Online Learning

What is competency-based education? 10 Facts about this online learning model

Competency-Based Education Facts 

Competency based education (CBE) is rising to the top headlines in both nontraditional and traditional higher education news. But what is this learning modality all about and what are the core benefits of the program? Here are 10 important facts about CBE and what it means for the future of academia.

10 Facts about competency-based programs

#1 - It's all about mastery

CBE allows students move forward in their course work by demonstrating concrete abilities, or proving that they have mastered the knowledge and skills required for a particular course. The model is student centered and can recognize prior education that may have been gained outside of formal instruction, regardless of where, when and how that learning took place. Instead of assigning letter grades based on performance, CBE shifts traditional academia to emphasize frequent, meaningful feedback that empowers people to take more responsibility for learning.

#2 - It's self-paced

In traditional college and university environments, students advance through their selected academic programs by spending a certain amount of time in brick and mortar classrooms. CBE programs break this standard by measuring learning rather than seat time.

Historically, college courses last about four months, and students may progress only after they have listened to lectures and completed necessary assignments with a letter grade that reflects higher than a F. When students learn in competency-based environments, they are able to set their own pace to completion. Of course depending on the person this time line may vary, but for those who are particularly motivated or have a lot of professional experience, a competency-based program can speed up the time to graduation.

Take the long-time financial services professional who wants to go back to school to finish a bachelor’s degree in business for example. Understanding financial and accounting principles is required in any business environment. This person may have already acquired the expertise in his or her career to pass these courses with flying colors. Instead of spending months attending class for hours a week, in a CBE program the financial professional can pass these classes in a single day as long as mastery is demonstrated. 

#3 - It teaches real-world skills

“Only 11% of business leaders strongly agree graduating students have the skills and competencies that their businesses need.” This is an alarming statistic, especially when juxtaposed with the statement that “96% of Chief Academic Officers believe their college graduates are ready for the workforce.” This is a drastic gap in perceptions that needs to be addressed. 

One proposed way to solve this problem is by implementing CBE methods. Institutions that are committed to the model are working directly with industry leaders to build curriculum competencies around the skills required in today’s workforce. The programs prepare students for professional careers at every level of education and provide employers with the confidence of knowing that their new hires can perform effectively.

#4 - Assessments are key

The entire CBE approach is based on student assessments. Traditional universities do this of course in the form of standard assignments and periodic exams, but he difference with this new model is the idea of adapted learning. Assessments provide insights into what students already know, what they still need to learn, and identifies where improvement is possible. Once a personal baseline is established, adaptive learning allows curriculum to be customized to fill in the gaps and study the concepts that may require more studies in order to fully comprehend.

All of the assessments conducted through technological advancements naturally yield a massive amount of student performance metrics. When we dig deeper into the idea of adaptive learning we find that the systems themselves are designed to provide insights such as:

  • Intelligent analysis of a student’s solutions
  • Interactive problem solving support
  • Curriculum sequencing
  • Multiple learning experiences
  • Customized presentation and pace

These are just a few of many benefits of collecting information based on student metrics. Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart published a white paper that digs deeper into the benefits of big data in education. Read the full report: The Future of Learning: Personalized, Adaptive and Competency-Based.

#5 - It leverages technology

When it comes to actually implementing assessments, computer-based testing is most effective in diagnostics and personalized learning. Technology also allows students and teachers to utilize features such as adaptive learning, gamification, data analytics and real-world simulations throughout course work. Many platforms, like the one at University of Massachusetts Global, use sophisticated tracking and faculty dashboards to help monitor student progress which adds another layer of personalized learning. 

#6 - It drives affordability and accessibility

CBE is part of a plan initiated by the White House to make college more affordable. The President’s Fact Sheet on the matter pointed out that according to College Board and Census data, “the average tuition at a public four-year college has increased by more than 250% over the past three decades, while incomes for typical families grow by only 16%.”

The government identified three ways to promote affordability including paying for performance, promoting innovation and competition, and ensuring student debt remains reasonable. CBE programs aim to consolidate all of these objectives by providing an all in one platform for learning. Since learning is based on ability rather than time, the money that is traditionally spent on retaking credit hours at a traditional university can be eliminated in a day’s time by simply passing a required competency assessment.

We all know from personal experience that market demand and competition are powerful forces in social development. In the case of higher education it’s only logical to find that as programs become more affordable, more people will be able to access them. This was a primary factor that drove popularity of massive open online classes (MOOCs) and other virtual learning environments. CBE follows suit by expanding opportunities for middle class workers and beyond to develop their personal skills for success.

#7 - It's part of the big picture

Some may argue that although the idea of eliminating the measurement of seat time is intended to be a positive shift, the traditional education will never fully pass away. The Association of American Colleges and Universities points out the need for a balance between CBE and customary models stating, “Competency-based education can improve the quality of college education by helping colleges and disciplines identify some of the specific skills and knowledge that they want their graduates to exhibit, but it will always be part of the overall picture.” Just like a computer science degree is not the best fit for a literary prodigy to pursue a competency based degree is not suited for everyone. There will always be a balance between traditional and nontraditional education, but it is important to have options to adapt to individual needs.

#8 - It changes the faculty role

Some speculate the true value of independent study with its absence of direct instructor interaction. But this skills based model is far more robust than individual isolated education. Instead, CBE programs create efficiencies in teaching by augmenting online learning with on-demand guidance from faculty mentors. This completely changes the role of the formal image of a talking head lecturing in front of a massive auditorium filled with passive listeners. Instead adaptive learning allows teachers to use data to identify the areas that students need the most support and in turn students can reach out to instructors when they require hands-on learning. The platform fosters total engagement with the curriculum with faculty members working with students directly, guiding learning, answering questions, and helping them synthesize knowledge with application.

#9 - It's not just for higher education

CBE programs are currently being explored and implemented at all levels of education. The state of Kentucky for example was awarded a technical assistance grant on “Awarding Credit to Support Student Learning” by the National Governor’s Association (NGA). The purpose of this program was to encourage the exploration of educational policies and practices related to awarding credit based on competency or mastery in the K-12 system. One example of implementing CBE programs is represented at East Jassamine High School and in the Taylor County Public Schools where each student was given an iPad to take home and learn content. Students illustrate pace-based instruction when “homework” was done during class time, while teachers circulated to help them wherever they may be in the learning process. Since then, the Kentucky Department of Education has adopted the Kentucky Competency Education and Assessment Consortium to help drive the initiative on a state-wide level. 

#10 - It's an international initiative

As with many revolutionary concepts, CBE programs are popping up in the global marketplace including Asia Society which stated, “to any globally minded teacher, it quickly becomes obvious that traditional assessment practices — both classroom-based and large-scale measures — are inadequate to support the complex mix of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that comprise global competence.” In fact the society’s International Studies Schools Network is designing project and inquiry based learning experiences in and out of the classroom by implementing systems of performance based assessment and establishing proficiency based credits.

Are you ready for self-paced learning?

Now that you have an understanding of what competency-based education is all about, you might consider if it's right for your goals and lifestyle. Dig deeper and find out what to expect from a CBE program, and visit the MyPath️ page to explore degree options. 



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