Sunday, March 4, 2012

Competency-Based Education: A Response to Phil Hill

Phil Hill's recent post in e-Literate notes the emergence of "competency-based education" in K-12 and higher education. The post is timely for focusing attention on a new educational paradigm which is gaining considerable momentum and attracting investments in the public and private sectors. Phil is one of the most astute and knowledgeable analysts in the industry and his posts are a must reading for those who follow trends in educational technology.  I would like to thank Phil and e-Literate for kick starting the debate on competency-based education. (Disclosure: I work for Desire2Learn, an e-learning company. The views in this blog are my own and not endorsed in any way by my employer.)


The most seductive of arguments are those where we agree with the conclusion but fail to examine the premises. I agree with Phil's overall conclusion, but disagree with just about all his premises.  As Spock might say, "the argument is logical, but not sound."

Let's start with Phil's conclusion, with which I happen to agree.
Conclusion: We should evaluate learning platforms based on the learning models they support.
I don't think anyone will quarrel with this conclusion. The point might seem obvious but it is worth making and I am glad Phil states it again. Learning platforms support learning. But what kind of learning do they support and how well do they support it? This question has to be at front and center of all educational technology debates. Thus far Phil and I are in agreement.

The Premises

Let's look now at how Phil arrives at his conclusion and ties it back to his views about competency-based education. Some of the premises are explicit, others are implicit. I apologize beforehand if I have misinterpreted or incorrectly constructed Phil's position. Regardless of whether they represent Phil's actual viewpoint (I hope he will correct me if I am wrong), the premises below seem to be widely shared among educational technology experts.

  • P1: There are different models of education delivery.
  • P2: Currently, there are primarily two educational models in competition with one another. The first focuses primarily on "content" transmission. The second focuses on "collaboration" and "social learning".
  • P3: The first is the "traditional" model which has dominated education for centuries. The second is the "new" emergent model.
  • P4: The traditional LMS supports the first model. Newer platforms support the second and"newer" models of learning.
  • P5: The locus of innovation in learning is largely clustered around the second model.
  • P6: Competency-based education is new but enacts a version of the traditional learning model.
Except for P1, the remaining premises, in my opinion, are all false. At best, they are unsupported. Nevertheless, they continue to be echoed as established truths.  In future posts I hope to examine each premise in detail. In this post I consider only P6.

Competency-Based Learning Model

As a starting point, let's look at what Phil says about competency-based education and whether he subscribes to P6.

  • The role of social learning in competency-based models becomes minimized (emphasis mine)– a nice-to-have – as the whole concept of a cohort of students moving through the material at roughly the same time goes away 
  • Given this model, there are real opportunities for a learning platform which are based on transmitting content (emphasis mine), allowing the student to access and interact with the material anytime, anywhere, even without some of the social tools that are so attractive to traditional education and other models. 
  • To be clear, this is not to argue that all new models of education place a low priority on social sharing and collaboration (emphasis mine).
In the first quote Phil states that social learning is not part of competency-based learning. In the second quote Phil states that competency-based learning rests on the "content transmission" model of education. In the third quote Phil implies that competency-based learning is new in education but places a "low priority" on social sharing and collaboration. In short, competency-based education is another version of the traditional model which relies on "content transmission" as the core learning experience and minimizes social learning and collaboration.

This is a complete mis-understanding of competency-based education. Where and how has Phil gone astray? First, I believe he confuses implementation with concept. There is no doubt that today the most well-known examples of competency-based learning (e.g. Khan Academy) have been designed as self-paced learning environments where students work in splendid isolation from each other. But there is nothing intrinsically in the concept of competency-based education which precludes the idea of social learning or collaboration. In fact, proponents of competency-based education would argue that if one believes that collaboration is a necessary skill or competency for learning, then we should define it as a competency and find the means to assess it.

Second, it is equally a mistake to assume that in competency-based learning "the whole concept of a cohort of students moving through the material at roughly the same time goes way. (emphasis mine)" Competency-based learning and self-paced learning are allied and over-lapping concepts, but they are not the same. Udacity's courses, which are delivered by the way through a home-grown LMS, nicely illustrate the difference. Two cohorts of students are moving together through the two courses being offered this term.  And although the content is delivered in traditional fashion (video lectures), a rich set of interactions is beginning to form among the cohort groups through the discussion forum (traditional LMS functionality). At the same time, other students from around the world, who are not part of the starting cohort, dip in and out, as time allows, going through the content and exchanging ideas with fellow students and instructors. Some will move through the course more quickly than others, but there is a still a cohort experience as part of the course design. The end game of the course is that students who will have gone through the course, including the assessments, will have mastered a well-defined set of competencies.

Hard Times, Enlightenment

Competency-based education can easily be confused, and often is, with the Gradgrind uniformity of standardized testing and the drudgery of passive lectures. This is yet another misconception, arising probably because implementations in this space are still new and evolving.
What is driving competency-based education? Competency-based education has gained momentum due to two pressures, the first is market-driven and the second is epistemological. For the masses education has become the modern equivalent of indentured servitude. Bondage takes the form of "seat-time" or "credits".  No matter what I know or what I can do, I must fulfill a pre-defined set of credits to earn my credential, my freedom. Students today, except for the most privileged, are all working-learners.

The seat-time model for working-learners translates into crushing debt, paid by the students but also passed on to families and society as a whole. This broken "business model" is choking education and no longer makes any sense. The Bastille of Education, and institutions which continue to employ it, will not last very much longer.

The Education industry, much like the nobility of old, has enjoyed its long reign through various entitlements, trust being chief among them: "Send us your children and we will educate them." But how do we know they are being educated? "Trust us. The sheepskin we award upon graduation will be the proof." The sheepskin answer is no longer good enough. In a market economy we need evidence that students know, what they know, and how they know. We also need to know how much it costs to develop the knowledge and skills we prize in our students and citizens.

What students know and are capable of doing can no longer be a black-box.  Competency-based education has developed in response to Hard Times. But in so far as it demands evidence of learning it begins to move us forward to a more enlightened view of education.


Competency-based education does not invoke or promote any particular model of learning. Instead, it insists that whatever model of learning we implement, we should be able to demonstrate empirically that we have provided the optimal path (decrease costs, increase quality) of learning to students. The only way this can be done is by knowing, and being able to know, what students know and what they can do.  Competency-based education is an important step in transforming learning into a science, and thereby removing it from the realm of faith and magic.

1 comment:

  1. Al, nice post and thanks for the comments. I need to put more of my overall thoughts together, probably in a second blog post.

    Short answer on the assumptions - no, I do not agree with premises P1 - P6 as described. I do agree with you that these premises are widely shared, but not from me. Here is a short list:
    - P1: Agree
    - P2 and P3: Do not agree, there are multiple models, not just two. MOOCs, for-profit online programs, etc. Competency-based education is just one of the newer models.
    - P4: Do not agree fully. Some of the "newer" platforms actually are designed to support the traditional model - Coursekit, OpenClass and Instructure are examples.
    - P5: Do not agree fully because of multiple models in P2. Also, there is some real innovation around traditional models. For example, flipped classroom could be viewed as an augmentation of the traditional model.
    - P6: I partially agree here in that CBE does favor the traditional content-focus. I would say that CBE "is new but enacts aspects of the traditional learning model".