I have been reading about competency-based education (CBE) and want to share my findings and thoughts with you. By definition, competency-based education differs from traditional education in that it is not measured by the traditional credit hour. You complete a course of study when you have mastered the skill at hand. That may take a day or it may take a year, or anywhere in between. You pay a flat rate for a subscription time period and how many courses you complete in that time is up to you. Most existing CBE coursework, such as that from the University of Wisconsin, is offered online. If you have already mastered a skill, you can prove it through skills testing and move on to another course.
Credit for Prior Learning
There are two main draws for competency-based education: credit for prior learning and self-paced learning. Learning culminates in a test to demonstrate mastery of the subject, whether you studied for one day or 100 days; the focus is on mastery, not time. A recent Harvard Business Review article stated: “It is vital to underscore, however, that competency-based education is about mastery foremost—not speed. These pathways importantly assess and certify what a student knows and can do.” This is good news for the returning student who has already mastered a particular skill through technical school or on-the-job training. It is also good news for potential employers who want to know what you know and not necessarily how many hours you spent in a classroom. A potential employee could hit the ground running and not have to go through an extensive onboarding program to fill in the gaps from academia to the workforce.
The other benefit to competency-based education is that each student learns at his or her own pace. If students need more time to complete a topic before being evaluated, they just need to sign up for another block or period. If students need less time to complete a skill because of prior knowledge or training, they can be evaluated and move on to the next course. This lets them move at their own pace and potentially lessens the cost of their education if they are aggressive in taking and passing competencies.
University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, and Purdue University are among a handful of top colleges experimenting with this new format. Western Governors University has been using a CBE model for almost two decades. There are several for-profit schools as well. Wisconsin now offers seven programs that range from certificates to bachelor’s degrees in IT, sales, nursing, and international business. The University of Michigan offers a master’s degree in medical health professions education. This is targeted at doctors, nurses, and administrators who find themselves in a teaching role. They are targeting professionals who already have a terminal degree but need to fill in skills to ensure they are competent educators. It is completely online and self-paced to fit the schedules of those already working in the health care field.
I think this is a great innovation for educational institutions, students, and potential employers. I believe that the key to making this type of education successful is to form an ongoing partnership between the academic institution and employers to ensure that the competencies that educators are teaching are relevant to the business and industry that will be receiving the newly minted graduate. The employer wins because they know they are getting a competent employee who can contribute right away. The academic institution wins because they have a much larger pool of returning students to draw from and can train them in real world skills.
Is this the new wave of higher education or just a passing fad? Let me know your thoughts.
Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.