Competency-Based Education and Remote Learning for Indian Schools

Even before the outbreak of the novel corona virus pandemic, the world was already dealing with a learning crisis, as evidenced by high levels of Learning Poverty.

With the spread of the COVID-19, among many disruptions to normal life, 160+ countries have mandated temporary school closures, leaving ~1.6 billion children and youth out of school [1]. The World Bank Education Global Practice- Guidance Note: Remote Learning & COVID-19]. Although nothing can replace an in-person schooling experience, school systems can engage students in meaningful and productive ways to enhance their learning [Cristóbal Cobo, Senior Education and Technology Policy Expert, 2]. This article deals with the key considerations in a learner-centered remote teaching-learning system. It also highlights the methods which might still be used to aim to ensure all children and youth have access to a quality education despite the present crisis situation.

A recent circular of CBSE announces the theme for the capacity building programs for the year 2020 as Competency-Based Education, and augmenting the thrust towards this shift, the board is initiating corresponding changes in the examination and assessment practices for the year 2020-21 onward.

Indian school boards have been progressively adopting Competency-Based Education (CBE) to improve the quality of education. What is unique about CBE is that it focuses on what students learn and not on the time spent in the classroom completing credits. One of the key benefits of CBE is that learning is focused on real-world skills and competency development. Programs are designed around competencies that are needed for a career ensuring that the instructional material is relevant. The outcome is that students are workplace ready and have expertise in their chosen fields.

CBE implementation by Indian Education Boards

The National Council Of Educational Research And Training (NCERT) developed "Learning Outcomes at the Elementary Stage” in 2017 [3] for each class and subject . The learning outcomes are competency-based and are linked with curricular expectations and pedagogical processes. In continuation learning outcomes for the secondary stage for all subjects have been developed in 2019 [4] . This has proved to be very useful to teachers and stakeholders and is being used widely to gauge the progress of learning. Various school boards in India have progressively adopted an outcomes-based approach to improve the quality of education. A recent circular of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) announces the theme for the capacity building programs for the year 2020 as Competency-Based Education [5. CBSE Circular No. Acad-18/2020, March 16, 2020.], and augmenting the thrust towards CBE, the CBSE board is initiating corresponding changes in the examination and assessment practices for the year 2020-21 onward. In yet another circular, CBSE requested educators to make the COVID-19 quarantine productive by defining and designing a system based on Learning Outcomes and work around literacies and competencies needed in real-life contexts [6. CBSE Circular No. Acad-20/2020, March 25, 2020.]. The Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (ISCE) already has its curriculum built around learning outcomes [7].

Competency-based Education

The origin of the concept of CBE evolved out of the several years of research in the mind-brain sciences, learning theory, and research on youth development. Four key principles evolved emphasizing a learner-centered approach rather than a teacher-centered approach to education. The principles stated that:

  1. learning is personalized;
  2. it is competency-based;
  3. takes place anytime, anywhere; and
  4. students have agency and ownership over their learning.

Teachers are merely facilitators to enable transfer of knowledge and skills, and guiding dispositions by creating a positive mindset and encouraging habits of learning. These key principles, when guided by a coherent and rigorous set of educational goals, lead to a deeper learning process with the necessary outcomes to prepare every student for college, career, and civic life. 

When the education boards pitched for the concept of innovative schools, it was not merely about implementing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), AI (Artificial Intelligence), Robotics or other new-age liberal curricula, but rather the emphasis was on every school sharing the vision and using different techniques to translate the student-centered principles into practice by reaching a high-quality implementation across the four key principles; achieve the goal of college, career and civic success for all students; and focus on building communities of educators with the skills to deliver CBE. The innovative schools, thus, must adopt progressive, creative and innovative educational ideas, formulate high standards for students, staff, and community involvement. They must adopt proven practices to improve student success and close the achievement and opportunity gaps by using multiple approaches to address differential learning styles. Innovative schools provide a high level of experiential learning and they follow the key domains of global competence [8].

Systems Thinking in Education

While seeing through the lens of systems thinking, the multiple teaching-learning systems happen all at once, connected not just in one direction, but in many directions simultaneously. For improving quality outcomes, such systems would include a reference framework — a framework of learning outcomes, a system of designing and delivering authentic assessments, and providing meaningful and timely personalized feedback and differentiated support to all learners, within the domain of global competence. In order to achieve these goals, restructuring and rethinking about student and teacher profiles aligned with the 21st-century skills-set has become imperative.

The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment)[9] has been developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as a testing tool for global competence. India is all set to participate in the PISA-Test after a gap of over a decade. India had participated in PISA in 2009 when it came 72nd among 73 countries [10].

In order to achieve these goals, restructuring and rethinking about student and teacher profiles aligned with the 21st-century skills-set has become imperative.

PISA is a competency-based assessment which unlike content-based assessment, measures the extent to which students have acquired key competencies that are essential for full participation in modern societies. It would lead to recognition and acceptability of Indian students and prepare them for the global economy in the 21st century. Learning from participation in PISA will help to introduce competency-based examination reforms in the school system and help move away from rote learning. The CBSE and NCERT will be part of the process and activities leading to the actual test [11].

Merely providing adequate infrastructure, teaching-learning materials, adequate teaching and non-teaching staff, providing a conducive environment in the schools for learning - are not enough requirements towards the quality education. Along with this, components of curriculum, syllabus, pedagogy, examination, affiliation and accreditation standards are also important factors which need to be addressed while dealing with quality issues in education. In addition to this, strengthening assessment and evaluation practices of the education boards has become very crucial for the improvement of overall quality of education.

CBSE vide their recent circular (March 16, 2020) have brought out a modified system of assessment and evaluation for augmenting the thrust towards CBE. From the year 2020-21 board examination, the composition of theory examination for classes IX-X would include 20% objective type questions including multiple-choice, 20% questions would be case-based or source-based integrated questions, and the remaining 60% questions would be short answers or long answers type questions. For the classes XI-XII, the percentage of case-based/ source-based integrated questions would be 10%, whereas objective-type questions would be 20% and remaining would be short/ long-answer type questions.

It is important to note that though CBSE termed the new system as CBE, however, it is not a complete implementation of the principles of CBE. In the current scenario, students advance upon the end of a fixed period of time regardless if they fully learned the concepts and skills, as against CBE where students progress based on competencies achieved, without a time barred retention. Nonetheless, this trend is very much appreciated since there is an element of Authentic Assessment introduced within the examination system. Learning from participation in PISA-2021 is helping to introduce competency-based examination reforms in the school system and help move away from rote learning. The CBSE and NCERT are part of the process and activities leading to the actual test. Authentic assessment is the measurement of learners’ accomplishments that are based on competencies applied in multiple real-life contexts, as contrasted to multiple choice standardized tests. Authentic assessment tends to focus on contextualized tasks, enabling students to demonstrate their competency in a more 'authentic' setting. However, it is not merely designing a new type of assessment, but it is also about rethinking and redefining literacies, knowledge types, processes, competencies, and applying critical thinking and creative thinking skills in solving real-world problems. Therefore, it is imperative to consider and design the learning experience from the perspective of a complex integrated and interdisciplinary system.

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