Technologies That Unlock Competency-Based Learning

By Schaffhauser, Dian | T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), January 2014 | Go to article overview

Technologies That Unlock Competency-Based Learning


Schaffhauser, Dian, T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)


In New Hampshire, the shift away from an educational system based on "seat time" is well underway. Here's what educators there have learned.

THE EDUCATION COMMUNITY felt a jolt in August 2013, when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a report calling for the dismantling of the "Carnegie Unit." Beyond the obvious irony of the announcement, readers may have been surprised to learn that one state--New Hampshire --was way ahead of the game. Since the 2008-2009 academic year, the schools there have been shifting from the traditional time-based model of crediting students for sitting in a seat and paying attention for about 180 days to a model that requires them to prove mastery of competencies. What New Hampshire schools and districts have learned in subsequent years is invaluable, because it points out the challenges that districts in every other state will face as they move toward what could become the next great transformation of education. And as with all education transformations in the 21st century, technology is playing a key role.

From Carnegie to Competency

At the core of competency-based learning are two elements: a competency itself, and an assessment by which that competency is measured. According to Steve Kossakoski, CEO of New Hampshire-based Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS), a competency "is the big idea in the course."

Rose Colby, a competency-based learning and assessment specialist and education administration faculty member at New Hampshire's Plymouth State University, added that competency includes a "student's ability to transfer concepts and skills across content areas." A sample competency might be the following: "Students will demonstrate the ability to comprehend, analyze and critique informational text in print and non-print media." As Colby declared, "It's big, it's demanding, it fits all the criteria for a strong statement, and my kids in my course are probably going to interact with that competency multiple times across the year in multiple units of instruction."

Plenty of states have seen the virtue of the competency approach, so they're offering it as an option to districts. To succeed, though, it's got to be all or nothing, said Joe DiMartino, president and co-founder of The Center for Secondary School Redesign. "The mandate for earning a high school graduation diploma in Vermont for probably the last 20 years has been either demonstrating mastery of the state's standards or earning 20 Carnegie Units. The 'or' is what everybody has done," he said. "If the traditional way of doing it is an option, the traditional way of doing it is going to remain."

In New Hampshire, a local control state, every district made its own decisions about the format of its competencies. Nick Donohue, New Hampshire's former deputy commissioner of education and current president and CEO of the education reform organization the Nellie Mae Foundation, recalled, "When we passed a regulation saying you need to eliminate seat time and move to competencies, we also allowed different districts to simply tell us how they were going to do that. Some people said, 'We're using the exact same assessments we used last year. We're not really changing anything. We are now calling this our competency based system.'" He conceded that, "It's very hard to make creative broad-scale change in a big system all at once."

From 2008 to 2011, Colby and others in New Hampshire raced from district to district, helping teachers sort out the "competency design" work. She remembered, "You'd go into a school and the Eng fish competencies might be great, but 85 percent of the math competencies might be at a low level." So the New Hampshire Department of Education pulled together some of the best districts to develop a "competency validation rubric." As Colby explained, this was a filtering system through which districts could run their competency statements to determine if they were strong or weak. …

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