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Higher Education

Competency-based education is not new

POSTED 06/10/2013
By Cathy Anderson

Competency based education (CBE) is not new. The concept has been around since the 1960s. CBE simply means defining what the student will learn at the unit, course and program level. What is new, in education, is decoupling what the student will learn from the required amount of time in classroom (seat-time), in either the semester (usually 15 weeks) or quarter (12 weeks) systems. Competency based education allows the student to learn the material at his/her own pace.

What Does Competency Based Education (CBE) Mean?

The most comprehensive definition of Competency Based Education (CBE) is: outcome-based instruction that is adaptive to the changing needs of students, teachers, and the community. Competencies describe the student’s ability to apply basic and other skills in situations that are commonly encountered in everyday life. Thus CBE is based on a set of outcomes that are derived from an analysis of tasks typically required of students in life role situations.

In 2011 Competency Works brought together leaders in CBE for the first time, where “participants fine-tuned a working definition of high quality competency education.” That definition included these design principles:

  1. Design Principle 1: Students Advance upon Demonstrated Mastery – The core element of a competency-based approach is that students’ progress to more advanced work (is based) upon a demonstration of learning by applying specific skills and content.
  2. Design Principle 2: Explicit and Measurable Learning Objectives Empower Students – In competency-based practices, a course is organized into measurable learning objectives that are shared with students. Students take responsibility for their learning, thereby increasing their engagement and motivation.
  3. Design Principle 3: Assessment Is Meaningful and a Positive Learning Experience for Students – In a competency-based model, the traditional approach to assessment and accountability “of learning” is turned on its head with assessments “for learning.” Formative assessments are aligned with learning objectives. Students receive immediate feedback when assessment occurs. This is used to encourage students to return to difficult concepts and skills until they achieve mastery. It is essential that assessments are student-centered, in which students are assessed on material with which they are familiar.
  4. Design Principle 4: Students Receive Rapid, Differentiated Support – The core idea of a competency-based model is that all students will master the desired competencies. This requires a rapid response capacity on the part of educators to support students when they are stuck or begin to disengage in frustration. Educator capacity, and students’ own capacity to seek out help, will be enhanced by technology-enabled solutions that incorporate predictive analytic tools. This element is essential to a competency-based system. Without it, there is risk that the current inequities will be reproduced.
  5. Design Principle 5: Learning Outcomes Emphasize Include Application and Creation of Knowledge – Competencies emphasize the application of learning. A high quality competency-based approach will require students to apply skills and knowledge to new situations to demonstrate mastery and to create knowledge. Competencies will include academic standards as well as lifelong learning skills and dispositions.

Educators who have been involved in assessment will acknowledge that more and more focus has been put on measuring what the student is learning (learning outcomes), finding effective ways of measuring this learning, and documenting the student’s progress towards learning. In my experience this is a model that has been used for years in the Adult Basic Education program, which increases basic skills in reading, writing and computation, with an emphasis on developing critical thinking skills. Students are tested via a variety of tests such as the Test of Adult Basic Education or the GED practice tests. These tests measure what the student knows in a subject area and identifies areas where they need further instruction. Periodically throughout the course of the student’s instruction, he/she is tested to ensure that he/she is making progress.


There is little controversy on CBE’s primary directive of measuring students’ knowledge, as measuring knowledge is already required for institutions to be accredited in the first place. Instead, the major controversy is doing CBE without the structure of “seat time”, as this directly attacks the fundamental business model of education. In the next decade, it is expected that CBE will gain more and more acceptance.

In the mid-1990s, governors of the western states came together and agreed to support Western Governor’s University, a university based upon the concept of competency based education, and championed by Michael Leavitt, then Governor of Utah. He proposed to the other governors that the western United States needed an online university that would be collaborative and would be based upon “competency rather than seat-time as a means of its structure”. By 1999 WGU was accepting students. The mission of WGU says it all:

The principal mission of Western Governors University is to improve quality and expand access to post-secondary educational opportunities by providing a means for individuals to learn independent of time and place and to earn competency-based degrees and other credentials that are credible to both academic institutions and employers.

I was just starting my career in higher education at the time and I can recall those in administration at the college where I worked expressing some concern over the WGU model; however the focus was more because the mode of delivery was online. Even then, those futurists could acknowledge that online had some potential for disrupting the traditional classroom, increase competition for the institution, and change the approach of faculty to teaching. Ultimately there was some concern that a competency based model could be accredited without the associated seat time, however WGU gained acceptance and is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Schools and Colleges.

Fast forward to today, almost 25 years after Western Governor’s University was born, the United States Department of Education (DOE) has formally acknowledged competency based education in a Dear Colleague Letter dated 3/19/2013. In this letter, Daniel A. Berger, Acting Assistant Secretary for Higher Education, referred to the Higher Education Reauthorization Act of 2005 which defined the following requirements for competency based education programs:

provided that instructional programs that use direct assessment of student learning, or that recognize the direct assessment by others of student learning, in lieu of measuring student learning in credit hours or clock hours, may qualify as eligible programs if the assessment is consistent with the institution’s or program’s accreditation.

On their website the US DOE identifies that:

Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities.

If a model such as the successful Western Governor’s University has been around for almost 19 years and recognition of competency-based education has existed in the Higher Education Reauthorization Act since 2005, why is there such a stir around the model today? It is because acceptance of the competency based education model will require total disruption and overhaul of the existing business model of higher education today. In order to implement this model of education, many questions should be asked, such as: How would student progress towards degree be measured if the seat-time credit hour model were displaced? How will faculty contracts be designed? Is an open enrollment model for students really feasible? How will faculty job descriptions be designed?

The Art of Possibility

There are many factors that contribute to making competency based education a possibility today, some of these were identified by at the Software & Information Industry Association 2010 Symposium, the notes in parentheses are mine:

Essential Elements:

  1. Flexible, Anytime/Everywhere Learning (Made possible by technology)
  2. Redefine Teacher Role and Expand “Teacher”
  3. Project-Based, Authentic Learning
  4. Student Driven Learning Path (Increased knowledge of students and students as consumers)
  5. Mastery/Competency-Based Progression/Pace (Growing dissatisfaction with cost and business model of higher education)

Policy Enablers:

  1. Redefine Use of Time (Carnegie Unit/Calendar)
  2. Performance-Based, Time-Flexible Assessment (technology)
  3. Equity in Access to Technology Infrastructure (technology and mobile devices for learning)
  4. Funding Models that Incentivize Completion (decreased public funding for education and student loan crisis)
  5. P-20 Continuum and Non-grade Band System

An April 22, 2013 article in Inside Higher Education noted just that issue stating, “Perhaps the method’s most revolutionary, and controversial, contribution is a changed role for faculty. Instructors don’t teach, because there are no lectures or any other guided path through course material.” This is a startling statement. My concern is that without the relationship building between faculty and student we may sacrifice professionalism in the field and student retention to achieving their education goals or even ill-defined educational goals.

Many leaders in education today have provided their own observations on the issues holding back competency based education. One of these is Jeremy Merisotis, CEO of the Lumina Foundation, who in a Huffington Post article noted that financial aid for competency based education has still not been fully implemented.

The Current CBE Institutions

However in spite of any issues associated with competency based education it seems unstoppable as more and more institutions, startups or established institutions adopt the model in whole or in part. Inside Higher Education has done the most to track the rise of competency based education and their associated institutions, aside from Western Governor’s University they are:

  • Capella University
  • College for America
  • Southern New Hampshire University
  • Missouri State Partnership with WGU
  • Tennessee State Partnership with WGU
  • Indiana State Partnership with WGTU
  • Texas State Partnership with WGU
  • Washington State Partnership with WGU
  • Iowa Department of Education Competency-Based Education Task Force
  • Kentucky Community and Technical College System Learn on Demand
  • Northern Arizona University
  • World Education University

The shift to acceptance of competency-based education is happening swiftly, now that the necessary elements for implementation are in place, as noted in by the following initiatives being undertaken at the K-12 as well as college/university level:

As noted in this KnowledgeWorks Policy Brief, at least 40 states have one or more districts implementing competency education in their state due in large part to growing competency providers such as the Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC) , Diploma PLUS , and Expeditionary Learning.

39 states have enacted seat time waivers or competency education laws. iNACOL’s 2013 scan of state policies breaks this down further:

  • Four states (IA, ME, NH, OR) have implemented statewide policies to redesign their education systems to support competency based learning at scale
  • Fourteen states (AL, AZ, CT, CO, FL, ID, KY, NC, NY, OH, RI, TN, UT, WV) have implemented competency education pilots, credit-flexibility policies, or advanced next generation policies for equivalents to seat-time
  • Eight states (MI, NJ, SC, TX, VA, VT, WA, WI) are beginning to explore competency education through district waivers or exploratory task forces
  • Ten states (CA, IA, KY, ME, NH, NY, OH, OR, WV, WI) have joined the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) Innovation Lab Network to identify new designs that further student centered learning and the conditions to help these innovations thrive.

Higher education is being driven to change. If competency based education gains acceptance at the K-12 level it is a given that will drive change at the college level. If students and their parents accept competency based education, then they will expect it when they go to college. If employers focus on a demonstration of competencies from their employees, more than the degree, then competency based education will become the accepted demonstration of student learning, knowledge and skills.

Jagged Edge Media JAcom Consultants