Competency-based Education: A Mission and Values-Driven Approach

Competency-based education continues to gain traction as a growing number of Universities are exploring it and we continue to see articles and blog posts build a public and collective conversation about the subject. I’d like to add an element to this conversation. It relates to our conception of what competency-based education looks like or should look like. As it stands, more people are trying out CBE by modeling themselves after a handful of groundbreakers. Benchmarking can be helpful, but rote imitation is no better than mindless memorization. We are wiser to innovate from a place of clarity and purpose; and that means starting with a clear mission, vision, set of values and goals. Instead of just doing what other competency-based education innovators are doing, each learning organization is wiser to start by looking inward before looking outward.

Allow me to give a personal example. When the team at my University decided to explore the possibilities of a competency-based approach to our graduate program in Educational Design and Technology, it did not start with researching SNHU, WGU or any other school. Yes, we were informed about their model and practices, but our focus was not, “How do we build another WGU?” We looks at the needs and goals of the learners that we currently served and aspired to serve. We examined the needs of those who do or might hire those students who go through our program. We considered the distinctives and core values of our University. We also candidly talked about the type of social good that we aspired to achieve through the program. Having worked through those questions, then we started selecting options for how to re-imagine things.

Yes, while we were doing all this formal and informal preparatory work, we were also experimenting with different innovations like digital badges, open education resources and textb00kless classes, different forms of assessment, and the like. Yet, none of these were technologies that we decided to use in advance. We wanted the tools that would enhance your mission, vision, values and goals. That meant imagining something completely different from any other competency-based program in the United States or beyond, as described in this past article.

For us, we wanted something that addressed a number of considerations. As such, the following list represents an important consideration or feature for us followed by how that impacted the design of a competency-based program that is uniquely focused upon project-based learning, mastery learning and personalized learning.

Desired Feature – The curriculum needed to be deeply practical and applied but rooted in great ideas and research.

Design Decision – Every assignment or assessment would have real-world relevance. It could be used or shared with people in a real world context and have or create value in that context. As such, traditional tests were out.

Desired Feature – Students learned by doing, and we wanted that doing to be as authentic and contextual as possible.

Design Decision – Whenever possible, students would learn from student-centered, project-based learning activities that also measured and documented student competence.

Desired Feature – Students should be able to recognize the discrete knowledge, skills and abilities that they were developing throughout the program.

Design Decision – The curriculum would be broken down into small and discrete competency-based digital badges that allowed students to see what they have learned and how they are progressing in the curriculum (learning journey).

Desired Feature – Students could demonstrate progressive competence to employers or others rather than relying upon abstractions like course grades, credits and a diploma.

Design Decision – Students would earn digital badges that include specific criteria that would have meaning in learning organizations. In addition, students would build a massive portfolio of work from which they could pull to demonstrate their knowledge and skill.

Desired Feature – Students would create evidence of their learning that could also be used to address real needs in their world or in different learning contexts and organizations.

Design Decision – While core competencies are universal in the program, there are elective competencies where students could specialize. In addition, students are able to demonstrate competence through projects that they personalize to address needs in one or more personally meaningful real world contexts. 

Desired Feature – There would be no “busy work” or effort extended by the students that was not connected to a real need in the education space.

Design Decision – Abandon the use of traditional papers, tests and assessments that resemble work that would only make sense in a classroom context. As much as possible, all student work and activities would have meaning and value even if it were done outside of a formal graduate program.

Desired Feature – Readings and learning activities would be personalized, allowing individual students to into readings that helped them progress toward program goals but also specialize in fields are areas related to their current or future work. In other words, a person aspiring to be an instructional designer in higher education and another in the same class interested in middle school teaching would have personalized reading lists and learning activities based upon these differences. 

Design Decision – In general, move away from a canonical approach to readings. Make sure students are exposed to core theories, people, and concepts and any seminal works; but apart from that, have a repository of readings from which students can select (and to which instructors/coaches can direct students) along their journey toward competence in a given area.

Desired Feature – Community and feedback is a value but it must not turn into a dictator. 

Desired Feature – Students should receive personalized coaching as they progress through the learning experience.

Design Decision – Apart from the required assessments for competencies and weekly group discussions, the instructor is not able to require standard activities for the entire class. Learning plans should be personalized. 

Desired Feature – Reflective practice needed to be nurtured and emphasized throughout the learning experience in order to develop increasingly effective reflective practitioners.

Desired Feature – Whenever possible, students should not be penalized for needing more practice, more feedback, or having less background knowledge than others in the class.

Design Decision – Apart from “grading” of weekly discussions, everything else will be built upon a mastery learning approach. Students can revise and resubmit as much as necessary to reach competence, granted that it is within the formal time period for the course.

Desired Feature – Scalable is nice but as long as it is financially viable, we will go with the model that best meets these other priorities.

Design Decision – We will not revert to objective tests and assessments just because they are scalable or achieve some sort of abstracted form of reliability and validity. It has to have meaning in the real world and produce a have a high level of confidence that the learning is transferable to real world contexts. 

Notice how our values and convictions led to the design of an entirely different approach to competency-based education than what we see in many schools today. That is because it was mission and value program and not a cookie cutter approach. I’m convinced that the broader CBE community could benefit from a larger dose of this approach. What do you think?

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.

3 thoughts on “Competency-based Education: A Mission and Values-Driven Approach

  1. Serge Ravet

    As I agree with the spirit of the post, I wonder whether it might be worthwhile to explore the power of Open Badges beyond “competency badges.” I won’t develop the danger of learning fragmentation into a series of meaningless sequences that poor “competency badges” could lead to — all the design principles you are eliciting are clear indicators that it is unlikely to happen in your context (but could happen in other!).

    Many different types of badges are possible, in term of contents (e.g. achievements, individual and collective) and value (like opening a door — I mean, literally!). Could we imagine a badging system where there would be no isomorphism between the standard and the badges (leading to static “pathways), where badges would make reference to the standard but not look like the graphical representation of the standard? An achievement badge could make reference to a number of competencies, not just one — good evidence generally cover more than one competency.

    Moreover, we should start thinking of badges more as the thingy people attach to their belts and use to open doors rather than the thingy sewn on sleeves to look good. When someone gets a badge, one should be able to do something with it one couldn’t do before, not just collect them with the (false) hope that they will be valuable to an employer. A badge shouldn’t so much tell what one has done, than offer something the person could do with it (this is not an invitation to poor sequencing like “finish this module, get a badge to access the next one”). It could provide a playlist of new (learning) activities, plan future (“those who have this badge have done this and this”), join a conversation (using badges as Twitter hashtags) etc. We could use badges to feedforward rather than simply feedback, open to the future rather than describe past performance. This would require to reflect on applications and services “consuming” badges — until now, we have been solely focused on “issuing” badges.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Intriguing indeed!

      You have noted a key limitation to competency-baed education, namely a propensity to cut down the forest and place everything in nicely labeled and categorized piles. The program that I helped create has that limitation, although we have worked to minimize its impact through a few design decisions.

      I find myself pondering how we can leverage badges that open doors but do not close them or restrict. Up to now I have been an advocate for badges that open access and opportunity but do not become the single pathway to opportunity.

      Your concepts of badges that feedforward and the need to attend more to consuming badges are both fascinating. I would love to hear/read more about both.

      • Serge Ravet

        When I was a child, good pupils would receive books as awards. Although I’m no fan of awards (and for that I approve of Alfie Kohn), unlike certificates pined on a wall to show off, books were an invitation to explore new horizons, trigger conversations and dreams.

        Badges should be more like book prizes than certificates pined on the (Facebook) wall. On a more pragmatic level, what would be a useful piece of information once one has received a badge, even a competency one, is: what can I do now that I couldn’t do before having that badge (except attending the next module which is what some badge aficionados call “pathways”)? Now that you know that, you could do this and that, learn more by going here and there, etc. Something like an activity/learning playlist. This could be linked to personal or community needs within our outside institutions of formal education.

        Another way to put it is: it’s fine to give someone a “literacy certificate” but what’s the point if it’s not lived as an invitation to read further. A badge, or whatever “recognition artefact” should emphasise that it is a launching pad (to explore many possible paths, even unexplored ones), not a terminal point.

        Of course, it’s almost impossible to elicit all that information upfront, but we could use badges as a means to aggregate pieces of information that could be produced as the outcome of a reflective process. Learners reflections could contribute to building that knowledge base and be recognised for doing so (and get badges for it, engaging them into yet another level of meta-reflection 🙂

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