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Aurora Institute

Thinking About CBE? Think About This

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Dorothy Wax

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

Starting LineYour institution is thinking about establishing a competency-based education (CBE) program, but have you thought through all that needs to be done to be ready to roll out? Let’s take a look at some of the primary considerations.

Your students, current and future. Does the idea of a competency-based program fit with your students’ needs? If your institution serves a large adult student population, it is more likely to be a fit than if your school serves mostly traditional age students. If you are looking to expand your adult learner population, CBE can also be a good idea. Remember, CBE is about what you know and can do with that knowledge. Adult learners are more likely to have the real-world experience that will allow them to demonstrate their competencies than the students who come to us straight out of high school. That doesn’t mean a traditional student body takes you out of the CBE space, but it will require you to more carefully consider the program you want to introduce.

The other factor with students is whether they know and understand CBE, and whether they want to participate in the program. This could require you to do some market analysis to determine interest, and also begin to plan how you will market CBE to your students once the program is in place. 

What should we offer? Institutions considering going in the direction of CBE need to decide where to start. You can test out the concept with one course or an entire program. You could decide to try it with a certificate program, rather than a degree. What disciplines should you consider? Many colleges and universities are choosing a single program of study, such as business, education, or technology. Programs in the humanities are less popular at this stage because they are seen as more difficult to convert to a competency model due to challenges in assessing competencies. How readily would the existing learning outcomes in the program you are considering lend themselves to the development of competencies?

Program design. There are already many different models of CBE programs in place, and institutions considering CBE should view as many as they can to determine what might work for them. This goes beyond the idea of direct assessment, divorced from seat time and credit hours, or a hybrid approach that still equates competency units with credit hours. Will the program be a mix of competency modules and traditional classes? All online? Offered for all students or just adult learners? What business model will you choose? Will you charge per competency or go to a “buffet” model where students pay a certain amount to complete as many competencies as they can in a specific period of time? What will faculty roles look like? Will they be disaggregated, and to what extent? How will the roles of support staff change, particularly advisors and teaching assistants? Who are the other stakeholders you will involve in program design, such as local employers or even the students themselves?

Vendor options. Many institutions are looking for help in developing their programs, and there are many vendors eager to assist. Their services range from determining the feasibility for your institution to move in this direction, to assisting in the development of the competencies and related assessments, to building the learning management system and all the back-of-house resources to take students from enrollment to graduation, including dealing with issues related to adaptive learning, e-portfolios, financial aid, and transcripts. How much you use vendors can depend on the resources already on campus, including your own faculty and IT department, and the adaptability of existing technology.

What can we afford? This question will drive just about every decision related to CBE. Are there resources to do a whole program, or will you start small? Can you pay faculty to develop the program, either through release time or some sort of expanded compensation? What are the technology costs associated with a CBE program? What is the initial outlay versus the anticipated revenue? How scalable and sustainable will it be? A serious amount of analysis and business modeling must be carried out before any decisions can be made regarding CBE. While some institutions have found that they were able to build out programs rather economically, depending on existing resources, others have found CBE to be a multi-million dollar investment that required identification of new sources of financing to move the program forward.

These are just some of the considerations institutions face when determining whether CBE is right for them, or whether it is the right time for them to bring CBE to their campuses. There are bound to be others that are specific to your institution that will reveal as you move in this direction.