Competency-Based Learning: Getting Where You Want to Be, Part 1

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When you’re planning a road trip, you know that the journey itself is part of the experience, wherever your destination. You want to get where you need to go, of course, but usually multiple routes will lead you there. So there’s no need to stress if you end up taking a few detours.

Imagining a road trip provides a useful framework for understanding the type of learning known as competency-based learning, which focuses on creating an equitable environment for students by identifying and fixing achievement gaps.

A Brief Primer on Competency-Based Learning

Competency-based learning is a relatively new pedagogical practice in education. It goes by too many different names to list them all, but generally, if someone refers to an educational practice as mastery- or proficiency- or performance-based, they are talking about this approach.

Competency-based learning involves everything from systems of instruction and assessment to grading and grade reporting; in other words, it’s comprehensive of the entire learning environment. The focus is on building knowledge and skills, although what comprises the knowledge and skills varies widely depending on circumstance and the topic being taught. In the past, this approach was used mainly by elementary schools, but it has more recently been applied to older learners and online courses as well.

At Extension Engine, this learning philosophy matches our focus on high engagement at scale, or the idea that we want all of our online learning platforms to have numerous, thoughtful, attentive students. Our goal is to create the best way for all students to learn the knowledge and skills our clients want to teach them, so competency-based learning is a natural fit as we build online learning experiences for our clients.

How Competency-Based Learning Works

To return to our road trip analogy and quote Mac Crawford, a Learning Experience Designer at Extension Engine, “It’s always the road ahead of you and not the road behind you. I can get where I need to go as long as I can make the correct turns in the future.” The point is not to simply follow a single path but to keep going until you reach the destination. Fine, you may say, but how do I know which turns to make?

That question gets at the heart of competency-based learning, and answering it is part of the learning experience designer’s job. They come up with their answers using backward design, a process we’ll break down here to provide a window on how competency-based learning works for the learner as well as the designer.

Backward design is exactly what it sounds like and exactly what your navigation system does when you enter an address: it looks at where you are currently and at the intended destination to figure out how to get from one to the other. Multiple routes are calculated and offered, you can change routes mid-journey, and ultimately you’ll arrive.

When building a new online learning experience, the designer must decide on the actual steps to take to get to the destination, as well as what constitutes acceptable evidence of success. With a GPS, this is fairly straightforward, of course. With learning, it’s trickier.

For Mac, the first step in backward design is to list the goals: the things a person should be able to do, and how they will do them, when they finish an online course. She asks, “How can a learner demonstrate that they can do what we’ve said they should be able to do in order to reach their goal? What do they need to tell me, what do they need to show me? Only after you have a really good idea of those two things do you worry about anything else, because this is all part of figuring out that end point.” It’s important to note that multiple paths can be designed for multiple people, so there is not necessarily one correct answer to these questions. You may have to plan many paths.

Hang Nguyen, a Senior Product Manager at Extension Engine, explains the second step: determining acceptable evidence. She cites one longtime Extension Engine client, a leading nonprofit organization whose mission is to train finance and accounting professionals, as an example. Hang says, “We’ve created a number of assessments and assessment journeys that build on each other. So the learner starts with knowledge checks, which assess a learner on the paragraph of content they’re currently in. Then that moves to topic-level assessments, assessing the entire topic they’ve just studied. Then they go on to business simulation assessments, which assess the competency they’ve just completed, which then transitions to a case study review course, assessing all of the competencies they’ve done in a level.”

Once you’ve determined what a learner needs to demonstrate to prove they’ve mastered a skill, you can use that information to create your learning experience with them in mind. You’ll be in a good position to set up a platform that uses assessments to accurately review their learned abilities — and indicate how well your course works.

Why Competency-Based Learning Matters

For years, traditional education has been based on teaching and evaluating students according to their natural abilities. The idea that some people are simply unable to learn certain things is clearly not an equitable way to build an educational system, and yet it is still a common conception. Although every student deserves to have their natural abilities recognized and supported, there is no reason to encourage the belief that others can’t also develop skills in the same areas—with the right amount of attention and practice.

This is a gap that competency-based learning aims to fill. As a practice, it means that every person is capable of learning a particular subject or skill and that, as Mac says, “expertise is primarily the result of intentional practice and growth rather than natural ability.” If you begin with the belief that everyone has the capacity to learn, then logically, every educator should support every learner’s efforts and desire to improve their knowledge — which is the starting point for all of Extension Engine’s online learning experiences.

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