Learning, Personalized and Competency-Based

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership February 15, 2016

This article is part of a series on personalized learning (part 4 of 6).

To develop expertise in anything, Malcolm Gladwell famously said in his book Outliers that you need to invest 10,000 hours. It is true in the general sense that success requires copious amount of time, but to assume that one could use the 10,000 hours equally well is to assume that everyone could strike it rich as Warrent Buffett could with the same pot of money, say, 10,000 dollars. Individual learners require varied length of time to master a specific topic due to a variety of reasons, including prerequisite knowledge, level of concentration, noise and distraction around, and more importantly, the quality of education that is available. Spending 10,000 hours mindlessly is fruitless drudgery. Skilled learners (Yes, these people exist!) could use the same or less time to accomplish more.

Competency-based education is a solution for the differentiated need in time investment. It is fairly popular in corporate settings as employees do not have chunks of regular time for learning any way. When I worked for American Management Association’s China office in the early 2000s, I was involved in developing competency-based programs for supervisors, managers and leaders. To this day, these programs are still rather popular.

It is more difficult to implement competency-based model of teaching in the educational setting. School structures, teaching and administration activities are all based on time concepts: fixed blocks of class sessions, semesters, and years for degree completion. Most students serve time in school, much like prisoners, to get grades and eventually degrees. As there is no chance of a parole for many, some spend twice as much time as necessary on a subject they may have already mastered. Perception of the absurdity in the time requirement is a leading motivator for personalized learning, which I think should also be tied to competency or mastery-based learning.  

Though challenges abound, competency-based learning is slowly and surely making inroads into education through effort by states like New Hampshire, and institutions like Western Governors University, whose degree completion program is entirely based on the mastery of competencies. Institutions are also experimenting with ways to transfer prior working experiences and learning into degree programs so that it is less costly and less time-consuming. Nanodegrees or microdegrees, badges and “micro” certification programs, now allow learners to earn competencies without “doing time” alone. The purchase of Lynda.com, a modularized, competency-based instructional site, by Linkedin, a social media site for professionals, symbolizes, at least to me, that the wall between learning and jobs is being torn down.

Technologically it is now fairly easy to create competency-based, personalized learning through the use of learning objects and learning management systems. Massive open online courses (MOOC) helps with access for the general public, especially populations previously underserved by elitist and highly selective schools. It is an exciting time seeing how all such changes disrupt education as we know it. 

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Teachers do not have to wait for universities and school districts to implement large-scale changes to start competency-based education. On a micro-level, courses can incorporate competency-based education for personalized learning. Competency-based education requires thoughtful re-design of courses or programs. Here are a few suggestions I would give for effort in this direction:

Think of outcomes. The word competencies are often associated with skills to get people jobs, which may unfairly render liberal arts education irrelevant in some people’s minds. One should instead start by focusing on outcomes we want to see in future members of families, organizations and the society at large, members who are now students learning to prepare for their future. Outcomes focus us appropriately on the factors that may transform learners into productive, collaborative and happy members of the society. Competencies should be based on such outcomes.

Map out competencies. With outcomes in mind, educators need to lay out a detailed map of competencies they would like students to achieve, the relevance of such competencies for professional or personal growth,  the instruments to measure such competencies, and the level of mastery to be deemed satisfactory. Such front-end mapping is among the most ignored work in educational innovations. People rush to solutions without asking the why and what questions first. Without clear and personally meaningful outcomes, walk in any direction can result in a detour.

Change the mindset about grades. One fear about competency-based education is the non-traditional grading method. Competency-based education often uses satisfactory/unsatisfactory, pass/fail types of grades to measure mastery, but it may be perceived as less rigorous compared to percentage or points-based grading. Educators should explain the rationale for such grading, and communicate high expectations for students. Also make assessments secure and reliable in order to ensure mastery of content really takes place. If traditional percentage or points-based grading methods are used at all, use them in the process, as formative assessment, and as means to achieve the end results of “pass” or “satisfactory”.

Measure mastery, not intelligence. It is also fairly important to base grades on mastery of competencies, rather than distributing them on bell curves, which defeats the very purpose of “competency-based” education. Why cannot an entire class or cohort pass the same exam?  If education is all about finding who are the smartest (or dumbest for that matter) people in a group, you could do that over a lunch, a game or a walk together. Why spend tens of thousands of dollars and dozens of years proving that over and over again? The point of education is getting people to learn and to get better, not to separate the chaff and wheat.

Break the curse of expertise. Students cannot master one competency after another unless there are ways for educators to break their own curse of expertise. Sometimes experts have been experts too long to remember what novices are going through. Interlocking complexities of academic subjects plunge learners into abysmal pits of chaos where competency-based education does not belong. To help learners master competencies, you might want to translate concepts into learning objects , the mastery of which brings clarity and motivation to learners. There are many ways to overcome the curse of expertise.  For instance, create mental maps, use feedback from learners and enlist the help of people like us, the instructional designers, who should be good at seeing blind spots for subject matter experts.

Be intentional in the design of instruction. Have a design document for every lesson to align outcomes, competencies, measurements, instructional methods and media. Such document, often known as the syllabus in the United States, commit teachers to their instruction and students to their learning. Writing an effective syllabus allow an educator to be intentional in the design of instruction, instead of simply waiting for the start of the class to haphazardly dump knowledge and hope that some will stick in students’ minds.

Give learners rooms to grow vertically or horizontally. Learners may quickly move on from one competency to another, which should be celebrated, but create room for those who are far ahead or far behind. Many universities are now intentionally helping struggling students by providing supplemental instruction or remedial services. In the meantime, do not punish “faster” students by forcing them to wait.  Create opportunities for them to grow deeper in their expertise, or broader in their skills, for instance, by cultivating their abilities to teach and lead by paying them to coach others..

Provide resources.  While learners are given flexibility in selecting the pace and pathway of learning, do not assume that everyone will intuitively get used to the new mode of learning. The lack of apparent “structure” can actually lead to anxiety. It is fairly essential to provide support and resources for learners to fall back on when they lose track. 

Trends in personalized, competency-based learning reflect the anxiety that institutionalized schooling is getting in the way of learning, an idea made widely known through Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk “Do schools kill creativity?”. In institutionalized schooling, students learn for grades and degrees that have become hoops to jump. If we give every learner an A or a degree at the beginning, then focus on actually helping them to learn, what would happen? Perhaps we will never see some students again in class. Perhaps they will really start to learn for their own benefits. After all, it is their money. And it is their future that is at stake. It’s all hypothetical, I know, but hopefully that scenario, as well as the suggestions I gave, will get more people to re-imagine.