Competency-Based Learning in an LMS

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Contents

Module Summary

Competency-based learning is based on the idea that learners benefit from acquiring target knowledge, skills, and capabilities, from their learning experiences, and that knowing such outcomes is more beneficial for would-be employers than the “seat time” learners spent in for-credit higher learning. Decades of work have gone into defining competencies and designing learning around this. There have been universities set up around the competency-based education model, with fairly high levels of success. Outside such institutions, there are other teaching and learning methods—in F2F, blended, and online modalities—that are based on observable capabilities. This module addresses some basics about competency-based teaching and learning, especially in how this is created for online learning, and this touches on some fairly current practices related also to open-source competency-based online learning.

Takeaways

Learners will...

  • explore what competency-based learning is, some basic educational theories behind competency-based learning, and the challenge of understanding the endurance of competencies in time
  • review how competency-based learning is implemented in higher education and how common it is in a higher education context
  • consider how competency-based learning is implemented in online learning and how an LMS may be set up for such learning
  • consider how competency-based learning is actualized in some open-source ways such as through cMOOCs
  • consider how micro-credentials (such as digital badges, electronic certificates, and others) are part of competency-based learning

Module Pretest

1. What is competency-based learning? What are some of the basic educational theories and practices behind competency-based learning? How long are “competencies” understood to exist beyond a training?

2. How is competency-based learning implemented in higher education? Why? How common is it? What is credit for prior experiential learning?

3. In online learning, how is competency-based learning implemented? What are some common assignment types? How are learning groups set up? How are rubrics deployed? How is competency assessed? Specifically, how can an LMS be set up for the capture of effective competency data?

4. In open-source learning, such as instructor-led connectivist massive open online courses (cMOOCs), how is competency trained? How is it assessed? In automated learning, how is competency trained? How is it assessed? What are some quality measures for such trainings?

5. How do micro-credentials (such as digital badging, such as auto-generated certificates) work currently? How long are these thought to exist before they date out (due to learning decay)? What are some of the open-source badging systems available? The commercial ones?


Main Contents

1. What is competency-based learning? What are some of the basic educational theories and practices behind competency-based learning? How long are “competencies” understood to exist beyond a training?

Competency-based learning focuses on objectively observable (and measureable) knowledge, skills, decision-making, and other capabilities of learners. A definition of “competence” follows:

”Competence refers to a state of being well qualified to perform an activity, task or job function. When a person is competent to do something, he or she has achieved a state of competence that is recognizable and verifiable to a particular community of practitioners. A competency, then, refers to the way that a state of competence can be demonstrated to the relevant community.” (Spector & de la Teja, 2001, p. 2)

Competency-based learning has been seen as an alternative to formal learning sequences (from pre-K through 12th grade and then into post-secondary education), which are based on the “credit hour” and time spent in study (in lectures, in collaborations, in reading, in viewing videos, and so on). One description follows.

”A competency curriculum differs markedly from traditional methods, in that the former is not predicated on seat time, but upon observable activities demonstrated by the learner. Under this new guise, a diploma is not guaranteed by growing older and staying out of trouble. In fact, state legislators are acting to make competencies the new bedrock for school systems.” (Schmeider, 1975, as cited in Tyo, 1979, p. 424)

In the research literature, there is the sense of competency-based education as focused on more specialized vs. generalized learning and more individualized customizations (Palardy & Eisele, May 1972). This is not pre-packaged or standardized learning, with standardized testing, but more training for learners who will be applying this new knowledge and skills to a particular context.

The impetus for competency-based education came from the social changes to higher education in the U.S. with the G.I. bill and the non-traditional learners who entered universities in the 1960s. Competency-based education was seen as a way to allow credit for adult learners’ prior experiences and life skills…and also to train them in practical and applied learning that would benefit their productivity in various work places.

“Competency mapping” refers to the study of various professional roles and the required skills and capabilities needed to effectively execute on those jobs in the real world. As such, competency-based learning requires “a common language set” to define learning outcomes (Voorhees, June 2001, p. 8). Shared understandings are critical because they are the basis for agreements between "employers, employees, and educators" (Govaerts, 2008, p. 234).

Competence development entails the following assumptions, according to one researcher:

*”competencies always imply integration of knowledge, skills, judgement and attitudes;
*competencies are context dependent;
* competencies are linked to professional roles;
* competencies are linked to professional domains consisting of related tasks;
* competencies are linked to process and outcome;
* competencies require experience of and reflection on professional practice, and
* competence is an issue that applies at any level of experience” (Govaerts, 2008, p. 235).

Further, competency-based education should have a close tie to continuing professional practices in order to be relevant and accurate to the required skill sets. While there has long been a workforce relationship with competency based training and a sense of non-formal (vs. formal) learning approaches, others have suggested that competency-based education requires greater cognitive inputs and more complex capabilities than suggested in formal higher education. For example, learners are expected to deal with ill-defined problems and to solve them, even if these problems are not yet foreseen or known; learners have to be able to train for and anticipate future challenges, no matter how these arrive. The ability to address future challenges involves the need to understand issues, troubleshoot problems, collect the right information, and solve problems. One type of instantiation of competency-based education involves problem-based learning (PBL): Problem-based learning firmly centered on four theoretical approaches: constructivism, self-directed learning, collaborative learning, and situated or contextualized learning (Dolmans, De Grave, Wolfhagen, & Van Der Vleuten, 2005). The more complex sense of competency-based learning involves “integrated competence.”

As for how long competencies are thought to last, that depends on the trained knowledge, skills, and capabilities…and the quality of the training…and the learners’ frequency of applications of the new learning.


2. How is competency-based learning implemented in higher education? Why? How common is it? What is credit for prior experiential learning?

In higher education, there are a variety of ways that competency-based learning is implemented, based on the topic domain, the learning objectives, the subject matter experts, the target learners, the available technologies, the instructional design, workforce knowledge and skills (based on professionally required tasks), and other factors.

To simplify, the focus is on developing observable and measurable knowledge and skills, with much less focus on more purely academic issues like models, frameworks, research methods, and more abstract knowledge.

Researchers have pointed out that competency-based education, in higher education, requires online instructors to have a wider range of interdisciplinary competencies themselves. One authoring team writes:

”Online instructors need to take on a multi-dimensional role and to be an effective online educator they are required to possess a varied and wider range of competencies. Preparing teachers for online education involves preparing them for a wide variety of roles and developing related competencies. However, the extent of emphasis required to be placed on each of these roles or competencies during a teacher training program may vary according to its culture and the context. The investigation reported in this article obtained expert opinions with regard to the priority and criticality of eight online instructor roles identified in earlier research on online education. Pedagogical roles received the highest priority by the respondents, followed by professional, evaluator, social facilitator, technologist, advisor, administrator, and researcher roles.” (Bawane & Spector, Nov. 2009, p. 383)

There are greater demands on instructional designers:

”The design of education based on a competency based paradigm is fundamentally different from what instructional designers are used to doing. The acquisition of the necessary complex cognitive skills added to the requirement that the learners can then apply those skills in new situations and new domains (far transfer) asks much from learners. To design, development, and implement such education — in which cognition, meta-cognition and transfer are the most important variables — requires us to better understand and make use of the possibilities and take into account the limitations of the human mind.” (Kirschner, 2002, p. 2)

In terms of design, two co-authors suggest starting with general learning goals, competencies, sub-competencies, and ending with defined learning objectives (Bawane & Spector, Nov. 2009, p. 384). These learning objectives are also informed by target (professional) roles, with required work-based tasks, and defining the required skills and competencies for achieving those tasks (Bawane & Spector, Nov. 2009, p. 385).

Some have worked to define criteria for defining competencies:

“We propose 5 criteria which can be used to define a competency: it focuses on the performance of the end-product or goal-state of instruction; it reflects expectations that are external to the immediate instructional programme; it is expressible in terms of measurable behaviour; it uses a standard for judging competence that is not dependent upon the performance of other learners, and it informs learners, as well as other stakeholders, about what is expected of them” (Albanese, Mejicano, Mullan, Kokotailo, & Gruppen, 2008, p. 248).

ICT (information and communications technologies) are seen to provide close fit to competency-based education.

”Such curricula tend to require:
* access to a variety of information sources;
* access to a variety of information forms and types;
* student-centred learning settings based on information access and inquiry;
* learning environments centred on problem-centred and inquiry-based activities;
* authentic settings and examples; and
* teachers as coaches and mentors rather than content experts.” (Oliver, 2002/2003, p. 2)

Assessments may be of various types. Some may require performance, with direct assessor observations. Others may require the creation of learning artifacts, often collected in learner portfolios, and these are indirectly assessed. The U.S. Department of Education, in 2001, released a data visualization about competency-based assessments.

ConceptualLearningModelUSDeptofEducation2001.jpg

Others have also suggested what competency-based assessments should achieve:

* ”Support development of an integrated competence
* Be organised (sic) around content domains rather than test formats
* Value all forms of information, quantitative and qualitative
* Combine summative and formative functions to inform and guide student learning
* Be equitable through a balance of assessments that are standardised (sic) and tailored to the individual and by focus on improvement of competence rather than solely on detecting incompetence.” (Schuwirth & Ash, 2013, p. 555)

Competency-based assessments may be low stakes, medium stakes, or high stakes, depending on the context. As such, assessments may be formative or summative.

While competency-based education has some adoption in higher education (including several universities fully built on the competency-based education model), others have suggested that—similarly to vocational training—that competency-based learning may short-change learners by denying those in the working class from “access to powerful knowledge represented by the academic disciplines” and particularly ways to think “the unthinkable” and the “not-yet-thought” (Wheelahan, Sept. 2007, p. 637).

“Credit for prior experiential learning” (CPEL) and “prior learning assessment” (PLA) refer to efforts in higher education to better integrate non-traditional learners by acknowledging their academic-relevant learning from life and offering either credit or accelerated advancement in a degree-based learning sequence.


3. In online learning, how is competency-based learning implemented? What are some common assignment types? How are learning groups set up? How are rubrics deployed? How is competency assessed? Specifically, how can an LMS be set up for the capture of effective competency data? 0

In formal university courses, online learning may integrate some competency-based learning, such as through project-based learning, problem-based learning, case-based analysis, and other pedagogical methods.

In open-source online learning, competency-based learning may be instructor-led, and connectivist, with intense connections between co-learners. (Massive open online courses may fall into the prior model, particularly connectivist MOOCs.) They may be fully automated and individualist. (There are hosted online sites that enable the learning of coding, with created tasks and automated feedback to learners’ codes.) There are many instantiations for how competency-based learning may occur.

There are a range of common assignment types for competency-based online learning often requiring online and offline tasks and the submittal of evidence for having completed those tasks.

Learner groups may be set up to create a sense of learning community (communities of practice, communities of inquiry) for learners to increase retention and to encourage collaborations.

Rubrics, with competencies defined, may be deployed to help learners understand how they are progressing in the learning. Competencies may be assessed directly, such as through learner presentations, or indirectly, through learner-created learning artifacts.

LMSes may be set up lots of different ways to support competency-based learning. There are too many dependencies regarding such setups to over-generalize here.

One small tip: For university-wide competencies, it is possible to set up question banks with questions that indicate particular competencies…and then have the respective questions selected from the respective banks to include combinations of learning outcomes / competencies in one assessment. The outcomes may be defined in rubrics that may be deployed across various colleges and courses. (These outcomes should be defined across fields and in a consensus-based way for effectiveness and for broad adoption.)


4. In open-source learning, such as instructor-led connectivist massive open online courses (cMOOCs), how is competency trained? How is it assessed? In automated learning, how is competency trained? How is it assessed? What are some quality measures for such trainings?

There are numerous often-free opportunities for open-source learning on the Web and Internet. Open-source MOOCs are delivered on platforms that enable instructor(s) to pre-record videos (often interactive ones) and set up assignments and social groups. Often, there are either formal or informal teaching assistants, who may support learners in their tasks. The learning is fairly structured and clearly sequenced. When learners complete the work at a sufficient level, and if they pre-paid to take the course in a more formal way, learners may be emailed some verification of their learning (usually either a digital badge or an automated certificate). The automation is a necessary part of the learning because of the large numbers of enrollees in the MOOC.

Some MOOCs have clear start and end times. Others have open-entry open-exit designs, but these tend to be more fully automated, without the “high-tech high-touch” approach of cMOOCs.

There are many small short-form digital learning objects—think videos, think slideshows, and others—that enable open-source competency based learning…but often without microcredentials (like digital badges, like autogenerated certificates).

Measuring the quality of the open-source competency-based opportunities is highly dependent on contextual factors, instructional design factors, legality, and so on. Another metric may be retention…and the skill sets that are attained by the learners who have gone through the learning experience.


5. How do micro-credentials (such as digital badging, such as auto-generated certificates) work currently? How long are these thought to exist before they date out (due to learning decay)? What are some of the open-source badging systems available? The commercial ones?

Digital badging may be conveyed for various learning sequences…based on automated tracking of learner accomplishments. They may also be conveyed to those who engage in particular work achieved online; one common example is through professional reviewer work (providing academic peer review for would-be authors).

Various MOOC and learning management system (LMS) and social media sites enable the earning of micro-credentials for various uses. Other digital badging systems are stand-alone and may be harnessed for other applications (but may require developer work to actualize). There are some commercial entities in this space as well. (These will not be referred to by name because the author is not in a position to endorse particular systems.)

Examples

How To

“How to” properly build competency based learning depends on many contextual factors: the domain field, the learner needs, the learning technologies, the learning contents, methods for assessments, and others. It is beyond the purview of a simple module to address even general how-to’s effectively.

Possible Pitfalls

Early work in the “credit for prior experiential learning” (CPEL) effort and endeavors for prior learning assessment (PLA) and the uses of portfolios showed high levels of competition between academia, commercial entities, and other stakeholders in this effort. Some early questions included:

  • What is “experiential learning”? How can this be effectively documented?
  • How can one address the discrepancy between earned credit and actual capabilities and actual performance (with understood potential gaps between each)?
  • How can a non-profit and accredited institution of higher education verify capabilities and extend credit on a traditional transcript (without confusing the types of credentialing)?
  • How can an institution of higher education recoup costs for solid assessments of such skills?
  • What are ways to identify gaps in apparent knowledge and skills?

In the intervening years (since the early 1990s), there has been more development work in the field. The infrastructure to enable credit for prior experiential learning has been extended somewhat. The popularization of often-free automated online learning with digital badging and micro-credentialing is seen as a stand-in for some of these types of competency-based affirmations. In higher education, there is support for acknowledging informal (happenstance learning) and nonformal (non-credit learning through nonformal courses) learning, but there is not an extending of university or college credit per se for experiential learning (potentially because of fear of educational malpractice suits). In some cases, universities and colleges have enabled learners to bypass prerequisites through pre-tests and other standardized measures of knowledge and skills (and competence); however, this “testing out” is not about extending credit but not enforcing pre-requisite learning sequences (such as developmental ones).

Competencies date out unless learners are able to regularly practice their new skills, experience variations in the competence, and engage the challenges in real-world ways.

Also, supervisory and human resources staff have long observed that there can be a fairly large gap between capabilities documented on paper and those that actually apply in the real-world work place.

In other words, the challenges to competency-based learning include issues of how to extend credit, maintaining competencies over time, understanding how “paper” competencies translate in the real world, legal responsibilities, and others.

Module Post-Test

1. What is competency-based learning? What are some of the basic educational theories and practices behind competency-based learning? How long are “competencies” understood to exist beyond a training?

2. How is competency-based learning implemented in higher education? Why? How common is it? What is credit for prior experiential learning?

3. In online learning, how is competency-based learning implemented? What are some common assignment types? How are learning groups set up? How are rubrics deployed? How is competency assessed? Specifically, how can an LMS be set up for the capture of effective competency data?

4. In open-source learning, such as instructor-led connectivist massive open online courses (cMOOCs), how is competency trained? How is it assessed? In automated learning, how is competency trained? How is it assessed? What are some quality measures for such trainings?

5. How do micro-credentials (such as digital badging, such as auto-generated certificates) work currently? How long are these thought to exist before they date out (due to learning decay)? What are some of the open-source badging systems available? The commercial ones?

References

Albanese, M.A., Mejicano, G., Mullan, P., Kokotailo, P., & Gruppen, L. (2008). Defining characteristics of educational competencies. Medical Education: 2008(42), 248 – 255.

Bawane, J. & Spector, J.M. (2009). Prioritization of online instructor roles: Implications for competency-based teacher education programs. Distance Education: 30(3), 383 – 397. Retrieved Aug. 19, 2017, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01587910903236536.

Dolmans, D.H.J.M., De Grave, W., Wolfhagen, I.H.A.P., & Van Der Vleuten, C.P.M. (2005). Problem-based learning: Future challenges for educational practice and research. Medical Education: 39(2005), 732 – 741.

Govaerts, M.J.B. (2008). Educational competencies or education for professional competence? Medical Education: 42(2008), 234 – 236.

Kirschner, P.A. (2002). Cognitive load theory: Implications of cognitive load theory on the design of learning. Learning and Instruction: 12(2002), 1 – 10.

Oliver, R. (2002/2003). The role of ICT in higher education for the 21st century: ICT as a change agent for education. In the proceedings of the Higher Education for the 21st Century Conference. Curtin. 1 – 8.

Palardy, J.M. & Eisele, J.E. (1972, May). Competency-based education. The Clearing House: 46(9), 545 – 548. Retrieved Aug. 19, 2017, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30188156.

Tyo, J. (1979, May). Competency-based education. The Clearing House: 52(9), 424-427. Retrieved Aug. 19, 2017, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30185211.

Schuwirth, L. & Ash, J. (2013). Assessing tomorrow’s learners: In competency-based education only a radically different holistic method of assessment will work. Six things we could forget. Medical Teacher: 35, 555- 559.

Spector, J.M. & de la Teja, I. (2001). Competencies for online teaching. ERIC Digest (ED456841). 1 – 11.

Voorhees, R.A. (2001, June). Competency-based learning models: A necessary future. New Directions for Institutional Research: 2001(110), 5 – 13. Retrieved Aug. 19, 2017, from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ir.7/abstract.

Wheelahan, L. (2007, Sept.) How competency-based training locks the working class out of powerful knowledge: A modified Bernsteinian analysis. British Journal of Sociology of Education: 28(5), 637 – 651. Retrieved Aug. 19, 2017, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30036240.

Extra Resources

Hai-Jew, S. (2017, Spring-Summer). Book Review: Building Competency-Based Education in Higher Education. C2C Digital Magazine. Retrieved Aug. 18, 2017, from http://scalar.usc.edu/works/c2c-digital-magazine-spring--summer-2017/book-review--building-competency-based-education-in-higher-education.