How to Use Online Learning to Support Competency-Based Learning

Among the many essential questions the COVID-19 crisis has raised for schools, I want to address two: How do we best support student learning when our longstanding ideas about when, where, and how learning happens no longer apply? How might we continue to prioritize mastery and personalization when we are physically separated, relying on technology to communicate?

For nearly a decade, GOA has been developing high-quality, passion-based online courses. In 2016, we adopted competency-based learning (CBL) because of what we were learning from our students: that taking an online course, whatever the topic, was developing skills they were transferring to their brick-and-mortar schools and to their lives.

What we have realized is that, when taken together, online learning and competency-based learning add up to something even stronger: a vision for learning that ensures students do cognitively complex work that matters to them, wherever and whenever that learning might happen.

What is Competency-Based Learning?

CBL is a system that reimagines time, space, assessment, and other core elements of education to ensure all students develop the skills they need to succeed in school and beyond. CBL aims to mirror how people learn, work, and succeed in the world: it prioritizes agency, encourages adaptability, and reflects the cultures and expectations our students will encounter in the future. At GOA, we define the core goals of CBL as agency, equity, and transfer.

Six Strategies for Using Online Learning to Support CBL

When designed well, online learning spaces complement and enliven CBL experiences. Below are six strategies we use at GOA that are worth considering for schools integrating online learning into their programs.

1. Make goal-driven decisions.

High-quality learning experiences require a high level of intentionality, no matter the environment in which they happen. In CBL, schools set durable, transferable skills as the goals of learning experiences. The expectation is that decisions about curriculum, instruction, and program are made in pursuit of these skills. Importantly, these skills transcend any single discipline and any single learning environment. Rather than being content-aligned or classroom-based, competencies imagine what learning could look like in many different contexts, especially real-world contexts.

By bringing competencies online, you are also being thoughtful and intentional about how you want online learning to serve your school’s overall learning goals. As we often say at GOA, pedagogy should drive technology, not vice versa. Consider GOA’s six core competencies below. The question we ask our teachers: how might you design your course—no matter its topic—so that students are developing these skills?

2. Focus on curation and creation—not just absorption—of content.

In CBL, content is a means, not an end. Choices about which and how much content to learn are driven by alignment to the competencies students need to develop. Because it offers access to the enormously rich library of content on the internet, online learning presents the opportunity for students to develop competency in curation and creation of content. Rather than all students absorbing the same content at the same time and at the same pace, they can develop essential critical thinking skills by identifying, assessing, and sharing high-quality content on their own. In addition, students can practice higher-order thinking skills by remixing, reimagining, and applying curated content into new artifacts. (Learn more about how to rethink the role of content.)

3. Personalize pace with asynchronous learning.

The question of which and how much content students need to absorb inevitably raises questions about pace. By using asynchronous online learning with the explicit goal of allowing students to learn at their own pace and produce their best work, we can support competency-based learning. (Learn more about how schools developed synchronous and asynchronous schedules during COVID-19.)

  • Instead of relying on synchronous time for delivering content, create playlists of content that students can explore at their own pace. These playlists can be made up of content you (and, perhaps, students) curate and create. Make these playlists multimodal: there should be items for students to read, watch, and listen to. Asynchronously, students have more flexibility to revisit content multiple times if they need to.
  • Make some discussions asynchronous. At GOA, we want to use synchronous time for connection and conversation, but incorporating asynchronous discussions allows students to reflect on a prompt, pause, compose, and share ideas more at their own pace. This is especially beneficial to students who want or need more processing time and/or who might be reticent in synchronous conversation. Online asynchronous discussions are also multimedia: students can articulate ideas via text, audio, or video.
  • Allow for multiple attempts on formative assessments. Think of formative assessments as practice. Online tools like the quiz feature of Learning Management Systems (LMS), Quizlet, and EdPuzzle allow a teacher to embed formative assessments in online experiences, assessments that check for understanding and often offer immediate, automatic feedback for students. Explicitly communicating to students that they can take these assessments multiple times (and, if you grade formative assessments, that their best attempt will be the grade you record) lowers the stakes and builds the learner habit of seeing formative assessment as practice towards mastery.

4. Increase student agency.

When teaching online, you do not have the benefit of a captive audience: your students are most likely logging in at different times and from different places (maybe even in different time zones!). This new dynamic requires a shift in the role of the teacher, from leading a class to empowering individual students to take an active role in their own learning. A student engagement strategy that has worked at GOA is to worry less about student compliance and accountability and to spend more time designing opportunities for students to make important decisions as part of the learning process. Some ways to do this:

  • Allow students to become their own project managers. Project management requires a number of highly relevant learning skills. Let’s say you have two weeks to cover a unit online. Rather than dictating to students a day-by-day plan for that unit, invite them to design their own pacing guides. Acknowledge that they know their own schedules and contexts well, and can, using broad parameters set by you, define and communicate how they will complete the work ahead of them. (Learn more about designing high-quality online projects.)
  • Elevate peer and self-assessment. Giving, receiving, and processing feedback are essential skills for lifelong learning. It benefits both students and teachers, then, to invest time in practicing effective peer feedback and self-assessment skills. Online, leveraging high-quality protocols both synchronously and asynchronously works well. The simple act of self-explanation can be a powerful assessment tool and works beautifully asynchronously. Engaging students as partners in feedback pushes them to engage more deeply. The key is to take the time required to allow students to learn these skills. (Learn more about feedback and self-assessment in online learning.)
  • Publish, don’t submit. Online environments are conducive to connecting students to an authentic audience. Rather than having students merely submit assignments to you for assessment, ask them to share their work in an asynchronous discussion space or on a synchronous call so they can teach and receive feedback from their peers. Invite experts, families, or community members to review student work. Create online spaces that showcase student work and invite visitors to attend. GOA’s Catalyst Conference is an example of this. These authentic audiences can encourage students to find meaning and purpose in doing their best work.

5. Reimagine time and space.

An essential mindshift: “online learning” doesn’t mean a student is constantly staring at a computer. Instead, online spaces can be used as a way to keep students connected to their teachers and peers as they have experiences in the world beyond school. Competency-based learning recognizes that learning happens everywhere, not just in brick-and-mortar schools. Students learning online can pursue projects, internships, research, or other experiences in their local communities (and beyond) and use technology to document, reflect on, and share those experiences with teacher and classmates. If students have laptops or mobile devices, they can check in with teacher and classmates from anywhere with an internet connection. They can develop relationships with mentors and experts from beyond their school. (Learn more about rethinking time and place in schools.)

6. Prioritize relationships and equity.

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed two essential truths about education: 1) students want to feel connected to a community and 2) we haven’t done nearly enough to ensure all students have the resources and support they need to learn effectively online. It’s important to remember that competency-based learning began as an equity movement: innovative public schools like Boston Day and Evening Academy and Big Picture Learning adopted CBL as a way to fight systemic inequities in American education and to celebrate the uniqueness of each learner.

In order for online learning to support CBL, we must adopt strategies, systems, and tools that allow for high-quality online communication and connection among teachers and students, and all learners must have what they need to maintain those connections and to learn deeply. None of the above strategies can be implemented effectively unless we have made investments in knowing who our students are, what their goals are, and what they need to reach them.

To explore competency-based learning with GOA, join our summer online program, Competency-Based Learning: From Theory to Practice, or purchase our Competency-Based Learning Toolkit. For more resources on learning online during the COVID-19 crisis, visit our resource page. Stay connected by following us on Twitter.

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