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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2014

A Hack Education Project

Competencies and Certificates

Part 5 in my Top 10 Trends of 2014 series.

I’m not a big fan of using the Hype Cycle to explain the adoption of technologies. The Hype Cycle is a great piece of marketing for the research firm Gartner, but I’m not sure of its utility beyond that. Yes, sometimes it does seem like certain trends reach a “Peak of Inflated Expectations” then sink into the “Trough of Disillusionment.” But not all trends work that way, and the Hype Cycle does nothing to explain why or why not technologies become interesting or important or mainstream. There’s not a clear timeline for adoption or rejection or “best practices” to emerge. As the annual Horizon Report illustrates, for example, some technologies – hyped or not – stay on the cusp of adoption for years. Predicted to become “a thing,” some instead simply fade away.

Neither competency-based education nor alternative certification efforts have reached the frenzied hype of MOOCs. (Not much in education technology has, with the possible exception of Khan Academy.) After writing tens of thousands of words on the last two) posts in this series, these trends – competency and certification – feel much smaller. Or at least this post is shorter. There is talk that competency-based education and certification are poised to become “a thing," to "disrupt education," but again, I just don’t think that change happens in ways that neatly fits into a research firm’s or a business school professor’s model.

Growing interest this year in competency-based education and alternative certifications is certainly tied to the labor market and the high cost of college tuition. It’s also a reflection of the changing demographics of post-secondary students. The average age of those enrolled in the Flexible Option, the University of Wisconsin’s competency-based degree program, for example: 37. And finally, competency-based initiatives are related to a very, very old push to free students from “seat-time” and “the credit hour” and to allow them to move through course materials “at their own pace.” Thanks to technology, some argue, this is increasingly possible.

But competency-based education is hardly new. The General Educational Development test (the GED) is over 70 years old. Initially designed to help soldiers who’d joined the military without finishing high school demonstrate that they had academic skills equivalent to those with a HS diploma, the GED has been an important, albeit highly flawed, competency-based assessment.

A newly revised GED went into effect at the beginning of the year. The test is now a for-profit effort run jointly by Pearson and the non-profit American Council on Education (ACE). The new exam is aligned with the Common Core (the next trend in this series!), and it’s proven to be more difficult to pass (just 53% of test-takers now pass, as opposed to 72% under the older version). The new exam is more expensive as well. The price has gone up to $120, and you’re now charged $30 each time you retake it. As a result, the number of those taking the test has plunged. During the first half of the year, only 105,000 had taken the test; in the past, about 750,000 typically take the test each year.

As this change highlights, it's worth asking who benefits from, who profits from competency-based programs, and how?

Pearson – no big surprise – is one of the many players interested in a push towards competency-based education. In July, it launched a “competency-based education framework and readiness assessment for post-secondary education.”

Other key players and new players: ACE. The Lumina Foundation. Perpetual education reform cheerleaders, the Clayton Christensen Institute. The Gates Foundation. Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America (which announced a $10,000 competency-based, self-paced bachelors degree in health care management and communications this year). Western Governors University (whose teacher education program was named the best in the country by the US News and the National Council on Teacher Quality, a group created by the conservative think tank the Fordham Institute). Lumen Learning (which announced it was working with several Washington state community colleges to offer a competency-based business degree using all open educational resources). The University of Michigan (which received approval from its regional accreditor for a competency-based master’s degree in health professions education). Brandman University (which estimates students can finish a degree in 30 months). The University of Texas System (which will launch its first competency-based courses in the Fall of 2015). Lipscomb University. Excelsior College. The University of Wisconsin. Capella University. Northern Arizona University.

(There are also some efforts to introduce competency-based education at the K–12 level. The Gates Foundation asked the RAND Corporation to evaluate the programs it had funded. The study results are here. The Clayton Christensen Institute’s response, here.)

Although there was no reauthorization of the Higher Education Act this year – that would require a functioning federal government – the House of Representatives did unanimously pass H.R. 3136, a piece of legislation that would support experimentation with competency-based degree programs. The bill didn’t make it out of the Senate education committee. But it’s a signal nonetheless that there is fairly broad support among politicians for more CBE.

Another boost for competency-based education: the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which – funded with a grant from the Gates Foundation – is working to "develop a portable and competency-based framework for general education.”

“What Counts” as Competency?

Unfortunately, competency-based education easily becomes just another education reform buzzword, often used interchangeably with “mastery” and “proficiency” and “outcomes-based. What counts as "competency"? How is it measured?

MindWires Consulting’s Michael Feldstein penned an excellent “explainer” on this topic this year: “What Faculty Should Know About Competency-Based Education.”

The basic idea behind CBE is that what a student learns to pass a course (or program) should be fixed while the time it takes to do so should be variable. In our current education system, a student might have 15 weeks to master the material covered in a course and will receive a grade based on how much of the material she has mastered. CBE takes the position that the student should be able to take either more or less time than 15 weeks but should only be certified for completing the course when she has mastered all the elements. When a student registers for a course, she is in it until she passes the assessments for the course. If she comes in already knowing a lot and can pass the assessments in a few weeks—or even immediately—then she gets out quickly. If she is not ready to pass the assessments at the end of 15 weeks, she keeps working until she is ready.

In theory, competency-based education changes the focus from how much time students spend in a class to what they have learned. But it does not really resolve the question of what it is we expect college students to learn or what’s the best way for them to demonstrate this. Arguably CBE implies too that education can be reduced to learning objects and skills – that these specific things are attainable by individuals studying alone, that knowledge is not constructed in dialogue with others.

CBE programs often focus heavily on assessments (a clue perhaps as to why Pearson is so interested. Testing services are a major part of its business). Some programs award students credits for prior work experience, mapping what students have done on the job to competencies. Some rely heavily on adaptive learning software. Some degree programs have no professors (just mentors and coaches). Some use CBE to supplement traditional degree programs.

In other words, competency-based education is a trend, but what it looks like is really a mixed bag.

That mixed bag prompted the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General to audit how financial aid was awarded to these programs. The different approaches to CBE demand that programs are scrutinized individually. (Unlike the “credit hour,” which has become a standard – for better or for worse – CBE isn't standardized in the same sort of way.) The Inspector General found that the department “did not adequately address the risks that schools offering direct assessment programs pose to the Title IV programs and did not establish sufficient processes to ensure that only programs meeting Federal regulatory requirements are approved as Title IV eligible.” (PDF) As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, “The key concern is that the department could rubber-stamp programs that essentially amounted to correspondence programs — which are ineligible for federal student aid — if it did not conduct a thorough review of each application.”

There’s much glee among education reformers about predicting that the increasing support for CBE is an indication that “the degree is doomed.” There are arguments from some corners that CBE, and not MOOCs, is “the real revolution.”

But do students want a slimmed down, unbundled degree? (And if so, why?) Writing earlier this month, “Dean Dad” Matt Reed noted that, “I’m consistently struck at the resonance that some of those traditional trappings have for non-traditional students. They may need scheduling flexibility and appreciate accelerated times to degree, but they still want to feel like they’ve attended a ’real college.’” And it’s not at all clear that alternate certification programs will ”count."

Do they count for students? Do they count for employers?

Do Certificates “Count”?

“Can Digital ‘Badges’ and ‘Nanodegrees’ Protect Job Seekers From a First-Round Knockout?” The Chronicle of Higher Education asked in November. Betteridge’s law of headlines – along with an understanding of how human resources departments, labor markets, and prestige work – tells us that the answer is “No.”

There are still huge pressures – social and economic – for workers to have college degrees. As Inside Higher Ed reports on a study released this fall, “ A full 65 percent of the [job] postings reviewed by Burning Glass for executive secretaries and assistants required a bachelor’s degree, for instance, while just 19 percent of the current holders of those positions have four-year degrees, a 46 percentage point gap; the difference was 34 percentage points for supervisors of mechanics and installers and 25 points for training and development assistants in human resources departments.” According to that report, “…employers have come to rely on a bachelor’s degree primarily as a way of screening applicants, in a way that may not be related to job duties themselves.”

Clearly the importance of the bachelor’s degree didn’t stop there from being multiple efforts to offer alternatives. Ideally cheaper alternatives. Ideally alternatives that are also recognized by employers.

As I noted in the previous post in this series, the MOOC providers continued to offer paid certificates, and in June Udacity launched what it called the “nanodegree.”

General Assembly, which offers classes in programming and business, launched “The GA Credentialing Network” in October, “designed to provide better visibility and understanding into the pathways to jobs in the 21st century economy. In partnership with a consortium of more than twenty companies, including GE, PayPal, and Elance-oDesk, we are developing a series of competency-based credentials for high-skilled positions in technology, design, and business.”

And not to be left out, Pearson unveiled a “proprietary badge platform” based on Mozilla’s open standard for badges.

But will badges and nanodegrees help? “Short-term community-college certificates, which have been growing rapidly in popularity as a way to get students quickly and cheaply into jobs, do not, in fact, help most recipients land employment or earn more money,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in November.

Symptom and Disease

As I argued previously, MOOCs are the symptom, not the disease. I think the same could be said here. Efforts to rethink the shape of post-secondary education, specifically through competency-based and alternate certification programs – are a symptom. (And as I’ve insisted in the last couple of posts: read Tressie McMillan Cottom.)

The disease: social and economic inequality, job insecurity, and the false promise that more education – a college degree, a certificate, a badge – will fix that.

First published December 11, 2014.