Making Education Competent

Making Education Competent


“Are you saying I’m incompetent?”

That’s what my friend asked when I told her the newest trend in education is “competency-based education.”

I’ll be honest. I don’t love the term. I don’t like implying that today’s grads are “competent” and yesterday’s weren’t. After all, I was one of yesterday’s grads. But I’m the CEO of a company that builds technology, not terminology, so I guess I’m stuck with the term.

What the term means, though, is something pretty revolutionary.

These days, educators don’t have to move a class through the curriculum based on a set period of time. Instead, today’s teachers can personalize education for each student. The curriculum has less to do with the time it takes the whole class to understand the material, and more to do with individual students mastering or becoming “competent” at those concepts.

The flexibility that comes with competency-based education is rewriting the way schools, universities, government and industry are educating people. It’s come along at the right time. A few years ago we didn’t have the computing and networking power to make personalized education possible. Competency-based education uses the latest analytics tools to measure the performance of individual students or whole classes—and allows teachers to make changes as they go. Students have more power to choose exactly how they want to learn concepts—whether it’s game-based learning or something more traditional—and can do so at their own pace.

This flexibility makes some people nervous. There will be those who argue that if education needs to change at all, it needs to go “back to basics.” For some, the best education system is always going to be the one they grew up with. Maybe with desks in neat rows and classrooms with chalk dust and pencil sharpeners where kids learn the reading, writing and arithmetic—or the “Three R’s.”

None of that addresses the real problems we’re seeing in education today.

As someone who works in education technology, the biggest concerns I hear are the rising cost of tuition for students, the cost of delivering education for institutions and the time it takes to complete a degree. Did you ever sit in class wondering when the instructor would get through the stuff you already knew? Students don’t have to put up with that anymore. If you show up for a corporate training session with knowledge of the subject, you can move right into the next module. Under competency-based education students get rewarded for what they already know—or can learn quickly.

Did you ever sit in class as a topic whizzed by you? And because you didn’t fully understand that one important lesson, the next lessons felt like Greek. You probably got frustrated. Lots of us—me included—experienced that in school. Competency-based education can stop that downward spiral before it even begins. Students get the help they need to master important concepts in such a targeted and efficient way.

But the social benefits of competency-based education go beyond using people’s time more efficiently. It also helps use space more efficiently. That’s’ one reason governments are looking at ways of making competency-based education the law.

Ohio passed a bill this summer that “requires public institutions to submit a competency-based program plan to the Governor by December 31, 2015. If no plans are submitted from the public institutions, Ohio will work with Western Governor’s University to extend their competency-based programming into Ohio.”

That’s strong stuff. And there’s a practical reason behind this new law.

Todd A. Rickel, Vice Provost and Executive Dean at the College of Applied Science and Technology in Akron Ohio, says that one of the arguments that got the attention of state political leaders are the space and cost savings.

“Just about anyone can learn just about anything, just about anywhere,” says Rickel. “The restrictions of time and space don’t apply since time depends on the learner and space depends on where the student lives and works—not on expensive facilities.”

In Ohio, political leaders have realized another economic benefit of competency-based education: getting skilled workers trained quickly for in-demand employment opportunities. In medical schools, competency-based training gets doctors trained and working in communities where they’re needed more quickly—saving and improving lives. It creates an integrated learning system—one that doesn’t end when medical school training ends, but integrates education and innovation across the entire health system.

So to answer my friend’s question more fully: no, competency-based education doesn’t mean past graduates were incompetent. But it does mean that today’s students get to move ahead based on what they know, which is better for the student, more efficient for the institution and provides real, positive social and economic change for the country.

Moving backwards—back to the three-Rs and the old-fashioned way of doing education—that would be incompetent. This is an exciting time to be in education and, moving forward, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

John Baker is CEO of Desire2Learn

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