How competency-based education can help the nation recover from COVID-19

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Apr 29, 2020

The pandemic has taken everyone’s carefully-laid plans and schedules, crumpled them up, and tossed them in the garbage. To paraphrase Dr. Anthony Fauci, we are all on the virus’ timeline now. 

This has been a jarring change in every category of life, with higher education being no exception. Institutions across the nation have suddenly had to accommodate campus closures, transitions to online modalities, and the mental and emotional burdens that make learning during a global crisis a challenge through any modality. The pandemic has also exacerbated fault lines in our social fabric, which has raised difficult questions about how to equitably distribute learning when access to so much that is required for learning is highly variable—from modern utilities like broadband internet to timeless needs like food and, well, time.

Even when classes and courses followed regular hours, however, people learned at different rates, and moving them together in lockstep has always been suboptimal. Technological advances and business model innovations in recent years have enabled competency-based education (CBE), in which learning is fixed and time is variable at the individual level, benefitting hundreds of thousands of learners—especially adult learners with their less predictable schedules.

Now that time needs to be flexible for everyone, policymakers, employers, and institutions have an opportunity to lay the foundation for longer-term CBE efforts that increase access to learners from all walks of life, including the 26 million newly unemployed, and that make forward-thinking institutions more workforce-aligned and resilient to external shocks. Laying this foundation will require establishing and fostering a parallel postsecondary education system that revolves around industry-valued credentials and third-party credentialing bodies as the gatekeepers of mastery and workforce readiness.

Traditional higher education’s uneasy relationship with CBE

Our higher education system is no stranger to CBE. As early as the 1970s, institutions began receiving funding to explore models that didn’t rely on the credit hour, especially in service of recognizing prior learning to save adult learners time and money. Adoption of CBE, however, has faced challenges from both regulators and, perhaps most importantly, the business models of traditional institutions themselves.

CBE in its modern form gained the national spotlight around 2011 when the White House encouraged adoption of the model through its Experimental Sites Initiative and accreditors and foundations turned their attention to the space. In 2017, however, the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General wrapped up its audit of Western Governors University (WGU), one of the nation’s leading innovators with CBE, stating that the institution should return over $700 million in federal aid because of its allegedly noncompliant faculty model. Although the Department of Education never enforced the recommendations, the insistence that schools should look and act like traditional universities, regardless of learning outcomes, threatens to stymie the growth of CBE models—and learner progress.

Further, credit hour-bound colleges and universities are typically ill-equipped to implement CBE. Running an effective CBE model typically requires strong prior learning assessment capabilities, strong coordination with employers around converting course objectives into concrete competencies, coordination within and between departments around scaffolding those competencies appropriately, a possible restructuring of the faculty model to standardize assessment generation and grading, and rethinking the academic calendar and the revenue model. These are enormous undertakings. CBE doesn’t make traditional institutions money in the ways they’re designed to make money, and it would require time-consuming and labor-intensive changes to an extent that renders the effort unlikely.

Fully embracing CBE with a parallel postsecondary system

Toyota rose to automobile manufacturing prominence thanks largely to a set of cultural norms that empowered its employees to improve consistently while unfailingly building each car to precise specifications. Among these were the expectations that every value-adding step in the process must be clearly specified, such that employees knew exactly what they were to accomplish in their sphere of influence, and that each step be assessed for completion before the next step begins. In essence, the auto world’s analog to competency-based education.

There are a number of reasons why executing this vision in higher education is substantially more complex. That said, there are a number of contexts in which CBE has already proved effective, especially for disciplines that are closely tied to the workforce. In order for CBE models to proliferate in these contexts, such that they can benefit the millions of newly unemployed workers and other learners, the country will need to develop a parallel postsecondary system that looks very different from the traditional one, and that takes a few pages out of Toyota’s playbook. 

In this system, a set of institutions, employers, and regulators would have to agree to shift the responsibility of certifying learning to third-party organizations. These organizations would, in essence, offer USB-type standards—industry standards that establish specifications for learning. Otherwise, individual education and training providers can provide similar-looking certifications for substantially different levels of competence, which would muddy the already murky waters of matching learners to open job roles. Learners could also be passed along to more advanced certification levels without having sufficiently mastered the previous material, which would leave knowledge gaps that hurt their performance going forward.

The most likely way forward is for industry-valued credentials to emerge that third-party credentialing and licensing organizations assess and validate when students demonstrate mastery, and for which the Department of Education will pay. For this to occur, institutions, businesses and other organizations would need to adopt skills-based standards with aligned mastery-based assessments as part of their hiring and promotion, and then strongly support widespread adoption of those standards.

As the government moves in this direction, it will be important that it not seek to replace the traditional time-based system by which most traditional institutions are financed and governed, but instead target new funds in future rounds of stimulus funding that expand the use of federal financial aid for in-demand jobs in the economy. The parallel system should not threaten the current one, which serves many institutions and learners well in certain use cases. 

A call to action

The virus will ultimately dictate when social distancing lifts and the economy can begin to pull itself together. But increased adoption of competency-based education can help learners earn the credentials they need to quickly re-enter the workforce when that time comes.

The federal government should not simply support traditional higher education institutions and preserve the status quo during this crisis. It should go beyond and incentivize learner-centered CBE models. And employers should retain the lessons from this last economic recovery, namely that focusing on skills and competencies can lead to more diverse talent pipelines and faster matching of individuals to available job roles.

A parallel postsecondary system that pays for third-party credentialing or licensing organizations to validate students’ industry-valued skills, with the full-throated support of the federal government, employers, and education institutions, could catalyze the shift from measuring time to competencies.

As a research fellow on the Christensen Institute's higher education team, Richard helps investigate novel business models in postsecondary education, professional development, and lifelong learning.