How The Competency-Based Model Will Revolutionize Higher Education

By: Laura Seuschek, Chief Creative Officer at Wisewire

Higher education across the globe is in a state of transition. Online learning has become commonplace and the opportunities to present and teach can be handled literally without borders. The result is an industry at a crossroads. Particularly in the United States, the cost of traditional college and graduate school continues to rise while competency-based education (CBE) emerges as a new pedagogical approach.

CBE focuses on outcomes, or the mastery of specific skills. CBE programs range in execution, but most are developed as online programs that cater to very specific needs. Rather than attempt a broad range of topics in the traditional education model, CBE allows students to select topics relevant to their career goals and focus intensely on those topics until mastery is achieved. In many cases, CBE courses interweave a variety of workplace related competencies, and the result is often program graduates who are immediately hirable, all without the cost of a traditional four-year degree.

The idea that the college experience does not have to be limited to four years of balancing a strict timeline of education with a dynamic social is somewhat counterintuitive to ideas ingrained in education culture. However, as the economics of higher education grow more costly, affordable alternatives are growing in popularity, particularly because of these new ideas:

#1: Skills, Not Time

The traditional educational model is based on blocks of time tied to topics. Semesters, quarters, years, –they are all arbitrarily assigned finish lines and require students to balance their studies and their lives. Organizing one’s life around a traditional college timeline is even more difficult for those students older than the stereotypical college age of 18 to 22. CBE offers students a way to be efficient learners, bypassing areas of strength and focusing instead on career-specific skills and subject areas. This model allows students to forego redundant pre-requisites or topical breadth requirements and instead dive directly into content that is truly important: the skills needed to thrive in a competitive job environment.

#2: Start at the Right Place

Traditional education has become so routine that students do not question if the material is necessary to set them up for success. If students are forced to learn the history of accounting or take a course on subject matters that  they are already well-versed on, then they may shrug it off as an “easy A”. CBE flips that on its ear with assessments that demonstrate when students have mastered a skill and give credit for prior learning, allowing students to skip past unnecessary and redundant pre-requisites. The investment of both time and money into training and learning is thus optimized, breaking the mentality of an “easy A” and instead focusing purely on pushing the student forward. Not only does this shift to targeted learning make greater use of resources, it transforms the educational culture from one of “have to do” to “want to do.”

#3: Cost

When most people reflect on their college experience, they often focus on the social aspect, the transition from living with parents or guardians to adult independence. However, not everyone needs this level of social interaction. Some traditional college age students simply want to enter the workforce as quickly as possible while many older students are looking to open up job options or further their education. CBE is an effective option for students looking for targeted instruction without the need for the campus experience, which makes up a significant part of the tuition. CBE focuses on mastery of needed skills, which allows for a greater individual cost savings, particularly for students who are able to receive credit for previous work or place out of pre-requisites through assessments.

Note: Federal Student Aid does not currently cover non-traditional models, though the Department of Education is beginning to offer Title IV aid for innovative models.

#4: Maintaining the Cutting Edge

The best designed CBE programs are informed by learning science, student outcomes data, as well as program effectiveness data including alignment to workplace. Advanced analytics track metrics regarding mastery, adapting programs for maximum effectiveness. The analytics associated with CBE optimizes the program for current students and provides data to content developers for future programs. Through the use of smart reporting and predictive algorithms, programs can be improved at both macro and micro levels on a regular basis.

CBE is a developing field, one that is advancing in distribution and interaction as technology evolves.  In the past decade, online learning has grown from mere slideshow presentations and PDF workbooks to truly interactive and optimized modules, and this evolution will only continue to advance. The result? More access to higher education, leading to a stronger and more-skilled workforce and thus faster growth of the global economy and innovation. The CBE journey is truly just beginning.


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