Is competency-based education an idea whose time has come?

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Some call for educational innovation. Others realize it.

I guess no educational innovator has had a greater impact than Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University or Scott Pulsipher of Western Governors University. With over 135,000 students each, their institutions dominate online learning.

If you want to know why, you might want to read LeBlanc’s 2021 manifesto, Putting Students First: Equity, Access and Opportunity in Higher Education.

The book contains mentions that any author would die for:

From Arne Duncan, former US Secretary of Education: “A must-read for anyone who wants higher education to work again for everyone, not just the privileged.

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education and former undersecretary of education, calls LeBlanc a “national treasure” and writes, “If you only read one book on American higher education, read this one. -this”.

Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, describes LeBlanc as “the leading innovator in American higher education today.”

Why, you might well ask, these luminaries and a host of others, including U.S. Senator Michael Bennett, former Teachers College President Arthur Levine, MIT President L. Rafael Reif, and former New Hampshire Governor and now Senator Maggie Hassan, lavish such hearty praise on a book with only 168 pages of relatively large text?

Because LeBlanc offers a relatively inexpensive formula for extending something like a college education to groups of Americans that traditional colleges and universities poorly serve: working adults, caregivers, veterans, college dropouts, immigrants newer students and those from low-income backgrounds who don’t have the time or money to attend a residential campus.

The words that pepper the book’s blurb – “practical”, “pragmatic”, “realistic” and “sensible” – reflect an Obama-era liberal outlook that seeks “tried and tested” remedies to current justice problems. mobility, economic mobility and a quiet civil society based not on ‘glittering promises’ but on ‘hard-won experience’.

Today, Obama-era liberalism is under attack from right and left. Many find him too docile, too progressive, too modest. But it certainly deserves respect, especially when it comes to education. It offers the prospect of defining common ground between those who fear the loss of rigor, accountability and high standards and those who rightly believe that the current system is not sensitive enough to biases, inequalities and needs of those many Americans who are impeded by time constraints and the costs of gateways to social mobility.

It’s easy, too easy, to criticize the pedagogical approach LeBlanc favors — asynchronous, self-paced, skills-based online learning — as too narrow, insufficiently interactive, and too professional. But the alternatives – short-term vocational training programs and two- and four-year college models ill-suited to the lives and needs of those who must juggle an education and other time constraints – have not caught on. evidence from populations that target New Hampshire’s southern and western governors.

The fact is, many non-traditional students need an affordable, realistic, and, yes, flexible, accelerated path to secure, well-paying employment.

Yet the solution LeBlanc favors bears a striking and unsettling resemblance to the discredited educational model championed by for-profit universities.

So what is LeBlanc’s argument in a nutshell? That the most pressing task facing higher education is to expand opportunities for Americans who cannot afford to attend a residential campus for four or more years. As he observes, despite a quarter-century of effort, graduation for those in the lowest income quartile has barely budged, even though graduation rates have increased for those in the other three quartiles. .

Today’s higher education system, he argues, is ill-equipped to serve the fastest growing populations of students: those who come from low-income backgrounds and who received uneven preparation in high school; those who attend college part-time, whirl around multiple institutions, move in and out of college, and juggle study with work and family responsibilities.

As an alternative, he champions a competency-based approach that replaces the focus on credit hours and grades with demonstrated mastery of essential knowledge and skills. Such an approach, he explains, has several virtues:

  • It allows students to enter and leave the college and from one institution to another without loss of credits.
  • It recognizes learning that takes place outside the classroom, for example, in the military or in the labor market.
  • It supports the accumulation of non-degree certificates and certifications which can be stacked into degrees.
  • It substitutes verified skills for grades; whether or not a student demonstrates competence.

A competency-based approach gives time-poor students greater flexibility because it doesn’t need to be anchored to a rigid schedule or physical campus.

A competency-based approach also promises to transform accreditation. Instead of focusing on inputs – such as the size of an institution’s endowment, the percentage of faculty with PhDs, or the student-faculty ratio – accreditors would be encouraged to concern themselves with outcomes, including the jobs graduates get and their post-graduation earnings.

As LeBlanc rightly observes, the current system contains “perverse incentives and skewed priorities.” Instead of focusing on access, affordability, equity, graduation, and post-graduation employment outcomes, institutions tend to focus on rankings, status and growth. This helps explain the “overfocus on intercollegiate athletics,” an “arms race” for facilities, a shift from need-based to merit-based financial aid, and the growing emphasis on research at the expense of teaching.

To better serve non-traditional students, institutions need to place more emphasis on affordability, flexibility, convenience, and applied learning.

LeBlanc’s book does not call for an abrupt or general shift to a competency-based approach. It simply asks that the federal government support various demonstration projects. But he argues that a healthy learning ecosystem, like a healthy natural environment, requires diversity and variety, and that expanded access to skills-based programs would give many adults a path to a life-changing education. .

A competency-based approach is not free from criticism. In practice, competency-based programs tend to reinforce the stratification of the higher education landscape. These programs typically channel students from low-income backgrounds into a narrow range of career offerings. Even more disturbing, like Robert Shireman arguedthe focus on outcomes of competency-based education, coupled with its implicit goal of accelerating time to completion, may well have the effect of eliminating much of what makes a college education, including intensive interaction with PhDs and their peers.

Competency-based programs are difficult to implement. On the one hand, they require faculty to identify the learning objectives of a particular program or course at a granular or atomic level. Then, faculty should design lessons and activities to bring students to skills and assessments that can assess whether or not they have achieved mastery of the appropriate processes, procedures, and skills.

An even greater challenge than program design and development is overcoming the legal and policy barriers to adopting a non-credit hours approach. For example, federal financial aid policies should be overhauled to ensure bad actors do not exploit competency-based approaches.

In my opinion, conventional colleges and universities have a lot to learn from competency-based education. Indeed, I believe that all programs, whether credit-hour or competency-based, should:

  1. Specify what they expect students to know and be able to do after graduation.
  2. Be able to explain how they know if students have achieved these skills.
  3. Consider adopting performance-based and project-based assessments that would require students to demonstrate mastery of essential knowledge, skills, and competencies. These types of assessments have some advantages: they can help instructors monitor commitment, motivation, perseverance, and courage in a way that lecture notes do not and are not as vulnerable to cheating as many standard assessments.
  4. Enable students to earn non-degree credentials that represent a set of skills or competencies that are valuable in the job market.

Competency-based education is certainly not a panacea. It can be abused, especially if evaluation standards are too lax. But it redirects our attention to students with the greatest needs and provides an approach that can help lead time-pressed students toward a brighter future.

At the end of his book, LeBlanc writes, “If we want to fix a broken America, we cannot afford to waste the talent and intelligence that abounds in our poorest communities, our rural towns, and our struggling urban neighborhoods. served. I am okay.

We need to create as many pathways to economic opportunity as possible, and the programs offered by SNHU and WGU open doors that for many low-income students would otherwise be closed.

But let’s not forget the words attributed to Euclid: “There is no royal road to geometry. The best education we can provide is neither the fastest nor the cheapest. It is an education that involves frequent and substantial interaction with classmates and a scholar. It also provides access to an extensive program and to laboratories, libraries, studios, performance halls and extracurricular activities. This type of education does not come cheap. But if we truly believe in fairness, we, as a society, must pay the price.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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