February 27, 2017

The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age

Online student 2

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, is now published. In Chapter 5, I developed the concept of a learning environment.

I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’ In my last two posts I discussed respectively the appropriateness of the classroom model and the ADDIE model for a digital age. In this post, I explore the same issue for competency-based learning model. (Some of this material has been published earlier by Contact North in its Gamechangers series.)

Competency-based learning

Competency-based learning attempts to break away from the regularly scheduled classroom model, where students study the same subject matter at the same speed in a cohort of fellow students.

What is competency-based learning?

Competency-based learning begins by identifying specific competencies or skills, and enables learners to develop mastery of each competency or skill at their own pace, usually working with a mentor. Learners can develop just the competencies or skills they feel they need (for which increasingly they may receive a ‘badge’ or some form of validated recognition), or can combine a whole set of competencies into a full qualification, such as a certificate, diploma or increasingly a full degree. Learners work individually, rather than in cohorts. If learners can demonstrate that they are already have mastery of a particular competency or skill, through a test or some form of prior learning assessment, they may be allowed to move to the next level of competency without having to repeat a prescribed course of study for the prior competency.

Its value for developing practical or vocational skills or competencies is more obvious, but increasingly competency-based learning is being used for education requiring more abstract or academic skills development, sometimes combined with other cohort-based courses or programs. The Western Governors University, with nearly 40,000 students, has pioneered competency-based learning, but with the more recent support of the Federal Department of Education it is expanding rapidly in the USA.

Competency-based learning is particularly appropriate for adult learners with life experience who may have developed competencies or skills without formal education or training, for those who started school or college and dropped out and wish to return to formal study, but want their earlier learning to be recognized, or for those learners wanting to develop specific skills but not wanting a full program of studies. Competency-based learning can be delivered through a campus program, but it is increasingly delivered fully online, because many students taking such programs are already working or seeking work.

Designing competency-based learning

There are various approaches, but the Western Governors model illustrates many of the key steps.

Defining competencies

A feature of most competency-based programs is a partnership between employers and educators in identifying the competencies required, at least at a high level. Some of the skills outlined in Chapter 1, such as problem-solving or critical thinking, may be considered high-level, but competency-based learning tries to break down abstract or vague goals into specific, measurable competencies.

For instance, at Western Governors University (WGU), for each degree, a high-level set of competencies is defined by the University Council, and then a working team of contracted subject matter experts takes the ten or so high level competencies for a particular qualification and breaks them down into about 30 more specific competencies, around which are built online courses to develop mastery of each competency. Competencies are based upon what graduates are supposed to know in the workplace and as professionals in a chosen career. Assessments are designed specifically to assess the mastery of each competency; thus students receive either a pass/no pass following assessment. A degree is awarded when all 30 specified competencies are successfully achieved.

Defining competencies that meet the needs of students and employers in ways that are progressive (i.e. one competency builds on earlier competencies and leads to more advanced competencies) and coherent (in that the sum of all the competencies produces a graduate with all the knowledge and skills required within a business or profession) is perhaps the most important and most difficult part of competency-based learning.

Course and program design

At WGU, courses are created by in-house subject matter experts selecting existing online curriculum from third parties and/or resources such as e-textbooks through contracts with publishers. Increasingly open educational resources are used. WGU does not use an LMS but a specially designed portal for each course. E-textbooks are offered to students without extra cost to the student, through contracts between WGU and the publishers. Courses are pre-determined for the student with no electives. Students are admitted on a monthly basis and work their way through each competency at their own pace.

Students who already possess competencies may accelerate through their program in two ways: transferring in credits from a previous associate degree in appropriate areas (e.g. general education, writing); or by taking exams when they feel they are ready.

Learner support

Again this varies from institution to institution. WGU currently employs approximately 750 faculty who act as mentors. There are two kinds of mentors: ‘student’ mentors and ‘course’ mentors. Student mentors, who have qualifications within the subject domain, usually at a masters level, are in at least bi-weekly telephone contact with their students, depending on the needs of the student in working through their courses, and are the main contact for students. A student mentor is responsible for roughly 85 students. Students start with a mentor from their first day and stay with their mentor until graduation. Student mentors assist students in determining and maintaining an appropriate pace of study and step in with help when students are struggling.

Course mentors are more highly qualified, usually with a doctorate, and provide extra support for students when needed. Course mentors will be available to between 200-400 students at a time, depending on the subject requirement.

Students may contact either student or course mentors at any time (unlimited access) and mentors are expected to deal with student calls within one business day. Student mentors are pro-active, calling students regularly (at least once every two weeks, more if necessary) to maintain contact. Mentors are full-time but work flexible hours, usually from home. Mentors are reasonably well paid, and receive extensive training in mentoring.

Remote proctoring of exams

Remote proctoring of exams

Assessment

WGU uses written papers, portfolios, projects, observed student performance and computer-marked assignments as appropriate, with detailed rubrics. Assessments are submitted online and if they require human evaluation, qualified graders (subject matter experts trained by WGU in assessment) are randomly assigned to mark work on a pass/fail basis. If students fail, the graders provide feedback on the areas where competency was not demonstrated. Students may resubmit if necessary.

Students will take both formative (pre-assessment) and summative (proctored) exams. WGU is increasingly using online proctoring, enabling students to take an exam at home under video supervision, using facial recognition technology to ensure that the registered student is taking the exam. In areas such as teaching and health, student performance or practice is  assessed in situ by professionals (teachers, nurses).

Strengths of a competency-based approach to design

Proponents have identified a number of strengths in the competency-based learning approach:

  • it meets the immediate needs of businesses and professions; students are either already working, and receive advancement within the company, or if unemployed, are more likely to be employed once qualified
  • it enables learners with work or family commitments to study at their own pace
  • for some students, it speeds up time to completion of a qualification by enabling prior learning to be recognized
  • students get individual support and help from their mentors
  • tuition fees are affordable ($6,000 per annum at WGU) and programs can be self-funding from tuition fees alone, since WGU uses already existing study materials and increasingly open educational resources
  • increasingly, competency-based education is being recognized as eligible for Federal loans and student aid in the USA.

Consequently, institutions such as WGU, the University of Southern New Hampshire, and Northern Arizona University, using a competency-based approach, at least as part of their operations, have seen annual enrolment growth in the range of 30-40 per cent per annum.

Weaknesses of a competency-based approach to design

Its main weakness is that it works well with some learning environments and less well with others. In particular:

  • it focuses on immediate employer needs and is less focused on preparing learners with the flexibility needed for a more uncertain future
  • it does not suit subject areas where it is difficult to prescribe specific competencies or where new skills and new knowledge need to be rapidly accommodated
  • it takes an objectivist approach to learning
  • it ignores the importance of social learning
  • it will not fit the preferred learning styles of many students.

In conclusion

Competency-based learning is a relatively new approach to learning design which is proving increasingly popular with employers and suits certain kinds of learners such as adult learners seeking to re-skill or searching for mid-level jobs requiring relatively easily identifiable skills. It does not suit though all kinds of learners and may be limited in developing the higher level, more abstract knowledge and skills requiring creativity, high-level problem-solving and decision-making and critical thinking.

Over to you

I have been very gratified by the feedback and open-ness of many of the readers of this blog on my earlier drafts for this book. I do not feel I am an expert on competency-based learning, never having designed a course this way, so feedback and advice from more experienced practitioners will be particularly welcome. In particular:

1. I have focused mainly on the Western Governors design model for competency-based learning, which is entirely online. Do you know other models of designing competency-based learning that I should have included?

2. What are your views on the competency-based model? Is it a useful model for designing teaching in a digital age? Do you agree with my criticisms of the model?

3. What is the difference between a competency and a skill? Or is there no difference?

4. What key articles, videos or books on competency-based learning would you recommend?

What’s next

So far I have done drafts of the following (as blogs)

  • What is a design model?
  • The classroom model
  • Classroom models in online learning
    • LMSs
    • lecture capture
  • ADDIE
  • competency-based learning

Still to come:

  • Connectivist models, including communities of practice and cMOOCs
  • PLEs
  • AI approaches
  • Flexible design models
  • Conclusion

My next post in this series then will be on the appropriateness of connectivist design models for teaching in a digital age.

Comments

  1. Peter Forrest says:

    Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking article.

    I am most interested in how learners develop proficiency in team-based or person-oriented competencies – collaborating with others; working in distributed teams; online communication skills and so on. These must be critical for employers as well.

    I think your definition of competency-based learning focuses on just one particular model of delivery (self-paced; working individually; mentor support). I find this very limiting as it omits these collaborative (or social) skills completely.

    I don’t see that this has to be the only model for competency-based learning, nor do I think that this form of learning necessarily has to suffer from the weaknesses you identify (although, as an aside, pretty much every approach to design works well with some learning environments and less well with others) or ignore the importance of social learning.

    I think we need a broader definition of competency-based learning and approaches to design that addresses the development of social and collaborative skills and competencies, using an approach that includes social and collaborative learning.

    • Great comments, Peter.
      I completely agree that there are many possible models of competency-based learning, and perhaps more importantly, there are many different ways to develop skills and competencies. The WGU model then is just one way. Collaborative online learning is another way, especially for developing the more academic or intellectual skills and competencies.
      But I think I also mentioned in the chapter that of course competencies can also be developed in a face-to-face or campus environment.
      This is one problem of trying to categorize different design models – they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, rarely exist in a ‘pure’ form, and are not dependent on a particular medium or technology. They are just all part of life’s rich pattern!

  2. I just wanted to check one thing, if this model is based on learners immediate requirements and help them in a way that suites them most, it will be quite useful for school goers. however, if it works individual to individual in a continuous way how does this fits in to the school systems where whole process and progression is based on grade wise and stepwise development from grade 1 to grade 12. is there anyway by which this model can be used in these kind of situation too.

  3. Yves Niamke says:

    It is actually helpful !!!!!! I am studying CBA in implementation in Cote d’Ivoire And I would have more information to support my thesis this year so would please send me some books and/or articles that could help me in my research. here is my email address: yniamke4@gmail.com
    Thanks

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