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Competency based learning offers many practical benefits for learners, including efficient and potentially lower-cost degrees/credentials, options to apply prior learning and experiential learning to degree progress, flexible pace, and alignment of competencies to career opportunities.

How do we achieve these benefits? Blackboard has been analyzing competency based education models, practices, policies, and trends through independent research and now in joint competency based education research with the American Council on Education. One clear finding is that even though different competency based education programs take different approaches, they share the common characteristics of being learner-centric, outcomes-based, and differentiated. These characteristics help us understand competency based education in practice.

First and foremost, competency based learning focuses on the learner as an individual. It empowers learners to:

  • Understand the competencies they need to master to achieve their goals
  • Progress through learning processes at a flexible pace
  • Explore diverse learning opportunities
  • Collaborate in learning activities with communities of peers and mentors
  • Create learning artifacts that represent their competencies
  • Reflect on their own learning achievements
  • Develop a professional identity, including the ability to manage competencies and portable evidence of learning from multiple sources

Let’s look at a few examples that demonstrate competency based learning learner-centric practices.

Badges as portable evidence of competencies

Open badges are micro-credentials representing a learner’s competency achievements. Organizations and educational institutions issue badges to learners who have successfully completed the criteria for the badge, and learners can display their badges in multiple contexts as portable evidence of learning from multiple sources. The learning represented by badges can take place in any environment, within and outside formal educational programs (for related definitions, see our competency based education lexicon, developed in collaboration with the American Council on Education).

Badges are appropriate for competency based learning because they provide an open, standards-based framework for representing competencies, criteria for assessment, and evidence of learning, as well as verifiable information about the organization issuing the badge. In Blackboard, badges can be defined to represent the criteria for competencies, to show learners their progress as they master a set of competencies, and to automatically award badges as learners achieve mastery. Badges awarded in Blackboard are open and portable for learners to use for their personal and professional goals beyond the course, program, or institution.

Choices in learning resources and pathways

Post-traditional learners are extremely variable in the competencies they have already mastered, their prior learning and educational experiences, and the types of resources they need to succeed. No single path or prescriptive set of resources will meet all of their needs. One simple but highly effective way of engaging learners and differentiating their learning pathways is to provide choices among learning resources and different ways to achieve competency mastery. For example, competency pathways could offer “Do any of these activities you like until you demonstrate mastery on each competency”; and/or “These resources include more videos, while this approach to the topic includes more reading material- you choose based on your preferences”; and/or “Choose a pathway that is suitable for your career goals and the learning resources for competency mastery will be tailored to that topic approach.”

These types of choices, especially when coupled with effective mentoring, empower learners to model and adjust their pathways as needed, strengthening their skills as self-directed lifelong learners. These choices also help learners understand that pathway decisions are iterative—if one choice doesn’t help them achieve their goals, they are free to choose an alternative.

Blackboard has always provided a powerful platform for delivering diverse learning resources in well-organized ways, using modules and branching to make it easy for learners to navigate through their options. Materials from commercial providers, adaptive learning systems, shared and open educational resources, and instructor content can all be seamlessly combined in learning pathways that help different learners master competencies in different ways.

Collaboration with peers and mentors

Competency based learning, when well designed, is individualized but not isolating. Today’s careers increasingly require effective teamwork, communication skills, and the ability to collaborate to solve problems, and quality competency based learning promotes these capabilities. Blackboard addresses these needs by providing blogs, wikis, discussions, and many types of asynchronous collaboration opportunities for learners to work together on projects, learn from each other, and develop critical communication and collaboration skills. Learners can also connect with each other in real time for experiential learning, working through challenges together via voice and video, sharing/showing projects and experiments, and simply connecting with study partners.

These collaborations extend beyond the course, program, or institution with Blackboard social learning, where learners connect with peers and mentors from around the world. Social profiles enable learners to communicate who they are and what learning journey they’re on to others who are navigating similar pathways. Learners can form their own groups, join others with similar interests, and communicate with others as their learning networks grow.

Professional profiles that connect competencies with careers

Research shows that collecting, organizing, and reflecting on learning achievements helps learners develop the self-awareness needed to define and plan their own learning goals and take responsibility for them (see the U.S. Dept. of Education National Education Technology Plan). As learners model their pathways, they need to be able to take ownership of their achievements over time and across numerous learning environments. Traditional credentials represent summary achievements, but the rich evidence of learning behind those credentials can be even more powerful in helping learners tell their stories.

Blackboard is helping lifelong learners succeed in achieving their goals with MyEdu, which guides learners as they build rich, personalized professional profiles that include credentials, projects, organizations, services, languages, work experiences, academic work, and competencies. Learners are empowered to recognize, manage, and continuously build on their own valuable achievements, beyond any single course, program, degree, or institution.

MyEdu helps learners explore career options and connects them with employers and jobs. Learners choose how much and what type of profile information to show to employers, including not only courses and credentials, but also much more granular achievements that reveal who the learner is and what specific talents they can bring to the job.

It’s not just about jobs—it’s the new normal of evolving careers and the need for lifelong learning. Today’s learners need to build competencies and work toward credentials at any time, at any age, and apply them to an ever-changing landscape of personal goals. Today’s learning ecosystems are becoming more learner-centric to address learners’ needs to have more control over their own achievements.

Check back here to learn more about the other two key characteristics of competency based learning: outcomes-based and differentiated.

See also:

Advancing Competency Based Education with the American Council on Education

Clarifying Competency Based Education Terms

Competency Based Learning and Learner-Centric Shifts in Education

Competency Based Learning, with the Focus on Learning

3 Key Characteristics of Competency Based Learning


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