Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Competency-Based Education, Badges, and Professional Development

by Benjamin Roome (guest blogger) and James Willis 

*Benjamin Roome, Ph.D., is Chief Product Officer for Badge List and Ethics Consultant at Ethical Resolve

While competency-based education (CBE) has been around for many years, a number of forces are now advancing CBE to the forefront of the educational reform. Major initiatives include the U.S. Department of Education, the Lumina Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and many others. This, in turn, is transforming how students, institutions, and employers think about education. Moving away from the traditional metric of “seat time,” proponents of CBE suggest representing learning through the lens of specific competencies. This has re-ignited a debate that has been simmering for decades, which helps highlight one of the many ways digital badges may serve educational reform more broadly.

This educational approach is a natural fit for open digital badges because badges must be associated with publicly-available evidence of learning. Badges are also attractive to students and those engaged in professional development because they so effectively display the competencies of those who earn them. One problem facing the widespread adoption of competency-based approaches is that competencies, as they are traditionally characterized, are often pretty thin. Some competency-based systems contain long lists of meaningless metrics and evidence that is uncontextualized. Badges that are evidence-rich, containing levels of data that can be “drilled down,” help serve the goals that thinkers like Randy Bass call “systemic, but not reductionist.” Badges may thus be part of the solution that brings competency-based approaches to the forefront of pedagogical thinking.

Randy Bass
Georgetown University

Granularity in evaluative terms may not be particularly helpful if it contains too much data; those looking at badge evidence from social media and in hiring departments may simply gloss over the data if it is not structured appropriately. Long lists of competencies serve to distract from rather than accurately describe the deep learning that occurs in educational contexts.
Well-constructed badges with evidence that includes descriptions of interactions and meaningful data detailing the learning process can create systematization without reductionism. In a system that includes this structure, learning is not merely measured in time, but in what people actually take away from the experience and how they utilize it. Employers are able to see more easily not just “what you know” but “what you can do.”

Benjamin Roome
Guest Blogger
Portfolios are one example of how this type of evidence can clearly demonstrate learning. By linking the competencies articulated in the badges to the evidence contained in e-portfolio, open digital badges offer a promising way to tap the full potential of portfolios. What’s important here is that educators see how new tools can allow much deeper forms of assessment and measurement in learning to take place. One roadblock to adoption of competency-based learning is the approach to structuring the competencies that students are expected to acquire. Well-designed badge hosting and issuing software can help educators to see what counts as a meaningful competency and what does not count. Competencies should be detailed enough to explain a concrete ability, but not so granular that no one would care to earn a credential for acquiring it.

As illustrated by the Big Open Online Courses (BOOCs) discussed on numerous other posts at RMA, it is possible to define competencies in terms of engagement with peers around disciplinary resources and ideas. While some die-hards insist that competencies must be "measurable," it seems to us that this stipulation is rooted in very conventional models of credentialing that rely in paper transcripts and institutional reputation. The badges issued in the the Assessment BOOC can contain virtually all of the work the students completed, all of their peer interaction and promotion, and their actual score on module exams. Because the view of the badge can "drill down" as far into this evidence as they wish, this evidence together makes the specific competencies that the viewer first sees that much more compelling.

By understanding how badges can work hand-in-hand with competency-based approaches, educators can move more swiftly towards an assessment approach that carries much greater meaning than a letter grade or course unit.

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