The Ripple Effects of Competency-Based Higher Education

This guest post was written by Keith Hampson, PhD is Managing Director, Client Innovation at Acrobatiq LLC (A Carnegie Mellon University venture)
On a recent trip to my parents’ home, through miles of congested highway on the outskirts of a city that’s grown far too quickly, I was reminded of how the automobile market in the mid-20th century gave rise to the suburbs, or at the very least, played a central role. Of course, this wasn’t the intention. But technological innovation has a way of leading to unintended consequences.

The same might prove to be true of competency-based education (CBE). The current focus on CBE will certainly lead to more competency-based programs, but it may also lead to a greater focus on the measurement of learning which, in turn, could ultimately have significant, long-term implications for all of higher education.

The Rise and Rise of Competency-Based Education

The excitement about CBE is justified. CBE gives shape and direction to the long overdue need to personalize learning in higher education; it allows students to progress at their own pace; it incorporates the practice of prior learning assessment (indirectly through self-paced learning or directly through credential recognition), and offers a logical framework for aligning the demands of the labour market with higher education. CBE works especially well for adults that are returning to school to complete programs of study, and it has the potential to reduce costs for students, institutions, and taxpayers by shortening the time to completion. Not too shabby.

Nevertheless, CBE’s greatest impact may be derived from the fact that it is far more dependent on accurate, detailed and frequent measurement of student learning than most other instructional models.

An instructional model that allows students to progress at different speeds and to cover different curriculum (as a result of existing knowledge), needs to be especially confident that the student has truly mastered the curriculum. Traditional instructional models may have their weaknesses, but they do minimize risk. Rigorous assessment is the means of managing this risk.

The heightened emphasis on assessment in CBE also stems from the focus on demonstrable and measurable learning outcomes. Generally, the greater the emphasis on clearly defining learning objectives, the greater the commitment to measuring results.

Politics is another factor. CBE, as well as any other emerging instructional model, must be especially rigorous if it is to be accepted by regulators and other stakeholders. Institutions at the forefront of CBE will attest the additional scrutiny. (Ginger Rogers not only had to match Fred Estaire’s dancing, but do it backwards and in heels.)

CBE’s Ripple Effects

Developing new and better means of assessment is not been a preoccupation of higher education. Energies have been directed elsewhere. But the growing pressure for accountability, and with new leadership from CBE, the tide may be turning. Impact could be felt in several ways.

Increasing the emphasis placed on outcomes may modify how students and other stakeholders think of what constitute the “best” universities. Traditionally, great universities are those with the most academically skilled applicants, the most research-productive faculty, and the most exclusive admissions policies, and, ironically, those with the highest tuition (sticker-prices). (Lloyd Armstong has nicely described these and other inputs as “surrogates of quality”.) A renewed focus on measuring learning outcomes will help us focus on the student’s actual learning gains. Someday we may come to believe that the “best” universities are not necessarily the most exclusive.

CBE may also help to open the door a bit wider to alternative education providers and new forms of credentials. “Badges” and other emerging models will be aided by the rise of objective, measurable and reported learning outcomes (See, for example: The Carnegie Unit: A Century-Old Standard in a Changing Education LandscapeJanuary 2015). Rigorous assessment enables students, regulators and other stakeholders to make more thoughtful comparisons of value.

The most far-reaching and unpredictable impact, though, may be in stimulating new ideas and better approaches to instruction. Improved understanding of what works and what doesn’t in teaching and learning is the foundation of innovation; it’s the means by which we move beyond anecdotal evidence and ingrained assumptions about what constitutes effective instructional strategies. Insight is the first step, but we need substantial, rigorous information about the effects of our work to move forward.

Keith Hampson

Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovations at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU's long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. In addition to adaptive "intelligent" courseware and learning analytics, we offer a range of consulting and professional development services for colleges and universities that increase the quality of their digital programs.