Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

4 Ways Blended Learning Can Support Competency-Based Education

on May 22, 2014
Blended learning and competency-based education make a good couple in New Hampshire. Shutterstock.com
A look at 13 schools in New Hampshire reveals ways that blended- and competency-based learning can complement each other. 
 
In the second of two reports on New Hampshire schools, the Clayton Christensen Institute highlighted four ways that the combination of in-person and online learning can work together with competency-based learning, which emphasizes student mastery of a concept or skill. The Blending Toward Competency Report was released on Wednesday, May 22. 
  1. First, online content can allow students to learn at their own pace, one of the tenants of competency-based learning.  
  2. Second, students who learn online can take assessments when they're ready. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that students move on after they've mastered concepts, not necessarily on a time schedule. 
  3. Third, students can travel on different paths to learn with online content because it's more modular. This flexibility in how they learn concepts allows students to learn in ways that work best for them.
  4. Finally, the tools available in blended learning can help schools individualize each student's education. This becomes particularly important when teachers have large numbers of students in their classes. 
A number of New Hampshire schools combined blended learning approaches with competencies. Some schools included sustaining models that layered technology on top of time-based practices to make learning more efficient and effective.  
 
Defining Blended- and Competency-Based Learning
Blended learning involves a combination of face-to-face and online learning. Students have some control over the time, place, path and pace in which they learn and go through an integrated learning experience within a particular subject, according to the institute.  
Sustaining blended learning models include station rotation, lab rotation and flipped classroom. These models operate within traditional boundaries of time and space to make learning more efficient and effective.  
Disruptive blended learning models include flex, a la carte, individual rotation and enriched virtual. These models transcend traditional boundaries of time and space and look outside of the box for ways to help students learn. 
Competency-based learning focuses on whether students demonstrate that they understand a concept or skill, not how much time they spent learning it. Students only move on once they demonstrate mastery of something.

They also apply and create knowledge, receive personalized support and are assessed based on their work toward competencies, which include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives, according to CompetencyWorks, a project led by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.  
But disruptive models of blended learning show more promise because they move outside the box of traditional bell schedules and classroom pacing so that students can learn in a more flexible way, said report author Julia Freeland, who is the education research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute.  
 
"The powerful finding here was that in a state where the mandate for seat time is no longer required, those disruptive models are really able to flourish," Freeland said. 
 
These models include flex, a la carte, individual rotation and enriched virtual.  
 
North Country Charter Academy students use the Flex model, where students learn online when they're at school and receive help as needed from a teacher on site. At this alternative high school, students receive instruction and see course content through the online course provider Edmentum. Three-quarters of their time goes to online learning or educational software, while the remaining time goes to small-group instruction, project-based assignments and worksheets.  
 
When it comes to the a la carte model, students in any New Hampshire high school can take online classes from the state's Virtual Learning Academy Charter School. While they still attend their traditional high school, they can take competency recovery courses or classes that their campus doesn't offer to supplement their education. 
 
Individual rotation allows each student to work through course material designed just for them.  At Milan Village Elementary School, the math curriculum for students from second grade up exists entirely in online playlists. Each student has a computer, and teachers decide when students should learn online or offline based on how they learn best and how much coursework they've done. 
 
The only model that doesn't exist in its current form in the 13 schools sampled is the enriched virtual model. In this model, students have required face-to-face time with teachers every school day in addition to remote online learning. In this case, the in-person teacher is typically the same as the online teacher.  
 
The Virtual Learning Academy Charter School could eventually fall into this model. With a 2013 Next Generation Learning Challenge grant in hand, the academy started work earlier this year on an experiential blended-learning environment called VLACS Aspire. This model is also competency-based and combines online learning with internships and other learning experiences in the real world.  
 
Ultimately, blended learning and competency-based education are a good match because they allow students to show what they know in a variety of ways and at different times, Freeland said. Instead of having a variable of time, the students' variable is now the ability and the pace at which they learn. And the focus is on what students know. 

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Tanya Roscorla

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.

E-mail: troscorla@centerdigitaled.com
Twitter: twitter.com/reportertanya
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