IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Aurora CEO: Competency-Based Education Needs Tech Support

Susan Patrick of the Aurora Institute is working hard to direct education to a more competency-based model and personalized learning, but in order for it to thrive, ed-tech companies must build tools that support it.

Teacher among school kids using computers in class
The Aurora Institute, a national nonprofit that focuses its efforts on policy change and innovation within the education space, has made it clear it supports a slew of policy changes to better K-12 instruction. And while the digital divide and improved assessments are among those hot-button issues for the nonprofit, ed-tech companies getting up to speed with the emerging movement for competency-based education (CBE) is becoming a vital element to the K-12 system of the not-too-distant future.

In an interview with Government Technology this week, Aurora President and Chief Executive Officer Susan Patrick was adamant that the old one-size-fits-all model of putting every student through school at the same pace doesn’t work, and that all signs point to competency-based and personalized learning as the future of education.

“The purpose of our education system today and the general metrics around it are based on very narrow goals, and that is very time-based and age-based,” Patrick said. “Even though we are working really hard to improve the current system, after 21 years of [the] No Child Left Behind [Act], we still see similar results [in student outcomes].”

Patrick said that when the organization rebranded from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) to the Aurora Institute in the fall of 2019, it shifted its core focus to address systemic failures in K-12 education, specifically to emphasize the need for competency-based models that personalize learning for every student. She said the traditional education system has been using technology to increase access to educational content, but it’s not enough.

“(We need to) shift the very purpose of our education system for human flourishing, human thriving — the goals you set for graduates,” Patrick said. “They need a different set of skills that is just not showing up in the old frame.”

She said that teachers are overwhelmed, cramming 20 years of content into 12 years of schooling, which results in kids advancing through school with gaps in their knowledge. Patrick said that technology needs to be applied to CBE and that school systems should have a different view of the fundamental elements of high school diplomas, transcripts and the ranking of students and schools through GPAs.

“We’ve got to be able to reorient to meaningful credentials, or next-gen credentials, having students have a digital wallet or an e-portfolio with evidence of the kind of learning and skills that they have that employers and higher ed institutions value,” Patrick said.

Competency-based education has been tried by districts in various pockets of the country. Patrick said the Aurora Institute has worked with schools and districts in different areas of the U.S. with some success, and she wrote an article last year for the National Association of State Boards of Education Journal arguing the effectiveness of competency-based, personalized student learning. The Aurora Institute also has a CompetencyWorks initiative for sharing research, perspectives and policy advocacy around CBE.

Patrick highlighted research from the American Institutes for Research that found students in the competency education model show positive changes in learning disposition, skills and behaviors. She said numerous studies over decades have shown the benefits of CBE, emphasizing why Aurora is pushing schools to move in that direction.

Despite isolated successes in implementing competency-based education — in the U.S. and across the globe, Patrick said — the model is still in need of technology to support different ways of teaching and learning that will ultimately empower students to own their education. She said it goes well beyond even the digital divide and the need to ensure all schools are equipped with broadband connections.

“A lot of ed-tech companies and a lot of the technology that’s out there still supports old-fashioned models of education — electronic gradebooks, age-based, grade-based, subject-based content — and it’s not modular enough in the way that it needs to be,” she said. “We’ve got to have better ways of recording student progress in terms of what they’ve demonstrated mastery on and that e-portfolio background that’s attached to it.”

Patrick said one of the biggest technological necessities in K-12 CBE is having competency-based digital learning tools to help support the creation of personalized learning plans. Other technologies she said that would help include software to match personalized learning plans with learner records for each student, with badges or micro-credentials issued upon demonstration of mastery in a subject, and the student would have access to the record to see their improvements over time.

“We’re really still a long way off (with tech for CBE) and I think that coming out of the pandemic, schools and districts and even states are hungry for a technology solution that can support competency-based ed, but the field is not there yet and too many of the investments in ed tech are going still to one-size-fits-all models,” she said. “I would really love to challenge the field of ed tech to be creating more modern solutions for competency-based systems.”

Patrick said the institute intends to continue its work on CBE by reaching out to state and federal lawmakers in the coming year about advancing policies to support anytime-anywhere learning, innovation zones and CBE pathways.

“I think that by looking at new ways of supporting secure learner profiles for each student, we might really challenge our thinking of what quality learning looks like and what that might mean for accountability,” she said.
Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.