Badges of Competence

D.School professor Tina Seelig1 touts the power of seemingly trivial questions in opening our horizons and bringing to light unquestioned assumptions. Educational reformer Grant Wiggins2 illustrates this when he asks “What is the goal of education?” Is the aim really knowledge, or is knowledge a mean to the end goal? Elizabeth Coleman3, former president of Bennington College, qualifies education as performing art: Education prepares students to perform well in their lives and profession. Harvard educators Harry Lewis4 and Tony Wagner5 have each dramatically illustrated the extent to which we often lose sight of the soul and purpose of education and fail to equip students with the right skills. In many respects, this shift from knowledge to competence and performance is at the heart of the movement from courses and grades to competencies and mastery. There are several other motivations and benefits to competency-based education.

1. What is competency-based education?

Competency-based education focuses on the end goal, i.e. demonstrated competence. Students graduate when they demonstrate their mastery of agreed upon skills. The focus therefore is on the output. This is a departure from the traditional credit-based system where the credit hour is the unit of measure of student’s progress and graduation. Even though there is a (strong) correlation between seat time and the acquisition of skills, focusing on the output rather than on the resources has a tremendous impact on all aspects of the education.

In competency-based education, the students’ transcripts do not record courses and grades; they record competencies the student has demonstrated. In most competency-based systems, the transcripts are accompanied with digital portfolios documenting the students’ work.

2. Why competency-based education for the Polytechnic Incubator’s program?

Competency-based education emerged as a natural choice for us for several reasons. The key ones are:

  1. It puts the focus on the competencies we deem critical. If nothing else, the publication of the book Academically Adrift6 rang an alarm showing that the correlation between credit hours and key competencies can be very tenuous, even in our elite schools. As we set to rethink our educational curricula, it was important for us to start from the key competencies we want our graduates to have.


  2. We are accountable for the outcome. Making the demonstrated acquisition of competencies as the ultimate measure of students’ progress and graduation put accountability center stage.
  3. It puts the student in charge. Trust in the student and respect for their autonomy and desire to learn is a core value of the Polytechnic Incubator. A competency-based education offers many degrees of freedom and control to the student that traditional systems do not.
  4. It marries the red bricks with the free bits of education. Learning happens everywhere, anytime, and from a variety of sources including MOOCs, peers, online communities, and plain books. The Polytechnic Incubator acknowledges and welcomes this diversity. It enriches all of us and accommodates a broader range of students, styles, and means. This serves our value of openness and access.


3. The logistics of competency-based education

The transition from centuries old credit-based system to the new competency-based system is not a trivial matter. There are many entrenched interdependent involving almost every aspect of the academic operation. It is for this reason that encouragement and support that the Purdue administration has given the Polytechic Educational Research and Development team to green-light this transition are truly historical.

We have been closely working with the Offices of the Registrar and Provost as they manage the different dependencies and guide us in the process. We are collaborating with the many academic units in order to identify and define competencies that are within their disciplines. We are working with the Passport team in ITaP in order to create digital badges and portfolios to be used by the faculty and students.

Because we are decoupling credit hours from competencies acquired, we distinguish between the learning environment carefully prepared and managed by the faculty and the specific competencies that the students chose to acquire. Faculty prepare learning experiences fertile with opportunities for the students to pursue, practice, and acquire specific competencies. The students chose the learning experiences they participate in (these can be thought of as classes or labs). As they proceed through learning experiences, with close support from their mentors and classroom faculty, and with continuous introspection, the students learn and record competencies and refine their plans for further learning. The faculty offer; the students select and learn at their pace and based on their readiness and inclination.

4. Timeline

In Fall 2014, students in the pioneering Polytechnic Incubator cohort are enrolled in traditional programs, but they are receiving their education through the Purdue Polytechnic Institute. These students are attending newly designed learning environments through which they are acquiring the competencies embedded in the courses in their plan of study. Their transcripts show traditional courses with grades posted at the end of the semester. The faculty are living in both worlds translating and mapping back and forth. They are offering integrated learning environments, mentoring the students into acquiring competencies that are recorded in ITaP’s Passport system. At the end of the semester, they will map these competencies back to the courses the students signed up for and generate grades for them.

In the meantime, faculty have developed a full-fledged competency-based curriculum that will be undergoing the approval processes. The plan is to have this new degree in place for Fall 2015. Current students can transition seamlessly into it. An integral part of the design is a mapping that maximizes students choice and mobility.


1: Tina Seelig, inGenius: A Crash Course on Innovation, 2012.

2: Grant Wiggins, Understanding by Design, 2005.


4 Harry R. Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education. 2006.

5 Tony Wagner, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need--and What We Can Do About It, 2010.

6 Richard Arum, Josipa Roska, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, 2010.

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