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Competency-Based Learning: A Big Deal, But Not Because of the Feds

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The recent announcement from the U.S. Department of Education regarding Title IV financial aid and competency-based learning is the latest evidence that competency-based approaches to postsecondary degree or other credentialing are gaining in popularity.

The Department's announcement "reminding institutions that they may apply to be eligible for Title IV federal student aid programs under the direct assessment provision of the Higher Education Act" has been treated as big news, as it should. The announcement deserves our applause because it clears the path for much more innovation around student learning and the outcomes of college credentials.

But let's be clear: the federal government is not the source of this type of innovation. Its primary job is not to stoke the fires of innovation through direct action. What this decision really does is take down a critical hurdle that has prevented more rapid development of these types of results-focused approaches to teaching and learning. Removing this regulatory barrier means we can, and must, challenge the outdated notion of the credit hour as the dominant measure of academic achievement. To date, many in the higher education community believe that continued access to federal financial aid for their students requires that they do what they have always done -- use time to determine credits.

Few institutions or programs have been willing to develop innovative approaches without the assurance that such learning models would be on equal footing for all students, not just those with the ability to pay for an outcomes-based education. Making financial aid available for competency-based learning is essential to its application across the institution, not just on the margins.

In some ways, the Department's approach is still too cautious. It treats competency-based learning as an alternative rather as a standard that should inform all learning. By definition, learning assumes effective teaching but requires the demonstration of competence -- a logical enough assumption, but one that is at long last gaining traction and reflecting the shared priorities of numerous stakeholders.

Now, many institutions will be able to pursue this priority through more innovative, flexible, and appealing approaches. Fortunately, we don't have to start from scratch. There is good work already being done regarding competency-based education by institutions like Alverno College, Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Wisconsin.

The bigger challenge is to develop a broad understanding across institutions and learning models about what degrees actually mean. The competencies that are represented in the credentials awarded in postsecondary institutions have become a critical issue for faculty, administrators, employers, policymakers and the general public. This is where the important work that more than 200 institutions are doing across the nation to beta test the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) is so important.

The DQP is the first broad-based effort aimed precisely at describing what students should know and be able to do with an associate's, bachelor's or masters degree. It is a "competency-based" vision of what the ends of college education should be that recognizes the wide diversity of effective means.

The DQP outlines competencies that embody a broad consensus and encourages diversity in programs, not standardization. In fact, in many ways, the DQP takes assessment back to its roots. It requires the demonstration of student mastery at multiple points, using various tools--exercises, performances, exams -- that are embedded in the learning process, rather than added onto it.

Most importantly, the DQP allows faculty judgment to be at the core of this assessment process. Faculty are using both the DQP and the related process of Tuning in many different types of institutions, and in different ways, in order to help them better organize the work that is appropriately in their hands -- not just assessment of learning, but also curriculum development and the documentation of quality.

Focusing on competencies isn't just a nice thing to do for our own purposes in the academy. It also provides an enormous opportunity to have higher education respond to what the American public reported to Gallup in a recent poll: 87 percent said that students should be able to receive credit for knowledge and skills learned outside the classroom and 70 percent believe that mastery, not time spent in the classroom, is what matters in awarding "credit."

The Department's announcement may help open the doors to more innovation, so that what students know and are able to do becomes the way that institutions to measure quality. But the attention to competencies is not an alternative or exception to the mainstream model. It is, instead, a long-overdue shift of emphasis from what is taught to what is learned. Though the most innovative new programs may appear different from traditional programs, the intent of this emphasis on the development and documentation of competencies is to ensure that students gain foundational skills, achieve mastery in their chosen disciplines, develop broad, integrative knowledge, and acquire the readiness for continued learning so critical to our society and our economy. These are the things that make higher education even more essential than it has ever been before.