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The Next Big Thing in CBE Isn’t a Program Model

The EvoLLLution | The Next Big Thing in CBE Isn’t a Program Model
In order for competency-based education to take its next step into the mainstream, higher education leaders (and vendors) need to realize the traditional technologies used to support and manage traditional higher education do not have the capacity or complexity to provide a great CBE experience.

When looking at innovations within the field of competency-based education (CBE), there is frankly little to be found that is genuinely new. The concept of competency-based, or mastery-based learning has been around for decades. Some would argue that near the very genesis of the Carnegie Unit, the usefulness of time as a proxy for learning was already identified as significantly limiting.[1]

Since the winding down of the “year of the MOOC,” CBE has become the new darling of higher education, as evidenced by funding and clout, even political will. This flavor of the month is not the 32nd, instead it is a vampire resurrection of the very best kind. Credit hours may or may not represent skills and knowledge, but competencies make you prove your KSAs (knowledge, skills and abilities).

Competency-based education is defined differently by different groups. For the sake of internal consistency, here it will be defined as an educational model that is time-variable, in which learners progress towards and achieve credentials through the demonstration of knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes, at previously defined levels of mastery. This reductive definition incorporates elements from many definitions, including the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative Working Group on Competency-Based Initiatives in Higher Education, CRAC’s Framework for Competency-Based Education, and Clarifying Competency-Based Education Terms.[2, 3, 4]

Operating with this definition, what’s going on that’s innovative with CBE?

CBE programs around the country have a common nemesis: legacy technology systems. These systems hold back the scalability, and therefore sustainability, of CBE. When looking at what is the next big thing to come out of CBE, it can be argued that the innovation occurring right now is in the advancements of edtech that will ultimately enable effective, individualized and integrated CBE at scale. When this radical transformation picks up speed and reaches critical mass, it will spill over into all of online higher education, and our systems overall will undergo substantial change.

Consumer grade technology is going to college, and it won’t be sitting in a seat.

To a large extent, the current CBE programs are self-limiting because they either have insufficient technology infrastructure behind them, or they are constrained with the use of legacy learning management systems, student information systems and the like. Trying to bend an LMS not built for CBE into some CBE-like experience for learners is resource-intensive, largely manual, and arguably of limited effectiveness.

Some programs have broken this mold. Southern New Hampshire’s College for America utilizes a version of Motivis, a platform built on Salesforce designed for CBE.[5] The University of Texas System has collaborated with an app developer to create TEx, or Total Educational Experience, which is built around an iPad app that pulls relevant data from various legacy systems. Desire2Learn invested heavily in CBE with their core LMS (Brightspace) as well as with their adaptive learning engine, LeaP.

These are the types of innovations that will take CBE beyond a community of committed professionals and purposeful programs to a widely-accessible, scalable solution for learners of all types in higher education. When it comes to innovations that will make CBE work, work at scale, and infiltrate higher education as a whole, the technology behind a truly consumer-grade learning experience is the game-changer.

The systems we need will be aligned to competencies at multiple levels, backed by robust Learning Object Repositories, support diagnostics, different types of formative and summative assessments and integrated micro-assessments, assume use of video and interactives, and will be mobile-first. They will have integrated degree maps and social capabilities to structure support learner-to-learner as well as for a variety of distributed faculty roles.

This evolution is happening right now, and institutions that are able to leverage these developments won’t be forced to recreate their programs when the manual burdens become too great to scale. The health of student learning and success in CBE can be diagnosed, tracked and optimized in these systems with real-time data informing support structures, all designed around the learner.

The revolution in CBE isn’t a new model; it’s a new way for students to learn in something quickly approaching a consumer-grade technology experience. These types of systems backing a truly learner-centric experience is going to be a game changer for scalability for CBE, and then for higher ed at large.

The next best thing requires us to look at the student not only as a learner, but also as a co-creator, as a colleague, and (gasp) yes, as a customer. It also requires us to look at the student as a user, and then do what we need to do to create intuitive learning experiences where the technology fades into the background, quietly supporting scalability and sustainability because that’s what it was built to do.

The technology is getting ready to go. Are we?

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References and Footnotes

[1] Laitinen, A. (2012). Cracking the Credit Hour.

[2] National Postsecondary Education Cooperative Working Group on Competency-Based Initiatives in Higher Education. (2002). Defining and assessing learning : Exploring competency-Based initiatives. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (Vol. 159). Retrieved from

[3] Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions. (2015). Regional accreditors announce common framework for defining and approving competency-based education programs. Press Release. Retrieved from CBE Statement Press Release 6_2.pdf

[4] Everhart, D.; Sandeen, C.; Seymour, D.; and Yoshino, K. (n.d.). Clarifying Competency Based Education Terms.

[5] Full disclosure – I work for Southern New Hampshire University, but in the College of Online and Continuing Education, not in College for America.

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