I have previously written a primer on competency-based education (CBE) using SPT Malan’s seminal article as the basis for understanding the key elements. Chris Mallett, formerly associate provost at Western Governors University (WGU) and currently VP for online programs at Northeastern University, has just posted a broader historical survey on CBE that is well worth reading. His extensive first-hand knowledge of the development of CBE in higher ed adds another reason to read the article.
In “What’s old is new again . . . a CBE long read”, Chris traces the origins of CBE back further than does Malan.
The earliest American competency-based education initiatives are said to have emerged through the development of the training programs used to quickly prepare soldiers, airmen, and others who were needed in support of the nation’s efforts in World Word II (Joyce, 1971). The ability to deliver “precise and rapid training which considered the learner chiefly in terms of his capacity to respond to the training” was of paramount concern at the time (Joyce, 1971, p. 21). According to Gagne (as cited in Joyce, 1971), training programs deployed for these purposes were developed in four phases:
1. Program goals were identified with particular emphasis on behavioral elements and competencies to be achieved.
2. Behavioral elements and competencies were organized into coherent units.
3. Training exercises that aligned with desired behaviors and competencies were developed.
4. An evaluation system to assess acquisition of the desired behaviors and competencies was developed. Feedback from the system was provided to trainees and their instructors.
As seen in this excerpt, the article provides useful summaries of key concepts to help readers understand what CBE is and what it isn’t. Jumping ahead to the 1980s we get to a point that is crucial to understand – the focus on adult learners.
Early 1980s competency-based education programs used development methods and service practices similar to those used by the competency-based practitioners of the 1960s and 1970s. According to Kasworm (1980), the programs identified specific learning outcomes and used both pre- and post-assessment instruments to determine if competencies had been achieved and mastered. Course content, instructional strategies, and processes all varied by program and were deployed consistent with the needs of students. Most programs employed an adult-learner orientation and aspired to achieve the certification of mastery, not just minimal competence (1980).
All of the programs studied by Kasworm were designed with the realities of adult learners in mind and centered on prescribed objectives and outcomes (i.e., the competencies). Most offered flexibility of time and participation so that “students may begin their learning at any time, progress in their learning of competencies at their own pace, and have opportunities to return to inadequately learned concepts of skills until mastery (Kasworm, 1980, p. 19). Many programs offered personalized instruction. Pre-assessments were often used to diagnose skills and knowledge gaps. Post-learning assessment instruments provided for the certification of mastery. Most programs allowed for variable instruction, allowing students to select learning resources and experiences that would best meet their specific needs. Some competency-based education programs provided advisement or counseling. Some featured established competencies with an aligned, standard curriculum. Others directed students to curricular resources but left it to the learner to choose an appropriate path on his or her own (Kasworm, 1980).
Given the wide range of programs trying some flavor of CBE in the past few years, it is useful to see acknowledgement of the diversity of approaches.
The competency-based education practices Klein-Collins (2012) examined varied dramatically by institution. Some institutions emphasized competencies within traditional, instructor-led, credit-hour based systems. Klein-Collins described these institutions as offering “competency-focused programs” (2012, p. 31) in that leaders had applied a competencies framework to their existing, credit hour-based programs. Other institutions, she said, used “purely competency-based programs” (2012, p. 31) in lieu of traditional systems, creating efficiencies, learning flexibility, and economic advantages in the process. Among the latter group, institutions Klein-Collins examined all relied on the use assessments to verify students’ competencies and awarded credits and credentials strictly according to students’ performance with such instruments (2012).
Chris indicates that there will be future posts on the subject. I hope that he addresses two in particular:
- What are the limits of CBE, or under what conditions should CBE be attempted?
- What are examples of assignments and assessments within CBE programs that go beyond simple quizzes and multiple-choice assessments?
For those interested in CBE, go read the full article.