a terminology rabbit hole ?

I read  ‘the basic idea behind competency based education 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 and thought ‘of course it should, don’t we do that ?’ And have spent the rest of the day in pursuit of definitions and clarifications and realised that it might be an appealing statement, but how far it is or isn’t actually implemented (and how far people think they should be or need to be providing this) seems to vary a lot in different contexts and countries. Why write about it here ? Maybe I can get some of it straighter by writing it down and it will remind me not to make assumptions and also quite how hard it can be to define things.

Audrey Watters is doing her yearly round up posts about top ed-tech trends at the moment and one of them was called Competencies and certificates and at one point in it she states that competency (as in competency based education) is often used interchangeably with mastery, proficiency and outcomes based. I couldn’t work out the difference between proficiency based and competency based testing when I was writing Module Three sessions (beyond competency seeming to be used more in vocational contexts), so this caught my interest, though when I started following her links and then trying to check definitions and sources out more specifically, links turned up stating both that they were and equally strongly that they weren’t the same thing. Adding to the mix, one link took me to the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition which has roles at different levels from novice to mastery passing through competence, proficiency and expertise, sounding tantalisingly useful in its own way but at this point largely just providing an example of how all those words can mean different things in different contexts. I was still hoping at this stage to unearth a definition or illustration of competency based education that gave me more more power to explain the flexible time element of courses in a word.

Audrey Watters had led me to Michael Feldstein saying that the idea of competency based education was that you should show you knew or could apply things rather than that you had spent a certain length of time studying something (that is where the first quote was from). This resonated as I’d just been explaining to someone that our Module One and Module Three courses are designed to be done over ten (or sometimes sixteen) weeks, but that we run them flexibly, so if someone realises a successful outcome is probably further beyond their grasp than they (and we) first thought, they can take more time, that we will keep supporting them until they are actually ready to take the exam or write and submit the assignment. Even as I explained it in the mail, I was thinking, why am I explaining this ? Surely that is how a professional development course should work, but anyone who did the Delta before 2008 did not have this option – they were dealing with a time based course and trying to achieve a pass in however long the provider deemed the usual period of time in which they should be able to succeed. This is true of a great many courses, that you are time constrained. Feldstein said ‘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’ and contrasts this with the idea of them being expected to master the material, but the time element being flexible (but then with time flexibility what do you expect ? 100% mastery ? or still a grade of some kind ? if still a grade the only thing that has changed is the idea of flexibility with time, so what makes competency based anything other than just based on a list of competencies – in which case time seems like a separate issue –  unless the grade is not tied to a competency on the time based scenario, but then what is it tied to ? no grade but only completion doesn’t seem right). It made me think about my own university experience  where you had to show up for a tutorial (with essay), but actually you didn’t have to do any of the other things (lectures were on offer but attendance was not tracked and varied hugely). There were exams at the end of the first and final years and you were graded, but you only had that one shot, time wise. If you failed finals, you failed – there wasn’t a second chance. In that sense it was time based as you could only do it within three years, no more, no less. I can remember my surprise the first time someone Turkish explained to me (jokingly as he was trying to postpone military service) that he had taken a university exam for the sixth time and accidentally almost passed it. I can also remember my faint sense of confusion about the idea that you could just keep trying to do something till you succeeded (which seems a sensible approach to me some 25 years on, but is another reminder of the fact that systems often only seem like the obvious way to do it because you are used to them).

I hadn’t thought of Delta as being a form of competency based education before (though there are stated learning outcomes and I have compared it to proficiency style language tests often enough when trying to persuade teachers on Module One not to get too past exam paper focused) and it did seem there was a change of feel between the old integrated approach and how the Modular version can be delivered and perhaps this is part of what underlay that. The thing that changed though between pre and post Modular was largely just that, the fact that the Modules make the time element much more flexible. The constraints on dates on coursework in Module Two don’t impact on the length of time people can take to deal with Module One. But when trying to track down whether it defined itself in these terms (as being a competency based form of education) the only time I came across competencies being talked about in relation to Delta was in an old copy of research notes, where it just seems to be assumed that it both was (in its integrated form) and is (in the new Modular form) competency based. So time wasn’t an issue.  This led to me wanting to know what a credit hour was (as credit hours in the US system were what these writers were usually contrasting with competency based systems). A lot of US programmes seem to set things out in terms of credit hours (Laitinen has it that 1 credit unit (or hour) is a course that requires 15 hours of ‘seat time’ in a classroom or lecture theater, with assumed 30 hours of self study to back that up and says that typically in the US you need 120 credit units to earn a bachelors degree). More digging established that of course students are assessed and some of that is by exams, but the perspective that funding (which seems to be one of the things that makes all this so sensitive) and accreditation focus on is more time based (talking about credit hours) than competency based (talking about what the learners will be able to do).

Feldstein also says getting people to think about competencies makes them think about what they want learners to have learnt and how they will know when that has been achieved, as opposed to starting from thinking about what they want to teach. That fits beautifully with language teaching (what do they need to know and how will you know if they can apply it, not what have you been told to ‘cover’). That tension between what the teachers wants to do or the institution prescribes and what the learner may or may not already know is precisely the same ground described in the ‘credit hours’ critiques I’ve read in the last few hours. But US colleges and universities do still have exams – so is this whole thing that they have only managed to centralise their definitions of credit hours and not the way they articulate learning outcomes ?

Feldstein also points out that competency was originally used with the intent to be different, in that it was supposed to relate to vocational skills. That linked to a piece where Ebersole  is precise about the difference between competency and mastery – setting out competencies as being defined by someone in the profession, but his example is of nursing, ok so ‘the profession’ sets out the competencies, but who in the profession ? He goes on to talk about nurse educators, but that would beg again the question of whether they are still practising professionals (as after all they have now become nurse educators – do they still nurse ? or teach ? which is primary when it comes to recognising which competencies underlie the profession ? better that they have nursed than not, but is that not just equivalent to recruiting faculty who have at some point done the job that those they are teaching are likely to aspire to go on and do ?) One advantage of the profession though is that a clearly defined profession may have a central body to determine competencies – could the same be said of academic disciplines ? Does that mean those in America arguing to make some more academic programmes competency based should not be ? It is hard to see why in theory you couldn’t specify things people should be able to do (given enough time and thought). Is there not the application of knowledge to problems in every discipline ? Does it have to be job related (or does it only have to be job related in so far as that is where the definition has been up until now).

Ebersole makes the a point that helps differentiate what he means by the terms in that he says most 22 year olds would not be competent in a profession, even though they might be able to demonstrate mastery of a body of knowledge, so is competence application ? If so it fits well with the Delta (where the key is application, even in the exam in most tasks you are asked to apply your body of knowledge to real world puzzles that largely mimic elements of the job – assessing learner language or seeing the underlying logic of a sequence in a course book). Again though, would someone not be more likely to be able to do this with practical work experience under their belts, but not unlikely to be able to do it if particularly well versed in background knowledge and practised in applying it to theoretical problems. It still feels as though I have missed something key.

I thought briefly that the British system of the Qualifications and Credit Framework was a better system of equivalence, that it gave more information than the US system of comparing credit hours. It states early in the framework document The fundamental premise of the FHEQ is that qualifications should be awarded on the basis of achievement of outcomes and attainment rather than years of study. Delta is at level 7 and that document shows what is involved in level 7 study through general descriptors and then Delta certificates suggest 20 credits per Module (though ever confusingly this site called accredited qualifications.org.uk suggests one credit hour is 10 hours study, but unlike American counterparts it doesn’t go on to mention seat time, self study or any other additions or caveats). So actually the US and UK systems turn out in the end to be a lot more simila than I spend much of the day believing. While tracking that down a Warwick University web page made reference to a post graduate qualification saying ‘Some qualifications are deemed to be ‘postgraduate in time but not in level’’ and the Delta is level 7 in level, but not the equivalent of a Masters in time. And a brief glimpse at the list Maria Constantinides supplies suggests that higher education instutitions in Britain are every bit as inconsistent about accepting equivalency as American universities are described as being.

I’ve now run out of time if I’m actually going to post this (experience suggests setting it aside to finish later means it will never get finished) and I seem to have got almost no further with clarifying my understanding of why some writers seem to equate competency based education with flexible time arrangements and vocational courses.

However, reading today has made it easier to understand why some are so animated about this (funding, making practices more open – or not). And those questions do come into Delta to some degree – one concern is that the push for American education to be more competency based is also a push to cut it up into smaller, more scaleable, more deliverable bits – something that within Delta also is simultaneously both appealing (more flexible, more teachers adding to their skill (or competency) base) and worrying (can it really be cut up further, might it then not become teaching McNuggets to borrow a concept and are they any more useful or applicable when needed than grammar McNuggets ?).

The positive has to be that competency based means we should always be focused on the learner, what they can already do and how we are helping them get to some defined goal – but weren’t we already ? And if any course isn’t, why not ? But I think that from now on I’ll stick to smaller focuses …

Ten days later Audrey Watters has gone back to this and defined things further – much more clearly than I managed (an object lesson in why I should stick to my guns when teachers ask for more models of assignments and tell them to grit their teeth and get on with it – if I had seen this before I got lost in other definitions, I would not have tried to write here on this subject at all and surely at least the trying was good for me), but in another sense, I’m still left with the sense of how is that different from what we are already doing ? Maybe as she has helped clarify some of it better I ought to come back to the question again another day.

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