Competency-based Adult Education in the Cloud Age

Competency-based education was in vogue in adult basic and vocational education in the United States from the 1960’s into the 1980’s. Although the term hasn’t been widely used since then, sometimes one sees its close cousins: mastery learning, performance-based learning, and outcomes-based learning; and by whatever name it is referred to, the approach is still widely used in vocational education curriculum throughout the world.

A common problem I see when reviewing adult and out-of-school youth curricula used in the U.S. and elsewhere is curriculum writers’ lack of familiarity with the underpinnings of competency-based curriculum design. For a quick refresher, here’s my take on what those are.

Twelve underpinnings of competency-based education

  1. A competency-based or mastery learning approach focuses on learning objectives (expected learning outcomes or competencies), not seat time in class.
  2. The approach assumes that all the students will master the competencies (learning objectives). Time on task may vary from student-to-student, and by subject area; however, mastering the competencies is held constant for all the learners in the class. Students learn at their own pace; some quickly or more slowly.
  3. In competency-based education, curriculum and instruction are driven by the learning objectives. In some contexts, for example work-related or vocational learning, these intended learning outcomes may need to be aligned with what is needed in the context, in this example, for what is needed at work in a particular industry.
  4. Students and teachers can correctly describe and explain the learning objectives of each lesson or module, unit and course.
  5. Instructional materials and activities are aligned with the learning objectives. More students will reach mastery of learning outcomes if their instruction is designed to help them acquire the intended learning. Although not required for competency-based education, there is evidence that contextualized materials and activities (embedded in a highly-motivating context or content) are most effective.
  6. Lesson/module, unit and course assessments are all aligned with the learning objectives at each level.
  7. Learning objectives:
    • Describe what learners can demonstrate that they know or can do, after the lesson/module, unit or course; they do not describe what a teacher will do in the classroom,
    • Include the conditions under which they will be measured, for example, what materials or tools are needed to perform the task, and
    • Include a performance standard that is measurable, one that clearly indicates how well a student needs to perform for mastery (for example, 4/5 or 80% correct, or that includes a list of specific measurement or observation criteria for determining mastery.)
  8. A teacher or other expert observes or measures and records how well each student has mastered the learning objectives.
  9. If students are pre-tested (at the beginning of a course or unit) they can “place out of” lessons, units or courses for which they can demonstrate that they have already mastered the competencies.
  10. Competency-based models greatly benefit from individually paced rather than solely group-paced instruction.
  11. Learning takes place inside and/or outside of a classroom. It is not important how students master the learning, only that they do. This means students may benefit from a wide range of instructional resources outside as well as inside a classroom.
  12. Although some people misunderstand “competency-based” to mean “minimum competencies”, the approach is not limited to only a minimum performance, and often mastery is expected.

These curriculum features or underpinnings are not dependent on having computer or Internet technology. The approach can be used in designing curriculum for villages in poor or developing countries where there may be no electricity and possibly few or no phones; however, they are especially interesting and rich in the context of blended learning that offers a combination of face-to-face and online, web-accessible learning.

Competency-based Curriculum Design with Blended Learning

Computers and other web-accessible devices (smart phones, tablets, and netbooks) enable curriculum writers and teachers to more easily individualize instruction and assessment for each student, providing greater ability for classroom teachers to assure mastery of the learning objectives for all their students. With thousands of online instructional videos available now, some with print-based practice pages and  sophisticated data management systems, teachers can benefit from a model that blends face-to-face and online learning for easy, practical solutions to individually tailored and mastery learning.

Changing Role of Teachers

Use of a blended online and face-to-face instructional model has implications for changes in the teacher’s role. As Dr. Robert W. Mendenhall, the President of Western Governors University, a large nonprofit, competency-based, online university, wrote in a recent Huffington Post blog post,

“[We must] fundamentally change the faculty role. When faculty serve as lecturers, holding scheduled classes for a prescribed number of weeks, the instruction takes place at the lecturers’ pace. For most students, this will be the wrong pace. Some will need to go more slowly; others will be able to move much faster. Competency-based learning shifts the role of the faculty from that of “a sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side.” Faculty members work with students, guiding learning, answering questions, leading discussions, and helping students synthesize and apply knowledge.” [1]

The web provides teachers and students with a wide array of excellent (often free) web-based learning resources, including instructional videos and podcasts (mp3 or audio files), and it increasingly provides teachers with tools for finding and organizing these resources. Among these tools, I have recently published a list of free, short instructional numeracy and math web-based instructional videos, many designed for adult learners. This free publication may be useful to numeracy or math curriculum writers or teachers who want to integrate free instructional videos into their existing curriculum. [2]

In the digital, and now cloud, age, especially with the acceleration of access to the web through smart phones and tablets, it may be time to combine the power of competency-based approaches and online learning.  Individually paced blended learning leading to mastery learning, once pie in the sky for most classroom teachers, is now as close as a digital cloud.

[2]The ABE and ASE/HSE Math Videos List will be found in my public dropbox folder (you can subscribe to dropbox for free) at:


One Response to “Competency-based Adult Education in the Cloud Age”

  1. Book Lovers chennai Says:

    Generally awareness about Competency-based Education is less.Sharing this type of post is useful for everyone.
    Good post.

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