Is this competency-based learning’s big moment?

Institutions already following the model have made smoother transitions online, one expert says.
By: | April 21, 2020
Competency-based learning programs should appeal to older and traditional college students focused on find jobs with the coronavirus caused widepsread economic disruptions.Competency-based learning programs should appeal to older and traditional college students focused on find jobs with the coronavirus caused widepsread economic disruptions.

With college students no longer in their classroom seats, some experts see campus closures as an opportunity for more institutions to shift to competency-based learning.

The model, which has become more prominent in programs that serve non-traditional learners, aims to measure the skills students have mastered, rather than how long they’ve spent trying to learn them.

Competency-based learning should also make course credits more transferable because colleges and universities will have a better idea of what a student knows.

Institutions already following the model have made smoother transitions online since the coronavirus outbreak closed college campus, says Richard Price, a higher education expert and research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

“This whole crisis has surfaced a lot of the access issues that adult learners face,” Price says. “A system of online learning that’s more flexible with time and geographic location has become a tremendous strength in this situation.”

How to launch competency-based education

Colleges and universities, of course, cannot overhaul their curriculum overnight. But campus leaders can begin laying the groundwork as they tackle past the immediate concerns of moving online, and supporting the mental health and other needs of staff and students, Price says.


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Campus leaders should consider creating an independent business unit to explore a move to competency-based learning, Price says.

Ths team should be free and willing to examine any and all alternatives to an institution’s longstanding curriculum, residential programs and faculty structure, Price says.

“The model is different enough model that you can’t just shoehorn it into an existing system,” Price says. “People need room to experiment, and that is going to be an important strategic pivot that schools should make as soon as they can.”

Because competency-based learning appeals to a wide range of students, the model could better position colleges and universities to cope with the financial shocks caused by the coronavirus outbreak, Price says.

A significant number of workers who’ve been laid off or otherwise had their employment disrupted may be looking to build skills so they can reattain pre-COVID income levels. And these potential students will be looking for online and competency-based programs because of the flexibility provided, he adds.


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Competency-based programs may also hold greater and growing appeal for traditional-age students whose primary reason for attending college is getting a well-paying job.

“The credit-hour is not good for skills building,” Price says. “And degrees are like black boxes—we kind of know what they mean, but they don’t let us know what people can do. Competency-based learning allows schools and employers to communicate more openly.”

New distance learning rules rolled out by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month give colleges more flexibility to test competency-based learning or other innovations, The Washington Post reported.

The rules better define how online instruction must occur, which in turn would improve a programs’ eligibility for federal financial aid, Leah Matthews, executive director of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, told The Post. 

Under the new rules, online instructors must offer “two forms of interaction,” such as group discussions and feedback on assignments, The Post reported.


UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.