6 Competency-based Education Risks

Note: This article assumes a basic understanding of CBE. For a primer, read this article.

Competency-based education is a promising practice in education, but it is not without risks. While being a firm advocate, I am also not one to argue that all good education should go the way of CBE. It is not the perfect fit for every educational purpose or learner. Even within CBE, there are different ways to approach it. With that in mind, here are six limitations (or at least risks) that I see with some current approaches.

Juggling One Ball

Have you ever seen someone juggle one ball. Stop reading for a moment, find an unbreakable item and try it. Or maybe you want to imagine it. It doesn’t take much to notice that there is something underwhelming about juggling a single item. The magic happens when you have three items. Pay close attention to a person juggling three and you will discover a secret. There is only one item in the air at a time, but it is far more interesting than juggling a single item. It takes multiple items being juggled at the same time before we see the magic.

This is sometimes true for learning something new. Some approaches to competency-based education focus upon breaking everything down into discrete elements. In doing so, the learning experience can feel like juggling one ball. It loses the magic. Mixing metaphors, it sometimes misses out on the chance to harmonize several ideas or new concepts. Sometimes it is best to master one discrete skill or idea at a time. At other times, putting them together in a learning experience is the better option.

CBE doesn’t have to be about juggling one ball. Thoughtful and creative instructional design can keep the magic.

 Academic Dictatorship / Limited Room for Self-Direction

CBE is usually about pre-established competencies upon which everything else is built. It is powerful in that there is space to personalize learning pathways. However, most CBE approaches have prescribed competencies and assessments. This has benefits, but there is a downside.

The best way I can think to explain it is through a recent experience. I was thinking about pursuing a MBA. I requested information from eight or nine schools. I contacted three schools about their executive MBA. I looked at a couple of the top ranked programs in the country. I also looked at a few online and low residency programs, including an MBA at one of the most well-known CBE online Universities in the United States. I read about the different schools and focused my interest on three of them, requesting a chance to talk to an admissions counselor. I explained that I wanted to pursue a MBA with the goal if deepening my knowledge and skill around social entrepreneurship. None of these top three programs has a specialization in that topic, but contacts from two of the three programs said there is flexibility within the courses that allow students to choose papers and projects to match their goals and interests. That wasn’t the case with the CBE school. They explained that all the assessments are pre-developed to align closely with the competencies. You don’t get flexibility with these assessments. In other words, I couldn’t focus on applying my skills to social entrepreneurship if I were to pursue that program.

As with all these critiques, it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to design assessments in a competency model where students have choice on the context and focus of their work, especially when you blend competency-based education with student-directed project-based learning.

Culture of Earning

CBE programs are carefully planed and the pathway to learning something new is often flexible. Yet, there tends to be an emphasis upon proving that you met the competency. Without careful planning, students can feel like the program is about jumping through academic hoops. Complete the assessment at an adequate level and move on. This can help with clarity and motivation for students. It can also promote a culture of earning over a culture of learning, making the program almost exclusively about meeting targets and going on tot the next task. CBE doesn’t have to be this way, but watch out for it.

The Measurable Matters More

Humanities teachers are sometimes the first to point out this limitation. Some of the most important things learned are not easily measured. Yet, CBE has a way of dwelling on that which can be documented and measured. This takes away from messy learning, from unexpected “aha” moments, from the immeasurable, unexpected and serendipitous learning that takes place in some lessons that are less focused on competencies and assessments.

No Time for Critical Sinking

The first time I used the phrase “critical sinking” it was a typo. I meant to write thinking, but sinking showed up on the screen. Staring at that typo, I decided to leave it because it represents and important part of learning. Critical sinking is about reflection, meditating on an idea, letting it “sink” in, grappling with the same thing for days, weeks, months or years. CBE can help with this because many programs allow for variable timeframes. One student spends a week before completing the assessment for a competency and another spends a month. There is also a limitation. First, showing your competence after a week doesn’t mean that you will remember it in a month or six months. Time, depth, even over-learning helps with that; and these can be bypassed in a “pass it and move on” approach to CBE. Second, some CBE programs charge by time. You can progress as quickly as you want, but you pay a subscription for three or six months at a time. That motivates you to move through the program as quickly as possible. There is a financial incentive to get done quickly. That means that it costs more to take your time, reflect on things for a few weeks, or to dig deeper into a topic of personal interest. CBE approaches can, if we are not careful, discourage the powerful practice of critical sinking.

As I said at the beginning, these are not true and universal limitations of CBE. They are just risks, risks that can be avoided with careful planning. Or maybe they don’t always have to be avoided. Maybe it is about acknowledging the limits and recognizing that CBE is not always the best fit for every situation or learner.

Posted in blog, competency-based education, education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).