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How should liberal arts schools think about competency-based education? And where should technology fit into this thinking?

These seem like good questions for our community to discuss. I’ll start with 3 thoughts:

1 - Learning As Questions:

The value of a liberal arts education rests less in the questions that our students learn to answer, and more in the questions that our students learn to ask. I am skeptical of any claim that curiosity or intellectual risk taking can be accurately measured. An educational approach designed around evaluating competencies runs the risk of prioritizing what can be easily measured, rather than stressing what is actually important. Can tolerance, compassion, and open mindedness (all central to any liberal arts course of study) be measured?

This is not to say that some of the ideas of competency-based education have no place in a traditional liberal arts curriculum. Even an education that stresses the development of critical thinking skills, collaboration, and the ability to marshal evidence in the support of arguments requires a strong foundation of facts and knowledge.

Could we apply competency-based educational principals to foundational courses? Are there other methods beyond the traditional lecture-based introductory course, (a method still in wide-use across liberal arts schools), that we can experiment with on our (residential) campuses? Can we use what we know about combining adaptive learning platforms with blended / online course designs to re-think how we create, teach, and assess our introductory courses?

2 - The Problem with Abstraction:

I often think of Temple Grandin’s worries that our postsecondary education inappropriately privileges thought over action, the abstract over the concrete. Grandin wants to connect book learning with the imperative to solve real world problems. Grandin personifies this goal in her combing research on autism with her work to reform the industrial meat industry.  

The value of a liberal arts education is that it prepares the learner to address the range of problems that challenge our world. In a liberal arts education the learner is not asked what job they want to do when they leave school, but what problem they want to help solve. This approach makes good economic sense, as jobs change much faster than schools can create curricula that is exactly matched to specialized labor market demands. A liberal arts graduate is good a learning how to learn, and that skill will be the most prized in the 21st century.

Where liberal arts school can evolve, and where both competency-based education and technology may be able to play a role, is connect the traditional liberal arts curriculum co-curricular activities. A liberal arts education should strive to bridge the development of abstract thinking skills with the solving of real-world problems.

Movements towards investing in experiential learning as part of the regular path of liberal arts training are efforts in this direction. Competencies can be demonstrated outside of the traditional confines of the classroom - as the creation and measurement of specific competencies can be integrated into planning for co-curricular activities. Digital platforms can help link the analytical work that occurs inside the classroom with the applied/hands-on work that occurs outside of traditional coursework.

3 - The Benefits of Transparency:

One advantage of a competency-based education approach is that the relevant competencies are (should be) transparent. The benchmarks are clear to the learner, as well as to those who may utilize the attainment of competencies for employment or admission to further education. Competency-based education seeks to flip the structure of traditional education, where seat-time is held constant but learning is variable.  In a competency-based approach, the path towards (and time involved) towards gaining credit (demonstrating competency) can be as variable as the backgrounds, skills, and efforts of the learner.

In a liberal arts context, however, the demonstration of narrow technical competencies is only part of the educational goals. A liberal arts education puts great value in the process of learning, not just the outcomes. Struggling with hard questions, ideally in the context of a relationship with an experienced and well-supported educator, is as important (if not more important) than coming up with the right answers.

What we can do, I think, is to leverage technology to make this learning process more transparent. Too often we lock up the product of the intellectual labors within our liberal arts classes so that this work is only visible to the student and the professor. Digital platforms should enable the intellectual creations of our students to be open to other learners. Students should have the opportunity to participate in scholarly communities of discussion. The best faculty invite students into the conversation going on in their discipline, and this conversation is shifting to new (online and digital) venues.

How is the discussion of competency-based education playing out at your liberal arts institution?

Do you see a possible role for badging as a bridge between a traditional liberal arts program, and a new competency-based approach to education?

What are your thoughts on how liberal arts schools can leverage technology to accrue some of the benefits of a competency-based approach, while still preserving the true value of a liberal arts education?

How can, and should, those of us working in educational technology in a liberal arts context enter (and influence) the discussion about competency-based education?


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