Competency-based education: Training for the gap

Part one of a three-part series looking at the competency-based education delivery model, Competency to Credential, developed by BCcampus.


As part of its ongoing scan of higher education teaching and learning approaches, BCcampus has monitored the recent interest and developments in competency-based education (CBE) and developed a flexible, systemic approach for delivery of CBE utilizing educational technology called ‘Competency to Credential’. Competency to Credential (CTC) was developed in early 2013 by BCcampus as a concept to better deliver and support education and training in competency-based disciplines such as those in trades and health care. This article is the first of a three-part series that explores this concept and associated with a recent white paper published by BCcampus.

The not-so-new tactic of CBE has been generating recent attention within the academic and professional worlds, and BCcampus has proposed innovative solutions to challenges and improved opportunities made possible through this approach. A credential, work history, and life experience all contribute to attainment of competencies – it has been long recognized that learning happens in and out of the classroom and so these experiences should be recognized. This post will focus on approaches of competency-based education, and future posts will explore the educational technology tools that support CBE delivery and a follow-up on the Professional Cook pilot program that we collaborated on earlier this year.

Competency-based education (CBE) is an outcomes-based approach to education that challenges students to assess their current abilities, demonstrate achievement of competencies, and identify areas where further learning is required. By recognizing specific areas that need improvement, students can create an individual learning plan that enables them to master their field of study, allowing them to apply their newly-mastered skills sooner.

The goal of CBE is to create a demonstrated mastery of defined competencies and there are generally two approaches and applications to CBE: the first involves the more traditional realms of skilled trades and healthcare education and training that have been in use since the 1980s. The second approach is relatively new and applied to more academic areas, such as business degrees. This latter approach enables students to apply their life-learning and natural abilities to challenge existing schemas, creating a more flexible and personal means to master their niche than has traditionally been the case

“Our interest in CBE has developed as a result of a number of challenges in the delivery of trades and health care education and training,” said Lawrence Parisotto, Director of Collaborative Services at BCcampus. “Through our involvement with projects that develop new competency profiles or seek recognition for foreign training and credentials in some healthcare and skilled trades in the province, we’ve discovered that, in some cases, students find it difficult to navigate a prior learning assessment and recognition pathway to augment their existing competencies, opting instead for a longer and more arduous route of completing a full program of study. We saw a definite need for a challenge-driven, innovation approach.”

The current focus for work on CBE at BCcampus is applying tools to support systemic use of CBE within the more traditional realms, where there already are well defined competencies outlined by the various professional associations and industries. This enables us to create an effective method of assessing, providing training defined by individual learning plans, and evaluating competencies and skill gaps to provide the students with the specific and relevant tools to help them improve where needed.

“Using educational technology tools to support CBE in traditional areas has proven effective. We have the technology that allows us not only to offer online self-assessment, and flexible, individualized learning,” said Michelle Glubke, Collaborative Services Manager at BCcampus. “But also to create competency libraries and common curriculum repositories for a variety of trades and skills training.”

Within the academic realm, CBE is also gaining popularity. This recent article from educause looks at the value of competencies, the combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities, and compares them to the traditional academic currency of credits, courses, and credentials. An example of this approach is the Washington State Community and Technical College system where colleges are developing a completely online, openly licensed, competency-based business transfer degree program.  The program will be designed so students can work through an 18-credit transfer degree at their own pace, taking advantage of prior experience and college credit where appropriate.

While the advantages of CBE are apparent, there are challenges as well. When post-secondary institutions transition to a competency-based system, it may involve significant cultural and business process changes affecting everything from the institution’s educational philosophy and culture to its methods of instruction, testing, grading, reporting, promotion, and graduation. This change may take considerable time to plan and execute.

Another challenge is found within the current education models. In order for CBE programs to transfer effectively between institutions, a universally accepted competency framework will be required, and the participants and institutions need to recognize and appreciate the value of CBE credentials.

This article is part one of a three-part series looking at the competency-based education delivery model, Competency to Credential, developed by BCcampus. See part two and three.

Notable Quotes

“We recognize that there’s a need for a better and systemic application of the competency-based approach within the trades, particularly in their work place experience. For example, a 2013 survey by the Industry Training Authority of B.C. identified that it was typically the case to hear that many, or even most, apprentices were not being given access to the full range of available work-site learning opportunities. Overall, the majority of participating apprentices suggested their sponsors were simply not mindful of their obligation to provide scope of trade exposure to apprentices. This can lead to severe dissatisfaction with their job and training program, and can result in them failing to complete the formal apprenticeship.” Lawrence Parisotto, Director of Collaborative Programs and Services at BCcampus.

“Competency-based education lets students progress at their own pace as soon as they’ve learned the subject matter,” said Connie Broughton, project director for competency-based education (CBE) programs at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC). “We expect this competency-based option to a business transfer degree will save students time and money because they can move rapidly through material they have already mastered with prior learning and work experience.”

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