Technology tools lag our competency-based aspirations


Nov 13, 2013

Last week I wrote about structural barriers inhibiting competency-based education from taking off, even when policy shifts away from seat-time requirements to welcome innovation. In addition to the organizational structures keeping educators and leaders locked into time-based habits though, there is also a dearth of technology tools to support competency-based education. Most technology tools at competency-based educators’ fingertips reflect time-based practices that resist individualized learning pathways and the ability to track an individual student’s mastery. Liz Glowa’s paper from this past February does an excellent job summarizing the extent to which existing technologies are currently ill suited to competency-based approaches.

Because competency-based models remain few and far between, however, it’s difficult to say what the most transformational edtech solutions might be. To gain a sense of the answer, I surveyed a few competency-based educators on the issue of what software solutions most egregiously lag the pedagogical developments and ambitions of a fully competency-based school.

Joseph Crawford, founder of Next Charter School, a project-based learning high school in New Hampshire, currently uses a complex array of excel spreadsheets to track students’ individual progress against competencies. He described the particular shortcomings of learning management systems in an email:

One thing that I have noticed about most, if not all, LMS’s is that they seem to attach standards to courses and assessments to courses and then allow for a means of assigning a score or grade to each assessment. This is very different than what we do. We have a battery of standards (we call them Performance Indicators), which we individually assess, based on a review of student-created artifacts or projects. The result is that each student meets indicators only when he demonstrates mastery of said indicator with evidence. We have yet to find a tool that allows us to individually assess indicators and attach indicators and artifacts in a patchwork, web-like structure (one artifact may address multiple indicators).

Crawford and his team considered designing a custom product from scratch, but the price tag was too high for a start-up school.

Crawford’s explanation detailed Next Charter School’s specific needs in an area that Rose Colby, a competency-based learning specialist at the New Hampshire Department of Education, observed more generally across New Hampshire. In her book Off the Clock, Colby noted:

Of all of the work in the development of a competency-based learning environment, the work in developing competency-based grading systems came closest to day-to-day teacher practice and, as a result, has become the tail that wags the dog. When it comes to how a teacher enters grades in a grade book, it requires a change of practice. When grades are not entered by format of the assessment (test, quiz, project) but rather by the competency for which the assessment was designed, a new picture of student achievement emerges.

In other words, changing grading practices may be at the heart of some schools’ move away from time-based practices. A few new products seem to hold promise for this market around grading and tracking technologies; for example, JumpRope, a New York start-up, offers a competency-based grading system and can work with individual schools to customize to their particular competencies or indicators.

Alison Hramiec of Boston Day and Evening Academy, a competency-based high school in Roxbury, Mass., however, noted different gaps in the market plaguing competency-based systems:

The big gaps in technology that we see during this amazing time of school innovation is a student information system that brings together all the elements that small smart up companies are doing independent of each other, or the capacity for these programs to talk with each other… What is still missing is the integration of academic data, attendance, and character skill development with a schedule maker. This integration would allow educators to truly assess student growth. The schedule maker for us is the key element that really allows us to move away from year-long courses to more flexible programing that individualizes each student’s learning plan. We do much of this with very limited technology. My fear is that the competency-based movement, which is fueling innovative school designs, will come to a halt because of these challenges, or never reach larger district schools.

Hramiec’s observations express a broader pain point felt by time-based and competency-based systems alike—namely that the edtech market consists of numerous niche solutions that fail to provide educators with integrated solutions. Troubled roll-out aside, inBloom is one example of an attempt to provide schools with something that tethers disparate tools together. inBloom’s struggle to take off suggests that school systems are not feeling Hramiec’s frustrations acutely enough to generate meaningful demand for an integrated platform. To Hramiec’s point, this fuels a vicious cycle when it comes to competency models spreading: if a small minority of fully competency-based schools cannot spur a supply of integrated competency-based technology solutions, it is unlikely that larger systems, whose demand ultimately drives the edtech market, will move away from time-based practices.

As I pointed out last week, although competency-based education is echoing loudly in policy discussions, practical considerations beyond policy barriers abound. Even if states let go of time-based policies, can we really expect whole system transformation to take hold if educators are still forced to rely on time- and course-based tools, and are unable to integrate student data, assessment, content delivery and scheduling?

If you are a competency-based educator please comment or email me off the record ([email protected]) with additional insights into the fledgling edtech market that supports (or fails to support) your work!

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.