Competency-Based Education: An (Updated) Primer for Today’s Online Market

There has been a significant amount of progress and interest in competency-based education, as Wisconsin has launched its Flexible Option program, federal legislators are pushing the concept, ‘patient zero’ has graduated from College for America, and resistance is emerging to the concept. I thought it might be useful to update and re-share the primer that was originally posted in August, 2012.

I’m not an expert in the academic theory and background of outcomes and competencies, so in this post I’ll summarize the key points from various articles as they relate to the current market for online programs. Links are included for those wanting to read in more depth.

What is Competency-Based Education?

SPT Malan wrote in a article from 2000 about the generally-accepted origins:

Competency-based education was introduced in America towards the end of the 1960s in reaction to concerns that students are not taught the skills they require in life after school.

Competency-based education (CBE) is based on the broader concept of Outcomes-based education (OBE), one that is familiar to many postsecondary institutions and one that forms the basis of many current instructional design methods. OBE works backwards within a course, starting with the desired outcomes (often defined through a learning objectives taxonomy) and relevant assessments, and then moving to the learning experiences that should lead students to the outcomes. Typically there is a desire to include flexible pathways for the student to achieve the outcomes.

OBE can be implemented in various modalities, including face-to-face, online and hybrid models.

Competency-based education (CBE) is a narrower concept, a subset or instance of OBE, where the outcomes are more closely tied to job skills or employment needs, and the methods are typically self-paced. Again based on the Malan article, the six critical components of CBE are as follows:

  • Explicit learning outcomes with respect to the required skills and concomitant proficiency (standards for assessment)
  • A flexible time frame to master these skills
  • A variety of  instructional activities to facilitate learning
  • Criterion-referenced testing of the required outcomes
  • Certification based on demonstrated learning outcomes
  • Adaptable programs to ensure optimum learner guidance

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning put out a paper last summer that examines the current state of CBE. In this paper the author, Rebecca Klein-Collins, shows that there is a spectrum of implementation of competency models.

One subset of institutions uses competency frameworks in the context of a course-based system. By course-based system, we mean that students take the same kinds of courses that have always been offered by colleges and universities: instructor-led and credit-hour based.

These may be offered on campus or off, in the classroom or online, accelerated or normally paced. These institutions define competencies that are expected of graduates, and students demonstrate these competencies by successfully completing courses that relate to the required competencies. In some cases, institutions embed competency assessments into each course. In most of the examples presented in this paper, the institution also offers the option of awarding credit for prior learning, and usually [prior learning assessments] is course-based as well.

There seems to be a fairly big jump, however, once the program moves into a self-paced model. For these self-paced CBE initiatives, which are the subject of recent growth in adoption, the current implementations of CBE tend to be:

  • Fully-online;
  • Self-paced;
  • Flexible to allow for retaking of assessments until competency demonstrated; and
  • Targeted at college completion for working adults.

What is driving the current growth and interest in competency-based models?

In a nutshell, the current emphasis and growth in CBE is driven by the desire to provide lower-cost education options through flexible programs targeted at working adults.

Playing a significant role is government at both the federal and state level. In March of 2013 the Department of Education offered guidance to encourage and support the new competency programs, and in President Obama’s higher ed plan unveiled in August, there was direct reference to competency programs:

To promote innovation and competition in the higher education marketplace, the President’s plan will publish better information on how colleges are performing, help demonstrate that new approaches can improve learning and reduce costs, and offer colleges regulatory flexibility to innovate. And the President is challenging colleges and other higher education leaders to adopt one or more of these promising practices that we know offer breakthroughs on cost, quality, or both – or create something better themselves:

  • Award Credits Based on Learning, not Seat Time. Western Governors University is a competency-based online university serving more than 40,000 students with relatively low costs— about $6,000 per year for most degrees with an average time to a bachelor’s degree of only 30 months. A number of other institutions have also established competency-based programs, including Southern New Hampshire University and the University of Wisconsin system. [snip]
  • Reduce Regulatory Barriers: The Department will use its authority to issue regulatory waivers for “experimental sites” that promote high-quality, low-cost innovations in higher education, such as making it possible for students to get financial aid based on how much they learn, rather than the amount of time they spend in class. Pilot opportunities could include enabling colleges to offer Pell grants to high school students taking college courses, allowing federal financial aid to be used to pay test fees when students seek academic credit for prior learning, and combining traditional and competency-based courses into a single program of study.  The Department will also support efforts to remove state regulatory barriers to distance education.

Why has it taken so long for the model to expand beyond WGU?

Despite the history of CBE since the 1960′s, it has only been since the early 2000′s that CBE has started to take hold in US postsecondary eduction, with a rapid growth occurring in the past year. From my earlier post:

Consider that just [three] years ago Western Governors University stood almost alone as the competency-based model for higher education, but today we can add Southern New Hampshire University, the University of Wisconsin System, Northern Arizona University, StraighterLine and Excelsior College.

Why has it taken so long? Although there is a newfound enthusiasm for CBE from the Obama administration, there have been three primary barriers to adoption of competency-based programs: conflicting policy, emerging faculty resistance, and implementation complexity.

1) Conflicting Policy

In Paul Fain’s article at Inside Higher Ed, he described some of the policy-related challenges pertaining to CBE.

Competency-based higher education’s time may have arrived, but no college has gone all-in with a degree program that qualifies for federal aid and is based on competency rather than time in class.

Colleges blame regulatory barriers for the hold-up. The U.S. Education Department and accreditors point fingers at each other for allegedly stymieing progress. But they also say the door is open for colleges to walk through, and note that traditional academics are often skeptical about competency-based degrees.

In 2005 Congress passed a law intended to help Western Governors University (WGU) and other CBE models, defining programs  that qualify for federal financial aid to include:

an instructional program that, in lieu of credit hours or clock hours as the measure of student learning, utilizes direct assessment of student learning, or recognizes the direct assessment of student learning by others, if such assessment is consistent with the accreditation of the institution or program utilizing the results of the assessment.

Despite this law, WGU did not even use the law due to policy complexity, opting instead to map its competencies to seat time equivalents.

In fact, the first program to use this “direct assessment” clause to fully distinguish itself from the credit hour standard was Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America program in March of 2013. As described in the Chronicle:

Last month the U.S. Education Department sent a message to colleges: Financial aid may be awarded based on students’ mastery of “competencies” rather than their accumulation of credits. That has major ramifications for institutions hoping to create new education models that don’t revolve around the amount of time that students spend in class.

Now one of those models has cleared a major hurdle. The Education Department has approved the eligibility of Southern New Hampshire University to receive federal financial aid for students enrolled in a new, self-paced online program called College for America, the private, nonprofit university has announced.

Southern New Hampshire bills its College for America program as “the first degree program to completely decouple from the credit hour.”

2) Emerging Faculty and Institutional Resistance

Not everyone is enamored of the potential of competency-based education, and there is an emerging resistance from faculty and traditional institutional groups. The American Association of Colleges and Universities published an article titled “Experience Matters: Why Competency-Based Education Will Not Replace Seat Time” which argued against applying competency models to liberal arts:

Perhaps such an approach makes sense for those vocational fields in which knowing the material is the only important outcome, where the skills are easily identified, and where the primary goal is certification. But in other fields—the liberal arts and sciences, but also many of the professions—this approach simply does not work. Instead, for most students, the experience of being in a physical classroom on a campus with other students and faculty remains vital to what it means to get a college education.

In addition, I am hearing more and more discomfort from faculty members, especially as there are new calls to broadly expand competency-based programs beyond the working adult population. I have yet to see much formal resistance from faculty groups, however, and the bigger challenge is cultural barriers within the institutions or systems where CBE programs have been announced.

3) Implementation Complexity

I would add that the integration of self-paced programs not tied to credit hours into existing higher education models presents an enormous challenge. Colleges and universities have built up large bureaucracies – expensive administrative systems, complex business processes, large departments – to address financial aid and accreditation compliance, all based on fixed academic terms and credit hours. Registration systems, and even state funding models, are tied to the fixed semester, quarter or academic year – largely defined by numbers of credit hours.

It is not an easy task to allow transfer credits coming from a self-paced program, especially if a student is taking both CBE courses and credit-hour courses at the same time. The systems and processes often cannot handle this dichotomy.

I suspect this is one of the primary reasons the CBE programs that have gained traction to date tend to be separated in time from the standard credit-hour program. CBE students either take their courses, reach a certain point, and transfer into a standard program; or they enter a CBE program after they have completed a previous credit-hour based program. In other words, the transfer between the competency world and credit-hour world happen along academic milestones. Some of the new initiatives, however, such as the University of Wisconsin initiative are aiming at more of a mix-and-match flexible degree program.

The result is that the implementation of a competency-based initiative can be like a chess match. Groups need to be aware of multiple threats coming from different angles, while thinking 2 or 3 moves at a time.

It will be interesting to watch the new initiatives develop. However difficult their paths are, I think this is an educational delivery model that will continue to grow.

Full disclosure: Western Governors University has been a client of MindWires Consulting.

Update 12/1: I have bumped this link from the comments via Nick DiNardo. It is a ~20 minute interview with ‘student zero’ or ‘patient zero’ of the College for America program, giving direct feedback from a CBE student. Thanks Nick.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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6 Responses to Competency-Based Education: An (Updated) Primer for Today’s Online Market

  1. Carleen Shaffer says:

    This is what I’ve been waiting for – a post by you on CBE – very helpful indeed! I look forward to your followup post as well. Thanks, +Phil Hill!

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  3. Phil Hill says:

    We’re suddenly getting a lot of spam in a G+ comment and in pingbacks, which I’ve removed. If I make a mistake deleting spam, let me know.

  4. Pingback: Overview Article on Compentency-based Ed | Teaching @ NMC

  5. Soundar says:

    CBE as it is written is a sub set of OBE and is definitely the need of the hour. When employability is a greater issue, CBE will go a long way in training the students to find jobs which are appropriate to their job. However, the robustness and consistency in evaluation will be a key prerequisite. While on the subject, it will be interesting to know from Phil, what he thinks of the concept of Managing for Development Results and its applicability in OBE/CBE.

  6. Pingback: Round up of current situation in the USA : Competency-based education : blog

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