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.


Why Harvard just raised the Bar [way high] for e-learning

E-learning has just been given premier status. Sooner rather than later, online learning will no longer be viewed as sub-standard, second-rate or ‘lite’ education. The heavy hitters of higher ed, the IVY Leagues are now behind online learning, open source, MOOCs, [Massive Open Online Courses] which will have cataclysmic effects for higher ed. I’m speaking of Harvard and MIT’s announcement this past week which introduced edX, a collaborative partnership between MIT and Harvard which will offer Harvard and MIT classes online for on-campus students and anyone with access to the Internet.

The edX initiative is going to accelerate a shift to a new model for education, actually it’s going to be more like a tsunami that’s going to hit campuses which is how John L. Hennessy, president of Stanford described it, according to Ken Auletta in Get Rich U. (2012). 

Why is Harvard getting ‘in’ now?
Why has Harvard (finally) thrown its hat into the ring? It’s not just because Stanford’s doing it, as is Princeton, University of Michigan and U Penn, (all of which are doing so collaboratively through a similar initiative coursera), but because they HAVE to. It’s not optional (similar to the question many campuses faced five or so years ago, should we be on Facebook – which changed to when do we get on FB) – the time has come, either acknowledge that the education model needs to change or just close your doors and crawl under a rock. With the influence of social media, 24/7 Internet access, there’s a need to respond, adapt. Furthermore, this higher education bubble we’re in is going to burst, soon. This bubble exists due in part to the cost of higher education, which according to the National Center for Public Policy and Education has increased 440% in the past five years, nearly four times the rate of inflation (Lataif, 2011).

Enough of that, let’s look at the practical reasons why Harvard [and MIT] need to change…

1) Transform: “To enhance campus-based teaching and learning“, according the edX website, which I view as a productivity issue. As much as I dislike to apply business terminology to education, it’s a necessity, universities need to innovate and embrace technology, find new ways to conduct the ‘business’ of educating.

2) Relevancy for on-campus students: Make no mistake, MIT and Harvard recognize that learning needs to transform in order to remain relevant and provide meaningful, enriched learning for students, and we’re talking about on-campus students. EdX appears to be just as much about transforming learning for and reaching students worldwide, as it is for students in traditional face-to-face classes. Watch the two-minute YouTube video at the end of this post where leaders of both institutions share their vision for edX.

3) Education Research: It appears the plan is also to conduct research into educational practices and theory, “EdX will support Harvard and MIT faculty in conducting research on teaching and learning on campus through tools that enrich classroom and laboratory experiences“, a good thing.

What it means for Online Education
We [educators] need to step-up – the bar is high – educators now more than ever need to create and deliver courses of quality and rigor. It also means capitalizing on the value of the educational experience, and showing the student how he or she will benefit from completing for-credit courses. Audit students will become a thing of the past.

The Ivy Leagues have an International reputation that speaks for itself, there will be instant name recognition, which will be associated with ‘quality education’ (whether accurate or not).  A recent example, Stanford’s  Professor Thrun offered a free online course in Artificial Intelligence last year, that drew 160,000 students from 190 countries. Thrun found this to be a life changing experience, and started Coursera, which offers a full range of courses from Ivy League professors. Granted college credit is not earned. However, there may be something in the offing for edX, as Mitx (which has now merged Harvard edX) had  planned to offer recognition of completion (certificate after testing for content mastery) at some point. We’ll have to see what happens with edX.

L. Rafael Reif, Provost of MIT, made it clear that quality and rigor will not be compromised,

This [edX] should not to be construed as MIT Lite or Harvard Lite, the content is the same”. (YouTube video).

What are the Nay Sayers Saying?
Of course there are plenty of skeptics – and I don’t discount their concerns. I feel it’s worthwhile to consider other viewpoints. Collectively some concerns include, 1) how to motivate students that aren’t intrinsically motivated [to engage with online content], 2) how to promote cross discipline learning, 3) how to get feedback from students that have dropped out [and why], 4) how to monitor progress of students (if the case of thousands of students), to name a few. One blog post I read, was quite pessimistic, suggesting that the impetuous of these schools offering online education is motivated by profit. I respect this educator’s position, though I do not agree, as it’s all about what I’ve mentioned above.

Transforming education is about moving forward, progressing and the time has come. I’ll close with one quote made by chairman of IBM when the prototype for the personal computer was introduced. It’s rather humorous now.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
– Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

Further Reading
Universities on the Brink, Louis Lataif,
Edx: A platform for MOOCS, and an opportunity for more Research about Teaching and Learning Online, Audrey Watters, Inside Higher Ed
About edX,
What’s the difference between a MOOC and the University of Phoenix, More or less Bunk

Photo Credit: Terrible Tsumami, , Flickr, Creative Commons

MIT Shakes up Higher Ed (again) with MITx

MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) created some waves at the end of 2011  in  Higher Education circles with the announcement of a new initiative – MITx, an expansion of MIT’s  Open Course Ware program.  MITx plans to offer credentials to any learner who demonstrates, through an assessment process that they have mastered the given content of a course offered FREE through MIT’s OpenCourseWare.  Disruptive? Yes – the timing couldn’t be better – just as Higher Ed approaches a crisis with rising costs for a degree and the pressure to show value, MIT suggests an attractive  alternative.

Image  First things first –  What is MIT OpenCourseWare?

MIT launched in 2002  OpenCourseWare,  a web based program  that offered the school’s educational content for all undergraduate and graduate level courses offered by the school – online and available to anyone.  Learners have access to all educational materials – streaming video lectures, syllabi, exams, notes etc.  What is missing is the interaction with classmates, feedback from professor, college credits, or certification of any kind.  However this doesn’t seem to bother the 1,000,000 visitors who go to the OpenCourseWare site each month.

What about MITx?

Fast forward to 2011,  MIT’s  Provost Rafeal Reif launches MITx, a research project in online teaching and learning.  There are two significant aspects of the program:

1) MIT will offer an open-source learning management platform (similar to Moodle) to any institution, ” [MIT will] operate … an open-source, scalable software infrastructure in order to make it continuously improving and readily available to other educational institutions.”

2) The program will “allow for the individual assessment of any student’s work and allow students who demonstrate their mastery of subjects to earn a certificate of completion awarded by MITx.”

Both of these initiatives are significant undertakings, and could potentially offer tremendous value to students seeking higher education on a budget. Imagine getting a world-class education for free?

MITx Credentials will not bear the MIT name

It makes sense that MIT will administer this program as an extension of their school, thus bearing a different name.  According to the MITx common question page,  “online learners who demonstrate mastery of subjects could earn a certificate of completion, but any such credential would not be issued under the name MIT. Rather, MIT plans to create a not-for-profit body within the Institute that will offer certification for online learners of MIT coursework. That body will carry a distinct name to avoid confusion.”  This makes good sense, and it appears to be well thought out.


  • Online education will continue to grow, with accredited courses and programs being offered by even the elite universities.
  • The open source Learning management platform  (LMS) offered by MITx will influence availability, quality and price structure of learning management platforms. Competition will increase, benefiting educational institutions in general.
  • Higher Education institutions will need to examine their own models of online education offering.  Demonstrating value to the ‘customer’ will be a requirement for a successful education program in the near future.
  • Higher Education institutions that fail to provide a quality online product and show value, will be in jeopardy.
  • Students will become educated consumers and ‘shop’ for the best program to fit their needs at a price that doesn’t saddle them with huge debt.

I can’t wait to see the developments in Online Education for 2012! Hold on to your mice! 🙂

Source: MIT News, What is MITx?,,  Retrieved January 4, 2011