Last year, Jason Fitzpatrick was the Director of Technology at the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS), an experiential school model based in New Hampshire. Today, he’s one of Motivis Learning’s Product Directors, guiding new software features from conception to release. He’s one of the very reasons we’re so proud of the products we build here at Motivis Learning.

Part of why he’s so good at what he does is specifically because of the work he did at VLACS. Before he was the Director of Technology, he taught both History and Math at the school, and participated in the transition from the traditional teaching model to competency-based education.

I had the chance to sat down with him a few weeks ago to get his perspective on how changes like this unfold, and how educators and technologists can facilitate this transition.

Can you share some of the experiences you’ve had transitioning from traditional to competency-based education models?

When I first became a teacher, CBE was very new to our schools, at least in name because outcomes was already part of the language. There was a lot of confusion about what exactly a competency was, how it should be written, and even who should write it. It was when I first started working at VLACS that it really all fell into place for me.

When I say it “fell into place,” really what I mean is that when it’s done correctly, when it’s done really well, it makes instruction easier. Teachers can engage the student in learning, rather than just asking them if they’ve done the work or not.

Deo Mwano and Jason Fitzpatrick dancing their way to success at the Motivis Learning offices in New Hampshire.

I liked that, and I found it easier as an instructor because, you still have your course, and within that course you have eight competencies, or however you break it down to roll back up to this higher course level. The competencies helped break down what it was that I needed my students to learn within the course

When I was an undergrad, this was referred to as enduring understandings, or the things that students remember and hold on to over the long-term. For example, in biology, it would be understanding exactly how the heart functions, how it keeps the body going. The enduring understanding would be written with more details than that, but it gave the students an achievable goal and explained why they were sitting in this classroom for most of the year.

You also have to ask: how do competencies match up with standards? How are they different? How are they the same? So then you have the high-level competency, and an understanding of how it ties back to state-level standards. With this sort of education model, learning/achievement can be shown to parents, students, schools, and state governing boards.

Assessments should tie back to competencies, so you know which unit or module builds up to which competencies. These assessments—or learning activities—help define what the student has to do to prove mastery, and to show that they’re ready to move on in the course.

Some worry that the CBE model actually increases workload for teachers. Do you think that’s the case? How would you counter that?

The truth is that educators are looking at a good amount of work up front when setting up a new education model. This workload will not land on each individual instructor, but it may be up to a group of instructors or school leadership to manage.

My experience was a little different in that I walked into a situation where it was already packaged for me, so I knew what my students needed to learn. So once they started working through a particular competency, I was able to go to them and ask what is was about those particular concepts that they didn’t understand. We could get very specific about it because of the detail and direction competency-based learning gives educators and learners.

Because it’s not that a student won’t understand the Civil War, because, what does it even mean to understand the Civil War? Instead, you have a well-written competency, and recognize when a student is struggling to master it. That’s a beginning place, and you can further break that competency down into performance indicators, criteria, and rubrics. It’s all measurable.

Some people might bristle at the idea of school and student learning being measurable, but it’s not a punishment. It’s a way to help students reach their best capability. You can’t do that without some sort of measurement.

Did this change your relationship with your students, too?

Yes, definitely. I found myself becoming more of a coach than a standard instructor or teacher, if you think of a traditional teacher as one who lectures to a group of students. In a standard setting, I found that I was putting most of my effort and time into figuring out what I actually had to create for a lesson plan, why it was important/applicable, and how it aligned with the unit as a whole.

Whereas, in this setting, there’s some freedom. It’s very guided, but there’s a place for instructors to personalize for each student. I had the chance to really focus more on my relationships with students, to find out where they were at, what their goals were, and if they were struggling, why. I had my own goals for them, and we were able to work together to meet them. I wasn’t just pushing information on them, it was up to them to figure it out. It could be more student-directed learning because we had the goals (competencies) outlined already. But at the same time, I was able to go on this journey with them.

Speaking of the learning journey, how did you see students navigating through it?

I was very lucky in that VLACS was very forward-thinking. Not only in competency-based education, but also just how they worked with students.

You know, we had students who were there to get a degree and move on, which was totally fine, but they also liked that instructors were more accessible to them. Again, this was more about the relationships and developing them into lifelong learners than it was about pushing content on them. I got to focus on getting them up to speed on understanding the content, not on just knowing what it was.

One difficult thing at first is the idea of not meeting a competency. Once students knew they couldn’t fail, which is something competency-based education really lends itself to, they adopted quickly to it. They knew that if they didn’t master a competency it was not the end of the line, they could try again. And together, we could revisit it and figure out why. I had the chance to do these mini-tutoring sessions with individual students. In a traditional setting, I never had tutoring sessions. Especially not one-on-one sessions. It was completely unheard of.

Students really appreciated this, because it was less discouraging. Especially once they got through that first experience of not meeting a competency. It was totally okay, and we could figure out why, and they had the chance to try again. It is rare that in real life we do something or read something once and become competent in that thing or idea, and yet we expect this out of children in our schools.

VLACS is an online charter, but can you speak to using the CBE model in-person, too?

A bit. VLACS is not just virtual, it’s also a charter, which gives it a little more freedom. By comparison, what I found at the brick-and-mortar school was that things move significantly slower. Schools in New Hampshire are supposed to be competency-based already, but many of them are still working on the transition.

So really, my experience in a traditional setting was that we had one competency-based unit, and it probably wasn’t even approved by the school. So even if I taught that with my kids, at the end, they’d all move on whether they mastered it or not, because we were still following the more traditional model. It wasn’t really what I would consider a competency-based education system, but it was moving in that direction.

When it came to assessments for competency-based education, how did you manage that, and how did your students feel about it?

The competencies and the performance indicators can be very similar. It’s how students actually show mastery that is actually quite different. In a traditional setting, where you take a quiz or complete a worksheet, competency-based education opens itself up more towards project-based education.

Some programs have students create education portfolios, which I think was a predecessor to competency-based education. I think those fit together very nicely. My students always liked doing that work, even in the more traditional setting, so whenever I had assessments, they were project-based, really. I would ask students to prove they knew the content by completing project a, b, or c.

Competencies really allow for a more personalized student experience. It would be like, if you and I go through a course, and we each have the same eight competencies, we are on even footing as far as learning expectations. Even if we understand and show those competencies/concepts in different ways based off of who we are and how we express ourselves. I might be more of a writer, so you know I’m just going to write an essay that meets part or all of two competencies. You might be more visually creative, so you actually want to shoot a video or create a website that shows mastery of these things. You might actually hit the same competencies I did, but we showed them in very different ways.

If you could give any advice to educators in districts that are considering switching to competency-based education, what would you say?

The first thing is that if they’re just starting this journey, it’s going to be a little bumpy at first. Any transition, any change is going to be bumpy. But it’s worth embracing because, ultimately, it’s better for the students, and it’s better for the educators. Having experienced both worlds, I highly prefer competency-based education.

The benefit for teachers is a little harder to see at first. For example, before I experienced competency-based education, I worried about people telling me what to do in my classroom. I don’t want my department head, I don’t want the principal, I don’t want somebody in Washington telling me what I should be teaching, because I’m the one in the classroom. I know what’s best.

When I moved to competency-based education, I realized I don’t always know what’s best. But people are scared of this idea, or they get nervous about the idea that it’s easier to measure students and instructors. Some see it as a way to be more critical of educators. But again, with competency-based education, there’s no failing. The instructor didn’t fail to teach the student, the student didn’t fail to meet the competency. It just means that together, they haven’t reached it yet.

Then you have the chance to find the missing piece. Again, that’s really focusing more on the relationship with the student than it is on just a lesson plan. You really get to focus on what actually matters and what will get the student to where they need to be.

How do you view the relationship between technology and competency-based education, especially in your new role here at Motivis Learning?

I see technology as a framework. Even in a traditional, brick-and-mortar school setting, software can help you lay out the competencies. Even if you’re not building a virtual classroom, the software can create a biology course that ties competencies and performance indicators together, and then every biology teacher is viewing the same thing. It just helps build these connections, which can be a lot of work.

It’s great, because competencies can be tied to content, whether it’s virtual or in a traditional classroom. It lends itself to project-based learning, and give students more freedom to meet those competencies. And the software can also be used to support portfolios, so then at the end of the academic career, a student can view—and show—everything they did. It’s all there, with analytics to show the student’s progress. There’s not a lot of software that does that right now.
So how can educators leverage technology in order to support their students and help them succeed?

I’ve never been an advocate for using technology for technology’s sake. Unfortunately, I think you see that a lot. Schools receive a grant and use it to buy 20 iPads for classrooms, which is great. Except, well, what are they doing with them? How are they helping students achieve? What’s the plan?

At one school, we had SMARTboards, which was great, you can do so many awesome interactive things with them. But the teachers weren’t trained on how to use them, so they ended up just taking up space.

Technology can definitely help. Especially in a controlled environment where students can build up their portfolios, educators can build up the activities, and technology can be used for enhanced communication and collaboration. It can be a great place to keep and achieve all of that.The important thing is that schools use technology to the betterment of student learning.