Competency-based learning proving popular

Canvas’ new competency-based gradebook is part of a larger trend toward alternative student assessment

competency-assessments-learningAt a January conference in Washington, D.C., two representatives from Western Governors University claimed that the institution had transitioned from an experiment in competency-based learning to a “proof of concept.”

“We know from that different people learn things at different rates,” Sally Johnstone, vice president for academic advancement at the university, said. “We also know that the same individual may learn different subjects at different rates. We can use competency-based education and online tools to accommodate that. We are no longer in a position where we have to ask all students to do the same thing at the same time at the same pacing.”

With competency-based learning, student progress is not necessarily mapped to traditional grades, textbook chapters, or even, in Western Governor’s case, semester time-frames. Instead, it’s based around the mastering of key concepts, often at a more personalized pace.

Nearly 90 percent of Americans say they believe students should be granted credit for knowledge they attained outside a classroom, according to a 2013 Gallup poll, and 70 percent say mastery should be the key factor in awarding college credit. In recent months, a number of universities, assisted by ed-tech companies and organizations, have made a push toward the increasingly popular mode of education.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding an incubator for institutions trying to design competency-based learning models. The Lumina Foundation recently created a network of more than 20 institutions that will offer competency-based degrees, including DePaul University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Texas A&M University.

Interest in competency-based learning can also be seen in the development of new assessment technologies. Instructure announced on Wednesday that its Canvas learning management system will now feature what it calls a Learning Mastery Gradebook.

(Next page: Features)

“The Mastery view isolates specific learning outcomes or objectives in a course,” said Jared Stein, Instructure’s vice president of education and research. “It clearly highlights the students who are achieving a mastery of outcomes, as well as students who are near mastery and those folks who are at risk of failing those competencies.”

Stein said the feature, which works side-by-side with the traditional gradebook, can help instructors know when to intervene with a student’s progress.

“There’s really a growing interest in alternative forms of assessment,” he said. “Teachers have been clamoring for this kind of thing. They have big ideas for competency-based learning, but haven’t had an intuitive and easy to understand way of tracking it.”

Meanwhile, an East Carolina University researcher has also developed and licensed a competency-based assessment technology. The university granted AAL Informatics the exclusive license of the assessment technology, called XComP.

R. Todd Watkins Jr., assistant dean of dental education and informatics at the ECU School of Dental Medicine, said the assessment tool he created makes it possible for institutions to assess all outcomes from all courses mapped to specific competencies. The platform captures all the data needed for university self-study and program accreditation.

“The real value proposition is overall competence,” Watkins said. “That’s always important to remember.”

On a daily basis, XComP, a sort-of initialism for eXtensible Competencies Platform, culls thousands of detailed pieces of data from exams, skills assessments and other coursework, and displays it graphically on a grid, rendering an up-to-date picture of student performance.

The grid allows students, faculty, and administrators to immediately identify strengths, weaknesses, and curriculum deficits. The program “doesn’t care about the percentages you get,” Watkins said. “But which areas of the exam you miss.”

Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.

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