based education
In recen possecondary educaion hisory he emergence o compeency-based educa-ion as a opic o ineres paralleled he inormaion-echnology revoluion, which hasallowed or dieren ways o delivering educaion and capuring daa abou he learningexperience. As reerenced earlier, he U.S. Educaion Deparmen in 2002 sponsored asudy by he Naional Possecondary Educaion Cooperaive ha examined his veropic by analyzing he pracices o eigh organizaions,
assering ha:
[A]ccess to learning opportunities is greater now than at any previous time. Te learning  paths created by advances in inormation technology no longer lead solely to postsecond-ary institutions. Organizations outside o postsecondary education have made signifcant inroads by providing perormance-based learning opportunities built on competencies.
One o he insiuions sudied by he Naional Possecondary Educaion Cooperaive was Wesern Governors Universiy, or WGU, a ully online college experience in whichechnology does he eaching and sudens advance based on heir masery o conenas opposed o he amoun o ime spen in a course. I was one o he earlies models o compeency-based educaion ha has begun o be aken o scale.Newer examples o compeency-based educaion include he Carnegie Mellon OpenLearning Iniiaive
and upsar rms such as Sophia Learning,
which is building a sociallearning, compeency-based educaion plaorm. In addiion, here are many oher innova-ors across he counry applying elemens o a compeency-based educaion.I is possible ha compeency-based educaion could serve as a game changer inpossecondary educaion, delivering high-qualiy educaion experiences ha lead odemonsraed learning and masery a an aordable price. Over he pas decade we’velearned much abou esablished organizaions such as WGU bu here remains a greadeal o learn abou he mix o echnology, curriculum, and processes ha could urncompeency-based educaion ino a rue game changer in possecondary educaion.

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