Online Education and the Rise of the Competency Model

“Competency” is the watchword. So often we simply ask for people to have basic competency in their job, not excellence even, just competency!  Yet the education system isn’t based on a competency model.  Instead, it’s based on credit hours: how many hours a student sits in a class. This model persists like an old t-shirt we hate to give away because of all the good times we’ve had in it.  But it’s time to move on; it’s time to introduce the competency model as an equal partner in the educational system.

Recently, the Innosight Institute put together a list of actionable policy items to increase blended learning as the education model of the future. Blended learning allows “students [to] learn online in an adult-supervised environment at least part of the time.” This model is important because “the authors project that by 2019, 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online.”

The movement to delivering content online requires a shift in how we evaluate students learning. Credit hours don’t mean much when the student can sit and play games on their laptop/tablet. Thankfully, online delivery also means more options to assess student skills, provide rapid feedback and identify areas of weakness.  All together, these mechanisms make the competency model more appropriate than the credit hours model.

There’s no point in delving into the shortcomings of the credit hour model.   There was a reason for the system originally that wasn’t malicious, technology has simply made the traditional system archaic.  Now, by focusing on whether or not the student has acquired the requisite competency, attention can shift wholly to the student –has the student in fact learned the material.  That’s not to say the competency model will be a smooth transition; it still has some issues that need to be addressed.

Unified standards. First and foremost, for a competency model to be effective there must be a unified standard. As of now, competency may be defined differently even within a shared industry, agency or school system.  This means standards, likely federal, but at least by state, must be set to force a unified understanding of what competency requires across a broad spectrum.   Because technology allows all data to be easily recorded, comparing data between various entities should be easier though.  Still, until competency is defined questions will limit the ability of students to take full advantage of the model.

Competing Models. Second, albeit related, competency models will, and must, differ depending on the context.  For example, this issue recently arose after the Federal government released a $2 billion grant to support online education.  The grant requires that “[a]ll online and technology-enabled courses developed under this [program] must be compliant with the latest version of Scorm (Sharable Content Object Reference Model).” Scorm “is a technology standard that underpins some online training materials, mainly those developed by the U.S. military services.” The goal of Scorm is to create a standard IT platform so competing companies can create software that works together.

Unfortunately, because Scorm is a self-paced program, there are questions about whether it is appropriate for professor managed groups in classes.  As a result, identifying the competing needs of various industries, instructors and students should be the first step in creating different competency models.  The goal, however, should be to focus on the differences, not to attempt to create a one-size fits all mold.  Recognizing the different needs should allow a collection of national standards to arise that address the needs of all, but tailored to the needs of communities they serve.

It takes a community

Unlike the credit hour system, where the standard is fairly uniform and comparisons easy –did the student sit for 16 hours in a classroom? –the competency model requires a discussion to define competency.   In addition, competency will vary depending on the circumstances.  Luckily, these challenges, while significant, can be overcome.  A nation-wide discussion is necessary and that will take some time.  But once the standards are set, the benefits are infinite: anyone can be a student and anyone can be an Instructor.