Competency Moves Beyond Courses

September 16, 2013 by
Sarah Luchs

Sarah Luchs

As a recipient of Next Generation Learning Challenge’s (NGLC) most recent wave of investment, New Hampshire-based Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) is getting some much-deserved buzz (most recently in Forbes and Ed Week). VLACS will redesign its current online model to move beyond course-based competency measures and toward an entirely competency-based design for learning.

The new model, called Aspire, is free of all the conventional dictates. Learning is not confined to a class, a building, a set block of time, or a subject-bound course. In the journey to personalizing education, this is a giant step forward, in my opinion. Up to this point, course structures (and the content that defines them) have disproportionately shaped the competency discussion and available options. I’m not opposed to learning in a course per se and the course experience itself is being revolutionized by new technologies–  also good. I just think the Aspire model creates some new possibilities that are long overdue and fundamentally exciting. Let me tell you what I mean.

Competency Reflections: Past and Present

I spent over a decade of my career prior to joining NGLC working for the Ohio Department of Education and state level policymakers. In Ohio, we created a provision known as Credit Flexibility that afforded students the option to earn credit for demonstration of previously learned knowledge and skills and/or to determine the means of their learning for any graduation requirement. Long story short, it didn’t benefit as many students as intended, in part because the system wasn’t built to implement this kind of flexibility, and schools, districts, and states still lacked the tools to enable it. It’s been my hope that NGLC—which funds innovative school models like VLACS-Aspire as proof points to demonstrate what’s possible, and shares knowledge in order to accelerate the adoption of new practice—will help position education systems to embrace and support innovative provisions like Credit Flexibility and benefit many more students.NGLC funds new or next generation models of learning, most recently through school designs that are personalized, blended, and competency-based (aka Breakthrough Schools). Most of the competency-work being done in and outside NGLC models (see an earlier blog post) employs one or more of the following strategies:

  • Using pre-defined, self-paced modules that offer online skill and content testing (these can be stand alone or embedded in a blended course and are often attached to a dashboard showing overall performance and/or progress);
  • Establishing a mastery level for a cross cutting set of competencies (used in multi-disciplinary settings and sometimes used in combination with an online portfolio) and then allowing students to flex the amount of time needed to demonstrate mastery.
  • Embedding a rubric (used in project-based work and culminating experiences) which teachers, students, and outside guests (e.g. community members) use to evaluate performance (e.g. to review portfolios, presentations, exhibit materials) and to evidence higher order skills such as synthesis, application, problem solving, and creativity.

These strategies are promising; different from what VLACS has proposed, though, they’re often designed around an existing course structure or set of assumptions in which the learning takes place in a building, online course, or blended environment. As is typical with conventional learning, an adult is shaping and controlling the learning design. We know that learning occurs in ways less conventional and just as valuable to the learner. It’s just that our conventional system doesn’t typically “count” that learning and some structures, like accountability systems that rely on a single measure, make it difficult to break out of the conventional approaches.

The ASPIRE Model: Competency Unbounded

Here what’s different about the Aspire model and how it works. Aspire is developing a software-based map to track and assess student competencies. CEO Steve Kossakoski explains, “Each competency is tied to standards, flexible learning pathways and meaningful outcomes for students. For example, a map of the competencies needed for a VLACS-Aspire diploma is available as is one for earning a college level certificate, and/or an Associate’s degree. In addition to identifying the associated standards to be met, we also include descriptions of the types of required evidence.”

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 9.24.49 PMStudents demonstrate mastery of the competency via artifacts collected in an online portfolio and evaluated through multiple means. The articulation of required competencies, say to earn a diploma, is still largely defined by educators. However, students can earn competencies in any order or progression and through a variety of learning pathways such as independent learning, projects, internships, work experiences, online courses, face-to-face courses, hobbies, tutoring services, service learning, or a combination of these activities. There is no one prescribed way to earn a competency. There is just the way that works best for the student. The architecture of the map is what is enabling a shift in focus from course-defined content to demonstrating what’s been learned that has broad and connecting implications.

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 9.21.39 PMVLACS’ online instructors already regularly communicate with students via video, voice, and text (regardless of student location). These meetings are used to discuss student progress, supply feedback on assessments or portfolio artifacts, provide instruction, and approve proposals for “next level” learning. Instructors play important roles in ensuring progress, certifying learning and supporting the connections necessary for student learning.

Aspire’s competency map effectively decouples the standards from courses, so it’s possible for students to:

  • Target a smaller sub-set of knowledge and skills when needed;
  • Acquire recognition or certification for prior learning (often the learning that occurs outside of school);
  • Engage in learning experiences that are contextually rich and personally interesting whenever and wherever they arise;
  • Connect a diversity of in- and out-of-school learning experiences into a cohesive package through the use of instructors as learning facilitators and toward a meaningful goal (graduation, college credit, etc.).

Competency Enabled: A Broader Range of Learning Approaches

The Aspire design is also significant because it leverages excitement and curiosity in learning and back fills the requirements and standards. Students and parents can target what they need in a way that fits learning styles, lifestyles, personal attributes and preferences (all factors that influence student motivation and sense of ownership). And students can experience learning through their unique strengths instead of being forced to focus on learning deficits or conforming to norms and minimums.  The Aspire system places more emphasis on skills and application of knowledge in achieving standards than it does on acquiring and front-loading content (recognizing that content has little value outside of the contexts that make it actionable or meaningful). The map structure enables students to easily engage in rich, real world learning contexts (sorely needed at the secondary level) and de-mystifies the expectations and the steps needed to achieve certain critical benchmarks.

Right now, in the seat time system, no one is really certifying the learning in any foolproof way. It’s just the system we’re familiar with, so we’re a little bit blind to its limitations. Much of the competency work is still confined to course structures and requirements, so students may be asked to master a standard several times and still afforded relatively little choice in how they learn the standard. I’m excited by the range of options that Aspire makes possible for students and their balanced approach in focusing on measures while also designing interesting learning options.

Aspire’s distributed teaching teams are now loosely designing learning opportunities that are contextually rich and embedded in local communities. These experiences – built around real world problems (homelessness), business-based competitions or related local assets worthy of exploration (watershed health)- support meaning-making, and higher levels of analysis and synthesis (or deeper learning). This is the stuff that many students participate in and that conventional schools don’t typically recognize and are find it challenging to offer. With the competency map in hand, Aspire is well positioned to embrace or co-design these real world options.

When Ohio passed Credit Flexibility in 2010, it was in response to rising expectations around academic standards, high school graduation, and the preparation needed for college and career. The system was increasingly holding students accountable and penalizing them for not conforming to learning in the conventional way (the personal and financial costs are high for students who fail a course or don’t graduate). The conventional system didn’t have good measures of learning and it wasn’t designed to open up the opportunity to learn differently and flexibly.  The Credit Flex policy asked education leaders to create that opportunity locally but few were positioned to do so and most feared job loss and the perception of a “lesser than” standard of learning. Conventional education has not been set up to enable student choice in learning, even when policy environments are shaped to mandate, permit, and incent greater personalization.

The Ohio policy leaned heavily on work done in New Hampshire (and Oregon), so I’m not surprised to see those states continue to advance the competency agenda today. To me, the promising aspect in Ohio’s policy is now being built by VLACS-Aspire– enabling   students to have more flexibility, choice, and control to meet their needs, demonstrate success, and chart their path.  The requirements- driven mainly by adult and system needs – are transparent and back-loaded. The Aspire model uses competency to afford greater flexibility, a critical enabling pre-condition for personalizing education. It’s an idea whose time has come.

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 9.39.46 PM

You can find the graphics displayed here on the CompetencyWorks wiki page.

About the Author

Sarah is K-12 Program Officer for Next Generation Learning Challenges where she currently leads NGLC's Wave IV Grants: Breakthrough School Models for College Readiness. She also served as Chief Learning Officer at eTECH Ohio and Director of High School Transformation at the Ohio Department of Education. Sarah was instrumental in the creation of Ohio's Credit Flexibility policy. She has over a decade experience working in education policy at the nexus of innovative technologies, strategies for personalization, and research and evaluation. Sarah earned an M.S. from The Ohio State University and a B.A. from Denison University. You can contact her at

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