Posted at https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-11-07-making-education-competent
John Baker presents the usual arguments for
competency-based education (CBE): it allows students to move through the
curriculum at their own pace, and is "personalized": students can
choose "how they want to learn."
CBE only allows students to move through
pre-packaged programs at their own pace, programs that divide instruction into
small, concrete modules that are limited to what can be easily tested.
The "personalization" offered by CBE
is limited to what can be done on a computer.
Not mentioned in the current
discussions of CBE is the lack of research supporting it. A recent report from
the National Governer's Association, a report enthusiastic about CBE, includes
this statement: "Although an emerging research base suggests that
CBE is a promising model, it includes only a few rigorous evaluations and
analyses of current and ongoing CBE pilots and similar programs."
See also other comments by Emily Talmage and Cheri
“Are you saying I’m incompetent?”
That’s what my friend asked when I told her the newest trend in
education is “competency-based education.”
I’ll be honest. I don’t love the term. I don’t like implying that
today’s grads are “competent” and yesterday’s weren’t. After all, I was one of
yesterday’s grads. But I’m the CEO of a company that builds technology, not
terminology, so I guess I’m stuck with the term.
What the term means, though, is something pretty revolutionary.
These days, educators don’t have to move a class through the curriculum
based on a set period of time. Instead, today’s teachers can personalize
education for each student. The curriculum has less to do with the time it
takes the whole class to understand the material, and more to do with
individual students mastering or becoming “competent” at those concepts.
The flexibility that comes with competency-based education is rewriting
the way schools, universities, government and industry are educating people.
It’s come along at the right time. A few years ago we didn’t have the computing
and networking power to make personalized education possible. Competency-based
education uses the latest analytics tools to measure the performance of
individual students or whole classes—and allows teachers to make changes as
they go. Students have more power to choose exactly how they want to learn
concepts—whether it’s game-based learning or something more traditional—and can
do so at their own pace.
This flexibility makes some people nervous. There will be those who
argue that if education needs to change at all, it needs to go “back to
basics.” For some, the best education system is always going to be the one they
grew up with. Maybe with desks in neat rows and classrooms with chalk dust and
pencil sharpeners where kids learn the reading, writing and arithmetic—or the
None of that addresses the real problems we’re seeing in education
As someone who works in education technology, the biggest concerns I
hear are the rising cost of tuition for students, the cost of delivering
education for institutions and the time it takes to complete a degree. Did you
ever sit in class wondering when the instructor would get through the stuff you already
knew? Students don’t have to put up with that anymore. If you show up for a
corporate training session with knowledge of the subject, you can move right
into the next module. Under competency-based education students get rewarded
for what they already know—or can learn quickly.
Did you ever sit in class as a topic whizzed by you? And because you
didn’t fully understand that one important lesson, the next lessons felt like
Greek. You probably got frustrated. Lots of us—me included—experienced that in
school. Competency-based education can stop that downward spiral before it even
begins. Students get the help they need to master important concepts in such a targeted and efficient way.
But the social benefits of competency-based education go beyond using
people’s time more efficiently. It also helps use space more efficiently.
That’s’ one reason governments are looking at ways of making competency-based
education the law.
Ohio passed a bill this summer that “requires public institutions to
submit a competency-based program plan to the Governor by December 31, 2015. If
no plans are submitted from the public institutions, Ohio will work with
Western Governor’s University to extend their competency-based programming into
That’s strong stuff. And there’s a practical reason behind this new law.
Todd A. Rickel, Vice Provost and Executive Dean at the College of
Applied Science and Technology in Akron Ohio, says that one of the arguments
that got the attention of state political leaders are the space and cost
“Just about anyone can learn just about anything, just about anywhere,”
says Rickel. “The restrictions of time and space don’t apply since time depends
on the learner and space depends on where the student lives and works—not on
In Ohio, political leaders have realized another economic benefit of
competency-based education: getting skilled workers trained quickly for
in-demand employment opportunities. In medical schools, competency-based
training gets doctors trained and working in communities where they’re needed
more quickly—saving and improving lives. It creates an integrated learning
system—one that doesn’t end when medical school training ends, but integrates
education and innovation across the entire health system.
So to answer my friend’s question more fully: no, competency-based
education doesn’t mean past graduates were incompetent. But it does mean that
today’s students get to move ahead based on what they know, which is better for
the student, more efficient for the institution and provides real, positive
social and economic change for the country.
Moving backwards—back to the three-Rs and the old-fashioned way of doing
education—that would be incompetent. This is an exciting time to be in
education and, moving forward, I can’t wait to see what happens next.
John Baker is CEO of Desire2Learn