Are MOOCs and Competency-Based Learning on a Collision Course?

collisionLet’s just be clear: Massive Open Online Courseware (MOOC) and Competency-Based Learning (CBL) are not the same thing. They both claim to be “personalized” learning, but that personalization is expressed in completely different ways. In the case of the MOOC, the personalization is in choosing courses that you’re interested in and being able to access those courses, regardless of where you live. In the case of CBL, the personalization is in the administration of the instruction; the learner‘s task is to master specific competencies by demonstrating skills to a criterion. The path to that mastery is adjusted based on the particular learner’s needs, thus, personalization.

This isn’t to say that a MOOC couldn’t use a CBL approach. But from what I know of them, they don’t. The more-or-less standard approach to MOOCs is this: video clips of the instructor lecturing, readings, and short, multiple-choice (sometimes fill-in) assessments. There are outliers, but for the most part, that’s the MOOC format. And it’s somewhat understandable, given that the goal of MOOCs appears to be quantity of students…and with 10,000+ students in a given course it is impossible for instructors to give meaningful feedback to individual learners themselves. So here we are: essentially the same problem that I had as an undergraduate in my Intro to Biology course, with 350 students in the lecture hall, writ large. But MOOCs do solve a couple of problems: they create a new channel for higher education institutions (thereby creating more revenue for those institutions and for individual instructors who make their own books required reading) and they give access to learners who might not otherwise have access due to where they live, the hours they work, or their incomes.

But here’s my concern: what do learners really achieve in MOOCs? Yes, I can complete a course…heck, I might even be able to earn a degree. But I’m not sure about the learning part. As I’ve written about before, I took two MOOCs recently…not so that I could write posts about them, but because they were THE big thing in edtech and higher ed, so I thought I should experience it myself. I was actually really excited about MOOCs. I liked the egalitarian philosophy of MOOCs, particular those provided for free by non-profits. And on a personal level, I thought it would be fun to take a couple of courses just to learn some new things (I know, I know, don’t I have enough education already??).

I took one course through Stanford and one course through the University of Maryland. The one through Stanford was first and it was about creativity. The course had videos, readings, and homework assignments (some of which were completed individually and some as part of a team). There weren’t any multiple-choice assessments, but we were required to provide peer feedback for our uploaded homework assignments. I kind of enjoyed the assignments, but I was frustrated by the fact that I never got any “expert” feedback on my submissions. After all, that’s why I take a course…to learn from an expert. So that part was pretty frustrating. I didn’t really know what skills I was supposed to be mastering or how close to mastery I was getting.

Little did I know, at the time, that compared with the second MOOC that I would take, the first one was AWESOME. The second MOOC, from the University of Maryland, focused on Entrepreneurism, something that is near and dear to my heart, of late, as you know. This course included about 40 minutes worth of video lectures each week and a short assessment to, purportedly, check our understanding of what was in the lectures. Well. I’m just going to tell you guys, the lectures were awful. This poor guy couldn’t have been more boring. He is the guy whose students sleep through his lectures in class. Academic colleagues, can I just tell you…if you are a terrible lecturer in person, please don’t think you’ll be any better online. And the assessments were equally bad. We had three “chances” on each quiz. So once I completed a quiz, I got my score and if I wasn’t satisfied with the score I could try again up to two more times. But here’s the rub: there was no feedback about which items I got right or wrong!! What the heck!! I didn’t like anything about it and I dropped out of the course.

Now, what about CBL? The focus is on mastery and application of skills. Here’s an example of CBL from Wikipedia: people learning to drive manual transmission might first have to demonstrate their mastery of “rules of the road”, safety, defensive driving, parallel parking etc. Then they may focus on two independent competencies: “using the clutch, brake with right foot” and “shifting up and down through the gears”. Once the learners have demonstrated they are comfortable with those two skills the next, over-arching skill might be “finding first: from full stop to a slow roll” followed by “sudden stops”, “shifting up” and “down shifting”. You can imagine a similar breakdown of skills in an academic area. As one or more skills are mastered, the learner progresses to additional, more complex skills. The achievement of the mastery is monitored by an instructor who provides critical feedback to help refine the learner’s performance.

So my question is, when and how will the current format of MOOCs and the principles of CBL bump up against each other? In K12 there is more and more of a focus on kids being able to demonstrate the application of skills in meaningful ways. Certainly I think most of us can agree that the old multiple-choice assessments aren’t good for capturing skill mastery and many of us (though not all by a long shot!) are hopeful that the assessments built to go with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will do a better job of it. Even when we look at higher ed there are institutions, such as Southern New Hampshire University, that are developing a new focus on students demonstrating skill competencies instead of completing “credit hours.”

Can MOOCs and CBL be reconciled? And if so, what will that look like? I have a thought about programmed instruction being part of the answer. So my next step in all this is to go take an online programmed instruction course…anyone know of universities that offer some? I’ll start looking. Stay tunes for the next installment of this quest…

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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19 Responses to Are MOOCs and Competency-Based Learning on a Collision Course?

  1. Hi, Karen. Timely post – I can’t turn around without someone asking me my opinion on MOOCs these days. I think one trend that might connect MOOCs with CBL is the “Open Badges” movement (see Their tagline is “Get recognition for skills you learn anywhere.” It’s a tall order to deliver that kind of certification in the current (wild west) MOOC environment, but CBL seems like a natural framework to facilitate this evolution. The pressure to establish portable certification and credentials might, in fact, drive MOOCs toward a CBL model over time.

    • karen mahon says:

      Mike, have you tried a MOOC yet? I recommend it. It was an eye opener for me. I think the idea of open badges is interesting. It will be interesting to see how the badges people will handle the measurement of achievement piece. (Would this be the appropriate place to say “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges?!?”)

      • michaelwconnell says:

        Yes, I have tried a few (Udacity, iTunesU, Coursera, etc.). I have generally been impressed. I’m curious to see how this unfolds, too. (And if there is a more appropriate place to use that line, I don’t know what it is!)

        • karen mahon says:

          Mike, I find that interesting…my courses were through Coursera and Udacity as well. How were the courses that you were impressed with differ from my description of my experience?

          • michaelwconnell says:

            The courses I took sound very much like the ones you took, Karen. I think these courses are best suited for people who almost already know what is being taught (which was the case for the courses I experienced). That’s one way to solve the lack of expert feedback – if the learning is incremental for the learner, then they can self-regulate the process even in the absence of expert feedback. But to the extent that’s the case I think it severely limits the potential impact of MOOCs as they are currently designed.

  2. Alyssa says:

    LOVE! I tried getting a job as an instructional designer to design MOOC’s hoping that I could do just what you discussed about improving the MOOC’s to make them more competency based because I do think they can be reconciled. However, I think my resume and cover letter read more like this: “this lady will likely improve the students mastery of the subject areas but will take time and effort (God forbid!) and we will have a delay in $$$$$$.” I think things like “data-driven”, “evidence based”, “behavior”, and the most scary of all “program effectivness” really sped up my cover letters flight to the trash can. Needless to say I never heard back. Anyway, if you discover an online programmed instruction course, let me know. I’ll do it with you and we can be a study group together and then solve the problems of great education and great education for the masses together! 😉

    • karen mahon says:

      Alyssa, tall order!!!

      • Alyssa says:

        Well, you are already starting something that hopefully will increase the demand for QUALITY in apps. Baby steps 🙂

    • Alyssa says:

      Side note: I don’t think MOOC’s and CBL will ever be perfectly married together because I think making them how I would want to ideally deliver them would make them too costly and only be able to be provided to smaller groups (there go the masses). I’m not THAT idealistic! 🙂 BUT I think they can be dramatically improved.

    • michaelwconnell says:

      You raise an important point, Alyssa – the answer to Karen’s question might be “MOOCs will never move toward CBL unless consumers demand evidence that learning is taking place.” Which they might, if access to a job, promotion, or raise hangs in the balance.

  3. Our Association supports the next generation of teachers who we believe sre the practicing Masters. We help them to engage with the Internet as a whole platform and assist them with their intellectual capital. The MOOC’s are still a reflection of the old style of Industrial Age delivery. What is needed is a return to the pre Industrial Age and nuture the re-emergance of the Master and the Apprentice. Industry Professor Association is there to help create these new masters.

  4. JL says:

    For online p.i. try these: (Though I’m not an RFT fan, it is the better of the two tutorials). There are significant and interesting ways MOOCs (including xMOOCs, cMOOCs and hybrids) can be designed that can go well beyond traditional CBL and p.i. I may, haven’t yet decided, participate in designing a model hybrid MOOC. I’ll keep you posted. Are you interested?

  5. Pingback: MOOCs and Competence Based Learning http karenmahon com… | oU scrapbook & forum

  6. Alyssa says:

    Thanks to the article you posted on your Balefire Labs page, I looked into June Ahn and read something she is working on that might interest you.
    I’ll be curious how this continues.

  7. Howard Lurie says:

    A lot of Fire in that Bale! This is a great question, and I’ve often wondered the same thing. From the higher ed world, where I currently am perched, the value of CBE is still yet to be determined. Much of the current noise in the marketplace comes from the prospect that learning could be liberated from the time constraints of the credit hour (thank you, Carnegie unit) and instead driven by mastery of specific outcomes or competencies. There are biz model implications here, but I think the greatest unknown is whether the growing ranks of “post-traditional” students can benefit from this approach. These are the folks who have had an incomplete pathway through an associats or bachelors degree, are working part or full time, have kids, mortgages, etc but lack the employable skills needed to move ahead. New flash… they vastly outnumber the “traditional” kid coming out of hs and enrolling in college. The harsh reality, however, is that CBE remains a niche option in higher ed. Can it scale and can significant numbers of adult learners benefit from it? We shall see…

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks for the thoughts, Howard. I agree that CBE isn’t quite there yet…it’s a challenge to adequately define and measure competencies, particularly from a distance. I still see many competencies that are stated in terms like “understand” and “know,” instead of in performance-based verbs. Given what we know from the learning science literature, I don’t have any doubt that CBE will be vastly better than passive forms of distance/online learning. But the instructional design and the measurement has to be strong.

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