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Competency-Based Learning: An Administrator’s Perspective

Competency-Based Learning: An Administrator’s Perspective
Competency-based education is radically changing the way higher education is delivered and received, and moving past the credit-hour measure is critical in both increasing accessibility to higher education and improving retention and completion rates.

Recently, I shared my experiences on The EvoLLLution regarding competency-based learning (CBL) from a student’s perspective. CBL promises to be a significantly disruptive paradigm shift in higher education. As a person currently engaged in this format, yet with a traditional terminal degree, I can attest to its effectiveness from a comparative point of view. In a recent interview, Jeffrey Selingo, author of “College (Un)bound,” expressed that “competency-based education … is perhaps the most disruptive force potentially entering higher education”. [1]

On May 20, I took part in a webinar hosted by the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative regarding CBL and disaggregated faculty roles as new models of teaching and learning emerge in postsecondary education. Four institutional administrators from different colleges and universities — some public and others private — shared experiences regarding their move toward CBL models, also commonly referred to as “personalized learning.” Some of these institutions were further along in the adoption continuum of these emerging formats, depending on whether the institution already utilized non-traditional modes of delivery. For those further along, CBL or personalized learning was already somewhat part of their delivery.

Each of these higher education administrators shared both unique challenges and opportunities with CBL:

Credit Hour Equivilences

While the U.S. Department of Education has not completely endorsed CBL delivery models, the agency is increasingly willing to consider such non-traditional formats. Given that CBL reduces or eliminates seat time, which is the standard Carnegie unit used as a measure for everything from awarding degrees to faculty load assignments, this is a big step toward possible ratification. Some institutions still map competencies back to the Carnegie unit, thereby remaining loosely bound to a standard credit hour production and grade-based format. This is accomplished using an algorithm that provides competency equivalencies to seat time. Western Governors University, for example, indicates that each course is worth a certain number of equivalent course ‘hours’ and an equivalent grade. Often, this is an effort to placate businesses and industries who require a certain grade level and credit-hour production in order to remunerate student employees for a course or program completion. There is also the problem of credit-hour transferal. Without understanding and acceptance of competency units, students risk wasting their time and money. Therefore, the credit-hour equivalency model is often still employed.[2]

Stepping Away From the Credit Hour

The U.S. Department of Education often considers CBL the equivalent of direct assessment at some institutions. This can have the unintended consequence of distorting the intent of CBL. Direct assessment is a model whereby students demonstrate mastery through such measures as case studies, reflective essays, observations, portfolios, service learning and other similar outcomes. However, when engaging direct assessment, the institution severs all ties to traditional credit-hour production[2]. Non-conformists believe the credit-hour standard of measure stymies innovation and adaptive learning pathways. Even as far back as 1906, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching cast doubt on the credit-hour as an adequate measure of learning.[3]

Creating Accessibility for Adults

All of the administrators in the webinar agreed CBL is not for everyone. Studies show these non-traditional learning pathways are more appropriate for adult learners who started their degrees but never finished, rather than for entering freshmen. Students new to postsecondary education are faced with other challenges that may make these customizable learning pathways difficult, such as the increasing need for remedial education as they matriculate from high school to college. The average age of students at Western Governors University, for example, is 36.[4]

New Technology Infrastructure

Institutions are reassessing their underlying technology infrastructure to enable emerging models of teaching and learning. Each institution represented at the webinar had implemented an approach to their core learning system that provided a fabric for flexible adaptation, content release, analytics, data aggregation, reporting, standards of competency (e.g., rubrics) and measures of student engagement. Often, commercial learning management products are unable to generate this type of data and do not provide indiscriminate learning paths. Therefore, many colleges and universities have turned to developing their own systems that can be modified and adapted to the learning environment. In my own experience, the institution turned to a commercial ePortfolio application modified for content delivery, transaction and data management. Increasingly, data mined from these systems is providing the institution a roadmap to generating customizable learning paths for each student. As was expressed by Rebecca Peterson, research director of online learning at edX, at a recent conference, future learning systems may be entirely built on big data, allowing such systems to dynamically adapt to customizable learning pathways expressed by individual students. For example, a student returning to college at a later stage in life may have a substantially different experience than a traditional student even though they are engaged in the same course content.

This is a critical juncture. College and university administrators should educate themselves on CBL options for their students, if for no other reason than to offer their students alternative pathways to degree completion. There are numerous advantages for students, including compressed timelines, reduced costs and deeper, more engaged learning in the subject matter. However, institutions engaging such processes may need to rethink and redesign their delivery systems used to manage these emerging formats. Competency models eschew the traditional paradigm. The traditional college and university orthodoxy — including 16-week semesters and seat-time measures of learning — may eventually need to yield to these emerging, yet effective, learning formats.

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[1] National Public Radio, “With Gorgeous Dorms but Little Cash, Colleges Must Adapt,” National Public Radio, May 8, 2013, accessed from:

[2] Paul Fain, “Hour by Hour,” Inside Higher Ed, September 5, 2012, accessed from

[3] Paul Fain, “Credit Without Teaching,” Inside Higher Ed, April 22, 2013, accessed from

[4] Western Governors University, “About WGU: Students and Alumni,” 2013, accessed from

To read Gibson’s first article, looking at competency-based education from the student perspective, please click here. For his third article on the most significant challenges standing in the way of the adoption of competency-based education , please click here.

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