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Competency-based education: Driving the skills-measurement agenda

In the context of a rapidly changing global economy and frequent charges of a “skills gap,” our education system faces more pressure than ever to prepare students for the future of work. Competency-based education is gaining traction internationally as a model for graduating students with the knowledge, skills and characteristics needed to succeed in a given career. This paper explores the development of competency-based education in North America and its applicability in Ontario, summarizing expert interviews as well as an extensive literature review. It outlines what competency-based education is, provides practical examples and offers considerations for decision makers in Ontario. As the name implies, competency-based education, or CBE, is structured around competencies, and is primarily concerned with what students know and can do. Students in CBE programs work through material and assessments, usually online and at their own pace with support from faculty advisers and assessors. While traditional programs often aim for a pre-specified distribution of achievement among students (i.e., by grading on a curve), CBE embraces a philosophy that, with appropriate resources, all students can eventually master required competencies. The time it takes to complete a CBE program depends on an individual’s prior learning, ability and motivation, but the outcomes are consistent: Anyone holding the credential has demonstrated mastery of all defined learning outcomes or competencies. CBE programs offer the potential to graduate students with prior learning relatively quickly, cost-effectively and with the skills needed to meet employer demands. This potential has garnered a great deal of interest in the United States where the number of CBE programs has grown exponentially over the past decade, particularly in fields with specific labour shortages such as business, nursing, teaching and information technology. CBE has been slower to take off in Canada and to date has been concentrated in professions where mastery is seen as essential for public health and safety (e.g., medicine). That said, we see particular utility and promise for CBE programs to meet the needs of Ontario students with family and work responsibilities, or Ontarians with previous education and work experience who require retraining to pivot or advance in the labour market — a group of students that is currently underserved in Canada. In addition to considering the potential for the CBE model to better serve lifelong learners, Ontario policy makers and institutions should consider embracing elements of the CBE model in the context of traditional programs. In our view, the most transferable elements of CBE that Ontario students would benefit from are: (a) a stronger focus on competency development, (b) a belief that teaching and assessment can be structured to support all students to master essential knowledge and skills, and (c) a transparent credential that gives graduates a clear picture of what they know and can do, and gives employers evidence that a prospective hire has mastered the entire set of competencies reflected in a degree.