Are Some Learning Pathways Superior to Others? Why this Matters for #CBE

Are some learning pathways superior to others? When it comes to competency-based education (CBE), people point to personalized pathways as an affordance of this approach. Many traditional teaching and learning contexts have prescribed pathways toward reaching a given learning objective, one established, guided and controlled by the teacher. Everyone goes on the same pathway together, led by the teacher. CBE leaves greater room for the possibility that different learners will go on different journeys toward demonstrating competence. A learner with significant prior knowledge might be able to take a shorter pathway to competence than someone new to the field. One learner might opt for more practice exercises, more readings, more one-on-one coaching sessions, or a variety of real-world experiences intended to help one make progress toward competence. One learner might need one or two laps around the track, while another might need twenty before reaching competence.

This is, from my perspective, a core affordance of competency-based education. Once we are able to articulate with clarity what it means to be competent, then we are well-positioned to start thinking about multiple learning pathways to that single destination. Yet, this is far from a universally accepted understanding of education for several reasons. One reason is that some pathways are deemed superior to others even in the absence of solid data to support such claims. A second is because critics are often concerned about trying to reduce learning to a discrete list of competencies. That risks of losing the forest by chopping down all the educational trees and placing them in nicely organized piles. Yes, there is a qualitative difference between a forest and a lumber yard. Critics argue that CBE often ignores such distinctions. Another is that CBE seems to unbundle or strip learning from social interaction, community, and a culture of learning that some value as much as they do any demonstrable outcomes of the experience.

Yet, as I look at the types of assessments and requirements established in a growing number of competency-based education programs in the United States, I often see as many limitations on learning pathways as I do in traditional learning contexts. Schools are prescribing the pathways that people must take to demonstrate competence with a level of detail that makes it resemble the traditional methods. They often do it in the name of scalability and efficiency. For example, if you are in a CBE MBA program, you can’t necessarily demonstrate your competence in financial analyses of businesses in multiple ways. You must do so in the form of an established business simulation. The simulation is the assessment, but it also becomes a significant part of the learning process…the pathway. Students might take varying levels of time to prepare for the simulation. They might leverage slightly different readings in preparation. Yet, many end up on the same general learning pathway.

Not all pathways are equal. This comes back to something that I repeat often, that education is not just about measurable results, data and evidence. It is also about deeply held beliefs, values and philosophies of education. Educators don’t choose one learning pathway for others over another because they have carefully analyzed pools of learning data and decided that this pathway is objectively superior to others. Some might do it that way, but that is in the minority. Most do it because they prefer, value or are attached to certain pathways (and some take offense at being forced to defend and articulate their reasons for a given pathways). They often can’t fully articulate why learners should follow the learning pathway that the instructor has established. They just believe that it is important, maybe even fundamental to the task at hand. “Learners need to learn and experience this in community,” we might argue. “You can’t truly grasp this through an online learning experience,” another might explain. “There is something important but intangible about doing this in small groups or a workshop,” yet another will defend. “Without work through these specific seminal works, the learners would be ill-educated on this topic”, the teacher points out.

Even as we witness the great unbundling of education, there are still many educators who reject the unbundling. Some never thought of their lessons in categories like learning objectives, learning pathways, and learning assessments (formative and summative). Some haven’t even thought of what they do in terms of lessons (especially in higher education). It was all just teaching and learning. It was content-driven, experiential, social, an art shaped by an autonomous artists known as a professor or teacher, a blend of these, or perhaps several other perspectives.

I suspect that this is why the debate around competency-based education remains tense at times, limited at others. The CBE conversation seems to be growing more slowly than some expected. It is a massive disconnect for many educators because it hardly resembles their careers and callings as they have understood them. They find it difficult to imagine losing the many qualitative benefits of what they do now and are perhaps offended (or frightened) by the claim that these competency-based education alternatives offer a comparable or equally valuable education to people. Not all pathways are equal and desirable. Even changing the pace of the pathway for different students is not agreed upon among educators. As such, if we are going to have a rich and valuable conversation about the affordances and limitations of CBE, perhaps we are wise to spend more time examining the role of learning pathways.

4 Replies to “Are Some Learning Pathways Superior to Others? Why this Matters for #CBE”

  1. Robert Columbia

    You mentioned that “I often see as many limitations…as I do in traditional learning contexts. Schools are prescribing the pathways…with a level of detail that makes it resemble the traditional methods.” I think that is a fair assessment.

    Western Governor’s University (WGU), the poster child of CBE, seems to have become a school where the ‘assessments’ are mostly the same ones that you would receive in a traditional degree program, with the difference being that the WGU assessments have no specific due dates and that failing assessments can be resubmitted for a better grade without penalty. Those are good ideas, but there could be so much more.

    A more aggressive CBE program, perhaps, could allow students to completely bypass lower-level assessments by challenging and completing a higher-level one. For example, a student in a thesis-based master’s CBE program who has (somehow) already written a thesis could proceed directly to the comprehensive exams and thesis defense competencies without being required to take seminars, a research methods class, or advanced coursework. If the student was an incompetent researcher, then they would not have been able to write a competent thesis. Of course, if the student’s ‘thesis’ turns out to be an incompetent, poorly researched waste of paper, then by all means the faculty should refuse to pass that student and should recommend that they go back and try first to master basic research methods, complete lower-level graduate competencies, etc. before trying a thesis again. Consider how the GED exams do not require the student to first take and pass kindergarten-level assessments before going on to the high-school level reading comprehension and algebra questions – the fact that the student can pass high-school level assessments is taken as an indication that they must have sufficiently mastered the kindergarten-level competencies. Imagine if that was not the case – literate candidates for the GED would first have to spend months, if not years, slowly working their way through ‘See Spot Run’, fingerpainting, show-and-tell, and hundreds of pages of progressively more difficult long division exams that are actually far below the student’s actual competencies. See Student Run indeed!

    I have been tempted myself to try to write a master’s thesis without the guidance of any faculty. While I am well aware that such an idea might be effectively setting myself up for failure in a practical sense, the lure of the theoretical challenge is a strong one. What makes this idea mostly a non-starter, however, is the practical fact that even if I wrote a competent thesis, there would likely be no-one willing to assess it and give me credit toward a degree.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      There is an alternative and it involves teaching people how to build a personal brand and reputation system apart from traditional credentials. This is a skill that must be learned if one is going to take full advantage of “uncredentialed” learning, and I’ve seen not investing the time and energy in developing this turn into bitterness and frustration for some self-directed learners.

      • Robert Columbia

        Thank you. Maybe you are right, but I have found that to be a hard thing to do. My personality leans strongly toward the introverted side, and sales (e.g. “selling yourself”) has never been an easy thing for me. One of my stretch dreams (which is somewhat in the clouds) for CBE is a system where I can go about my life and be continually assessed using summative evaluations and be “slapped” with credentials as soon as I pass critical benchmarks, possibly even before I realize that I have passed them. The “personal branding” model seems to be the opposite of that – that instead of being evaluated externally, I need to evaluate myself and then present a case as to why my learning ought to be considered equivalent to a formal credential. Do you know of any good resources on learning how to do that?

        • Bernard Bull Post author

          Understood. I do not think badges have widespread enough understanding for that to be as valuable as being able to “show your work” in ways that are quick and easy for prospective employers or people with whom you want to connect and collaborate. With some important exceptions, I am increasingly convinced that people with skill in showing their work will consistently have an advantage when it comes to employment and connections over people who are more focused on showing their credentials or other indirect evidence of what they can do. That is where badge “evidence” becomes so intriguing to me. Having three graduate degrees and a leadership title at a University certainly creates opportunities for me. However, the connections that I most value almost always come from people valuing my work, something that I did, they saw, and it intrigued or resonated with them in some way. Consider that I’ve had a B.A. two master’s degrees and a doctorate for almost a decade, but my opportunities for consulting took off when I starting sharing my ideas online in a public forum, when I started presenting and sharing those presentations, when I started writing, when I started leading open online courses, etc. Of course, there are exceptions to this, like in academia or professions with non-negotiable credentials required. For the rest of the world, a person really good at showing their work will sometimes garner far more possibilities and opportunities.

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