How Can Blended Learning Support Competency-Based Education?

August 2, 2018 | by Casey Lynch

Helping student with work 800 x 400In our work on the BLU Directory, we have discovered that many schools choose to implement blended learning as a tool to support competency-based education (CBE). Why is blended learning particularly suited to support CBE? Do all models of blended learning have the potential to enhance CBE? We look to the directory to observe how multiple blended models may facilitate diverse, high-quality manifestations of CBE.

Though schools carrying out innovative work related to credit achievement may refer to themselves as ‘proficiency-based’ or ‘mastery-based,’ the emerging field is moving toward ‘competency-based’ as a specialist term. CompetencyWorks, an online resource created in partnership by research organizations including iNACOL and The American Youth Policy Forum, has identified five essential pillars of competency-based education:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

In our understanding of blended learning, a student learns at least in part online and enjoys some element of control over time, place, path, and/or pace of learning. Remaining at this theoretical level, we can identify a number of ways that blended learning might support competency-based learning. Digital technology enables students to work at their own pace, opening up the potential for advancement based upon “demonstrated mastery,” rather than assimilation to a collective pace. Additionally, the increased capacities of digital technology for assessment and for capturing learning data support the “measurability” of learning objectives. As a result of this capacity for real-time data capturing, educators may increasingly differentiate instruction according to students’ evolving learning needs.

It is important to recognize, however, that the connection between rich learning, digital technology, and competency-based learning is not inevitable. As CompetencyWorks cautions, “A classroom cannot be deemed competency-based or personalized simply because students are learning with digital content, are using adaptive software, or have flexible pacing.” Rather, if technology is to support CBE, it must be mobilized strategically to achieve the five above criteria. In the Christensen Institute’s work, we find blended-learning innovators faced with a similar risk. Merely integrating digital technology into learning, without shifting pedagogy to allow for student control of time, place, path, and/or pace, does not constitute blended learning. Across innovations in K-12 education, leaders are excited at the potential of digital technology to enhance learning, but wary of technology integration divorced from pedagogical inquiry.

Recently, we were excited to welcome to our BLU Directory a number of blended schools that also identify as competency-based. The diverse trio highlighted below demonstrate that multiple models of blended learning may support a competency-based system, and indeed, that the connection between blended and competency-based learning is rooted in a philosophical alignment.

The U School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Founded in 2014, The U School is a competency-based public high school that empowers young people to demonstrate their learning through tangible performance tasks.

All classes at The U School follow an Individual Rotation format, whereby students work at their own pace through teacher-created curriculum housed in Google Classroom, and engage as needed with four face-to-face learning stations: mini lessons, tune-ups, check-ins, and conferences. Student rotations are determined both by learning needs and levels of autonomy. U School students are grouped into classes by four levels of autonomy: autonomous, semi-autonomous, teacher-supported, and teacher-directed.

The U School’s competency framework is structured around core academic subjects and social and emotional learning. Teachers score academic work according to grade level standards. For example, a student may progress from doing level 8 to level 9 work in a particular ELA competency, indicating that she performs at a ninth-grade level. In social and emotional learning, students receive scores ranging from 1 to 4, indicating degrees of autonomy in domains such as growth mindset and self-regulation. Leaders at The U School believe that this competency framework provides students with a unique awareness of their strengths and areas for growth, which enables them to hone talents and seek targeted support.

Twinfield Union School, Plainfield, Vermont

Twinfield Union School is a small, PreK-12 school that serves the rural communities of Marshfield and Plainfield, Vermont. The school’s program offers multiple pathways to graduation and emerges from stakeholders’ frustration at the lack of curricular breadth in many small schools. Twinfield is proficiency-based, and students are required to demonstrate proficiency in 28 content standards to graduate.

Twinfield Union School’s A La Carte blended model operates in conjunction with the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative (VTVLC). In the past, Twinfield students took VTVLC courses fully online, with little face-to-face support from teachers. Now, however, students taking online courses are required to meet in-person with teacher-advisors weekly—typically on the flexible “X” day—to set goals and discuss progress. With this shift to supported A La Carte learning, Twinfield has seen the number of proficiencies earned through VTVLC coursework double.

Twinfield’s proficiency-based system is additionally characterized by the school’s personalized-learning program, Renaissance, in which students design their own course of study in partnership with local professionals, and by a dual-credit arrangement between Twinfield and multiple universities.

South Bronx Community (SBC) Charter High School, Bronx, New York

SBC is part of the EPIC schools charter network that provide empowered, personalized, and culturally responsive educational experiences for traditionally underserved high school students in New York City.

SBC operates a Flex model of blended learning to deliver interdisciplinary, competency-based instruction in ELA, math, history, and science. Students spend two periods per day in 100-minute core academic blocks focused on deeper learning. During this time, students work 1:1 on Chromebooks to move through teacher-created curriculum housed on Schoology. SBC’s academic blocks are structured around “challenges”, or interdisciplinary projects that culminate in public performance tasks. Challenges typically last between four and six weeks and enable students to demonstrate achievement of one or multiple competencies.

The SBC competency framework is aligned to the New York State Learning Standards and inclusive of the Common Core State Standards, the CASEL Social and Emotional Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards. Each attainment is related to the others in its domain and described in simple “I can” language that students can straightforwardly understand and pursue.

Is your school or district combining blended and competency-based learning practices? No matter where you are on the spectrum of implementation, share your journey with the field in the BLU Directory and create a profile.

About the author: Casey Lynch is a K-12 education research intern with the Christensen Institute focused on interviewing and profiling schools on the BLU Directory, and a rising 8th grade English teacher in The School District of Philadelphia.

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