Competency-based learning is the “real thing”; not merely hype. Unlike so many other innovations in higher ed – technologies that might work and projects that never really get off the ground - CBE is an honest-to-goodness instructional model with deep roots in higher ed. And its benefits are relatively clear: it incorporates prior learning assessment (indirectly through self-paced learning or directly through credential recognition) and offers a framework for measuring the value of programs. It works especially well for adults returning to school to complete programs of study, and it has the potential to reduce costs for students, institutions, and taxpayers by shortening the time to completion. Not too shabby.
Sure, we’re still working through the details. Large scale implementation of CBE in traditional institutions will take time and regulators have a lot work ahead of them to position CBE with respect to accreditation and loans. But the numbers are staggering; as reported by IHE, roughly 600 US colleges in 2015 are in the design stage of CBE initiatives, compared to 52 last year. Five years out, we can expect CBE to be a significant part of the digital higher education landscape in North America.
Let’s take a quick step back, though, and consider how CBE fits into other broad trends in higher education.
A shift of power from institutions to students . . .
In most versions of CBE students are empowered to proceed at their own pace through courses and programs. The student, not the institution determines the pace and, as CBE becomes even more flexible, the path of learning. Similarly, it matters less, if at all, where and how a student acquired the knowledge and skills they bring to the table.
William Durden interprets this as part of a larger trend in which students become the focal point of the education system:
“Students might well now believe that they are the centre of all activity – to include education – and that they are both the sole focus and the drivers of learning. All instructional efforts exist for the purpose of fulfilling their desires.”
This vision may send chills up the spine of more than a few academics (and parents). But the situation is not entirely dire. The change also reflects the long held desire to see students at the centre of the educational experience, acting as self-directed and self-empowered agents on their own behalf.
The rise of team-based course design . . .
CBE courses and programs require a more systematic, team-based and labour intensive approach to course development – there’s no winging it. It contrasts sharply with the common approach to course development in which the lone instructor, setting aside 40 or so hours, assumes the bulk of responsibility for designing and developing the online materials. Learning objectives, instructional activities and assessments need to clearly defined and fully aligned. Building a sufficient number of activities, assessments (both summative and formative), and feedback (ideally, generated in real-time) requires longer development schedules and the skills of a broad range of educational professionals. For CBE, instructors need to move into a different role: they should serve, to use the language of film-making, as “producers”charged with defining the overall vision for the course and ensuring its realized.
We’re seeing the same trend elsewhere. A handful of institutions in North America are experimenting with new approaches that more fully leverage technology and its ability, for example, to personalize learning through adaptive software, engage learners through high-quality instructional media, use principles from games to stimulate retention, and automate feedback to increase retention.
Rise of (truly) educational software . . .
One of the great ironies of digital higher education is that the dominant educational technology, the LMS, isn’t particularly “educational”. The LMS serves many important purposes in our institutions, but its’ impact on instructional design is intentionally limited. The systems are designed to allow individual educators to create, manage, and deliver their own courses, but it does this in an “instructionally agnostic” fashion. The LMS is an empty vessel in which educators can upload what they wish - good or bad, simple or complex. The software stores and distributes the curriculum, but there’s little meaningful interaction between the two. We could just as easily upload dinner recipes - the software would have as much impact on it as it does on curriculum.
Competency based learning is perfectly suited to take greater advantage of software’s capabilities. Adaptive learning software and learning analytics will play a particularly big role. These technologies allows us to estimate the student’s grasp of the curriculum and adjust the experience to meet their particular needs.
This shift to truly educational software can be seen elsewhere in digital higher ed, too: more technologies are being developed that are based on our understanding of what really drives learning; they embody and enforce good instructional practices. It leverages the software to meet educational objectives.
We’ll be watching.