An argument for competency-based education (CBE)

An interesting innovation in postsecondary education is the concept of competency-based education (CBE). Rather than measuring student learning based on “seat time” or the duration in which a student is enrolled in a class, CBE measures student knowledge and mastery of a subject area. Mastery can be demonstrated in a variety of ways including passing an exam, creating a portfolio, or completing a capstone project. In this way, students aren’t tied to a college or university for a set amount of time regardless of the knowledge they’ve absorbed, they can enter the job market once they have the requisite skills that they’ve demonstrated they possess. In demonstrating mastery of core competencies, CBE may be better positioned than traditional college courses to illustrate to potential employers the specific achievements resulting from their students’ education and the knowledge and skills they have upon graduation.

While this model has been in practice for decades, there is renewed interest in broadening its scope in order to expand educational opportunities, increase the reach of many academic institutions, and drive down education costs by reducing the length of time it requires for a student to complete a degree or training program. CBE can be implemented in a variety of ways – as an online-only degree-granting program, used in combination with the more traditional model in a blended learning program where students spend some time in class and do some learning online, utilized by students to attain a certificate or earn a licensure in a designated field, or as a tool to enhance existing qualifications without a degree award.

This model may lend itself more seamlessly to vocations where students need to demonstrate technical know-how (such as in careers with licensure requirements) as in those fields students ultimately need to demonstrate a concrete set of knowledge to find, or be eligible for, employment. But there are many successful models out there that prove that these types of programs can be adapted for a variety of subjects. In fact, there are over 600 schools that have entered, or are considering entering, the CBE space and there are a wide range of courses and credentials being offered.

CBE is a welcome innovation in a space that has been one-size fits all for too long. But while it may offer great benefits to a certain subset of the student population, it may not be for everyone. The idea behind a liberal education is that learning is not a transactional experience, but rather a way to help students think and question, interact with new ideas and engage in deep discussion with peers. CBE may not be compatible with that since it is geared more towards completing a task list than transforming the way a student sees the world.

Even if CBE has some downsides, it has the potential to be a useful model for a huge number of students. Beyond just undergrads looking to earn a bachelor’s degree, CBE could be a useful tool for continuing and lifelong education. For those that have already attained a degree at a traditional college, CBE might be a good way to learn new subjects and skills and help workers transition to new industries. Among the great benefits of CBE is that students can take courses at their own pace, learn from home, and make education work around their schedules. Those factors may be among the most important as more and more professionals will require additional education at some point in their careers.

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