How to build a competency-oriented system

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Jun 7, 2012

I’m re-posting this blog that I wrote last week for the launch of the CompetencyWorks website. The site is an excellent resource for information on competency education. Check it out!

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A decade ago states might have struggled to imagine the data system they would need to support the transition from a seat-time to competency-based education structure for K-12 students. But over the past several years, an unconventional post-secondary institution has invented just such a system from scratch. Its pioneering work offers a powerful design template for K-12 technology leaders at the state level to follow.

Western Governors University (WGU) enrolled its first 30 students in 1999. Today it has over 30,000 students and an annual growth rate of roughly 30 percent for the past 5 years. Its model is unique; students learn completely online and graduate as soon as they have mastered the required competencies in their degree plans. No lecture halls, no attendance records, no homework—just a series of assessments to verify specific competencies.

A few years after its launch, WGU began implementing a complex information system to manage the enormous amount of data required to test and track competencies among thousands of students. Innosight Institute described that system in detail in this case study. A few features stand out as most instructive for similar projects in the K-12 sector.

First, WGU maintains a large database to keep track of the competencies and objectives (the building blocks of competencies) associated with each domain of study, or subject area. The process begins with program faculty defining the essential competencies for each domain. For example, students earning a B.A. in the Early Childhood Education degree program must successfully complete the “College-Level Reading and Problem Solving” domain of study, which includes five competencies and 25 objectives. But that domain is only one of several that students must complete to earn their degrees. In total, students must demonstrate mastery of 220 competencies and 1,587 objectives to earn the B.A. in Early Childhood Education. Compound that by 30,000 students, and no wonder WGU needs a hardcore database.

The next element of the process, after defining and tracking competencies, is administering an assessment system to measure them. That assessment system is one of the things WGU does best. WGU relies on two main software solutions for assessments. First, Kryterion is a secure online testing platform that integrates item banking, test development, result management, and self-service reporting. It facilitates over 10,000 objective assessments per month. Objective assessments measure knowledge of content and skill (the “knowing” tests). They are 40 to 90 questions long with matching, multiple choice, or similar exercises, and a computer scores them. Meanwhile, TaskStream provides an online platform that students use to submit and evaluators use to grade performance assessments. These tests require students to show complex behavior competencies through demonstrations, activities, or projects (the “doing” tests). WGU faculty grade these assessments and provide detailed feedback.

The beauty of both the Kryerion and TaskStream online solutions is that they allow students to take assessments at almost any time and from anywhere. Students can schedule their own assessments, and they see results quickly through the student portal. The process is automated and on-demand, in stark contrast to almost all state assessment systems in place for K-12 students today. Furthermore, WGU’s assessments map precisely onto WGU’s competencies and objectives. Students waste no time with unnecessary test items. At the same time, every competency is explicitly measured.

Finally, WGU completes the process by providing students with a full-service portal to view and manage their own progress. It uses a combination of Luminis and Liferay to deliver this dynamic portal. The experience gives students total ownership of their learning. Through one access point, students connect to their courses of study, link to outside learning resources, and track their progress toward passing the assessments required for graduation. They even have a tool to calculate when they will graduate given different scenarios for how quickly they pace through the competencies.

The migration of state K-12 information systems toward a competency orientation will not be simple. But WGU has taken some straightforward steps around designing a solution that makes competency-based learning at that institution much more automated, efficient, and student focused. Its data architecture serves as a valuable model and proof point.

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.