competencyworks higher education blog

What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?

February 10, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicNews

  • Competency education is gaining momentum in K-12 and higher education. This blog explores the areas where K-12 and higher education appear to be at a confluence.
  • The Executive Director at the Institute of Competency-Based Education at Texas A&M, Judith Sebesta, highlights 5 questions to ask when starting a competency education program, detailing tips for a successful framework and lessons learned.
  • Parents are among the fastest growing demographic of college students, and the number of child care centers on campus is decreasing. Competency-based education accommodates parents’ schedules and work responsibilities.

Competency-Based Education Webinar Series

CBE Info announced the continuation of the CBE for Community Colleges webinar series this academic year. The webinars are free to attend.

There is a growing interest in competency-based education (CBE) for higher education as one of the approaches to accelerate students’ progress-to-degree while assuring the quality and validity. The webinars will help those that wish to understand how CBE can work and how they can get started on the development of CBE programs at their own institutions. (more…)

Will Alternative Credentials Replace College Degrees?

February 6, 2017 by

StudentsThis post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on January 23, 2017. 

The question of whether alternative credentials—in the form of everything from badges to nanodegrees and from micromasters to certificates—will displace degrees from colleges and universities is heating up.

Many have speculated that 2017 may be the year that employers begin to move en masse away from filtering applicants based largely on where they went to school and to an approach where they evaluate the actual competencies prospective employees possess to determine if there is a match. In his book The End of Average, Todd Rose profiles some companies that have already moved to such an approach.

Richard Garrett, chief research officer at Eduventures, has poured cold water on the prospect of alternative credentials replacing degrees anytime soon, but added that if they did, it could help tackle higher education’s cost challenges.

The challenge for all innovation in this area is that the “Job” that human resource professionals are hiring the college degree to do is efficiently disqualify a large portion of applicants so they can focus on a smaller number of high potential candidates. At this point, no new solution competes with the efficiency of glancing at a resume to see where someone went to college. As a result, many emerging alternative credentials have served as supplements to and differentiators on top of the degree, but not full replacements.

At the LearnLaunch Institute’s 2017 Across Boundaries conference, I am moderating a panel with Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass; Liz Simon, vice president of legal and external affairs at General Assembly; and Stephanie Krauss, campaign director at Connecting Credentials to unpack the question further. 

Against this backdrop, new research has emerged from LinkedIn Learning’s Insider Survey with a more optimistic take. The survey gathered its information from a panel of 30 to 45 notable learning and development experts, including corporate learning executives, leaders from educational nonprofits, and industry analysts focused on enterprise training and development. (more…)

New Webinar Series from the Institute for Competency-Based Education

February 2, 2017 by

TAMThe Institute for Competency-Based Education (Texas A&M University) is offering one-hour webinars through its Practical Perspectives on CBE: A Webinar Series from the Institute for Competency-Based Education series.

The first Webinar is open for registration now.

Webinar #1
Developing a Data-Driven CBE Program
February 8, 2017, 2:00pm CT
Carlos Rivers, Operations Research Analyst, Institute for Competency-Based Education, Texas A&M University-Commerce
Register now!

Future offerings will include: (more…)

Thinking about Design Elements and Quality Standards

January 31, 2017 by

designThis is the fourth article in our series on competency education in K12 and higher education institutes. Begin the series here.

It’s one thing to build consensus around a definition of competency-based education. The definition of competency education developed in higher education by C-BEN and the definition used by CompetencyWorks are comparable. Both have served as a helpful organizing tool around which to build the field and deepen our understanding of competency education. However, it’s an altogether different thing to agree to what high quality competency-based education looks like, not to mention the more difficult task of agreeing to what what low quality, the unacceptable kind, looks like.  

C-BEN has started down a path toward building agreement about quality. They started with ten design elements in the Shared Design Elements and Emerging Practices. They then narrowed this to eight in the Quality Standards for Competency-Based Educational Programs: transparency of student learning; intentionally designed and engaged student experiences; clear, measurable, meaningful and complete competencies; coherent, competency-driven program and curriculum design; credential-level assessment strategy with robust implementation; evidence-driven continuous improvement processes; collaborative engagement with external partners; and demonstrated institutional commitment to and capacity for CBE innovation.

They have created a structure of a design element, principle, and standards to dive deep into what quality means. Much of it applies directly to competency education in K12, although there are differences.

1) IHE tends to be programmatic and is likely to be thinking about meeting the needs of niche markets. Even in the colleges transforming their entire campuses, students are self-selecting the model. Districts, on the other hand, are responsible for all students in a geographic area (even when there is choice policy, there will always be a school open to everyone, including those who move into the community in 12th grade and those expelled from choice schools run by the district) and will need to think deeply about designing for the more vulnerable students, mobility, and a wide range of developmental, social-emotional, and academic needs. The K12-CBE model needs to work for everyone. (more…)

Streamlining the Transition between K12 and Higher Education

January 30, 2017 by

library-techThis article, the third in a series on competency education in K12 and higher education, seeks to outline, but certainly not resolve, a number of issues related to how students make the transition from K12 to college in a CBE world and how the educational institutions (districts, high schools, colleges, and universities) will need to relate to each other.

College Application Process

There is one question that will always arise in conversations with parents, guardians, and students, especially those with upper incomes and upper GPAs: How will competency-based education affect my ability to go to and compete for college? There are several parts to this answer, and we are making some progress on addressing them all.

1. Will Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) Accept Students: Thanks to the extraordinary leadership of the New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC), we now have 68 colleges and universities, including several elite schools, that have signed the Collegiate Pledge to accept proficiency-based transcripts and to commit to students not being disadvantaged by them. The website lists all the institutions of higher education (IHE) that have signed on, and the pledge is available for other organizations to use if they want to catalyze their region. Certainly, all IHE with CBE programs should just sign the pledge and send it on over to NESSC.

2. Will Students in CBE Schools Be as Competitive?: This is such a complicated question that it deserves an entire article (or two) on its own. At this point, I believe that students will be as competitive or more so had their school continued to be based on a traditional, time-based model. Of course, if the entire state or country is competency-based, then any advantage to students is lost, but much is gained for communities, as the bar is raised from getting an “A” to demonstrating you can apply the skills. Below is a bit of my thinking on this issue.

a. There is no data so far (and I watch for it carefully) that students at CBE schools are doing worse based on current assessments and measures than when the school was traditional. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that they will be less competitive.

b. When I visit high schools, there is always a trickle and sometimes a stream of commentary from high-achieving students saying that the competency-based model is harder because they actually have to master everything and be able to apply it. Most will say that memorizing for tests is much easier. (There is a great line in a trailer for Most Likely to Succeed where a teacher asks a student, “Would you rather learn or take the test?” And she, with more than a bit of attitude, replies “Take the test.”) That suggests to me that students in competency-based school will be more competitive than they might have been otherwise. This should show up in the college tests, their personal essays, and a richer résumé of extended learning,  internships, projects, or capstones.

However, as the focus moves from being smart to being a good learner, we also need to be prepared for emotional pushback if students become afraid that they might not be one of the “smartest.” Intervening to help previously high-achieving students understand the growth mindset is going to be an important step as part of their identity as the “smart kid” might unravel. However, based on my discussions with high GPA students, as long as the rules of the game are fair, transparent, and consistent, this group of kids, highly extrinsically motivated, will adjust to any set of rules.

c. Most districts and schools have not yet opened up the ceiling. Students should be able to advance beyond grade level in a CBE model, yet we want to guard against “faster is better,” so it is important to have opportunities along the way for students to go deeper or faster. There are a few examples of districts allowing students to advance to the next grade level even if it is in another school (e.g., from eighth to ninth grade), but it has not become routine yet. From what I can tell, it works best if the units of courses have been placed online so that students can simply keep working. Teachers will have to be familiar with the discipline and curriculum in the higher levels and/or students have to have access to teachers who do. Within a school, it is possible to simply have students participate in the more advanced class. The topic of advancing into college level is discussed below.  

d. If we follow the logic of CBE, more students will be more ready for college. If we are teaching habits of work, emphasizing higher order skills, and making sure students have developed the prerequisite skills needed to do the grade level skills, they simply have to build a stronger foundation for lifelong learning. These are three big “ifs,” and not all CBE schools are doing all three. (For example, I’m not convinced at all that scaffolding is the same as building prerequisite skills. It seems to serve an entirely different purpose.) So far, we are only seeing evidence that students are doing better in those models that are very intentional about their strategy to “meet students where they are.”

The point is, competition may actually increase if we are able to make progress toward greater equity. We should never, ever be afraid of that. With pressure for more types of post-secondary options, we should see more innovations in higher education, more products, more programs. Our communities and countries can only benefit in better education even if it is just going to make it harder for fake news to tear away at our democracy.

Calibrating Proficiency-Based Diploma with College Entrance

There are an entirely different set of questions related to the intersection of competency education between K12 and IHE that we have barely started to explore – alignment and calibration. The issues raised in the section are above all based on CBE high schools within the current policies, practices, and dynamics of institutions of higher education that serve graduating high school graduates. But what happens if we start to expect that all IHE be clear about performance levels, at least in the freshmen year or Level 13, even if they aren’t competency-based? (more…)

The Field of CBE in Higher Education and K12

January 24, 2017 by

In this second article about exploring the world of CBE in higher education and K12, I focus in how the fields are developing. 

Beginnings: In K12, the beginning of CBE usually starts with the innovations developed in the 1990s in Chugach, Alaska and in Boston with the launching of Diploma Plus and Boston Day and Evening Academy. (See the timeline of CBE in New England on page 12 of this report). In higher education, the roots of today’s CBE start earlier in the 1970s (although I’ve seen the 1950s identified as a starting point).

Expansion: CBE in both sectors is expanding rapidly. There are currently 600 IHE providing or seeking to establish CBE programs. In 2015, approximately 200,500 students enrolled in CBE programs.  

In K12-CBE, the landscape is changing. At the state level, every year finds more states establishing some type of initiative, and most of the states with seat-time policies that acted as barriers have found some way of allowing CBE. Our conservative estimates are that of the 135,000 districts in the United States, it is likely that 6 percent of them are implementing CBE at least in one school. However, no formal studies have been done to determine the numbers of schools and districts or their stage of implementation.


Red states are advanced, green states are developing, and yellow states are emerging.


Some of These Things are Not Like the Others: CBE in Higher Ed and K12

January 23, 2017 by

differentThis is the beginning of a four-part reflection on the relationship between competency-based education in institutions of higher education and K12. To distinguish between the two sectors, IHE-CBE and K12-CBE will be used. In this first article, I highlight how competency-based education in K12 and in IHE is the same and how it is different (while humming the Sesame Street song One of These Things is Not Like the Others).  

At the highest level, the definitions of IHE-CBE and K12-CBE are essentially the same.

From Competency-Based Education Network: Competency-based education combines an intentional and transparent approach to curricular design with an academic model in which the time it takes to demonstrate competencies varies and the expectations about learning are held constant. Students acquire and demonstrate their knowledge and skills by engaging in learning exercises, activities, and experiences that align with clearly defined programmatic outcomes. Students receive proactive guidance and support from faculty and staff. Learners earn credentials by demonstrating mastery through multiple forms of assessment, often at a personalized pace.

From CompetencyWorks: Developed by 100 innovators in 2011, we use a five-part working definition to guide efforts to implement competency education:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery;
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

However, as one looks at the purpose, driving forces, targeted population, and organizational scale, significant differences start to appear. Although I may be in the minority, I believe that the differences are so important that they need to be understood as more different than the same. With discernment comes knowledge and knowledge-building. Over time, concepts and terminology will hopefully develop that allow us to talk about the differences as variation. Without language to discern, we risk confusion when everything is lumped into sameness.   (more…)

Webinar on Assessment Delivery and Proctoring

January 13, 2017 by

image006 On Wednesday, January 18, 2017  12 PM ET (9 AM PT/ 10 AM MT / 11 AM CT / 12 PM ET), will sponsor a webinar on asssessment delivery and proctoring.  WGU’s Adel Lelo, Senior Manager, Assessment, Evaluation will describe the WGU assessment methods.

For online competency-based programs, test security and assuring student identity is particularly important.  The presenter will share various proctoring models and will give you an understanding of best practices in secure online test delivery methods and scalable online and on-site test scheduling processes. Attend this webinar to hear about some of the challenges and solutions to planning and updating your own test delivery processes. Register here.

What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?


What's NewNews

  • In a video interview, Western Governors University President Scott Pulsipher explains how the university takes a “customer-centric” approach to higher education.
  • Experts say employers are generally accepting of online degrees, but most do not know much about competency education.
  • Kasia Kovacs of Inside Higher Ed makes the case against oversimplifying accountability in higher education—noting that focusing on any single measure too heavily creates flawed policy, and focusing on multiple measures gives a clearer picture of institutional performance.
  • Inside Higher Ed experts foresee a shift toward alternatives to the traditional college pathway with the new incoming administration, including competency-based programs, skills boot camps and employer certifications.

Thought Leadership

  • Charla Long, a competency-based expert in higher education, wrote an article on ensuring quality in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Deborah Everhart explores the difference between competency-based education (CBE) and competency-based learning (CBL) and offers 5 implementation tips.

New Resources


December 19: Making the Case for CBE Programs: Evaluation for Improvement in CBE Programs

December 18, 2016 by

screenshot-2016-12-18-05-25-51American Institutes for Research, Public Agenda, and the Competency-Based Education Network: C-BEN are hosting a webinar Making the Case for CBE Programs: Evaluation for Improvement in CBE Programs on Monday, December 19, 2016 … 2 PM to 3 PM ET.
You can register here.

Evaluation for Improvement is the second in a four part series designed to demystify the evaluation process. In this hour-long webinar, you and your colleagues will learn how to use formative evaluation techniques to strengthen existing programs, and how to make sure new programs have opportunities for formative evaluation built in from the start.  Presenters include: Kelle Parsons, Researcher, Postsecondary Success, American Institutes for Research and Matt Soldner, Principal Researcher, Postsecondary Success, American Institutes for Research.  You can find information about the first webinar and other resources here.

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