By Anthony Cody.

The rise of Competency Based Education as a supposed alternative to schooling driven by standardized tests is prompting an interesting debate. I first wrote about CBE last November, in response to a version offered by tech-ed entrepreneur Tom Vander Ark. My primary concern was that teacher and student autonomy will inevitably suffer when learning is defined as a series of outcomes, and systems are built to constantly monitor student progress towards these results. I am happy to see teachers using whatever tools they like, including computers, to assess student learning. I am not supportive, however, of designing systems that require teachers to use technology to constantly monitor performance and feed that data into some external system that keeps track of everyone’s progress (and thus compliance.)

Yesterday I tweeted this excellent post by Peter Greene, entitled What’s so Bad About Competency Based Education.” I was challenged by an educator named Dan McGuire. McGuire suggested that teachers should “take control” of CBE, rather than “allowing” tech entrepreneurs like Vander Ark to build the systems. He tweeted: “V Ark and Co already got the systems, they’re not coming, they’re here. Teachers need to have a viable alternate.” I suggested that educators should not cooperate with systems that use technology to monitor student and teacher performance. McGuire tweeted: “That decision has already been put up for a vote. It’s now time to deal with the reality of the world in which we live.” (My Twitter handle is @anthonycody, and Dan McGuire’s is @sabier).

McGuire offered a more thorough explanation of his perspective on his blog, here, and asked me “with which part of let teachers control assessment do you disagree?”

Here is what he writes:

Using a learning management system (LMS) for instruction and teacher created assessments is not something that has been done by very many K12 public school teachers in the U.S. It’s not taught in most schools of teacher preparation and not something that most large public school systems promote. I get it; state departments of education and school district bureaucrats are all about control and not so much about authentic teaching and learning. I was an Open School elementary teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools for sixteen years. Most of those years I also served as a teacher lead on the district technology advisory committee (back when they actually included teachers in planning about technology.) I also served as a building union steward for many of those years and did my fair share of butting heads with the district on contract issues, especially when it came to allowing teachers to choose what kind of professional development they would do and how they would do it.

I want teachers to be the best users of all tools that can be used for instruction and assessment of learning. Learning managements systems were not practical for most public schools until devices and wifi became as ubiquitous and as inexpensive as they are today and will continue to be in the future. Now, it’s time for teacher preparation schools, and district administrators, and education bloggers to work to support teachers in using all of the tools that are available. We can’t pretend that current technology is not a wonderfully powerful teaching tool. It’s unfortunate that we as a society have taken as long as we have to come to understand that. But, free open source learning management systems are available now. Free, digital open education resources will soon be as ubiquitous as public libraries. Teachers need to know how to use them. Let’s not let the disruptive business people take charge of instruction and assessment tools.

Keeping track of who knows what is still a crucial part of education. Let’s not let the disruptive business people take control of our necessary record keeping.

McGuire does not describe in this post what a “Learning Management System” (LMS) actually is. Wikipedia offers this definition:

A learning management system (LMS) is a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting and delivery of electronic educational technology (also called e-learning) courses or training programs.[1]

It is apparent from McGuire’s tweets and post that he envisions extending the use of this sort of system into regular classrooms. In an earlier conversation on Twitter he stated:

“CBE and reporting on learning activities aren’t necessarily bad,” and linked to this post, where he states:

I don’t see technology as the bad guy. I see technology as a way for teachers to connect with more kids in more ways. And, I see technology as a way to record learning activities and report about those learning activities. Public school teachers need to report – to the kids, to the parents, to the principal, to the district, to the state. Using current technology makes that a whole lot easier than using the technology of paper and copiers and chalk and mimeographs. Using current technology makes it possible for teachers to report about the learning activities of the students according to a set of defined competencies, or not.

I take from McGuire’s tweets and posts that he accepts as a fait accompli that teachers and students are to be held accountable for meeting detailed lists of standards that are defined at the system level. Once those standards have been set, and turned into a series of measurable competencies, it is easy to imagine how computer systems can be used to monitor student and teacher performance. McGuire wants teachers to engage in creating this system, rather than leaving it up to tech profiteers like Vander Ark.

I do not think this will serve teachers or students well. Lists of measurable performance objectives (eg “standards”) have been central to efforts to boost learning for the past 14 years. This has yielded very little in real learning gains, and has narrowed instruction in harmful ways. Technology used to monitor student learning even more closely may eliminate the need for annual standardized tests, but only by making monitoring even more intrusive and omniscient.

McGuire perceives my position as being hostile to technology, but this is untrue. I was an early adopter in my classroom, and even launched a before-school tech class for girls. I do have a healthy skepticism about the usefulness of widespread classroom use of computers. I think they have been oversold. I do not think they offer the advantages those selling them promise, and they require a huge shift of resources into purchasing and maintaining these devices. But the aspect that worries me even more than the wasting of scarce resources is this idea that instruction and student performance can be constantly monitored by the use of these “Learning Management Systems.” Learning is a complex human process. In order for it to be monitored and managed, it must be reduced to a set of narrowly defined performance objectives.

A couple of years ago I saw some of the outlines at work here when I read a book by Simon Head, entitled Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans, which explores these dimensions of 21st century technology. Head describes the ways in which computers are being used to reorganize and manage all sorts of aspects of life and commerce. I think Learning Management Systems are closely related to the “Computer Business Systems” (CBSs) that Head describes. He writes:

 CBSs are amalgams of different technologies that are pulled together to perform highly complex tasks in the control and monitoring of businesses, including their employees. The technologies of the Internet are crucial to CBSs because they provide the foundation for computer networks that can link the workstation of every employee or group of employees within an organization. (p. 6)

Products known as “data warehouses” and “data marts” are also critical to the CBS control regime. Data warehouses contain the gigantic quantities of information needed to store data in millions of transactions performed daily by tens of thousands of employees – the raw material of the system. Data marts “cleanse” and order this data so that it can be used to evaluate performance in real time and in line with matrices established by management. Once data warehouses and data marts are fused with the monitoring capabilities of CBSs, then the building blocks of a very powerful system of workplace control are in place. (p. 7)

Two years ago, it was the Common Core that was to define the performance objectives for this system. Now, with Competency Based Education, we are seeing another attempt to define such measurable outcomes. In a Learning Management System, standards are defined as measurable performance objectives. Data is collected to make sure teachers are covering required material, and students are learning it. This creates a major problem for us as educators, because we are to be held accountable for only that which can be measured.

Head explains:

How can this regime of precise measurement and of panoptic managerial vision be transferred to a context where the objects of production are the treatment of sick patients, the transactions between teachers and pupils, or the decisions to hire and fire employees? The answer is that the structure and context of these activities must be expressed in a form that can be captured by the system, so that their digital representations can then be read analyzed. But the limits of “capturability” become apparent when one looks at transactions between human agents where attempts to impose “capturability,” and with it the disciplines of CBSs, distort the meaning of what is being done and leave the data generated highly vulnerable to GIGO – garbage in, garbage out.

Only learning that can be captured by a computer can be perceived by the system, and thus all sorts of authentic learning are rendered invisible. And in an accountability-driven system, that which is invisible is useless and discouraged, and that which “counts” is valued.

A closely related problem is that as instruction is monitored, and we are “held accountable” for it,  our work as teachers is controlled. This is a frightening power to give to central authorities.

Can educators take somehow control of this CBE juggernaut by getting involved in the creation of open source Learning Management Systems? I do not see how this will help much. We will still end up with system-level definition of learning outcomes that all teachers in the system must comply with. We still end up with extensive monitoring of student and teacher performance. We will be held accountable for our compliance, and the fact that we helped build the system will not make it less restrictive.

This concept is clearly being promoted most heavily by philanthro-technocrats like Gates and entrepreneurs like Vander Ark.  Educators have a choice. McGuire would have us jump on the project and attempt to influence its design and direction. I think it is not as inevitable as he suggests, and resistance is not futile.

Over the past two decades, educators have been forced to make huge compromises that work against what we know to be in the best interest of our students. But we have learned along the way the key characteristics of a lively classroom learning environment. Teachers need relatively small class sizes to allow for relationships with individual students. We need the ability to design lessons and collaborate with colleagues, without this work being overtaken by long lists of performance tasks and assessments. We need resources in our schools, especially those in poorer communities. Students need a diverse and stable group of teachers, who are aware and supportive of their cultures. Technology can be a useful tool, but there is no empirical evidence that making computers central to the learning process yields improved outcomes. Nor is there evidence to support external monitoring as a positive effect. The combination of technology with functions of monitoring and compliance is something educators should actively resist, rather than assist. Our current accountability paradigm may not allow a humanistic vision for our classrooms to flourish, but I say we drive another nail in its coffin, rather than offer life support.

What do you think? Should teachers get involved in creating Learning Management Systems? Or should we resist technologically driven attempts to monitor student and teacher performance?


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. Máté Wierdl    

    “Teachers need to have a viable alternate.”

    We have had the viable alternate for thousands of years: teachers in flesh and blood. Instead of helping their presence adhere to this old and reliable educational tool, all efforts are made to increase the distance between teachers and students: class sizes increase (to 500 at universities), computers are employed, projectors are installed, tests are forced on us which are administered and evaluated remotely by unknown entities.

    Change is good. But certain things don’t change: teaching and learning has been a human relationship, and it always will be. The less human it becomes, the worse it gets.

    The role of technology in the educational relationship is the same as in the relationship between mother and baby: it can be helpful, but putting technology between teacher and students makes as much sense as putting it between mother and baby.

  2. howardat58    

    One reason that the Luddites failed was that the system (machinery) that did their job did it as well as they did. With LMS and CBE and pearsonalized learning this is not the case, so “destroy the machines”.

  3. Mary Porter    

    Vander Ark and McGuire have long-time allies much closer to home, Anthony. Essential Schools, Fairtest, AFT, NEA, and NPE are pushing ESSA compliance as an opportunity to impose Proficiency Based Education and even corporate postfolio rubrics into the accountability matrix, by force of law. Can you address that at some point?

    1. Monty Neill    

      It is flat out false that FairTest is promoting ESSA as an “opportunity to impose Proficiency Based Education.” This is a willful misreading of what FairTest believes and does.

  4. Larry Lawrence    

    In the early 1970’s I was teaching in a nongraded, team taught, multi-age grouped elementary school. My five-member team of teachers were working with 120 students in what we called the lower elementary level (5-8 year olds). This discussion of the use of technology (I was the technology coordinator when we had a few Mac SEs in the 80’s) took me back to the beginning of each year when we diagnosed each students reading skill/attitude/confidence/etc. and used this information to create our reading program. Each student met individually with one of us to assess his or her reading skills and this information was written on a 5 X 8 card. This was completed during the first week of school followed by an intensive (but enjoyable) meeting at which we discussed the appropriate program for each student. There were a number of factors involved in how to place students beyond just reading out of a book. Level of reading vocabulary, level of speaking vocabulary, ability to interpret new words from context or by recognizing structure, enjoyment of reading, experiences with reading, experiences with specific teachers (half had been with us the previous year), and other factors considered by my more talented colleagues. This a great deal of information to process and, of course, much of it was informal knowledge from each of the our team of five. I still remember the five of us standing around placing students cards in groups on the floor. “Here is a small group of students who have had very little experience with reading and will need a great deal of support. Karen will work with these kids because she is the most sophisticated in developing reading skills.” “Here’s a bunch of very skilled readers who are ready to take off. Jay, you worked with several of those students last year, why don’t you take them.” These conversations continued until we had organized all the students into appropriate reading environments. If we had today’s technologies would we have been more effective in processing this complex information? Could we have digitized some of the psychological, social, personal information to plan the program? I would be concerned if the reading programs for these students consisted of sitting before a computer going through a continuum of specific objectives every day. Perhaps we would have used some aspects of the available technology, but it would be malpractice to abandon the sophistication of professional educators as we work with our students.

  5. Don Corley    

    I agree, Anthony. Technology, for all of its usefelness, presents a whole set of problems in an educational setting. The foremost one being that students are not “products”. Such a system would, like standardized testing, greatly narrow what goes in in classrooms. As an elementary educator who retired in 2012 after 30 years,

    I maintain that the two most important aspects of education are the relationship between student and teacher, followed by the relationships between teachers. Teacher-parent relationships and teacher-administration relationships also are significant.

    Secondly, you mentioned the burden of of paying for and maintaining equipment. That is huge. Think how quickly technology becomes outdated. Even with technology, entering grades is time-consuming. It is much more important to focus on the human aspects of educating children.

    An aspect not addressed is parent input. As a parent(and now a grandparent) , I can assure I would NOT want a child to be put into such a narrow, impersonal environment (why not just put each child into a “Skinner Box”? I believe most parents would feel the same way.

    This is frightening! I see no benefit in teachers participating in the development of such a “mindless” system!

  6. Christine Langhoff    

    How is it envisioned that CBE could be used outside of elementary classrooms or math and ELA classes at the secondary level? How can data be collected and standardized to evaluate a student’s oral acquisition of Spanish, for example? So we’re back to pretending that math and ELA data will tell us all we need to know about a child’s intellectual capacity and development. More narrowing of the curriculum, more elimination of those activities data can’t be collected from. Not something we need to do nor to invest the scarce resources of time and money in.

  7. Laurie Gabriel    

    Just the very term “Learning Management System” sends shivers up my spine. Teachers should be left alone to teach in their own beautiful, individual, EXPERT ways. Many years ago I wrote the music curricula for my district (for free). Two years later it was abandoned for a new shiny plan. There’s always gotta be a plan. It changes every couple of years, and it’s always a waste of time and money. Put that energy and money into supporting what teachers already know how to do. We are not idiots who need to be managed and scripted. We should be evaluated by expert principals or mentors in our subject area who know our specific kids and have seen us in action for more than 3 minutes a year (if that).

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