A student-driven answer to why competency-based learning matters

Here’s a BIG question facing higher education today: What changes must be made for students to have a coherent + goal focused educational experience? Because frankly, for far too many students today, the experience is neither coherent nor goal focused. 

After years studying the student experience in higher education, I've learned that many students consistently struggle to:

1. Be mindful, planful and self-actualize
2. Understand the true value of the degree
3. Connect coursework to the real world
4. Map their experience to future success
5. Articulate skills and competencies earned

Shouldn't these be the struggles that are overcome through higher education and degree attainment?

When we think about creating a new student experience, one potential answer to these struggles is competency-based learning (CBL). In a nutshell, CBL moves higher education away from focusing on what academics and educational institutions believe graduates need to know (faculty-driven) to what students need to know and be able to do in varying and complex situations (student-centered, workforce-oriented). It begs the questions, what would happen if we re-designed curricula to emphasize cognitive skills and competencies rather than academic content? Or, what if we favored competence as an organizing principle for programs of study?  

Here’s the kicker. CBL is not new. In fact, the concept has been around for decades. However despite its proven effectiveness, early innovators couldn’t figure out a way to scale it for three very good reasons:

  1. Competencies are fluid and dynamic and require different bundles of skills and knowledge within different contexts - i.e. there is no "end point" or out-of-the-box solutions. Competencies are earned in numerous and ever-evolving ways.
  2. Varied learning experiences need to be designed to support students as they practice using and applying competencies in different contexts;
  3. It often necessitates complex assessments involving portfolios, experiential learning assessment in field experience, and demonstrations in varying contexts.

Why is CBL finally ready for primetime? Technology for one. And poor degree attainment rates for another.

Yet for higher education institutions looking to consider CBL, I urge for ongoing model experimentation and innovation. Because competency-based learning is a process and not a product.

Southern New Hampshire University applied the process to create College for America's competency-based associate's degree program. Big Picture Company applied the process to create College Unbound.  Western Governors University was also created through application of the process. Yet none of these models represent the one answer for all students.

BIF's Student Experience Lab spent much of 2012 prototyping and testing the online student experience for College For America. We learned a lot about why competency-based learning matters for students. When done right, it offers students the opportunity to apply what they know to problems with no singular answer. And it acts as a way-finder for students to figure out who they are, what they can do and where they need to improve or grow. It’s the counter-balance to our current pipeline approach to education because it provides wide and varied pathways to knowledge and skill attainment.

As more and more higher education institutions consider CBL as process rather than product, we should be in a great position to see numerous models and programs emerge. And perhaps overcome, what philosopher Roberto Unger's describes as the "dictatorship of no alternatives." Amen to that because it's exactly what students need to succeed and thrive today.

P.S. If you want to hear how SNHU pulled off this potentially major disruption to not only higher education but also their own business model, don't miss president Paul LeBlanc share his story at the #BIF9 Summit.

What's happening at BIF? Get updates by email.