EdTech Thought Leadership - Competency Based Learning

October 1, 2014

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Michael B. Horn on Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education:

How online competency based learning is changing the higher education landscape


Michael B. Horn
Co-founder and Executive Director of Education
Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation


We recently had the pleasure to interview Michael B. Horn, Co-founder and Executive Director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. If you are new to innovation in higher education, Michael is a thought leader you want to be following. From his policy work dedicated to transforming ‘monolithic, factory-modeled education systems’, to his research and award winning authorship—Michael has dedicated his career to pushing for education initiatives that will enable each of us to reach our fullest potential and in turn, change the world.

While there is a solid array of disruptive innovations popping up as technology advances, we have decided to focus in on an area that is being realized not only in education, but in healthcare and corporate learning environments as well—competency based learning!


In your view, which 3 disruptive learning innovations are making the most drastic change in higher education today?

So I think that there is a broad movement right now in higher education with online learning being a macro disruptive innovation that’s sweeping through higher education. My sense is that the three biggest changes we’re seeing emerge right now are manifestations of online learning. These changes include:

1. The online competency based programs that are emerging. Institutions like UniversityNow and the Southern New Hampshire College for America I think are going to be very significant in changing the higher education landscape.

2. The second one is related to online competency based learning and it is those institutions that are working much more closely with employers. Here I really think of the online players like Udacity who have partnered with AT&T, Google and Facebook to provide online courses which teach students marketable skills that meet industry demands.

3. The third one is the place-based coding boot camps that are starting to pop-up like General Assembly and Dev Boot Camp. I think immersive social learning programs like these are going to be a critical piece to this puzzle. As online learning continues to find better ways to deliver content, it’s going to be about meeting the face-to-face needs of learning by creating networks and having places to create projects so we can learn and socialize with others.


Online competency based learning has been heralded as the next big change in higher education. How is online-competency based learning transforming the traditional higher education market as we know it?

I think online competency based learning really flips the traditional world of higher education on its head—it is fundamentally about learning and showing what you can do and know. It’s not about the amount of time you spent on campus or the amount of time you’ve spent in class—it’s about building skills—often at a lower cost because you can move as you master things. It really says that research is not at the center of this model, it’s actually teaching and learning. It presents the possibility for students to move in very different pathways through the material which is really unique from the traditional higher education learning experience. It says, hey, if you learn something outside of the institution that’s okay, because we can still show through assessment that you have mastered this or you know how to do it.

This brings me to the last thing—assessment has become a big part of online competency based programs. Right now, in traditional programs, courses are designed to weed people out of subjects not to encourage the learning and actually make people stronger.


While online competency based learning has proven to be a powerful tool in changing the way we learn, there are still many criticisms. Which criticisms are at the forefront of your mind and how can we address them?

There are two main criticisms that occur to me that I keep thinking about…

1. Many of us see that competency based learning is a powerful tool but there are still many that say, “Is it really rigorous?…Does it actually work?…Wait a minute, you get to take these same assessments five times until you master it—that doesn’t seem rigorous?!”

When you step back from these criticisms and think about how absurd the comparison is, in many ways, it is easy to gain perspective. Look at traditional institutions for example, does it really benefit students when they are forced to move on after not mastering something? How do we possibly think that this is more rigorous than a program that requires you to really master something? I think the important thing for competency based learning programs to keep in mind when facing these criticisms is that you can do competency based learning really badly. You can still move people on and say they have mastered something even when they haven’t. I think it’s really important for online-competency based programs to remember when they are handling these criticisms is to not just sell “competency based learning”, but really focus on making them high quality programs.

2. The second thing people are criticizing is that competency based learning is “too career focused” and “too focused on narrow jobs and not developing citizens”. I guess the way I think about it is that online competency based programs don’t just have to be centered on careers. We’re already seeing this with Northern Arizona University and their liberal arts competency based program. I think we are beginning to have a much broader sense of how competency based programs are applied. Additionally, as they get better and better, we will begin to see them extend into more and more fields.

The last part to this is that I think a lot of employers are seeking skills that are actually not that narrow at all. If competency based learning programs are focused on skills that employers want employees to know and do—I really don’t think that’s a terrible thing because these skills are not incongruous from being a really great citizen in the 21st century.

We couldn’t agree more Michael! Being a great citizen is not at all disparate from being a great employee—especially with the increasing focus that many organizations have on the triple bottom line.

For more information, check out our Guide to Competency Based Training (CBT) for Organizational Excellence - a two-part series that provides readers with the foundation of CBT and a step by step guide to implementing it into your organization.

Download Guide

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