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What are you learning? Competencies, Standards, and Outcomes in Online Education

In higher education the race is on not only to develop new ways to measure what you've learned, but also to determine what specifically you should be learning. While the desire for widely applicable and agreed upon methods is evident, this may not be realistic. As college and universities, particularly those online, are asked to provide evidence of effectiveness, the industry is undergoing new questions and scrutiny.

Competencies, standards, and learning outcomes are all ways in which we can describe and determine what a student should learn in a course or program – how a student should be different after completion of the course or program. Let's take a closer look at each of these concepts and how they impact the delivery of an online course.


A competency can be defined as "an ability or skill." Lists of competencies are sometimes used in education to describe education goals – the abilities and skills a student should learn in an educational program – but they also apply, and sometimes originate, in the workplace. 

For an example of competencies in a higher education context, take a look at this list of competencies for online instructors provided by Penn State. You can see how five key competency areas have been identified (administrative, design, facilitation, evaluation, and technical), each with a single "primary goal." Each goal is then followed by a list of specific actions that should take place to demonstrate achievement of each competency – demonstration of the ability to perform the tasks related with teaching an online course.

Competencies are sometimes used to write job descriptions and to evaluate applicants for their fit with a job's requirements. Here is a list of leadership and management competencies from New York State's Department of Civil Service.


A standard is defined as "something set up and established by an authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weights, extent, value, or quality."  So, educational standards are often established to measure the level, amount, or degree of learning achieved in a course or program.

You may already be familiar with standardized tests that are widely used in K-12 education. Testing systems, like the FCAT in Florida and CST in California, are often used to determine if a student will advance to the next grade or graduate. These tests have been designed as a way to measure student learning, and have drawn a lot of fire recently.

Standardized tests are also used in higher education and at professional levels. You may have taken the ACT or SAT while you were in high school. Nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN, a national standard exam, before they can receive a RN license and practice nursing. Accountants take the CPA exam as part of their licensure process. These tests have been designed to measure whether or not the individual has achieved the standards for performing their jobs, before they are able to work in their fields.

Standards are also established by professional associations and accrediting bodies to define criteria for both employment and curriculum development. One example is the National Business Education Association's list of business education standards for information technology. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education provides lists of standards for Colleges of Education and uses these in accreditation evaluations. 


Standards and competencies can be used as the basis for writing learning outcomes. An outcome is "something that follows as a result or consequence," so in an educational context, learning – skills and knowledge – is the result of a student's completion of a course or program. These outcomes are the goals of the process.

Individual institutions craft their own lists of learning objectives. You will find these at the program level (outcomes associated with successful completion of an academic program) and at the course level (outcomes associated with the successful completion of a course). Course outcomes often link back to, or map to, program objectives. Capella University makes learning outcomes public online. Here you can see both program and course level outcomes, organized by degree.

Who determines what you'll learn?

Who are the authorities that set these standards, develop lists of competencies and decide on specific learning outcomes? There are many parties in this process, and each institution (traditional and online) may develop its own process using a variety of sources. Possible participants in the process include: university administrators, faculty members, government guidelines and requirements, accrediting bodies, parents, students, and potential employers. Getting all of these groups to agree is no small task. Each has a different perspective on the purpose of higher education and priorities for the development of learning outcomes.

Beyond the university and accrediting groups, there are other organizations looking for ways to guide decisions about learning outcomes. Several examples are listed below.  

Design Implications for Online Education

Writing learning objectives, and mapping them across your courses and programs, is part of the curriculum development process. This process may include many roles and tasks including instructional design, web development, evaluation and assessment, and subject matter expertise. Once learning objectives have been determined, they may impact the sequence of courses in your program, pre-requisites, and the structure of individual courses.

Learning objectives also help to frame what type of content a course will contain and how you will be assessed (through assignments and exams.) Some objectives are more challenging to assess – critical thinking, creativity, and innovation for example. These challenges can become more complex with the online delivery of a course.

Questions to Consider

As an online student or instructor, the effectiveness of your courses is of primary importance. What can you do to ensue that your courses have educational impact? Consider the planned outcomes and ask a few questions:

  • Are program and course level learning outcomes available for review?
  • How were the learning outcomes developed? Who determined the outcomes and are they based on other standards or competencies?
  • How are the individual outcomes assessed? Can you review examples of assignment rubrics?
  • What information is available about student satisfaction – current students, new graduates, alumni? Do graduates feel that they learned what they needed to learn in preparation for employment?

There are many issues to be reviewed and discussions to be had before effective learning objectives can be written and applied to an online course. I hope to cover related issues in the coming weeks and months. Continue your exploration and research into your learning process and follow the conversations at your institution and in the higher education industry.

June 17th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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