The Next Big Disruptor – Competency-based Learning

The ‘model’ for higher education not only has to change, but will change, it’s inevitable. And, online learning won’t be the catalyst, but competency based learning will be –  how learning is assessed and degrees are granted will be the impetus for change. When speaking of ‘model’ in this context, it’s similar to a business model, where the education model is the framework for how higher-ed operates – which is, 1) how institution leaders organize people [faculty, administrators] 2) curriculum is developed and packaged  3) a place is provided [facilities, classrooms, libraries, lecture halls] to deliver education 4) and degrees are granted [based upon credit hours, (or seat-time) and assessment], all of which keeps the institution viable.

“To date, online learning has disrupted the model described above at the ‘place‘ stage [facilities i.e. classrooms, #3], causing serious waves.”

However, I predict that further disruption to the model is on the horizon –  its #4, granting degrees to students by credit hours or seat time, that’s going to shake-up the model as we know it, transform higher education to the core. In this post I’ll share what competency based learning is and what educators, both of K-12 and higher-ed will need to know about competency based education (as we’re going to be hearing much more about credentialing and assessment in the next few months).

What is Competency Based Education?
Competency-based education is fundamentally different from traditional higher education as we know it, rather than credentialing a student based upon ‘seat time’ or credit hour [duration of course] and assessment, the student is credentialed based upon demonstration of the knowledge and/or skills required to meet an established skill set (competency).

Defining competency is complex, and an educational competency even more so. Fortunately, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) through PISA, (Programme for International Student Assessment) has done much work on defining competencies, and created a framework for comparing student competencies for purpose of assessment. A report completed by PISA states this,

“A competency is more than just knowledge and skills. It involves the ability to meet complex demands, by drawing upon and mobilising [mobilizing] psychosocial resources (including skills and attitudes) in a particular context.  For example, the ability to communicate effectively is a competency…” [PISA]

Furthermore, according to Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan educational institute which engages in research and dialogue about various issues, recently hosted a forum on competency-based education with stakeholders and experts in higher-education. In a brief published on June 7th, the concept of higher-ed accreditation is challenged,

“Unlike the credit hour, which is standardized around time, competency-based systems give “credit for learning no matter where it happens [or how long it takes]….. students would be able to build on their own skills, abilities, and knowledge, the time required to obtain a degree would be reduced, resulting in a less expensive and higher-quality education.”  (Soares, 2012)

Who’s Doing it?
It’s game-on with no barriers, as a federal law Congress passed in 2005 cleared a path for Western Governors University (WGU) to pursue “direct assessment” of student learning, allowing this college and other institutions to participate in federal aid programs without tracking credit hours.

Western Governors University

Western Governors University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1) Western Governors University, a fully online program that offers Bachelor and Master’s Degrees, is the leader in  competency education. The school’s curriculum is based upon the competency-based approach, and uses the online format to create self-directed learning for students with assessments that measure students mastery through demonstration. The critical element to this model is well-defined and specific description of the competency along with observable behaviours and actions.

2 ) Mozilla’s Open Badges Project, The newest program created in conjunction with the McArthur Foundation and Mozilla. The goal is to offer credit in the form of ‘badges’ to learners who demonstrate mastery of a given competency as identified by an organization that offers the education and training in a given skill or learned ability/knowledge.

3) MOOCs. The newest, and most potentially disruptive initiative in Higher Education, are Massive Open Online Courses, through projects such as Coursera and Edx (Edx is a joint open education program between Harvard and MIT).  MIT introduced the premise for ‘credentialing’ at the launch of MITx “[MITx] allows for the individual assessment of any student’s work and allows students who demonstrate their mastery of subjects to earn certificates awarded by MITx“. How Edx will proceed with credentialing is yet to be determined. But, no doubt there will be more news to come.

What Educators Need-to-Know
What does this mean for educators? What are the implications? There are several. First, the obvious, that there is much pressure on higher ed institutions from many stakeholders to justify the price of tuition and show value to students and parents. Though this is out of most educators control, below are the need-to-know or need-to-dos for educators:

  • Define competencies or learning outcomes for instruction provided, whether online or face-to-face classes (in anticipation of this ‘potential’ requirement in the future).
  • Define what students should be able to do, after a given course is complete – beyond the final assessment – the practical applications.
  • Learn how MOOCs work – take a course through Coursera or MIT Opencourseware other provider to find out how MOOCs operate. They are free – and give educators another perspective on education, as the ‘student’.
  • Be prepared for the competency-based learning discussion – being aware of how it works, and who is doing it, allows for constructive dialogue and discussion.


16 thoughts on “The Next Big Disruptor – Competency-based Learning

  1. Pingback: How Competent is Competency-based Learning? | Teaching Conversations & Resources for Faculty

  2. Pingback: How to Create Open Badge Criteria – Using Competencies | Creating an Open Classroom

  3. DiSC training professional

    Excellent article and overview of competency-based training (CBT). The key difference between CBT and conventional training is the focus on the resulting *capabilities*, not just the material to be covered. Of course, competency-based learning is not a cure-all, and there’s a lot of work to be done in specifying the capabilities and preparing the curricula to support these; but this offers greater potential for practicality — and in most cases is more satisfying for the trainees.


  4. Pingback: Se habla de… Aprendizaje basado en competencias | Conecta13

  5. Trish Ross

    Corporate training, which seldom had to deal with credits and seat-hours, has long used competency-based training as its standard. Educational currriculum and instructional designers could save themselves a lot of grief by consulting with folks who already have set up corporate universities and the less glamorous “training departments”. Corporations have usually been keyed into the goal of ensuring that graduates of training programs be able to do the work well, as opposed to many educational institutions which were more attuned to seat time and testing. Corporate trainers can do job and competency analyses in their sleep, and build measurable objectives from that foundation, then create the measurement system and finally the courses. This results in courses that provide lots of practice in the higher cognitive, affective, and psychomotor skills that relate directly to the work that must be done. I’ve worked both sides, in academia and corporation, profit and non-profit, for 30 years – as a teacher, trainer, instructional designer, technical writer, organizational development, and director of these functions. And I’m a midwife. I volunteer to help.


    1. onlinelearninginsights Post author

      Hi Trish. I agree with you – how much more could be accomplished with a collaborative approach to a problem by including outside institutions such as businesses, health care institutions etc. The competency approach is viewed by some educators almost as ‘vocational’ approach to education which is counter-intuitive to the academic approach (intellectual approach). However, so interesting that we are going in the direction of competency education, as one university has just implemented the first competency-based degree in the United States, Southern New Hampshire University. You can read about it here,

      Thanks Trish for your interesting perspective and comment!


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