Competency-based education and blended learning: Worlds apart or just two sides of the personalization coin?

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Sep 18, 2013

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At the Clayton Christensen Institute, we often talk about blended learning and competency-based education in the same breath. That’s because we see both as necessary features of accomplishing personalized learning at scale. A competency-based system allows students to move at their own pace upon mastering concepts, rather than being forced to move beyond material they don’t fully understand or being held back when they are learning at an advanced pace. You can imagine this highly individualized model in a traditional classroom with extremely low teacher-to-student ratios. But to operate personalization at scale, we believe technology must play a part. Software tools in a blended classroom stand to provide a mix of content, assessment, and meaningful real-time feedback that can help teachers move each student along an individual learning pathway at his own pace.

Although this theory sounds quite tidy, the reality on the ground is a bit messier. I keep asking myself: are practitioners and policymakers in blended learning and competency-based education coordinating their efforts? Both, from different angles, are building toward a vision of personalized learning. This common vision, however, does not always yield as natural a synergy as you might imagine. As Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks pointed out in her blog a few weeks back, competency-based education models could benefit from taking greater advantage of blended learning, particularly to lend extra support to students who have gaps in understanding or are falling behind. And although many edtech products describe themselves as “mastery-based,” these tools are not always customized to competency-based education classrooms’ needs to track students’ progress against discrete competencies and provide multiple pathways to learning.

There’s not really animosity between these two camps, if you can call them that. Proponents of competency-based education are certainly not luddites, nor are blended-learning entrepreneurs and educators gripping onto time-based policies. But at this point, it’s easier to find models that are either blended or competency-based, rather than both. I have a few working hypotheses of why these worlds aren’t always aligned, or why we aren’t seeing a lot of blended competency-based models yet.

(1) Competency-based education and blended learning have very different origins. I hesitate to qualify competency-based education as older because it’s anything but passé in policy conversations today. But consider this 1975 Educational Leadership article, “A Personalized Competency Based Program for Curriculum Leaders”, which summarizes a competency-based doctoral program in curriculum development. Although competency-based education now echoes in most conversations about 21st-century or “next-gen” models, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that competency-based education evolved over many decades in 20th-century classrooms.

Much more recently, blended learning came about over the past decade or so. Early on, models like Apex Learning and the Florida Virtual School provided supplemental online courses to traditional schools. But until recently, most educational technology fit within the old factory-based model that measured progress in hours—not learning—because, as I discussed in my blog a few weeks back, that’s what school systems tended to demand. In other words, although technology is a natural tool to support mass personalization, blended learning was not an obvious tool when competency-based education first took hold among educators. Likewise, competency-based education was not the predominant policy shaping the earliest blended models. This leads to my next hypothesis:

(2) The market for competency-based programs is still too small to generate technology tools tailored to competency-based educators’ needs. Although states are gradually granting seat-time waivers or getting rid of the Carnegie unit altogether, the move to fully competency-based systems still resides in a minority of states and districts. As a result, edtech companies may not have sufficient incentives to create solutions that lend themselves to competency-based education’s needs. Liz Glowa’s paper on information technology outlines the products that currently serve competency-based education schools and systems. Although an array of edtech products can offer numerous pathways toward mastery, there is not a robust supply of integrated competency-based solutions that at once deliver content and track that mastery over time, all in one place. As a result, technology may not (yet) deliver on making competency-based education classrooms more efficient and personalized-learning environments.

(3) It’s just a matter of time. Just a few weeks ago, I spoke with a superintendent who had moved to a fully competency-based model over the past few years. He was attending a blended-learning conference because this year, after getting teachers, leaders, and parents on board with a competency-based framework, the district was planning to implement blended models to support this new system. In other words, if we’re hearing about districts and states moving to a competency-based system but not yet using technology, this choice is one of sequence (first shifting from time to competency-based, then implementing blended models), not deliberate exclusion. Leaders may elect to focus on shifting culture and thoughtfully enumerating competencies before looking for technology tools that align to their new system.

Moreover, although I’ve spoken of two “camps,” there are numerous groups and coalitions working on bridging the competency and blended worlds to design next- generation classrooms, schools, and entire districts. Next Generation Learning Challenges, The Learning Accelerator, Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC), and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)’s Innovation Lab Network—to name a few—are all working to coordinate these two sides of personalization and encourage proof points of what a blended competency-based education model actually looks like on the ground. One such model, Carpe Diem, was recently featured on American Radio Works.

Despite this progress, I am left wondering where those proof points fit into two longer standing efforts in the education-technology and competency-education spheres. I don’t think anyone has a clear sense of how big the overlap in the Venn diagram of blended learning and competency-based education really is; or how that overlap stands to shift as more states look to pass competency-based policies and as more school systems integrate technology into instruction. I’m going to be digging in on these areas in the coming months, so I welcome feedback on these working hypotheses and examples from the field.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.