Competencies, badges and authentic assessment; these approaches have been touted by some as the solution to issues associated with rising costs, cheating and the demand for more flexible learning. Are they really though?
A competency-based approach is what is commonly used in vocational education where students must demonstrate that they have a defined range of skills mapped against a set of predetermined criteria. Badges are micro-credentials that validate that students have met a specific learning outcome. These outcomes tend to be much smaller in scope than a formal qualification. Authentic assessment is assignments that resemble in some way real life work-related activities.
What all these approaches have in common is the assumption that a large body of knowledge and way of seeing the world can be reduced to focussed, skills-based modules of learning that align with the workplace.
A university education is not simply about the accumulation of a series of well defined packages of knowledge, nor is it just about learning how to function in a particular job by completing assessment tasks that simulate work students will do when they graduate.
These sorts of approaches have more in common with a trade apprenticeship than they do with the traditional aims of higher education. They also seem to have more in common with an industrial age approach to education than what is required for high-level knowledge work in the 21st century.
Ways of being
University learning is about changing who students are, to turn them into job ready graduates and into educated members of society who can analyse and synthesise knowledge in sophisticated ways. A university is supposed to not just change what students think and can do but to change who they are, to change their way of being in the world.
Before it is possible to undertake authentic tasks, there needs to be a base level of knowledge established. That knowledge needs to be situated and integrated with what students already know. It also needs to be synthesised into meta-level constructs that allow students to become self-sufficient learners, to transfer what they learn to novel settings and adapt to unforseen developments.
If a university degree is to be distilled into a set of competencies or micro-credentials, at what point are all the pieces put together? Does it remain up to students to figure out for themselves how to coalesce a series of modules into a systematic network of interrelated concepts and ideas?
By modularising higher education into smaller components that are supposedly authentic and badge-worthy risks not giving students an opportunity to develop the meta-level constructs required for them to adapt and transfer what they learn. In focussing more on the real world and authentic trees there is an inherent risk of developing a generation of graduates who can’t see the forest.
Remembering and applying
While competency-based authentic assessment and badges might help overcome some of the problems currently facing higher education, they are ultimately about demonstrating what students can do at a micro-level. By assessing what they can do, we make an inference about what they know.
Do they truly understand the broader meaning and context of what they are doing? Do they remember the core ideas and can they integrate and analyse concepts in order to function effectively as educated members of society?
Just because a student can provide evidence that they can do something, authentic to the workplace or not, it still provides little direct information about how well they understand the knowledge required to complete the task. More importantly, doing an authentic task provides no information about the student’s understanding of how that knowledge fits into the bigger picture.
Given the types of complex and unpredictable problems facing graduates in the years to come, being able to prove that they have met a series of loosely connected competencies isn’t going to be enough. They need a clear understanding of the forest and the trees.
Job ready or life ready?
The problem here is really about the balance between core knowledge and competencies required to function as competent professionals, scientists, scholars etc. and what is required for a career and a life contributing to the greater good.
At some point all the pieces need to be pulled together, not for the purpose of getting a job but for the purpose of thinking creatively and critically, of addressing old and new problems in different ways.
It has been argued many times that too strong a focus on employability and job prospects risks turning higher education into vocational education. Competencies, badges and authentic assessment could all be labelled as moves in that direction. What is not clear is what kinds of authentic tasks and competencies are required in the mid 2060s. That is after all when school leavers entering university in 2015 will still be in the workforce.