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Lighting the Dark Ages

Competency-based education can illuminate what time-based degrees do not.

This story appears in the December 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

My husband and I went to Barcelona over Thanksgiving week, and in preparation we read Robert Hughes' eponymous tome about the city. In discussing its medieval guild history, Hughes explains that the term "masterpiece" came from the practice of requiring an apprentice (or journeyman, as he was so wonderfully called) to submit a "master" piece of work to be evaluated by the guild before he could move up in the trade.

That anecdote struck me because, at the time, we at Campus Technology were knee-deep in this month's cover story on competency-based education. Hughes reminded me that the idea of asking students to demonstrate their mastery of skills and knowledge before they advance in their studies is not a new one. It's not even a new idea within American higher education. Technical disciplines such as engineering and the medical arts have always relied on competency-based standards (even as they also live in the world of letter grades and credit hours) to ensure they graduate proficient practitioners in their fields.

But it was inevitable that a broader movement for competency-based education would surface at this point in history. Higher education has grown to such an extent since the end of World War II that it has become commoditized. How does anyone really know what a degree in psychology signifies in terms of a student's knowledge and skills? A sheepskin from one of the branded Ivies might telegraph certain standards, but most students go to state universities or lesser-known colleges where the significance of their grades and credit hours is becoming less and less clear. This isn't a knock on the quality of any school's education — it's a critique of the opaqueness of what that education represents.

And this doesn't just apply to technical disciplines — humanities degrees have equally rigorous standards of knowledge and skills. But it's unclear from institution to institution what those standards are and how well a student mastered them. Competency-based education has a chance to illuminate what is now in the dark.

Anya Kamenetz wrote a very good article about competency-based education in The New York Times back in October, and I was shocked at the vitriol in the reader comments, many of which accused the movement of dumbing down higher education. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing regressive about making clear the knowledge and skills that underlie an academic degree and how well students mastered those standards. In these anxious times of rising college costs and unprecedented un- and underemployment among college grads, don't we want to give students the validation they need to be successful, both in their own minds and in their professional lives?

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