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Competency-Based Education and Moodle

I had the good fortune these past two weeks to present on Competency-Based Education (CBE) and Moodle. The first was at the Faculty Education Special Lunch Lecture on October 5 at PaiChai University. Dr Park Jong-Dae of the Department of Engineering invited me to reprise the presentation today for the E-Learning Society of Korea.

At the PaiChai Lunch Lecture

Korea is moving quickly toward competency-based education. The Ministry of Education recently released a new curriculum (2015) for K-12 learners that is transitioning to Competency-Based Education and, according to faculty at PaiChai I have spoken with, is the direction the MOE is pressing post-secondary education. It is not clear whether there is any relationship between this shift to CBE in post-secondary education and the larger structural reforms to universities that is underway (see: “Structural Reforms in Universities,” Major Tasks, Ministry of Education).

Competency tracking is a new feature for Moodle, released with version 3.1, and it shows a lot of promise. While immature and overdue, the update allows for instructors using CBE and even Standards-Based Grading (SBG) to better track the learning of their students in specific skills toward specific outcomes (not to be confused with the Moodle “Outcomes” feature). There has been discussion in the Moodle Development forums about tying Competencies to Rubrics and the gradebook, which is a feature I would most certainly welcome.

There is at least perceived resistance against the transition to CBE at the post-secondary level in Korea, as it will require an overhaul of the curriculum. Considering the changing demands of employers to portfolios of demonstrated competency and success, increasing automation and the current presumption that university education is the path to employment, it may be appropriate to reconsider the role of the academy in society. I know this is an unpopular opinion in some circles, but the shift is already underway (the drop in number of tenured faculty vs. adjuncts alone is indication of a shift in the role of university education).

As the technology sector has shown, a university education is not even necessary for employment. André Spicer, professor of Organizational Behaviour at Cass Business School, City University of London reveals that in the U.S., for example, about twice as many students (30-40%) are being encouraged to go through university as there are jobs that require a university education (15-20%) [Spark Episode 333, starting at 9:04]. If employers are seeking a competency portfolio that does not require a university education, and the university wishes to stay relevant—and perhaps more importantly solvent—it is at least worth discussing changes to how we learn and work that are no longer on the distant horizon.

The Situation Now: Seat Time

The current system is built on a system of credit hours, in which one credit hour equals one hour of student-professor contact and two hours of outside reading and homework per week. At the K-12 level there are a set number of teaching days, but there has been a clearer reliance on standards to be addressed and assessed on the student learning path. Unfortunately, standardized testing still reigns supreme in terms of determining whether or not teachers and schools are passing muster in each of these standards.

The credit hour, originally known as the Carnegie Unit, was originally developed to count faculty work toward pensions. It morphed into a measure to track student participation and learning, albeit poorly. The Carnegie Foundation completed a two-year study of the credit hour in 2015, which found that although the credit hour is a poor measure of learning, there is nothing more suitable that exists presently that can be adopted as an alternative. A standard method of measuring competency has yet to be developed.

This doesn’t mean that there are no measures by which to determine competency. Rather, education groups, professional organizations and others have been using competency frameworks for professional designations and certifications for some time now. The IEEE has a competency framework for software engineers, and the ACTFL a set of standards for foreign language teachers. At the post-secondary level, it makes sense to look at competency frameworks for professional designations, and have students develop their skills towards those ends. While the university can add additional requirements for the awarding of a degree (in terms of liberal arts education, interdisciplinary content, or other specific areas), working with business and professional organizations to craft learning tracks for each matriculating student.

I understand the argument that it’s not the role of the academy to create workers for specific jobs. I understand that university education is not designed with employment outcomes in mind. In fact, I used to make that argument myself as an undergrad. That said, it is clearly the expectation of the vast majority of students and those advising them to take on large debts for the sake of their futures. If these are the expectations of society, perhaps the academy needs to shift in that direction if it wishes to stay relevant.

Tracking SBG and Skills in Moodle

To help prepare instructors and schools for this shift, it may be worth starting with assessment methods and working toward reorganization from the course level upward. With a combination of Standards-Based Grading and Mastery Learning, we educators can re-examine our content and learning objectives for the skills and measurable outcomes we wish to see for our students.

Right now the Competencies in Moodle are, as mentioned above, immature. They can currently be assigned to students, cohorts, or courses, but when assessing students using rubrics and pushing toward mastery, there is no direct and easy way to tie competencies to these rubrics or the gradebook. Competencies can be used instead of the gradebook, or alongside of it, but not yet in concert. This is a time-sucking headache for educators who wish to track both for their students (as I do).

Using Competencies requires some administrative access to set up a Competency Framework. If you don’t have administrator access to Moodle, you’ll have to speak with someone who does to either grant you the necessary permissions, or to import a Competency Framework for you, which will require the necessary plugin. If you have a professional set of standards that you wish to work with, or perhaps national education standards, you can work with these.

Competencies have some useful options. First, students are able to upload evidence of learning (or prior learning) and request assessment. These can also appear in an attached portfolio such as Mahara. For each competency, there is the option to set auto-completion with passing grades on particular assignments, or after a string of assignments. These can also be assessed manually. Competencies will follow a student through their learning journey provided that teachers use the same framework.

Treating Competencies as Standards allows you to work around Moodle’s lack of support for Standards-Based Grading with a Mastery Learning evaluation scale. providing your standards are worded as demonstrable skills, and your scale is universal, it is easy to map SBG onto the Competencies framework.

When a student logs in to Moodle, they are able to see a progress bar that shows how their skills are developing as a whole, with feedback for each competency and links to the associated tasks/assignments, if you have linked them together.


While a bit  hodge-podge at the moment, Moodle is moving in the right direction for teachers and districts working with SGB, and offers a promising future in support of CBE.

The Presentation

If you are interested in the slides for the presentation, they are below. I am also interested in engaging in a conversation on CBE, SBG, Moodle, and making it all fit together. Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts on any or all of these topics. We improve by working together.

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