Is Competency Based Learning the Future of Education?

By Lisa Williams
shutterstock_63546325French President, François Hollande, is short and spectacled. Oh, and he wants to abolish homework. Whatever his arguments (youths from poorer backgrounds are at a disadvantage to their more affluent peers, etc), children across the country must be dancing at their desks.
However radical this may seem, though, there are far more revolutionary happenings afoot, education-wise, and not just in the land of the Franks. Enter Competency Based Learning (henceforth referred to as CBL).


Jargon-obsessed as we are, researching CBL online will probably find you phrases like ‘bundling’ and ‘concept learning model’. In an everyday idiom, however, it’s easy to sum up: CBL is the future.
At its most basic, CBL is an intriguing, innovative new way to learn. A ‘competency’ in this instance, is a skill. Let’s say you’re at college, training in carpentry. As a carpenter you’ll be expected to have a deep knowledge of your field – to know which screws to screw; which screwdriver to screw them with. You might expect to sit through modules like ‘Allen Key – Man’s Best Friend’, and endure hours of exam questions like ‘How many carpenters does it take to carve a burr into a veneer?’ Then there’s all the (non-French) homework to snore through in your spare time. Sound about right?
Au contraire!
In the new age of CBL, students earn their qualifications by proving their ‘competency’, proceeding at their own pace, not by spending a set number of hours in the lecture theatre. Writing about carving burrs into veneers, the theory goes, may only show that you can write about carving burrs into veneers. It doesn’t mean you can actually do it, and besides you can write something today and forget it tomorrow. It is an indirect measurement of your knowledge and abilities. The act of carpentry, or whatever your chosen vocation, requires a deeper level of understanding than a simple exam paper can prove. If you can perform a task in front of an assessor; however, then you can earn certification which proves you can actually carve/sail a ship/dance the tarantella.

Yea or Nay?

In truth, CBL isn’t as new as it might appear. In the UK for instance, National Vocational Qualifications, or NVQs, have been doing something similar for decades, with degree-equivalent NVQs available since 1997. What is new is the speed with which this far-reaching model is spreading. To many it seems inevitable that CBL besiege the education world and supplant traditional teaching methods. The question is whether to follow suit and adapt, or remain staunch advocates of the teachings of yesterday.
So, is it viable? With so many learning options available, is CBL the way to go? Academic critics say that it resembles a walled-off society, reinforced with portcullis and fifty-foot moat – exploring beyond the defined perimeter is discouraged, whilst outside knowledge is considered unimportant. They further argue that the assessments may be difficult to measure and ambiguous to describe.
However, if CBL works as it’s supposed to – for which there is plenty of evidence – then this latter point falls down. Learning outcomes should be clear to students, faculty and administrators alike, providing a shorter, less expensive route to results, and a higher quality, practical education. Flexibility is also greatly increased, for both teachers and students – a student can return to one particular ‘competency’ until they’ve nailed it, rather than having to repeat an entire course or module, and teachers can provide each individual with the precise guidance they need.
Aside from anything else, it’s becoming harder to find a job based solely on a degree. More and more companies are looking for other certifications from their potential employees.
It is clear, then, that the pros far outweigh the cons. CBL is being enacted on an international level, from the United States to Australia. It’s been so well received precisely because it works. Educators and businesses alike have learnt this – the future is a place where these two sectors complement each other perfectly.
The evolution of education can be slow, but CBL is a catalyst towards a final state – that of dissolved boundaries, where teaching and training are one and the same.
Lisa Williams is an online marketing specialist at SkilledUp. SkilledUp is an innovative project lead by a small team located in New York City, also encompassing members scattered all over the world. Here at SkilledUp we believe that the wide spread availability of online courses make them increasingly important in broadening one’s knowledge in fields they’ve never imagined before, bringing more and more tangible results. That’s the reasoning behind our efforts in creating an online course search platform to help users find the most appropriate courses available. 

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1 Comment

Greg Gentle

I see the development of this happening in the form of "badges" students receive for demonstrating competency in a particular standard. Where else in the US is CBL taking root? I'm in the development stages of charter model and would like to explore this further. Thanks!

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