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A Move Toward Competency-Based Education

By Corey Murray

Eighteen colleges and two college systems have been selected to participate in a new research network designed to test the value and effectiveness of competency-based education.

It was Aristotle who said, “What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.”

Hands-on learning has been a big part of the community college culture for as long as there have been community colleges. Our institutions don’t merely prepare students to sit around and talk smart; they also provide the skills and the real-world training needed to do tough, necessary work.

In that way, competency has always been a part of what we do. Even if our courses and standards — many of which still require students to sit behind desks, listen, study and take paper-based tests — don’t always sync with that philosophy.

There’s little doubt that students gain knowledge in the classroom. But learners also benefit from the education of life. In an effort to study the value of “seat time” versus the merits of so-called competency-based education, or experiential learning, the nonprofit research organization Public Agenda convened the Competency-Based Education Network.

The network, which went live in March, is funded through a three-year Lumina Foundation grant and includes an initial cohort of 18 colleges as well as two statewide higher education systems.

As pressure mounts to improve completion rates at the nation’s two- and four-year colleges, advocates of the competency-based model say such programs provide yet one more way to validate student success and, ultimately, to get learners through the system and into meaningful careers.

“This network is an unprecedented and exciting opportunity for higher education institutions to collaborate in ways they never have before on challenges they all share,” said Alison Kadlec, Public Agenda’s senior vice president, in a statement about the network. Participating colleges will have opportunities to address a range of needs related to competency-based programs, from design to communication to quality and rigor to stakeholder engagement.

Lots of interest

While proponents of competency-based learning have long butted heads with educational purists, who contend the model undermines the value of credit-hour learning, recent research suggests there is some serious interest percolating among educators and others regarding its potential.

Public Agenda highlights the results of a 2013 Gallup Poll, in which 87 percent of respondents said that students should be eligible for academic credit based on knowledge and skills earned in some place other than the classroom. The same poll revealed that 70 percent of respondents believe that mastery, not class time, is the most important factor when awarding academic credit.

A few challenges

Despite this enthusiasm, network administrators recognize that awarding college credit for work done outside the classroom and in other venues could create its share of headaches. For example, will these programs be eligible for federal financial aid? How will federal education law, as it’s currently written, impact colleges’ ability to offer and charge for these offerings?

This April, in Phoenix, leaders from participating colleges will meet for the first time. Additional working sessions are scheduled for Washington, D.C., in July and Nashville, Tenn., in Oct.

What do you think about the competency-based learning trend?

Corey Murray

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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