Last year, approximately 50 colleges and universities were in the process of becoming competency based. This year, over 600 schools are making the shift in higher ed. Competency-based learning is turning the world of education on its ear.

We now have the access and technological ability to connect with students beyond the limitations of typical brick and mortar classroom walls. Some people, particularly instructors in higher ed, are used to a traditional approach of seat time to measure learning and are weary of the changes that competency-based education (CBE) presents for the “disruption” of the post-secondary experience. But the reality is that we should be focused on the democratization of a model that is currently yielding low graduation rates with astronomically high student loan debt.

Colleges and universities must bridge traditional coursework with the new world of CBE in an effort to create an environment that supports quality education that is accessible to all students. As a nation, we recognize the ridiculous burden we are placing on college students as they graduate with enormous student loans in a system that allows for minimal transferability of credits. We are slow to rectify these problems because of legacy infrastructure and bureaucratic, legacy thinking.

Moving Beyond Our Fears

Four years ago, I wrote the following in my personal blog:

“The people who I would have thought to be most open to it [CBE] haven’t been. I know this a sweeping generalization, and I know there are amazing teachers doing incredible work—however, I see a lot of fear.”

I’m still encountering this fear today. Many educators fear that technology will somehow replace instructors—but the truth is that it’s just another tool in the toolbox. The goal should be to create better student interactions, not replace them with technology.

Transitioning through a Flexible, Hybrid Approach

Adaptable and Agile
Learning improvement Cycle – Adaptable and Agile

Part of alleviating educators’ fears is making sure that all parties involved know that CBE is not a light switch that flips on, on a specific date. The most successful schools will transition to this model over time. This transitional period will allow schools to address the challenges that are inherent in the self-paced CBE approach (financial, etc.) and that are scaring many educators away. These challenges can be overcome through careful planning, the correct tools, on-going evaluation and reassessment of progress. Just like students who are learning through CBE, as educators, we need to learn to be adaptable and agile as we make this shift.

Many schools will likely find success by transitioning through a hybrid educational model. There will be full CBE purists like College for America (CfA), but we can already see the model evolving into a flexible approach that incorporates what works best for the students. For example, students in a philosophy class will probably get a lot of value from being in a classroom and having lively discussions. However, for something like a capstone course where students have a year to research and master their specific topic, a CBE model might be a better fit.

This flexibility is going to be key in meeting individual student needs, and that means unbundling the traditional college experience. By offering individual songs for 99 cents, iTunes effectively “unbundled” the album. Similarly, why not allow students to buy individual classes wherever they want to buy them? Some may be online, CBE-based courses, some may be a traditional classroom, and some may be a mix of both.

Making the Necessary Shift in Mindset

One of the greatest lessons CBE embodies is that failure is okay. Students and teachers need to learn this mindset. When a child is learning to walk, and they fall, you don’t tell them, That’s the end of it. You failed at walking. You pick him up, give him feedback and encouragement and help him start again.

Beyond eliminating the fear of failure in transitioning to CBE, deeper shifts in educational pedagogy need to happen for CBE success. There needs to be a comprehensive shift in how we think about assessing our students. To develop a learning environment that is personalized and individualized and meets industry demands for skilled employees, educators need to ensure that they are providing real-world, applicable learning experiences that engage the learner.

Schools Can Learn from Businesses

My field experience at both CfA and Motivis Learning opened my eyes to the fact that schools would do well to take a few lessons from businesses in order to successfully shift from a traditional seat-time model to CBE. In business, large-scale changes to the way the company is run must come from the top—the board, the CEO and other senior leadership must all be bought-in for success. Wholesale change like the transition to CBE must also be passed from the top down within the organization. With Motivis, I’ve worked with pockets of innovators within larger educational institutions that were motivated to make the transition—but these situations rarely result in success. If we don’t have buy-in and enthusiasm from a dean or president, transitioning to CBE will be an uphill battle.

Schools would also do well to employ professionals like business analysts to say: These are our goals, and these are the steps we need to take to meet these goals. Project managers would also be helpful in keeping people focused on and moving toward the goal rather than getting hung up on specific pieces.

I will say it again: moving to CBE does not have to be an overnight switch. There will be a time you live in both worlds while you roll it out little by little. It needs to be flexible and agile. I can tell you what works for 50 or 100 students in a pilot may not be what works for 2,000 or 3,000 students. Course correction is all part of the process and should be embraced—project managers would help everyone stay on track throughout. There is a saying that software is never done, that same thing should apply to all fields, including education.

That’s the way it has always been done is the worst thing you can hear someone say when you are trying to enact change. We should always be looking to make improvements.

A Shift in Tools is Also Necessary

Without an appropriate technology to help instructors manage students’ learning in an anytime, anywhere, any pace environment, the move to CBE will not be authentic. Typical student information systems and learning management systems do not allow us to effectively monitor progress towards competency mastery through real-time feedback, mentoring and coaching. For successful implementation of CBE, educators need something more agile that can scale and flex and help them properly monitor student progress, access student data and help foster dynamic learning relationships. The value of a true Learning Relationship Management platform that can be uniquely tailored to a specific organization’s needs cannot be underestimated in CBE success.

No More Legacy Thinking

I recently came across a tweet that said: How can we make this amazing and flexible thing rigid and ugly? We want to make it into what we already know.

Let’s not do that to competency-based learning. Let’s not bastardize a great movement just so it can fit into what we already know. Let’s not listen to naysayers knock CBE because they don’t understand its power or just want to keep going along with the status quo—we can’t afford that. I get tired of seeing the same folks knock change while never providing solutions.

It’s time to disrupt the legacy thinking and legacy infrastructure and bring the focus to helping our students and our educators achieve their goals. Creating a competency-based model for instruction is not easy, but it is essential for a more meaningful, individualized learning experience that enables students to learn at their own pace, on their own terms—and that actually results in useful, marketable skills. Having students that are not afraid to fail in their learning is a game changer in the world of education and beyond. Imagine what impact that will eventually have on our workforce.

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