Editorial Pick 2015: Why competency-based learning isn’t happening anytime soon

Regulatory noise stifles, slows rise of competency-based learning.

slow[Editor’s Note: Our editorial picks include stories the editors believe either highlighted an important issue in 2015 and/or signaled the beginning of an escalating trend or issue for 2016.]

Earlier this month, Inside Higher Ed reported on how the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General is stymying the rise of competency-based learning in higher education—and is at odds with the rest of the Department, which has been enthusiastic about competency-based learning’s potential.

The inspector general released a critical audit of how the Higher Learning Commission, a regional accreditor, considered colleges’ proposals for new competency-based credentials, in particular around whether the programs being approved had “regular and substantive” interaction between faculty members and students in academic programs.

I, along with many others, have pointed out numerous times that this particular regulation makes little sense in today’s world of emerging online, competency-based programs—and we should instead be moving toward outcomes-based judgments around institutions. But the friction is also entirely predictable, as competency-based education simply does not fit into the traditional value network and associated regulatory structures of higher education.

Whenever a disruptive innovation emerges—and online, competency-based learning deployed in the right business model is a disruptive innovation—it doesn’t look as good as existing services according to the old metrics of performance. Disruptions tend to be simpler than existing services; they start by solving undemanding problems. As a result, the sector’s leading organizations often dismiss them because they don’t look terribly good in comparison to the way people have traditionally thought of quality. But they also redefine the notion of what is quality and performance. As such, they don’t fit neatly into existing regulatory structures and often create new ones over time. Judging them by the old regulations can also limit their innovative potential by trapping and confining them to replicate parts of the existing value propositions of the old system rather than deliver on their new value proposition.

(Next page: Old metrics won’t cut it)