Competency-based Education (Part 4)

By | February 1, 2015

A good many years ago, when we were first putting together the curriculum for the all-online university, TUI (that would later become Trident University), I suggested a version of competency-based education that would entail the assembly of a degree out of a series of specific sub- degrees. Although I never worked out all the details of this approach, the idea was that a given curriculum could be built from a series of components, each of which might consist of only one course or up to three or four courses. Each of these components could be awarded a separate certificate of completion, so that there were a series of specific accomplishments on the way to a degree, each of which would have some value in itself, if only to display on the wall and/or make into laminated placemats. Accomplishing a large-scale educational task is a daunting proposition. To the degree that each of the steps toward it can be made rewarding in its own right, one ought to enhance the chances of someone actually following through, as well as clarifying a series of competencies that would be entailed by the degree as a whole.

This sounds a little complicated, so let’s try an example (some of you may be familiar with the school in question; if not, ask your kids.). Here’s the basic degree offered by the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, after completion of the whole curriculum:

Slide1(You can ignore for the moment the dotted lines.) Notice that the degree describes nine separate areas of accomplishment: Ancient Runes, Care of Magical Creatures, Charms, Divination, Herbology, Potions, Transfiguration, Arithmancy, and the ever-popular Defense against the Dark Arts. Presumably the recipient of this degree will have demonstrated at least reasonable competence in all of these areas, although we know certainly that some will do better in some areas than others.

Now let’s suppose that each of these curricular components is conceived as a competency and may be awarded a certificate of accomplishment once that competency is adequately demonstrated. Here’s what one of these certificates might look like:


Each of these certificates can be suitably framed and hung on the wall. However, it’s worth noting that these certificates are printed on both sides, with the material on the back not nearly as obvious is not on the front:


Why the material on the backside, you may ask? Well, once you have all nine of the relevant certificates it’s fairly easy to lay them out on the table in the following fashion and fasten them together with a few pieces of cellophane tape:


This looks kind of silly, of course, so at this point we take the entire assembly and simply turn it over. Now here’s what we have:


Those little dotted lines are now seen to be the edges of the findings is that together make up the complete degree. Trim off the edges of the tape and you have something nice and large suitable for framing.

Don’t let the slightly whimsical nature of the illustration put you off too much. This is not a bad paradigm for assembly of degrees out of competency components. Each of the components has value in its own right, but when they are all assembled together they acquire additional multiplied value as a result of the other components with which they are associated. Having all nine together isn’t just one better than having eight of them. It signifies that you can inter-relate all nine subject areas as needed, and that you understand that all of them are critical parts of the overall skill of wizardry.

Part of the problem with CBE has been the wildly differing kinds of levels at which competencies tend to be defined – from skills that can be picked up in daily life to fairly complex professional activities requiring graduate-level training. One thing that this little model makes evident is that competencies don’t stand alone; they acquire additional value as a result of association with other competencies. We call the organizing framework for these competencies a “curriculum”, and we try to organize within it all the things that need to go into the overall concept. This “assembled diploma” is simply a visual representation of the composite nature of an overall degree curriculum.

Over time, curricula have tended to become less important than individual courses, for a variety of reasons. CBE offers the opportunity to restore the idea of a curriculum to its appropriate primacy. In our next installment we’ll explore this idea further, and consider how curricula fit into the new emerging higher education paradigm.