As schools begin to invest in competency-based education (CBE) and higher ed institutions set up competency-based programs, two of the big questions often unanswered become “is their focus on education or on learning?” And “what’s the difference?”

Educators can argue that the characteristics of CBE call for increased attention to learning: clearly defined competencies, flexible time structures for competency mastery, and teacher and faculty roles for mentoring learners, to name a few.

But to what extent is academic culture, even in CBE programs, actually changing to be more learner-centric? How often are educational business decisions made with clear consideration of learners’ perspectives? Are academic credentials simply assumed to represent relevant learning, or do they actually document and verify competencies with evidence of learning? Are we meeting the needs of lifelong learners?

flipped classroom

1. First and Foremost, Focus on Learning

How do we get from educational “business as usual” to cultural changes, even transformation, that make learning central? We need to understand that it’s not just about us, the academics.

Learning outcomes, which can be represented as competencies and credentials, have value for stakeholders in ecosystems within and beyond academia: learners, employers, government and policy officials, economic development professionals, academic leaders and administrators, faculty and curriculum specialists, accreditors and quality assurance entities, to name a few.

Stakeholders who determine the value to credentials and competencies are more concerned with competency-based learning (CBL), which is a broader concept than CBE. CBL refers to learners’ acquisition of knowledge, skills, and abilities in any context, whether or not it is part of an educational program or happens in a formal educational setting.

Focusing on learning achievements, regardless of context, fosters innovations that are not constrained by traditional educational models or the difficulties of changing these models. Empowering learners and enabling them to achieve their lifelong learning goals are at the heart of CBL, and modifying educational practices (CBE) should be a servant to this end.

Today’s adult learners face the challenges of constantly changing social, economic, and employment contexts. Most will experience dramatic swings in local and national economic trends, and they’ll witness entirely new industries and career paths emerge while others collapse. No one can assume a stable career. We all need to learn how to learn.

How well do our current educational structures support these circumstances? Short answer: not very well. Is CBE the silver bullet? Short answer: no. Can a focus on CBL help? Short answer: yes.

Joi Ito (Director of the MIT Media Lab) makes a useful distinction between education and learning: “Education is what people do to you and learning is what you do for yourself.” The proliferation of innovative online learning opportunities reflects not only the needs of a changing society, but also the universal desire to learn continuously. Khan, MOOCs, boot camps, career academies, even what is seen as enrollment “swirl” in community college courses reflect the demand for just-in-time, just-enough learning, often focused on achieving specific competencies.

CBL approaches to academic innovation can help define new structures that combine fundamental values of education with the opportunities of a learning-hungry world.


2. Start with Backward Design

Competencies are the starting point for defining learning pathways that lead to well-defined achievements. Start with a valid, relevant competency set that reflects what learners should know and be able to do. (For analysis of what makes competencies and credentials valid and relevant, see Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials.) It could be a large, comprehensive set, like AAC&U’s LEAP VALUE rubrics, or a concise, targeted set, like Engineering Graphics.

Also, define assessments that provide valid evaluation of learners’ competency mastery, including the specific criteria that assessors will use to consistently determine levels of mastery (typically with rubrics). Curate, create, and compile learning activities and resources that will help learners achieve mastery. These could be stand-alone activities and resources (as is often the case with just-in-time learning), and/or structured learning pathways. Curate the combination of competencies, assessments, and learning resources based on the needs of your target learners. This is backward design, starting with a focus on defining the desired learning outcomes. These are the fundamentals of a CBL foundation.

(Next page: CBE and CBL implementation tips 3-5)