27. Competency-Based Learning

27.4. Strengths and Weaknesses

Proponents have identified a number of strengths in the competency-based learning approach:

  • It meets the immediate needs of businesses and professions; students are either already working, and receive advancement within the company, or if unemployed, are more likely to be employed once qualified.
  • It enables learners with work or family commitments to study at their own pace.
  • For some students, it speeds up time to completion of qualification by enabling prior learning to be recognized.
  • Students get individual support and help from their mentors.
  • Tuition fees are affordable (US$6,000 per annum at WGU) and programs can be self-funding from tuition fees alone, since WGU uses already existing study materials and increasingly open educational resources.
  • Competency-based education is gradually being recognized as eligible for Federal loans and student aid in the USA.
  • Capella University has found (Klein and DeSchryver, 2019) that students taking courses with direct assessment:
    • Have a higher two-year persistence rate than their like peers in Capella’s traditional programs.
    • Progress more quickly through bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, compared to similar students in Capella’s equivalent credit-hour programs.
    • Are charged less in tuition and borrow less than like students in Capella’s equivalent credit-hour programs.

Consequently, institutions such as WGU, the University of Southern New Hampshire, and Northern Arizona University, using a competency-based approach, at least as part of their operations, has seen annual enrolment growth in the range of 30-40 percentage per annum.

Its main weakness is that it works well with some learning environments and less well with others. In particular:

  • It focuses on an immediate employer needs and is less focused on preparing learners with the flexibility needed for a more uncertain future.
  • It does not suit subject areas where it is difficult to prescribe specific competencies or where new skills and new knowledge need to be rapidly accommodated.
  • It takes an objectivist approach to learning; constructivists would argue that skills are not either present or absent (pass or fail), but have a wide range of performance and continue to develop over time.
  • It ignores the importance of social learning.
  • It will not fit the preferred learning styles of many students.

2015 report by EAB, a private educational consultancy identified three ‘myths’ about about competency-based education:

  • High demand: in fact, EAB reported a lack of demand from students or employers.
  • Faster and cheaper for students: in fact, it is difficult for students, especially working adults, to complete competencies fast enough for there to be savings over conventional programs.
  • Cheaper for institutions: in fact, because of the need for new systems such as on-demand registration, and different reporting for government financial aid, institutional costs are often higher than anticipated.