Competency Based Learning and Tasking

What is the best way to create a Competency Based Learning (“CBL”) program in higher education? I suggest thinking in terms of a series of tasks – projects, experiences, and assessments – defined by learning outcomes, expressed in skills and related competencies and the underlying methods and applications of the skills. (Make the definition part is similar to Common Core.) Once a student demonstrates or proves a competency with a task, they move on to the next task. And when they have completed a series of tasks they get the credential.

Personal Growth
Personal Growth

I think linking skills to their underlying methods and applications is key (and grossly overlooked).  I use the example of the skill of critical thinking. In his book Our Underachieving Colleges, Derek Bok says:

It is impressive to find faculty members agreeing almost unanimously that teaching students to think critically is the principal aim of undergraduate education.

But, according to a survey of students taking the CLA+ before college and two years into college, there is no significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing skills for at least 45 percent of students (Academically Adrift). Therefore, I propose getting deeper in the way we think about teaching and learning skills (like critical thinking) in higher education. Let’s consider tracking how students are learning the methods behind the skills.

One platform I have been proposing is using a suite of apps: Skill Label™, Skill Syllabi℠, and Skills Based Approach℠; this is something I discussed in a previous article. I would like to get a step deeper with assigning and distributing projects with a Skills Label.

Skills Label™ is a patent pending utility to display what is learned in any experience, activity, resources – any discrete task. This utility is used to define learning expectations for traditional media (classroom exercises, books, papers, etc.) with new emerging media (game, virtual reality, IoT, etc.). There is one standardized display.

Students have choices and a basis for comparisons. Skills Label™ is ideal way to represent the tasking required in a CBL program. Skills Label™ supports experiential, project based learning. The tasking with Skills Label™ works with team based projects and classroom exercises too.

In addition, students may supplement their learning outside of the classroom – self guided learning. A student can go online to compare skills labels representing education resources and choosing one based on: cost or return on investment (ROI), how much time it takes to consume, learning preferences (like a type: book versus a game), or credential earned upon completion.

Skills Label™ differs from what currently exists. There is not a process for game designers, educational publishers, providers of online learning platform, practitioners of traditional high school and college programs, and other producers of educational experiences to publish the learning expectations of their resources. Skills Label™  is the standardized display for an educational resource.

Competency Based Learning

Competency Based Learning (“CBL”) has been talked about in education and higher education as an efficient, effective way of learning for many years now.  CBL is efficient by letting student move on when they can prove a desired competency; learning evaluations are less dependent on how much time is spent in a classroom and the established credit hour system. CBL is effective by helping every type of student: 1) underperforming students get added resources or support to help them reach a competency; 2) average students control how much time they spend learning and may compete with students with more ability if they choose to; 3) high performing students get to keep moving forward when they prove a competency.

Personal Growth
Personal Growth

Our traditional education system has moved towards CBL with the adoption of Common Core standards. The standards are largely based on advancing basic skills in English, Math, Social Studies, and Science. The learning expectations are explicit and accessible. When the resources tied to the standards catch up (particularly assessments), students learn at their own pace. In the future, we see less learning expectations based on grade, age, and demographics.

In higher education, between 2015 and 2016, the number of CBL programs grew from 50 to 500 CBL programs (according to Tech Crunch) and this number will continue to grow. Higher education institutions have been trying to reduce expenses for decades with little success; students owe over 1 trillion dollars in debt. CBL is one answer. Rather than focusing solely on cost cutting and expense side of the equation, institutions adopt CBL with the potential of reducing the path to attainment of a degree or credential. Student pay one to three years of tuition rather than four.

I am not suggesting replacing any of the learning that takes place in a four-year degree, just the time it takes. According to one study (National Survey of Student Engagement), students spend an average of 17 hours a week studying. (In my opinion) the amount of weekly coursework should be at least 40 hours (a typical work week) and could easily reach 80 hours a week. (Something I remember experiencing while working towards an MBA, much of it was social and relationship building.) I also think traditional higher education institutions are going to join the progressive ones in adopting these CBL programs.

Incoming students should take assessments and complete projects when they start a program. Find out where they are, then give them the right learning program. For example, if a student is versed in programming, there is no sense in spending three semesters taking the introductory courses.

I propose a suite of applications, what I call a “Learning Scaffold for Skills”, as a platform for CBL programs. At the lowest level, there is Skills Label™ where learning expectations are defined for discrete tasks. On the display, users are directed to a resource or project and have all the information needed to complete the task. The learning is based on skills, competencies, and focus values. It is possible to incorporate learning standards into the labels too. Finally, a teacher or professor easily modifies a series of labels for each student to personalize the learning experience.

I see a series of labels as an ideal way to represent what is required in a CBL program. Students go through each of the labels, comprised of projects and / or assessments and upon verifiable completion demonstrate a required competency. Students work on the projects at their own pace.

To represent a collection of these labels at a course level, there is the app Skill Syllabi℠. A teacher or professor creates a syllabus which has all the sections of a standard syllabus plus sections for skills and competencies, skill labels, and tasks.

At the program level (and a platform for lifelong learning) is Skills-Based Approach℠.  Students import all the tasking in the labels and syllabi directly into their Skills Based Approach accounts. Then, they can move through the four stages of Skills Based Approach (an established methodology) to acquire the skills.

This suite of apps become a platform for Competency Based Learning programs (both in education and higher education).