What’s So Troubling About Competency-Based Education?

Dec 16, 2014 · 5 min read

By Marni Baker Stein, Chief Innovation Officer

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

In the last week since it was announced that the University of Texas System is diving in to competency-based education (CBE), it has become clear to me that a lot of the controversy around this programming model is grounded in fairly extreme misconceptions around what CBE is …and perhaps more troubling, around just how powerful today’s technology enhanced education has the potential to be.

What are the most concerning of these myths?

1. All CBE is “Direct Assessment” CBE

I haven’t been able to find too many great explanations about what “Direct Assessment” actually means in practice — but here is a set of definitions from a recent white paper, “All Hands on Deck”, written by Patricia Book, that describes in brief the two major types of competency based education:

Course-based with Credit Equivalency:

In this model institutions translate competencies defined at the program level into topics that can be formulated into courses of the appropriate length and complexity (Johnstone and Soares 2014).

Direct Assessment:

Untethered from course material and credit hour, learners demonstrate competencies, particularly mastery, at their own pace, typically online, and progress through academic programs when they are ready to do so.

In our own CBE initiatives across the UT System — we are solving for CBE through a “Course-based with Credit Equivalency” approach. Students will move through a competency-driven program of study at a recommended pace, developing a powerful learning network among their peers and faculty as they tackle the mastery of competencies and the “completion” of courses in a set sequence.

The design will allow for both traditional and accelerated paths to accommodate variance in student progression through the program, and will provide robust coaching services to intervene when students fall behind critical milestones. Our goal is to optimize each student’s time to degree, as they work toward enduring mastery of critical path knowledge and skills.

At the end of each term, students will receive both a course/grade based transcript, as well as an update on a competency-based transcript that will track their development toward targeted program-level outcomes — across terms and throughout their total educational experience.

Are we interested in Direct Assessment CBE?

Perhaps in the future, but for now we feel it is critical that students maintain a more traditional transcript that will allow them to transfer if they decide to adjust course, and that will be meaningful to graduate schools and certain employers who make admissions and hiring decisions based on grade point averages.

We do believe, however, that through our slant on CBE, where we will directly assess the development of competencies through a “Course-Based” approach, we will amass a wealth of data on student trajectories toward mastery that may inform the design of a viable “Direct Assessment CBE” model for initiatives to come.

And here is another disturbing misinterpretation…

2. All CBE is totally online…and online degrades the quality of an educational experience…because online courses are not taught by faculty.

This idea is just dead wrong. In the CBE initiatives we are developing with faculty across the system, all of our programs will be taught by faculty and are being designed to encourage hands-on problem solving, relevant research experience, team-based learning frameworks, clinical applications, communication skills, learning communities, and group projects.

Further all of these programs will be delivered in a hybrid, hybrid, hybrid format…this means that they include regular face to face classroom and fieldwork or clinical sessions… our critics are correct, each course will have a digital, or online, component…but, sorry to disappoint, this component is not a set of talking head videos posted on YouTube.

The personalized and adaptive “online” component of the CBE experiences that are currently in design will serve as the spinal column for each learner’s experience. Our platform, TEx, will present faculty curated content (the same kinds of content students are pouring over now in their 300$ textbooks — except more interactive, more up to date, and from a greater diversity of trustworthy sources) through an activity driven approach. As learners move through each set of what are, essentially, dynamically designed homework exercises, the system continuously diagnoses strengths and challenges and serves up high fidelity content that aligns with personal preferences (delivery modality, professional focus…).

Why is this cool? And how can this allow for personalization in a course-based approach? TEx will automatically accelerate or decelerate the pace of students as they work through their studies, encouraging learners to spend their time more efficiently and with greater impact on their development. Students who fall behind critical pace markers will receive just-in-time interventions from faculty, and/or instructional facilitators, to keep them on track.

Faculty set these pace markers for the TEx component of each course. Faculty may want to hardwire “due dates” for certain milestones into the system (for example: module x needs to be complete by x date) to assure that all students are ready to actively participate in a team-based learning project or to engage in fieldwork or clinical experiences. For other milestones, faculty may want to allow for a more flexible schedule within the bounds of a course or term, that allows students to move at a pace which aligns with their strengths and/or their need for extra assistance.

In the classroom and in the field, TEx — which is being designed as a mobile first experience — will additionally serve as a companion tool for interacting with digital labs and simulations, collaboration, exploration of transmedia case materials, research, note taking peer critique, etc. The classroom and fieldwork activities themselves will be choreographed and synchronized carefully (by faculty) with the pacing of the work students are completing through TEx outside of class time. In addition to immediate feedback students will receive from the personalized and adaptive assignments they encounter in TEx, assignments such as project presentations, papers, clinical experiences, etc. will be graded by faculty and scores and feedback entered into the TEx system through a rubric. This quantity and diversity of feedback will allow for continuous “blended” assessment of developing competencies across contexts (classroom, clinical, online).

Why is this so controversial?

We simply don’t believe it is. These programs are growing out of the best-practice program development work that has gone before them. Faculty are architecting the design of powerful new technology enhanced learning experiences that are:

1. Better aligned with and better able to track the students’ development path toward critical program level competencies.

2. Where the digital or online component of the experience is active, personalized and adaptive — rather than what it is now, which is often a series of static digital content and video-taped lectures. And…

3. Where the digital component of the experience will provide just in time feedback as students progress through the experience — and will signal faculty and/or instructional facilitators if the students fall behind pace, or seem to be stuck on a particular skill or concept… allowing faculty to more effectively intervene (before they get to critical high stakes assessments).

Isn’t this all good?

Would love to discuss — and to share experience with those of you on the same kind of journey into the future of education! Look forward to your thoughts…

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade