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CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Michelle Weiss
Michelle Weise

Leaders in higher education and K12 should take the time to read Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution by Michelle R. Weise and Clayton M. Christensen of the Christensen Institute. The paper explores how online, competency-based programs are disruptive to higher education. The paper is an easy way to get on top of the issue, including a great introduction to disruptive innovation, inefficiencies in the traditional system, and the basics of online, competency-based programs. Don’t skip the appendices – you’ll find a quick summary of public policy and descriptions of higher education innovators.

The authors argue that the combination of online learning and competency education – modularization and mastery – is where the real power for disruption lies by offering a new business model:

The vanguard of online competency-based learning providers is developing technology to ensure that time is truly the variable factor and learning is fixed: Assessments are built into the system to ensure students’ proficiency; students can take assessments as many times as necessary until they have mastered the competency; and instructors can rely on an analytics dashboard and cater to students’ needs like a personalized tutor when necessary.

As impressive as these developments are, however, technology is not the sole, causal mechanism when it comes to understanding competency-based education’s potential disruption of traditional institutions of higher education. Disruption does not necessarily entail a technological breakthrough, but instead combines nascent technologies with business model innovation. In this particular case, the powerful integration of robust technologies enhances the ability of competency-based providers to modularize the learning process. Competencies have a unique architecture as they break down learning into modules that are not inextricably tied to courses or topics. 

Several sections of the paper are valuable whether you work in K12 or higher education. The section on inefficiencies was absolutely fascinating. Most if not all of the discussion applies to K12, so can be helpful in thinking through how schools can be redesigned. In addition, there are bits and pieces throughout the paper that can be helpful to K12 leaders. For example, the authors deftly responded to one of the big concerns from parents about competency education:

Although skeptics may question the “rigor” behind an experience that allows students to keep trying until they have mastered a competency, this model is actually far more rigorous than the traditional model, as students are not able to flunk or get away with a merely average understanding of the material; they must demonstrate mastery— and therefore dedicated work toward gaining mastery— in any competency.

If you see other sections that are particularly helpful to you, please share them, as it will help all of us strengthen our analysis and communications.

It was interesting to me that the authors include the five-part definition of competency education used by CompetencyWorks, arguing that even though it was “intended for a K–12 audience, … the core of competency-based learning for the postsecondary world remains the same.” I personally haven’t felt comfortable making that argument because I want to see more of what competency education looks like in higher education. If one definition can be used for competency education in both higher education and K12, however, it will certainly make our lives easier in trying to explain it to people.