This month the University of Maryland's University College has floated a bold new idea. Competency based education! Quite remarkable really, students will be able to earn credits based on the demonstration of content rather than just being able to repeat what the prof has said. University College is the arm of the University of Maryland whose mission has always been the reach out to non-traditional students. The backbone of their program has been the men and women of the armed forces who were serving overseas. They used to brag that the sun never set on University College. With the reduction in the armed forces, the College has seen a significant reduction in students so they are seeking to re-build enrollment by reaching out to the business community and trying to partner with that community to train and education current employees.
Of course, no good idea goes uncriticized. People are complaining that what it means to be competent is not clearly defined. Clearly defined has never been an issue in traditional course work. Each instructor "clearly defines" what is expected at the beginning of each course. Just ask students how often mind reading has been the most important skill when trying to get good grades.
There are so many just mind boggling ideas here. Such as students would finish the course in as much time as it took to master the content. Could be more or less than the typical semester. Just imagine the emphasis would be on student learning not hours in a classroom. One professor even had the courage to say out loud that he thought it was a good idea "so long as it does not lead to cutting faculty positions." Now that's putting it out there- student learning vs. jobs for the teachers. Throughout the discussion of whether or not the competency based approach was a good idea, was whether or not it would be financially beneficial to the College.
The Harbour School has been measuring student learning based on a competency based program for over 20 years. The approach is both so logical and intuitive that one cannot help but wonder 1) why every school doesn't use the approach and 2) why do schools keep acting like it is a remarkable new way to measure learning.
Truth is, with a very few exceptions, in the real world, you either can do the job or you can't do the job. If you aren't competent in the skill, you will either be trained or be released from those job responsibilities. Granted, teaching in a competency based program is harder work for the teacher. Responsibility shifts to student learning and away from teacher teaching. In the traditional program the teacher throws content out there and the student either makes the catch or not. The teacher is considered to have "taught well" if he or she adheres to quality accepted practices of what is good teaching. In the traditional model, good teaching can occur independent of student learning. Not so in the competency based approach. Of course the question of whether there can be good teaching without student learning is a discussion best left for another day.
Until then, let's hope that the University College of The University of Maryland follows the lead of The Harbour School and moves to competency based learning. It is a good idea whose time has long since come.