January 27, 2015

Competency-Based Learning & Creating Meaningful Experiences: Mutually Exclusive?

Lately, I have grown to be more skeptical of competency-based learning as used in the contexts it has been generally implemented, despite the fact that I am working to integrate library information literacy badges into our university-wide general education program (see my recent presentation with Andrew Battista about this topic for the 2015 CUNY Games Festival). So I was a little unsure what to expect in the Educause webinar I attended yesterday, Participatory Learning and Assessment in Competency-Based Contexts (ignore the unfortunate abbreviation of assessment in that URL...).

But I was pleasantly surprised with the webinarand also glad to see it was Dan Hickey from Indiana University doing the presentation. I took a BOOC on assessment practices with him a year or two ago and the way that course was developed has influenced my online course design.

I just wanted to reflect on what he talked about during the webinar because I think it's important for info lit instructional design, student engagement in general, and also as a way to think about standards vs the framework as we continue to have ongoing conversations about the ACRL revisions.

So first, if you're not familiar with competency-based learning (CBL), you can get some background here. Granted, that background info might be a bit biased since the Dept of Ed is in favor of implementing CBL. It's essentially the idea of replacing Carnegie seat hours with focus on passing assessments instead. So, if you prove you already have the skills or knowledge, you don't have the spend the time (re)learning the material, or if you learn content more quickly than others, you can spend less time on a unit.. On one hand, there are some great things that could come out of that, especially when we think about making information literacy instruction more appealing for both faculty and students. But there is also the *other* hand, where both Audrey Watters and Tressie McMillan Cottom have discussed the false meritocracy this reinforces, creating more barriers and difficulty for lower-income students in particular. Likewise, when you can just buy your skills through "cheaper" online assessments that have been corporatized, where does that leave social learning and any magic that could happen in the classroom? And how much weight does that really carry for finding a job (particularly for marginalized groups)?

Dan Hickey's presentation seemed to be about bringing the benefits of CBL into the classroom, while avoiding the not-so-great parts. He did mention that CBL is really like an assembly line, and that it's hard to use competencies in this way because teaching is so contextual. We don't want to make competencies a "statement of declarative knowledge." It's impossible to have students all learn the same things in the same way. Different students will have experiences that make them find more importance in one thing over another, and different groups of students will create knowledge that differs based on varying points of view.

Hickey discussed 5 Participatory Learning and Assessment Design Principles in order to make this point and demonstrate how to better incorporate CBL to make it contextual, examples follow:

  1. Use public contexts to give meaning to knowledge tools: it's necessary to help students unpack between course concepts and their own context. This is personalized learning, not individualized learning.
  2. Reward productive disciplinary engagement: disciplinary engagement involves both declarative knowledge and cultural practices. Be open with comments and engagement, stay away from grades. Let students interact and explore.
  3. Grade artifacts through local reflections: save time for interaction, not on nitpicking via grading. Grade reflections instead of posts and comments (and stay away from using discussion boards).
  4. Let individuals assess their understanding privately: use re-engagement instead of remediation, and offer open-ended and optional opportunities.
  5. Measure achievement discreetly: there is too much teaching to the test, focus on bigger ideas. Withhold item-level feedback for test security and don't let students obsess over item-level answer memorization.