Adding Depth & Accuracy to Our Conversations About Competence-Based Education

A recent article in the Federalist left me disappointed with the state of our public discourse about many issues in education. In this article, Jane Robbins provided her critiques of competency-based education. Yet, while the title of the article was “Why ‘Competency-based Education’ Will Deepen America’s Education Crisis,” I finished the article realizing that only part of this article was actually about CBE. Instead, Robbins used CBE as a starting point, but proceeded to attach it to a half dozen other developments that she considers dangerous for education. I’ve read through her article several times. I want to be careful not to misrepresent her, so I encourage readers to check out the full article to understand the context in which many of the following ideas emerge in her own words. With that important caveat, below are arguments that Robbins seems to be making in the article (I am mostly restating in my own words), and I follow up each of those points with one or more considerations.

CBE is connected to Jeb Bush and his “minions” at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Using the word “minions” seems to suggest to me that Robbins is not a fan of Bush’s ideas about education or those of the FEE. Yet, it is a dangerous generalization to suggest that FEE is the official voice of CBE. In fact, there are many viewpoints about and approaches to competency-based education. Check out the different ideas at the ComptencyWorks website. Look at the many models of CBE applied by members of the Competency-based Education Network. Talk to people who are in the trenches, experimenting with and learning about the benefits and limitations of CBE. CBE is not tied to a single political position or necessarily even a single educational philosophy. There is diversity of opinion and there are good debates taking place. The end goal need not the monopoly of a singular viewpoint.

CBE is pretty much the same as the outcome-based education of the 1990s and parents thought that was bad, so CBE is bad as well.

Yes and no. It is true that CBE is outcomes-based. People start with the end or outcome and then go back and build one or more pathways to reach that outcome. For example, it is possible that Robbins established the desired outcome of reaching an audience regarding her concerns about competency-based education. Or, perhaps it was more specific, like publishing an article for the Federalist on CBE. That was the outcome. Then, if this is the case, she determined the best path to achieve that outcome. The idea of having an end or outcome in mind, and then building a course of action from there is commonplace in education and much of life. It is not a concept that is owned by or limited to OBE or CBE.

The problem with associating CBE and OBE is that, while they have similarities, they are distinct discourses and developments in education. Even if OBE is bad for education, connecting these two is a bit like saying that you look like a particular convicted criminal, so you are likely a criminal as well. In fact, you likely have no formal association. Or, even if the person happens to be a close or distant relative, that does not make you guilty of the same or any crime. We are wise to analyze CBE with insight from the past, but also a recognition of what is new and distinct about the many current forms of CBE.

Inherent in CBE is the idea that the government should establish outcomes for education. Government setting outcomes is bad, which means that CBE is bad as well.

While some involved with government might have that viewpoint, I can say with confidence and from direct experience that this is an unhelpful and inaccurate generalization (if this is what Robbins meant). As I mentioned before, CBE is not a singular movement controlled by a small group that is committed to government-controlled outcomes for all of education. I have met people who want to see more government control of outcomes, but there is no direct connection between CBE and such people. Plenty of CBE advocates look to many different places for developing lists of competencies. Some look to business, government, local communities, professional associations, alumni, students, educators, and more. I see no evidence that CBE is part of some conspiracy for centralized government control of education. Some could misuse it in that way, but this is not inherent to CBE.

CBE has the word “competency” in it which is very similar to the word “competence.” “Competence” is less than “excellence” so this is an attempt to water things down in education, and that is bad.

Robbins’s statement about CBE being about lowering the bar also struck me as odd. Schools pass people with a “C” average all the time, even a “D” average. While I am not a fan of the letter grade system, for the sake of this argument, let us assume that one’s letter grade is evidence of academic excellence from a learner. If so, then the current system is already about letting people get by with sub-excellent performance. CBE does nothing to lower the bar compared to what we already have. In fact, you can set up CBE in many ways, some of which can recognize degrees of competence, or even performance that far exceeds a given competence. Setting a goal for oneself or for other learners is not, in and of itself, an act of lowering the bar. We must commit ourselves to more honest and substantive discussion of these points if we are going to have any hope of shared understanding and consensus.

CBE is interested in measurable evidence of learning and that doesn’t work for many disciplines, so CBE is bad.

Measurable evidence of learning precedes CBE. Every discipline assesses student learning and performance in some way, and I hope that these are not merely random thoughts and opinions. They are grounded on something and that something is evidence. Yes, CBE might have a more formal (and sometimes more narrow) approach than what we see in some contexts, but it is not that different from what we see in many disciplines. Before you become a doctor, you must provide measurable evidence that you are a doctor. The same goes for many professions, and most of us are okay with at least some of that.

With that said, as a person trained in the humanities, I agree that some learning experiences and valuable aspects of an education are not easily measured or quantified. It is possible that CBE can muzzle, ignore, or lead to devaluing of that reality. Yet, that doesn’t mean that CBE cannot and should not have a role in the education ecosystem, both in K-12 and higher education. Every technology (and CBE is a technology) has affordances and limitations, and we are wise to consider them.

Common Core and CBE are somehow related. CCSS are more about training than education. CCSS are bad, which means that CBE is as well.

Some combine Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and CBE in their minds, but again, these are different discourses. Such a critqiue risks being a bit like saying that some criminals listen to rock music so rock music is bad. I’m an outspoken critic of many aspects of CCSS (especially how people apply them), but many of the people with whom I speak who are advocates of CCSS know very little about CBE.

The government is more interested in non-cognitive skills than facts and content-area knowledge, and CBE is part of that agenda. As such, CBE is bad.

Yes, there is a growing interest in looking at learning in a more holistic way. Character traits, virtues, or what some others call non-cognitive schools are important to many of us. We’ve been talking about them in education for millennia. These are an important part of advocates for most any type of education at some point. Who is okay with saying that all we want is for students is to have a massive body of knowledge, but lack the character or traits to use this knowledge well? At the same time, there is a valid and valuable argument about emphases regarding non-cognitive skills versus content. Most people get that it is not an either-or debate.

More relevant to the immediate subject of this article, however, is the fact that there is no formal connection between CBE and teaching non-congitive skills, In fact, we are only in the infancy of learning how to measure some of these skills or traits.

There is an effort underway to collect as much data as possible about each student, and this can be used in many dangerous ways. This data collection benefits government and corporations, but not students. CBE is somehow connected to this effort, so CBE is bad.

The ethics of data among learners is incredibly important. However, CBE is not the only form of data collection. In fact, much of the data collection being attempted and discussed is not tied to CBE at all. Once more, Robbins seems to be making too strong of a connection between these two developments. There are logical connections, but they are not married.

Some are connecting CBE with a new form of credential know as digital badges. Badges are knowledge maps that allow companies to better identify prospective employees.

Badges are so much bigger and diverse than CBE. As a matter of fact, Dan Hickey just released (or it will soon be released) a study showing that some of the most successful badge programs backed away from associating badges with competencies. We can’t reduce the badge conversation to CBE. As Robbins seems to do repeatedly, she is connecting CBE with other trends as if they are fundamentally connected. They are not. You can find champions of badges who are skeptics about CBE, and champions of CBE who laugh off the idea of badges as some sort of obsessionion with the Boy Scouts (which, by the way, is an unhelpful and inaccurate simplification of badges).

This mapping of people’s competence and skills through some algorithmic system might be wrong. It could mis-label people.

This is true. It is a cause for concern, one that people are talking about, and they will continue to talk about it. CBE has affordances and limitations, but again, there are many ways to think about and apply the concept of CBE. There are also many ways to think about and apply the use of algorithmic systems for teaching and learning (ways often un-associated with CBE).

CBE will marginalize or maybe even replace teachers as education is reduced to machine learning.

Coaches, mentors, and subject matter experts continue to be valuable. Research continues to support the value of many roles and action often done by teachers. Some CBE programs do shift roles and responsibilities in new ways. I may be mistaken, but bringing this up comes off as a tactic to rally the teacher union troops against CBE as opposed to fostering a deeper and more substantive conversation about the role of teachers in different types of learning contexts.

The fact of the matter is that technology will, for better or worse, continue to transform how we learn in school and informally. This transformation is going to impact the teaching profession in profound ways. In fact, I do not need to talk about the future. This is already happening.

There is no evidence that CBE improves student achievement.

Now this is an interesting one. We have evidence that people are learning effectively via CBE. In addition, we see some new affordances in CBE often missed in other approaches to teaching and learning. For example, sometimes it allows us to identify gaps in learning that are holding a student back. There needs to be a more nuanced discussion of this one, because our goals related to student-success have more factors than some of the current and narrow measures of student achievement. This is true in CBE and non-CBE contexts alike.

I don’t know what role Robbins thinks standardized tests should play in education, but it interests me how many people who are concerned about the testing culture in school are some of the first to pull out the standardized test scores to make their case. Yet, if we are willing to look at individual implementations of CBE in specific higher education and K-12 contexts, we can find evidence that CBE is helping, doing nothing, and maybe even hurting learning. I say this without even going back and reviewing the literature at the moment, because we can find the same thing with almost any approach to teaching and learning.

CBE is tied to classroom computer use, and countries with less classroom computer use results in higher performance on international tests.

I will accept that there are many applications of CBE that rely upon technology. There are many applications of countless approaches to education that make use of technology. This seems to a distinct but related and important conversation. In the attempt to keep this article at a reasonable length, I’ll leave hold off on going further into the debate about the efficacy of technology in education. Suffice it to say that the truth is far more nuanced than saying that technology is making a difference or not.

Educational technology has largely failed to produce promised benefits in education. CBE is like that too.

While often combined, I must again point out that these two are not synonymous.

CBE is connected to “Propping students in front of screens to demonstrate “competencies.”

This is once more a broad assumption of what CBE constitutes. There is too much variety in approaches to CBE for this to be accurate.

CBE is antithetical to teaching as a “fundamentally social activity.”

It isn’t. I have witnessed highly social learning environments that also leverage CBE. In fact, some competencies even require that people are able to collaborate or communicate effectively. There are some learning contexts that are more social than others. This is not just about CBE.

There is a question about whether CBE is part of a larger vision of measured competency, technology-enhanced training resulting in badges and lots of data collection to profile learners an citizens. Students will be “reduced to cogs in the economic machine.”

Yes, this is a possible application and combination of these distinct technologies and developments, but this is speculation, and it is not representative of the diverse approaches to many of these developments in education today.

Rich proponents of CBE will not “expose their own children to it.”

We do not see many elite schools championing CBE. That is correct. We also do not see them providing the breadth of both educational and training opportunities in the modern education ecosystem. Not all of us want the elite school approach to education for our children. Some of us love the idea of our kids learning to code, developing financial literacy, learning to solve mechanical challenges, and so much more. Many of us do not want an education system for our children that is just replicated on what they do in the elite schools.

“CBE isn’t real education. It’s a mechanism for control. States must reject it.”

I usually avoid this word “insult” in my writing, but this seems like an insult to many of us who learned and developed personally valuable knowledge and skills through learning experiences that were competency-based in nature. I worry that such a sentiment can easily turn into an elitist mindset that is more about forcing someone else’s viewpoints on the entire system.

At the same time, I ultimately agree with Robbins. I see no value in States mandating a CBE approach to all of education. Our diversity of approaches is a strength in our system, and we are wise to protect and build upon that strength.

Is There a Testing Crisis in Competency-based Education?

The more I follow the growing competency-based education movement, the more I am interested by certain decisions. Why are we so often limiting ourselves when it comes to assessment? It could be that we have an emerging testing crisis in competency-based education. Allow me to explain.

When the University of Wisconsin announced that they would be offering bachelor degrees based on competency testing instead of seat time and credits earned the old-fashioned way, there were many reactions. Some rejoiced that this was a promising step toward increased access and opportunity, and extending affordability of higher education. Others lamented the loss of the intangibles and deeply human side of instructor-student and student-student interaction. Still others decided to withhold judgment until they could learn more. Then there were others who couldn’t quite grasp what this meant or what it would look like. The UW model is not that different from many existing CBE programs. If you can show that you know it, you get the “credit”, and there are pre-established “assessments” to determine if you know it.

Yet, “assessment” is a loaded term. For some, that can mean projects, portfolios and a myriad of other ways to determine and document learning. For others, they mainly think about traditional tests. As such, if we look at the growing interest in competency-based education, I have a serious concern that some (not necessarily the UW model, I’ve not examined that one enough to know) are failing to be as innovative with their approaches to assessment of learning than they think they are being with their overall shift to a CBE approach. When this happens, all we are really talking about is allowing people to test out or progress by testing well.

Some join the conversation at this point noting that this is a very important topic. That is why we must become experts in test design, knowing that our tests are valid and reliable measures of student learning. Why focus on traditional tests? Even common approaches to assuring reliability and validity of tests do not go so far as to look at transferability. If you perform well on a test, does that mean you are highly likely to perform well in that domain in a real-world (by real-world, I don’t just mean work) context?

I call this the testing crisis because traditional tests (especially the common multiple choice, true/false types) are not the real world. We don’t hire people to take tests. The testing crisis is that we have created this entirely alternative world in educational institutions that do little to amplify the best of a school’s historic or contemporary identity and mission. Many tests are designed in ways that they are abstractions, one or more steps removed from authentic interactions with knowledge or skills.

Yet, they are scalable and that seems to be what people most value about them. You can assess people quickly and with measures of reliability and validity that most others accept. So, they are time-savers for the teacher with a large number of students. They support the ability for less personal and less intimate forms of education, although I acknowledge that some learning experiences can be rich and rewarding without being personal and intimate. As best as I can tell, these types of tests are and always have been efficiency more than anything else.

When it comes to  competency-based education or even traditional contexts measured by seat-time, I continue to plead with people to imagine the possibilities for their assessments. I recognize the time challenges of teachers with large groups of learners, but there are far more possibilities than many initially imagine. You can design a robust, rewarding and effective assessment plan by mixing a myriad of current and emerging practices. You can leverage projects and rubrics, performances and rubrics, papers and rubrics, narrative assessment and feedback, portfolio assessment, self-assessment tools, peer-assessment strategies, scenario and case-based learning with integrated assessments, many approaches to authentic assessment and more.

When it comes to the CBE movement, some argue that traditional and more standardized tests are an important part of the movement itself. These tests will allow them to validate this method and communicate the widespread impact and effectiveness. It gives thems the numbers that they need and want to defend their innovation. Yet, there are others ways to do this. We just need to take the time to more broadly and deeply explore and imagine the possibilities.

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?

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.