With competency-based learning making national headlines, many educators are eager to implement this new learning style. Early adopters have already demonstrated that competency based education (CBE) has extraordinary potential for all types of learners, from those in trade school to business programs to the fine arts.
But CBE programs are not simple to design and establish, and many universities that consider it are facing years of planning.
The good news is that it is possible to move in that direction now with a walk-before-you-run mindset. And the first steps toward implementing CBE may be using a skills graph in individual courses and programs. That’s because a skills graph shares with CBE a focus on defined objectives.
A quick refresher: CBE is an evidence-based method of learning that requires proficiency in particular abilities instead of satisfaction of a number of course hours. It often involves sophisticated software with courses that focus on “mastery of specific knowledge and skills . . . via exams, portfolios, and projects.”
CBE is self-paced, allowing highly motivated students to advance quickly while allowing students who move slower to practice certain skills repeatedly before they move onto more complex modules. The financial model may be subscription-based instead of using a fixed fee based on course hours.
Many acknowledge that CBE is great for vocational training or technical learning (for example, practicing working with mathematical formulas or memorizing facts), but CBE has plenty of dissidents. Some worry about the shift from lecture hall-style teaching to individualized coaching and the scalability problems that come with this. Others muse that CBE widens the gap between “those who need a thorough, content-centered liberal education and those who only need a light, fast and vocation-friendly version.” In other words, the assumption remains that CBE is too complicated for liberal arts.
However, evidence shows that CBE may, in time, enhance liberal arts programs as long as higher ed implements CBE strategically. Northern Arizona University has already successfully implemented a CBE liberal arts program, paving the way for other institutions to create personalized programs in a variety of fields.
Moving the conversation forward
The question for institutions who are interested but hesitant to give CBE a try is this: how can you move past the uncertainty of implementing a new technology, in order to improve learning outcomes and gain a competitive edge in the market?
“The key is to commit to the rigor of defining clearly the competencies,” writes Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christenson Institute, in a 2015 Competency Works article. He argues that identifying learning objectives and building CBE assessments and curricula would make learning more meaningful in just about every learning context.
A skills graph is a planning tool Acrobatiq’s analytics engine relies on that and that builds from clear learning objectives to measure mastery of skills. It creates a very close alignment between the goals of the course and the content, activities, and assessment.
After each learning objective for a course has been defined on a skills graph, the next step is to connect tasks from these objectives. Each task is labeled with corresponding skills, which enables the software to “map out” a student’s progress on a particular objective.
For instance, an objective might be “students will be able to find the cosine of a triangle,” or “learners will be able to define the four core values of XYZ corporation.” Then each activity the student completes is labeled with one or more skills, so as the student works, the software collects and analyzes data that tailors the learning process to their own strengths and weaknesses.
A skills graph is simple to build in a well-designed course authoring tool. Meanwhile, under the hood, Acrobatiq’s sophisticated predictive analytics software is using the skills graph and observations of student practice to understand where and how progress is being made. Each learning objective has its own learning curve, tailored to adhere to the power law of learning. This is a proven concept that students make rapid gains when first learning a new concept, and additional gains taper off over time, requiring more repetition of a skill to gain additional mastery. The skills graph integrates this concept of change in learning over time, giving students adaptive practice sessions that grow at their own pace.
For example, if a learning objective is to know and understand each of the ten amendments within the United States Bill of Rights, one task might be to identify an example of the first amendment in action from a multiple choice list. Within the software, this task might be labeled “first amendment,” and if a student completes it correctly, the software is signaled that the student has made progress on this particular part of an objective.
Competency-based learning is full of possibilities for institutions ready to put it in place for learners. Getting there is a long road, but in the meantime, innovative faculty and institutions can start the first steps by integrating an objectives-based skills graph in their courses.
Amanda Marie is Colorado Springs-based writer specializing in education, parenting, and health.