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The PROs and CONs of competency-based education

In a previous post I talked about competency-based learning and how this might be the ultimate approach to education. I recommend you having a read of the entire post, but I also know that time is money, so I’ll give you the TL;DR version below:

Competency-based education shift the focus from time to mastery of competencies/skills. Students attend courses, do assignments, get credits and eventually graduate based on what they know, not on how much time it took them to gain that knowledge.

As long as they can prove mastery of a certain acquired skill, they can finish a course much sooner than a traditional education system allows, saving both time and money.

The great degree of flexibility that comes with a competency-based learning program is perfect for self-directed learners, and especially those that need to balance work and family commitments while studying for a degree.

The PROs and CONs of competency-based education

Adopting a competency-based learning program or considering shifting the entire functioning of an educational institution based on it is an attractive and also challenging perspective. The outcomes could be great, but things could also go wrong.

Just like with any other big decision, a PROs and CONs list could ease the decision a little.

What’s in it for students

A lot! Really. They get so much more control over their learning process.

They decide how much time they can put into studying, and when to be assessed. If they already know something due to prior studies or work experience, they don’t have to spend too much time on those topics; they can immediately get assessed and then move on to other learning modules.

This means education for them is much more affordable, since the fee they pay is not calculated based on seat time but on proof of mastery.

If students can fit studying into their schedule of work and family time — not the other way around — and study when it’s most convenient for them, their retention rates get higher and their academic performance improves.

When they get the degree, it can eventually be translated into a promotion, a raise, or even a better job.

The challenges for students

While competency-based education sounds like a dream for many students, not all of them are cut for it.

Students must be self-directed learners, must have some experience or at least an immense passion for their chosen field of study, and they must be motivated to succeed. They need to put in the necessary time and some substantial effort to earning the degree they want, not just check the box of attending some courses.

If you’ve ever been a student, you know how hard these things can be at times.

What’s in it for teachers and faculty

By allowing students to take ownership on their learning, the role of the teacher will transform. It will include more coaching and mentoring and less reminders of assignments due. Teachers will be the ones to

  • set the desired learning outcomes in their areas of expertise,
  • provide engaging learning materials,
  • create addictive learning experiences and
  • provide targeted support for students.

So they’ll have their hands full. But they’ll also get more data on the student learning process, which means that they’ll be better able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each student. In other words, teachers can better adapt their instruction.

In the end, educators will have the satisfaction of providing society with successful graduates that can prove their knowledge and worth.

The challenges for teachers and faculty

Identifying and agreeing upon the most important skills and competencies students should acquire at the end of a competency-based learning program could be a challenge to all faculty.

Then they will have to identify and agree upon aligning those sets of competences to learning resources. Then, they need to decide upon the best methods of assessment and the best way to track student performance. Last but not least, the need to set how they’ll provide support to struggling students.

It’s safe to assume these processes of identifying and especially agreeing upon all aspects of a competency-based learning program will not happen exactly smoothly.

What’s in it for educational institutions

Adopting a competency-based approach to education can lead to great benefits for schools and universities.

Institutional leaders can see an increased satisfaction of students in their learning program and overall higher graduation rates. Also these programs can attract a higher number of potential students, especially those that need a lot of flexibility from their studies.

The challenges for educational institutions

Since competency-based education can mean many things to many people, the leadership of educational institutions might have a hard time adopting it on the best terms. They already need to comply to state standards and district standards and sometimes these standards need to be changed in order to incorporate competency-based learning.

What’s more, if subject matter organizations get involved in the identifying and agreeing upon all those aspects mentioned under faculty’s challenges — which could be very useful at that stage — educational institutions will need to comply to industry standards as well.

Beyond this, they need to make many significant changes to established processes like the methods of instruction, assessment, reporting, or graduation. Since change is a process, not an event, these initiatives can spread along large periods of time.

Now what?

The PROs and CONs list of competency-based education is pretty balanced. Making the transition to this kind of approach to education raises quite some challenges to all major stakeholders: students, teachers and faculty, and educational institution leadership. But the advantages that promise to come along are also luring.

While some are afraid of the many things that can go wrong, others are convinced that competency-based education will eventually become the norm.

What’s your opinion on this subject? Do share your thoughts in the comments section below.

FREE Resource: Competency-based Learning for academia

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