Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, encourages us to innovate by being “now-ists” rather than “futurists”—being creative in the moment and constantly learning through experience. “What we need to learn is how to learn…. Education is what people do to you and learning is what you do for yourself.” Applied to competency based learning, this leads us to consider bottom-up innovations and “compass rather than maps” approaches that leverage diverse learning experiences regardless of whether they are embedded in educational programs.

Competency based learning focuses on developing specific skills and abilities, and it can occur in any context, on any timeline. With a “compass approach,” it enables shortcuts and diversions, collaboration and exploration, and the application of competencies to complex real world problems. (For definitions of “competency based learning” and “competency based education,” see our lexicon, developed in collaboration with The American Council on Education.)

High quality implementations of competency based education embrace these characteristics of competency based learning. They include project-based learning, teamwork, authentic assessment, and contextualized demonstration of competencies in real world settings, as well as flexible timeframes. But it’s not easy to develop competency based education programs that include flexible learning opportunities when our educational systems are based on long traditions of measuring time. Educational programs, transferability of credits, and student financial aid are structured around terms, courses, and credit hours.

Traditional curricular programs and course start dates depend on terms. In order to receive financial aid, students must be active in courses for a specific amount of time at the beginning of a term. Students cannot advance from term to term and course to course until the term’s time has passed, regardless of how quickly they could master the requirements. These constraints disadvantage most students—they have to wait until a term starts; they cannot stop and start their coursework to accommodate other responsibilities; they can only take courses when they’re offered in the curriculum, regardless of whether that works in their personal schedules. And with regard to learning, these time-based systems disadvantage both those who are capable of advancing more quickly and those who need more time to master the concepts. As a result, some students are bored and frustrated while others struggle and get low or failing grades when the time of the course has elapsed at the end of the term. The time requirements in traditional educational systems are fixed, and the learning results are varied.

These challenges are currently the focus of much discussion and concrete steps toward change, including importantly the U.S. Dept. of Education’s encouragement of experimental sites. We can contribute to these changes in education while also being “now-ists.” By focusing on learning outcomes, we can foster bottom-up innovations that weave competency based learning into educational structures.

With a focus on learning outcomes, curricular design doesn’t start with readings and weekly units—it starts with clear definition of what students need to know and be able to demonstrate at the completion of the course or program. Then the materials and learning processes to achieve those outcomes are designed to support student success. This reorientation provides context for defining competencies that not only represent the learning outcomes of the courses and programs, but also are aligned to career and lifelong learning goals. Then student success (passing a course) translates into learner success (self-motivated achievements) and can logically include experiential learning and demonstration of competencies in real world settings.

For example, post-traditional learners are more likely to come into educational programs with job and life experience, as well as prior education and training that are applicable to their goals and could be applied toward a credential. Educational programs that include credit for prior learning and/or the ability to advance more quickly based on what the learner already knows provide opportunities for post-traditional learners to complete their credentials more efficiently.

Similarly, workplace learning, community service, and other experiential learning can be assessed for credit as part of courses and programs. While traditional educational programs would generally exclude learning that is not encapsulated in the curriculum, well defined competencies for courses and programs help clarify the applicability of diverse learning inside and outside the classroom. This approach can be applied at the micro level, for example with individual course assignments opened up to a variety of project-based learning opportunities relevant for individual learners, or at the macro level, with entire competency based learning programs embedded in the workplace.

Existing frameworks for aligning diverse competency based learning opportunities to educational structures can be used as scaffolding in student centered learning programs. The Manufacturing Institute’s competency model aligns workplace skills to educational programs, including stackable credentials for career advancement. The American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service aligns professional learning to college credit in hundreds of specific areas, from cyber defense to personnel management. ONET, a competency model across industries, maps career paths to educational requirements and credentials. MyEdu helps learners organize their competencies and evidence of learning from courses and other sources throughout their careers and lifelong learning journeys.

Competency based learning can occur anywhere, anytime.

The key characteristics of competency based learning are:

  • Learner centric
  • Outcomes-based
  • Differentiated for the needs of individual learners

Check back here to learn more about the key characteristics of competency based learning in the context of learner-centric shifts in education, as well as more about learning and assessment processes, evidence of learning, open badges, and validation and quality.

Competency-based education eBook


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