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.

7 More Competency-based Education Programs to Watch


I just read a great article at Education Dive by Keith Burton on 7 Competency-based Programs to Keep an Eye On. Keith does a fine job highlighting the CBE higher education programs that get the most media attention: University of Michigan, The University of Wisconsin System, Purdue University, Western Governor’s University, Southern New Hampshire University, Capella University, and Northern Arizona University. These are well-funded programs from large entities that are already having great success (as in WGU and SNHU) or are likely to do so in the near future.

As noted in Burton’s article, there are hundreds more who are offering CBE programming. Often in the world of education, we look at the largest and most well-funded initiatives for the example, but I find it useful to also pay attention to some of the smaller, lesser known programs around which there might be less media attention. Some of these might provide the ideal solution for a given context. With that in mind, I offer 7 more competency-based education programs to watch, not because they are necessarily going to be massive, but each one offers a new lesson, model, or example.

1. Patten University and New Charter University – These two for-profit schools are managed by UniversityNow , a social venture committed to increasing access to affordable and quality higher education. Patten, the newer acquisition of the two (it was previously a non-profit faith-based school) has the accreditation approval of Western Association of Schools and Colleges and is offering wonderfully inexpensive education through carefully designed competency-based programming that is gaining the praise of important external stakeholders. Tuition for undergraduate studies, for example, is only $350 per month. Part of what earned this praise is their decision to opt out of the federal financial aid program, allowing them more flexibility in how they go about their CBE program. This is an important case study that can help prove the effectiveness of a model that is not constrained by the some of the policies applied to CBE schools that offer federal financial aid.

2. Concordia University Wisconsin – Of course I need to include this one because I work there and am involved in the design of it. With that said, I do see it as providing an important case/example as schools consider different routes toward CBE. What makes it noteworthy, however, is that it is not technically a competency-based program. It uses standard courses with start and end dates, grades, includes a small percentage of assessment that is less competency-based; but it still is largely built around competency-based digital badges. In essence, it is one model of how to leverage the best of CBE within a traditional program. So, it is a more traditional online program, but students earn competency-based digital badges along the way.

3. University of Texas –  As of publishing this post, the University of Texas is one of the newest, offering some distinctions that we do not see in other CBE programming. It leverages personalized learning, adaptive learning, and spans high school through graduate studies. Following is a short quote from their press release:

The University of Texas System will be the first in the nation to launch a personalized, competency-based education program system-wide aimed at learners from high school through post-graduate studies.

What sets the UT System approach apart from other competency-based programs is a focus on offering personalized and adaptive degrees and certificates that are industry-aligned and – via technology developed by the UT System – can systematically improve success, access and completion rates in areas of high employment demand.

4. Bellevue College – Another brand new implementation, Bellevue college starts its pilot in the in past several months, focusing upon offering certificates and full degrees in technical areas. This is a fully online option. You can read more through their FAQ page.

5. Indiana CPA Center for Excellence – This is yet another first in the United States. It is not a degree program, but instead the first competency-based program for maintaining licensure as a CPA in the state of Indiana. This is an important model to consider as a growing number of professional organizations are looking at CBE for the purposes of maintaining competent licensed practitioners in various fields. By the way, they also issue digital badges as evidence of meeting competencies.

6. Valencia College – Valencia offers us a valuable case of how CBE can be applied for faculty development. So, this is not for the students, but it is a program that illustrates how we might use self-paced, competency-based professional development activities. Might this also prepare faculty for future CBE programs with the students?

7. Edmonds Community College – This one is noteworthy because they use the magic word, “free.” Through Edmonds Community College’s Pace-IT program, they are offering a free competency-based certificate in information technology. That is certainly a way to work through issues with financial aid. You can look through their site.

As I stated at the beginning, it is good and important to track the work of the large Universities and massive players in competency-based education, but some of the lesser known or smaller players have a great deal to offer. As we seek to consider the affordances and limitations of CBE, I contend that is important not to make the same mistake we did with MOOCS, evaluating MOOCs only on the basis of what happens at the big two: Coursera and EdX. We want to look at the rich and broad landscape of CBE, and the seven listed above push us in that direction.

Please consider sharing examples of other competency-based programs in a comment.

What Schools Can Learn from the History of Mr. Potato Head

The first ( of what I hope is an annual) Online Home School Conference finished on Saturday, August 24 with an excellent lineup of speakers. It was an action and content-packed event with a wonderfully and unusually diverse group of speakers and attendees.  There were unschoolers, faith-based homeschoolers, world schoolers, learners of a types, free and democratic school advocates, teachers and leaders of traditional and alternative schools, researchers, faculty, authors, consultants, and community activists. It was also encouraging to see such diversity of perspective represented.  My understanding is that they plan to run the conference a second time in January, so keep your digital eyes open for announcements and a call for proposals. You can check the web site, or my guess is that new information will also show up on Twitter under #homeschool14.

While I appreciated and learned from many excellent presentations, the one that provided me with largest aha! moment was with Elliot Washor of Big Picture Learning. More specifically, it was his comparison of schools to Mr. Potato Head. I should note that Elliot’s comment informed and inspired this post/article, but his comments are mixed with my own commentary.  Elliot explained that Mr. Potato Head was originally sold as a box full of pats with push pins that you could insert into an actual potato (or perhaps a cucumber, banana, orange, or even a pumpkin). It was up to the individual to decide what and where to add the items, and my guess is that young people often improvised by adding their own self-made items from around the house. That is how it started.  As noted in the Wikipedia history, there was push-back about the idea in the earliest days because of the food rationing that occurred in the previous years during World War II. Nonetheless, it started as a toy in some cereal boxes. Not much later, as it became a stand-alone toy, it continued to be just the parts, with the users contributing the potato.

(Note: I did not do much fact checking on this.  I’m largely leaning on the Wikipedia article and the sources cited in that article, but I verified the general concept with a couple of people who experienced these early toys firsthand as kids.)

Things changed in the 1960s due to government regulations.  Those push-pins were too sharp so they required the makers to do something about that, and the small parts were a choking hazard.  In response, the next iteration of the toy included a plastic potato body with holes that allowed the add-on parts (with dull edges) to be inserted in the pre-determined locations. Then there was a third version.  This was similar to the last, but the parts were all larger (to decrease the choking hazard and/or to minimize the need for some of the fine motor skills, perhaps?). The shapes of the holes in the plastic potato body were also changed so that parts could only be inserted in certain holes and in certain ways (Although I think that changed back as the last time I played with a Mr. Potato Head with my kids, we were free to add the parts as you saw fit.).

Elliot Washor used this as an illustration of our school system.  We have regulated and industrialized the system.  There is even arguably good cause for some of the decisions (e.g. safety).  Nonetheless, what did we lose in the process? As I reflect upon this illustration, I can’t help but think about alternatives to the highly regulated and increasingly standardized approaches to standards and curricula. As shown at the Homeschool Conference, The Alternative Education Resource Organization and many such events and communities, the possibilities are nearly endless and there are many exciting and promising communities in place, ones that seek to offer learners an environment that is characterized by discovery, experimentation, and self-directed learning.

As I often note on this blog and elsewhere, and as I was reminded during this conference, we are in the Wild West Era of education today, and that is exciting. I am honored to live, take part in, and learn from the many promising possibilities for learning and community in the 21st century.  How about you?

Depth Over Breadth – Studying the Same Topic for 12 Years?

When I speak to audiences about project-based learning, the depth versus breadth conversation always comes up.  I am usually the one to bring it up, but even if I don’t, someone else will ask a question or make a comment related to it.  Project-based learning provides students and/or small groups of students with an opportunity to spend an extended period of time digging deeply into a driving question or perhaps seeking solutions to a relevant problem or challenge.  As a result, learners walk away from a successful project with deep knowledge about the topic at hand.  Given all the time that the project takes, one criticism is that project-based learning sometimes results in learners missing out on a broad overview of a subject.  In response, the project-based learning advocate might argue that the learner is developing skills that will last a lifetime, allowing one to learn many more things in the future.  Another response might be to challenge the value of broad but shallow knowledge and whether it will last.  These sorts of conversations can go back and forth, with several valid points coming from both sides.

For some, the resolution to this debate comes by seeking to balance between project-based learning and other learning experiences that offer more breadth.  One such example is not new, but I hear little mention of it in the United States.  This is the Learning in Depth Project, championed by people like Kiergan Egan (who is also known for being a critic of Dewey and the progressivism philosophy of education, as well as his work on Imaginative Education).

The Learning in Depth concept is simple.  You keep a more traditional curriculum, but you add one significant element to it.  In addition to all the other courses, you add a “Learning in Depth” course (although it may just be a few minutes a day) to the curriculum.  The idea is that you randomly assign a simple topic to every learner, or if you are starting with older students, you might let them choose from a list.  There are specific criteria for what constitutes a good topic. The topic might be something like dogs, light, sacred buildings, apples or mountains.  In some schools, this topic is assigned in grade one and the student continues to study this topic for the next twelve years, developing an immense amount of knowledge, exploring it from dozens of angles.  If your topic is cats, then you might study the biology of cats, learn about different types of cats, draw cats, take pictures of cats, study myths and legends about cats, look at environmental topics related to cats, or perhaps examine the role of cats in literature and film.  By the end of twelve years, there is little question that the students will each have an area of expertise that exceed almost everyone else that they know.  Advocates of this approach argue that it teaches research and inquiry skills, helps students discover the power of sticking with something for a longer period of time, that it build confidence, that it helps students cultivate creativity and imagination, and that students learn any number of other skills along the way to becoming experts about their topic.

There are schools around the world that adopted the Learning in Depth program with fascinating stories about student learning. You can read some of these stories firsthand by following the links to participating schools on the Learning in Depth web site.