Visit Modern Campus

Disruptive Parallels in Competency-Based Education and Agile Development

The EvoLLLution | Disruptive Parallels in Competency-Based Education and Agile Development
Like agile development practices did to the IT space, the mentality of competency-based education is disrupting and transforming higher education.

What do agile software development and competency-based education (CBE) have in common? They disrupt industries.

Agile software development took root in the 1990s. The Agile Manifesto emphasizes four values: individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration, and responding to change. The approach has transformed the way organizations develop software, moving from a waterfall approach with big design upfront (BDUF) to a rapid, iterative model that prioritizes a working product over a comprehensive product. Looking back, the transformation is seems inevitable. By failing fast incrementally, developers rapidly adjust designs and minimize unnecessary work while constantly calibrating to the targeted needs of users.

Compare this transformative shift in the software industry to CBE’s impact on higher education. CBE has disrupted higher education by providing students with more relevant, outcomes-focused pathways to postsecondary credentials. The emphasis on demonstration of competency over time spent in the classroom empowers learners with flexibility and personalization. When students can shed the “time equals learning” equation and “maximize the work not being done” (an Agile principle), they can focus on attaining the desired skills in their industry, becoming highly efficient, agile learners.

Both CBE and Agile software development capture efficiencies and are iterative in nature, benefiting from immediate feedback cycles. Both are adaptive and able to rapidly align to market needs. And both utilize a human-centered approach, meaning that the user or the student is the heart of every design decision. In addition, in higher education, there is an intrinsic rightness about responding to student and employer desires to align academic outcomes with employer needs.

Efficient and Equitable

Agile software development efficiencies have proven to be exponential. Development shops report 50-75% productivity gains when Agile is adopted at scale. CBE has also realized these same efficiency gains. For example, it is possible for students who bring the right mix of time and experience to complete degree programs 50-75% faster compared to traditional academic degree programs. By eliminating time as the core measure of learning progress and providing flexible pathways to degree completion, learning is more efficient. Sarah Demark, the senior vice president of program development at Western Governors University (WGU), a CBE university, explains:

It is through the administration of timely and high‐quality assessments that CBE programs make good on their promise to hold learning constant and to make time the variable. No matter the institution, the academic field, the type of assessment or the timing of test administration, each student deserves equitable and reliable opportunities to demonstrate his or her learning. (See full article here)

Test Driven and Iterative

Agile places high value on feedback loops and rapidly producing a minimum viable product in order to gain insights via feedback—feedback on the development process, feedback on the viability of the product, and feedback on the desirability of the results. This emphasis on feedback has proven to be highly disruptive to traditional development processes. CBE holds these same values for early, iterative, robust feedback.

Similar to the build-test-iterate pattern in Agile software development, CBE follows a pattern in student development. Students build skills, test them in industry, and iterate via continuous learning as they progress through their degree programs and ultimately, through their careers. This pattern is possible because many students who choose CBE are working in industry, but also because CBE contextualizes demonstration of competency in workplace needs. Early, iterative feedback and test-driven development leads to the validation of applied skills development and subject mastery.

Adaptive and Innovative

CBE challenges the idea that education is a one-size-fits-all experience. It allows institutions to personalize learning at scale. In addition, learners can up-skill and re-skill in concert with or independent of traditional degree pathways. CBE provides for that flexibility. Learners deserve options in how they develop the needed skills to achieve their goals. At WGU, we know learning is personal. We provide opportunities to demonstrate and receive credit for skills attained, regardless of where students attain them, expanding access to degrees for millions of adult learners and providing adaptive and innovative paths for degree completion.

CBE aligns learning and development with student and market demands throughout an individual’s career. At WGU, we believe individuals should be empowered to enter a lifelong learning loop, where the individual can up-skill and re-skill throughout their careers.


In the same way that Agile development has allowed software companies to rapidly respond to changing market needs, CBE allows universities to rapidly regain industry relevance. The disruption of CBE in higher education is indisputable. Western Governors University is the only institution that delivers CBE at scale, and has over 155,000 graduates in the U.S.

Industry disruptions require big ideas and practical solutions to reinvent how products are developed and delivered. Both CBE and Agile are disruptors, and both have ushered in tremendous change in their respective industries.

Author Perspective: