Although competency-based learning in higher education is arising based on the need for more affordable programs that prepare students for the workforce, by no means is competency-based learning inherently synonymous with the demise of the liberal arts.
First, today’s emerging vocational programs are not like the career-focused programs of yesteryear. Many jobs and careers today require employees who can think critically and creatively, communicate, collaborate, and so forth such that building some of the competencies of a liberal arts curriculum into the fabric of the program can be critical. At many institutions offering online, competency-based programs, for example, the competencies are infused with helping the students be more self-aware, develop their own metacognitive skills, and be reflective about society, art, and self with the theory that this will make students both better employees and citizens.
Second, online, competency-based programs don’t have to be about training students for a specific job; they can offer a more general liberal-arts program. Proving the point, Northern Arizona University, for example, has created a competency-based degree in the liberal arts through its Personalized Learning program. The key is to identify the learning objectives in the liberal arts program that one wants students to master, build the assessments and curriculum accordingly, and then have students only move on upon mastery of those competencies—a process that would deepen and enhance the learning occurring in just about every traditional liberal arts program. Although it may be easier today to define the critical competencies in fields that lend themselves to more objective measurement, like information technology, or in fields where there is a clear assessment that a student must pass in order to be certified to practice, such as in nursing—areas in which online, competency-based programs are, generally speaking, emerging first—over time one would expect these disruptive innovations to improve, as all disruptions do, and increasingly tackle those fields with more subjective notions of what competence looks like. Already it’s not hard to imagine what some of those competencies might be. One competency might be something like, “Can compare the major traditions in moral philosophy in the twentieth century,” for example. The key is to commit to the rigor of defining clearly the competencies. In K–12 education, where most competency-based programs are essentially liberal arts in nature, these competencies are often built around the various state standards that exist for different subjects, for example.
Third, it’s important to recognize that what we call liberal arts programs actually have a vocational element to them that we ignore all too often. Although having a well-rounded liberal arts education may prepare students to think in certain ways by exposing them to diverse streams of thought and habits of the mind, ultimately many of these programs are preparing students for a career—in the academy. Although students that major in history at Yale, for example, do take a wide array of courses that expose them to a diverse array of thought, views, subjects, and so forth, their course sequence in history is not designed to train them to be broad thinkers who will be innovators, entrepreneurs, or productive workers in the financial services industry—although many of them of course may do those very things. Instead, the major is structured such that students learn how to be a historian with full exposure to the suite of resources, processes, and priorities of the trade to be successful in the academy.
Indeed, as Michelle Weise and Clayton Christensen point out in Hire Education, “Those who scorn vocational training tend to get caught up in its connotations of career education, corporate training, and utility. Vocational training, however, does not necessarily preclude the liberal arts or notions of effective citizenship, well roundedness, or artistry. In fact, as early as 1915, John Dewey railed against the notion that our understanding of vocation be limited to ‘occupations where immediately tangible commodities are produced.’” As the above suggests, as online, competency-based programs continue to emerge in higher education, in and of themselves they in no way foreshadow the disappearance of the liberal arts.