Not quite a “Faustian Bargain”

In a recent Inside Higher Ed article, William Durden wrote warning of the dangers of competency-based education.  He compares it to a “Faustian Bargain.” In exchange for a comfortable and frustration-free learning experience, students will have to give up…a frustrating learning experience.  Clearly, akin to a deal with the devil.  However, he believes that by removing the “frustration” of learning, there are potentially “humanly-damaging consequences” as we are preventing students from developing the resiliency needed in the real world.  By simplifying the process of navigating the labyrinthine world of higher ed, instead of allowing students to fail, and pick themselves back up, we are apparently doing them a disservice.

But what kind of frustration and failure does the typical student face in traditional academia?  Is that frustration really helping them become a productive member of society?  I would argue that a generation of students graduating deeply indebted to the federal government, with skills and abilities that do not allow them to secure gainful employment are…frustrated.  When a student has to sit through a course they could easily test out of, and pay hundreds of dollars per hour for the privilege to do that, I would say that experience is…frustrating.  When a student who transfers schools or switches majors and finds that some of her credits do not transfer, or do not count, and is left with no recourse but to take the course over again, they are… frustrated.  A student who engages and participates along a 16 week course, and then fails because of test anxiety on a final exam that’s worth 80% of his grade, is… frustrated.  If these are the types of frustration we are in danger of avoiding with the emergence of a competency-based model, then I’m not exactly sure what the problem is.

Competency-based education is not a shortcut for students.  It does not eliminate critical thinking, or reduce the rigor of the course.  What it does is allow students to earn credentials for what they already know, rather than forcing them to sit through an unnecessary class just to earn credit.   What it does is de-emphasize failure so that students can participate more constructively in the learning process.  What it does is bring transparency to the educational process by showing both students and their future employers 1) What is involved in earning a specific degree 2) What a student equipped with that degree is capable of 3) Examples of that capability in action.  If competency-based education can allow students to focus on acquiring and demonstrating learning, rather than maneuvering through the arbitrary bureaucracy of transfer policies, and graduation requirements, then I think it’s an avenue worth considering.


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