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“Horrifying,” “dystopian,” “there be wild beasts out there” – these are not descriptions of a terrifying new movie, but recent reactions to competency-based education (CBE) on the Writing Program Administrators (WPA) listserv. However, closing our eyes and pulling up the covers is not going to serve us well.

Unlike credit-hour based programs, CBE allows students to apply learning gained in many ways (including from life experience, classrooms and MOOCS) to demonstrate competence. Many CBE programs also allow students to work at their own pace, freeing those who are ready to move more quickly from the constraints of the academic term.

At a time when Americans from parents to the President are asking about affordability and accountability, CBE programs can significantly reduce the cost of education and increase transparency by giving students credit for what they already know and by clearly defining what can be expected of graduating students. The Atlantic identified competence-based education as one of “5 Higher Education Trends for 2014.”

Although a few schools committed to increasing access for adult students have offered competence-based programs since the 1970s, it is catching on now because online learning has enabled the rise of much larger programs such as the for-profit Capella University (34,503 students) and non-for-profit Western Governors University (43,418 students). In 2013, both Northern Arizona University and Southern New Hampshire University launched competence-based programs and other schools across the country have recently or are developing similar programs.

The current rhetoric about CBE includes a fair amount of misinformation as well as some legitimate concerns. For example, CBE did not begin at Western Governors University, nor is it dependent upon machine grading. However, CBE often works best for motivated, self-directing learners, so how it serves other students is a legitimate concern.

This presentation will provide a brief overview of the history of competency-based education (including Peter Elbow’s assessment of it in the 1970s) and the current variety of CBE programs. Then, the presenter, who has developed a writing program at a CBE college, will lead the audience in a discussion of the risks and rewards of CBE for writing instruction.

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