The picture is starting to become clearer with regard to the elements that make up a successful competency-based education (CBE) program. Thanks to the CBE Landscape project and a comprehensive survey of institutions, ten common design elements and related “emerging practices” have been identified. This is great news for colleges and universities, especially those early in the process of developing a CBE program, who can benefit from the lessons learned by earlier adopters.
The results were released during the CBExchange that took place in October in Phoenix and provided the opportunity for several hundred representatives from higher education and related organizations to learn more about the latest in CBE. In addition to identifying the elements, the report showed the level of support for each; that is, the percentage of respondents agreeing that the element is needed for a healthy and robust CBE program.
Following are the ten design elements showing the level of support for each from the survey participants, and a summary of the emerging practices recommended for each as important to be included in new CBE programs.
Learner Centered (100%)
This is perhaps the heart of the CBE movement: learner needs and experiences matter most. In a program that is well-designed and meets the expectations of adult learning theory, the programs are flexible and personalized to the learner’s background and offer opportunities for input on the learning path. Experiential learning plays an important role and learning opportunities are based in the real world, often tied to the learner’s work. The program must also recognize the social and cultural differences among learners and have the mechanisms in place to recognize learning and evaluate competencies from a variety of sources. The vast majority of CBE programs use technology as part of delivery or assessment as a way to enhance the learning experience, with a variety of design options in place.
Clear Cross-Cutting and Specialized Competencies (100%)
This element refers to the need for competencies to be specialized (field specific) and cross-cutting, so that they cover areas like problem solving and critical thinking. They should also be linked to national norms such as the Degree Qualifications Profile or AAC&U’s LEAP program. The competencies also need to include theory, knowledge, skills, behaviors, and attitudes appropriate for the education level, and support demonstration of learning in multiple contexts.
Coherent Competency-Driven Program and Curriculum Design (99%)
The design of a CBE program requires significant thought about the desired outcomes and the support required by learners. The curriculum should be clearly articulated and predictable so students understand what is expected. There should be multiple pathways for them to navigate the program, with varied opportunities to learn and demonstrate competencies. Applying scaffolding to the curriculum reflects stages of learning and growth, ensuring that students experience and recognize their own progress. Aligning the program to national norms helps assure preparation for the workplace.
Measurable and Meaningful Assessments (100%)
The rigorous assessment of competencies is a vital part of any successful CBE program. Let’s be honest: There is enough skepticism about CBE to make it necessary so that students in these programs are indeed showing what they know and can do in order to silence the skeptics. There can be no easy roads to success. New programs must be sure that their assessments and rubrics are validated. Assessments must measure learning and the transfer of learning across multiple contexts. There must be frequent assessment, both formative and summative, with feedback for the learner and opportunities for improvements to the learning experience.
Flexible Staffing Roles and Structures (97%)
CBE’s impact on faculty and staff roles is a major concern at many institutions considering a move in this direction. The objective of most programs is to see that faculty and staff play roles that recognize their own strengths and abilities. The level of disaggregation varies among programs, with some seeing tweaks to assignments while other schools undergo organizational restructuring. The bottom line is that whatever structure is in place must provide for meaningful, substantive, and sustained interactions with students.
Engaged Faculty and External Partners (99%)
While CBE programs are learner centered, they still depend heavily on the use of faculty to drive the design of the program, create the curriculum, and develop assessments. Beyond faculty, community leaders, employers, and alumni should be aware that CBE programs are being developed and can provide input on competency selection and validation. Employers offer opportunities for real world application of learning for their own employees enrolled in the program, or through internships and other work-based learning. In many ways, this is similar to what traditional programs require (student teaching, clinical rotations, etc.). An important component in the design of new programs is to validate competencies with employers or industry associations. In this way, you can be sure you are preparing students for the needs of the workforce.
Embedded Process for Continuous Improvement (99%)
It is important that CBE programs, especially in the early stages, have program goals and metrics that serve to monitor quality and performance, and that adjustments are made as needed. Data collection embedded in the curriculum design is one way to measure quality, and there must be processes in place to listen to and learn from the learner. CBE programs also need the freedom to innovate in safe and structured spaces as part of a learning community.
New or Adjusted Financial Models (95%)
One goal of most CBE models is to be affordable and accessible to students. At the same time, the program must make financial sense for the institution. Among the emerging practices linked to this element is the need to assure that pricing models and cost structures align to the program structure. That could mean the buffet-type all-you-can-learn flat pricing or it could mean that the competencies are linked to traditional credit hour. The choice of business model is important because of the impact on students’ ability to access federal financial aid. Another option is to partner with employers who may pay for their students to participate in the program.
Enabling and Aligned Business Processes and Systems (97%)
Some of the biggest concerns of institutions looking to establish a CBE program are around technology. How can we, quite literally, make this work? It is important that both business processes and design link closely with program design; technical interoperability is a must. As colleges and universities consider vendor and product selection, they must consider program alignment so that technology and data systems are aligned with each other and with the programs themselves.
Proficient and Prepared Graduates (99%)
The goal of any postsecondary programs is to graduate students who are prepared for life and work. The same is true of CBE programs, which measure competencies based on rigorous evaluation. The progress of the learner is measured by the demonstration of competencies measured at an appropriate level to exhibit proficiency and application of learning. The other aspect of this element is the use of transcripts that identify the learner’s competency, often showing both competencies and credits earned.
The CBE Landscape project is led by Public Agenda with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Other project sponsors include the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), the American Council on Education (ACE), EDUCAUSE, the Competency-Based Education network (C-BEN), The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), and Quality Matters.
- CBE – Making It Work With Employers
- Exploring the CBE Landscape
- Re-Thinking Assets in Competency-Based Transcripts
Dorothy Wax is the Associate Vice President for Operations for CAEL. She manages CAEL’s CBE Jumpstart program, which is funded by the Lumina Foundation and is providing training to 21 institutions and systems of higher education on CBE.