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Braxton Moral Offers Compelling Reason to Consider Competency-based Education  

By Cait Etherington
June 14, 2019

If you haven’t already heard, Braxton Moral—a 17-year-old Kansas native—recently graduated from high school and from Harvard University. The young scholar completed his Harvard bachelor’s degree online while also attending a local high school. But, in the process, Moral may have done something else. Inadvertently, Moral’s educational journey also makes a strong case for competency-based education.

Competency-based Education

Competency-based education continues to gain both fans and foes. In theory, competency-based education enables students to advance based on demonstrated mastery. As such, competency-based education is necessarily personalized. Rather than force students to move through a course or entire stage of their education at a pace predetermined by the average learner, competency-based models of education permit learners to move at their own pace. As a result, in a competency-based program, learners can progress as slowly or as quickly as required without being penalized.

Several online schools have already adopted a competency-based model. One of the most well-known institutions to do so is Western Governors University (WGU). But WGU has also run into trouble with regulators for its competency-based approach. This primarily reflects the fact that competency-based approaches make it difficult to tally instructional hours according to existing regulations, and thereby, trouble established funding formulas. Despite its regulatory problems, however, WGU’s approach has also received considerable praise, especially from its graduates.

WGU is not alone in its decision to embrace a competency-based approach. Several for-profit schools, including online coding academies, have also embraced a competency-based model in recent years. But could a competency-based approach to education be adopted more widely, even in public high schools?

Braxton Moral’s Educational Journey

In many respects, Moral is a product of the digital era in which he has grown up. Since the age of 11, the young scholar has been completing his regular studies and studying online via the Harvard Extension School.

As previously reported on eLearning Inside, the Harvard Extension School offers an almost fully only bachelor’s degree. At the Harvard Extension School, students can take the vast majority of their courses online but must also complete 16 credits on the Harvard University Campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Moral, who majored in government and minored in English at Harvard, completed all his online courses from his home in Kansas, often while engaged in his full-time high school studies. He also spent a limited amount of time in the summer months on the Harvard University campus.

Moral was, by his own account, simply trying to give himself a bit of a head start on his postsecondary education. Next, he plans to go to law school. But Moral’s bold experiment may also be viewed as an experiment in the potential of competency-based education. After all, if an exceptional middle schooler can begin taking university-level courses at Harvard University, do they really need to complete a middle school and eventually, high school diploma? Would a competency-based model of education have better served Moral’s needs? By all accounts, the answer is yes. The challenge is how to mainstream competency-based learning.

While competency-based learning certainly supports learners’ needs, especially in the case of exceptional students such as Moral, it raises problems for both government regulators and schools. For competency-based learning to become entrenched, government regulators will need to radically rethink how diplomas and degrees are awarded and funding models, which currently both rely on instructional hours rather than demonstrated outcomes.

But, perhaps, Moral, who reportedly holds a strong interest in both law and governance will soon lead the way forward? As he told Time magazine in January, “I’d like to solve problems for people.” The move to mainstream competency-based learning certainly seems like a useful problem to solve.

Photo by Dadero of Langdell Hall, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons).

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