competencyworks higher education blog

The WGU Audit: The Fine Print

October 16, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on October 13, 2017.

The Department of Education’s audit of Western Governors University (WGU) has grabbed lots of headlines. The audit’s methodology calls into question the nature of what it means to be an educator, its conclusions forestall the potential of technology to improve higher education outcomes, and it ludicrously recommends that WGU receive the biggest fine in the history of the Department.

Secretary DeVos will likely reject the Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) recommendations. But the Secretary also should push back against the troubling assumptions written into the fine print of the 93-page audit.

Accreditors determine who faculty are—but the OIG defines ‘instructors’?

The audit sets an alarming precedent regarding who determines the appropriateness of instructional models for online programs.

Accreditation is by no means a perfect system, but accreditors have traditionally—and legally—had responsibility for determining whether an institution’s instructional model is appropriate to its mission, academic offerings, and student body. The accrediting body, in WGU’s case the Northwest Commission, is responsible for evaluating the faculty’s qualifications, as well as curriculum design and quality. The audit itself notes: “Northwest Commission accredited Western Governors University’s educational programs as distance education programs. It did not recognize any of the programs as being offered by correspondence.”

The Northwest Commission likely found WGU to be a distance education program—offering regular and substantive interaction with instructors—in part because WGU students are required to have near-weekly interaction with their student mentors, who the Commission considers to be part of the WGU faculty. In its audit, the OIG doesn’t dispute this categorization—but it concluded that while student mentors might be faculty, they didn’t count as instructors. Because the definition of distance education in the Higher Education Act requires “regular and substantive interaction with an instructor,” the OIG went on to classify many of WGU’s courses as “correspondence courses.”

The legal distinction between faculty and instructors is blurry at best. When Congress wrote its definition of distance education into the Higher Education Act in 1992, it used the word “instructor” instead of the word “faculty”. Neither word is defined in the law—elsewhere in HEA, “instructor” is mostly used to refer to teachers of foreign languages. In other cases, it seems to be used interchangeably with “faculty”, as when it addresses the “academic freedom of instructors involved in the selection of college textbooks.”

The activities of the OIG undoubtedly reveal a need to clarify the definition of terms like distance education, faculty, and instructor. However, HEA—as written—in no way justifies the leap that the OIG has made in undermining the Northwest Commission’s decision-making on WGU’s instructional model. We certainly haven’t seen the Department of Education previously using its special regulatory powers with regards to instructors to evaluate traditional foreign language departments.

Regulators are focusing on inputs, not outcomes—and they know it.


Government Accountability Goes Unaccountable: Chilling WGU’s Innovation Engine

October 4, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on September 25, 2017.

For the last two decades, Western Governors University (WGU) has led the nation in creating and scaling an innovative, high-quality educational model that today helps roughly 90,000 enrolled students make progress in their lives and careers.

Last week, the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General spilled cold water on this record of success with a faulty audit that found WGU ineligible to participate in federal student-aid programs. The report said the University should repay Uncle Sam over $700 million.

Even if Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education ignore the audit’s recommendations—as they should—and allow WGU to continue to access federal aid, the report is not an innocent exercise in government oversight. First, it was a waste of time (over five years) and money—both the government’s and WGU’s—which distracted from the real need: making progress in higher education to better serve students, such as low-income ones, of whom only 8 percent graduate four-year college programs in six years. Second, it will further chill innovation across all colleges that can’t afford the scrutiny, cost, and risk of an audit. And third, as students research where to go to college, the audit will create confusion and cause some students to not enroll in WGU, one of the best universities in the world.

Founded by 19 U.S. governors, WGU is an online institution that uses a competency-based model. In competency-based learning, students make progress in their coursework as they master learning objectives, as opposed to a traditional credit-hour model in which students advance based on time regardless of how well they understand something.

The model has been fabulously successful at serving adult learners, who have needed to attend college to retool or get back on their feet. WGU boasts a one-year retention rate of 78 percent compared to a national average of 74 percent at public four-year institutions. Its six-year graduation rate is 49 percent and rising while serving a challenging population. Its 3-year student loan default rate is 4.8 percent, whereas the national average for all universities is 11.3 percent. And employers overwhelmingly report high satisfaction with the school’s graduates, as 95 percent of its graduates are employed, and 87 percent are employed in their degree field. (more…)

Competency-Based Education in the K-12 Space

September 21, 2017 by

Yesterday I had the opportunity to do a rapid “everything you wanted to know about Competency-Based Education in the K-12 Space” in 15 minutes at the C-BEN Fall meeting. For those of you who wanted to go a bit deeper or for those of you unable to attend the meeting, here is what I covered. I’ve also written a four-part reflection on the intersection of higher education and K-12 early this year. (Read parts one, two, three, and four here.)

In creating CompetencyWorks, Susan Patrick, CEO of iNACOL, and I wanted to create a nimble capacity to learn from those educators who were converting to competency-based education and disseminate it to other innovators as quickly as possible. Along with partner organizations, we have visited dozens of schools and districts each year so that we are always learning from the cutting edge. See and this article with links to descriptions of how districts and schools are designing their models.

What is competency-based education, and how is it similar or different from institutions of higher education?

At the highest levels, the working definition of competency-based education (CBE) developed by 100 innovators in 2011 (below) and the definition by C-BEN are very, very similar. It is important to know that in your state, competency-based education might be called mastery-based, proficiency-based, or performance-based. To date, we think these all refer to the same approach.


We have found that to help people understand competency-based education, it is important to understand why the traditional system is an obstacle toward improving our education system. Here are a few of the reasons that the traditional system produces low achievement, graduates students unprepared for college, and reproduces inequity. (more…)

What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?

September 7, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicCBE Programs and Initiatives


Competency and Academic Standards Exchange

Based on the Technical Interoperability Pilot (TIP) research with C-BEN institutions, IMS Global’s CBE workgroup has published the Competency and Academic Standards Exchange (CASE) specification ( CASE enables edtech tools to manage and exchange competency-based curricular data along with aligned rubrics. By replacing spreadsheet-processes with CASE exchanges, institutions can both realize efficiencies and progress toward a digital credentials-based ecosystem.

Major features enabled by CASE include:

  • Institutional management of a digital curriculum supporting competencies, related courses and external frameworks
  • Flexible structures for a wide variety of curricular types, hierarchies and levels of detail – each institution can have their own competency program and structure
  • Versioning of curriculum elements to support stable change over time
  • Faculty-driven, criterion-referenced assessments using aligned rubrics
  • Content which can be tailored to local terms, semantics and vocabularies
  • Options to share curricular alignments to external frameworks
  • Competency and rubric publishing to Credential Engine’s Registry
  • A feature to match learning-resources to curriculum when connected to supporting publishers
  • Support for a lifelong learning ecosystem based on institution-verified statements and represented in digital credentials such as digital extended transcripts and badges
  • Free public access to open source standards and code for inclusion in commercial and proprietary systems


Changing the System from Within: Using Competency-Based Education to Transform Teaching

September 6, 2017 by

by Mary Tkatchov, Assessment Manager; Erin Hugus, Instructional Designer; Jon Scoresby, Program Dean; and Haley Marshall, Editor

Many educators can relate to the uncomfortable feeling of “passing” students while knowing that they are not ready to advance to whatever comes next: a higher-level course, college, or a career. Many have also had to “fail” students and make them repeat an entire course when perhaps those students might have learned and succeeded had they had more time and individualized support. These educators might come across literature about competency-based education (CBE) and find the ideas interesting, but since their districts or institutions have not formally adopted a CBE system, they feel unable to make a transformation within their own practice. Although educators cannot control the policies of their districts or institutions, they can control, to varying degrees, their instructional design and practice.

While academic freedom varies from school to school, for the most part, it is within the power of the educator to articulate why students need to take a course, what life functions it will help them to fulfill, and therefore, what important learning outcomes must be achieved. It is also within their power to determine what learning activities and supports will help each student to learn the important skills and knowledge, and what constitutes appropriate evidence that the students have, in fact, learned. So those who are interested in competency-based education can actually implement, if not a whole new learning environment and credentialing system, at least the instructional design and teaching practices that are at the heart of CBE.

What is competency-based education (CBE)?

Competency-based education (CBE) refers to a movement to transform education to a system that focuses on demonstrated mastery of skills rather than seat time. Students can advance in their learning once they have demonstrated that they have achieved course outcomes and need not wait until the end of a unit or semester; however, they also cannot “pass” the course unless they demonstrate competence (usually a B or higher) in all course outcomes or competencies.

This definition of high quality competency education, developed by iNACOL and CompetencyWorks, can apply to K-12 as well as higher education since the concepts can be universally applied:

  • 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.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

So how does an educator working within the traditional, time-based education system apply these concepts in practice? There are many philosophies and frameworks that support today’s CBE movement, and here we synthesize concepts from two of the most well-known, William Spady’s outcome-based education (OBE) philosophy and framework and Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design framework, as well as the Competency-Based Education Network’s Quality Principles and Standards for Competency-Based Education Programs.

Although you will notice different terminology in each model or framework (such as outcome-based or standards-based education), they are consistent with and related to competency-based education, as all are focused on the competencies (or outcomes, or standards) that represent important life, academic, or career skills that students must demonstrate, rather than seat time, textbooks, or activities without purpose.

Four main elements of CBE

Below are the four main elements of competency-based education that educators can begin implementing today to make teaching and learning more focused on essential outcomes, and while they mirror Spady’s four essential principles (Spady, 1994), they are compilations of insights from all of the above referenced sources.

  1. Starting with the why and defining meaningful outcomes
  2. Designing to meaningful outcomes with intentionality and transparency
  3. Expecting all students to demonstrate competence
  4. Providing strategic and differentiated support to help all students demonstrate competence

1. Starting with the why and defining meaningful outcomes

Before defining the essential outcomes of a course, first determine why the course itself is important for students to take. How might the course prepare students for significant life roles or careers? Once you have determined the “why,” you can begin the process of defining learning outcomes, or competencies, by answering the question, “What should students be able to do when they complete the course?” Also, for outcomes to be significant, they must focus on the application or creation of knowledge (higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy) as authentically as possible.

According to the C-BEN standards for quality CBE design, input from industry/content area experts who are current in the field is essential in the process of determining competencies. If access to experts is impractical, doing some research about current practices in the field/content area will be necessary here (books, blogs, professional organization websites, etc.).

2. Designing learning experiences to meaningful outcomes with intentionality and transparency


I’m Sorry I Failed You: Taking an Outcome-Based Approach to Student Learning in a Traditional Classroom

August 24, 2017 by

“Do no harm,” was my grad school professor’s advice about being an educator. When I reflect on some of the decisions I have made as a teacher since then, I know that although my intentions were good, I actually did some harm. I had to make daily judgments that could affect a student’s future, and since I am human and make mistakes just as my students do, I have often asked myself, “Did I do the right thing?”

One English 101 student, “Jake,” still haunts my memories. Jake was pleasant and invested in his learning; he was a skilled writer and his engagement in class discussions helped to keep the climate interesting. On the last day of class, Jake approached me to thank me for a great class and then said that he did not have his final paper. He did not say why, and I did not ask. I can only assume he was respecting my “no late work” policy, which was especially thoughtful since he could not pass the class without turning in the final paper. I considered giving him more time, but since he did not ask for an extension, as many students would, I did not offer one. A few days later as I was submitting final grades, I felt compelled to fail him.

I experienced feelings of guilt and regret after posting grades for this class, even though I could justify my decision. After all, the other students might have stayed up all night or given up important events to finish their papers. It was only fair to them that I enforce my deadlines, which were disclosed at the beginning of the semester, as was the no-late-work policy. And, why should I have to chase him down to give him extra time for reduced credit? Yet, I worried I had violated the “do no harm” admonishment.

Sometime during my own education I had internalized the belief that the primary job of a teacher was to prepare students for the real world—that since they would have to meet deadlines without excuses in life, they should have to do the same in the classroom. Now that I have worked in the real world and I have had to push back deadlines on occasion without, to my relief, the cataclysmic consequences I might have expected, I am questioning how real-world is it to be so inflexible with human beings, especially when the goal is not the creation of a product, but something so impossible to standardize—an individual’s learning. (more…)

Debunking a Myth – Competency-Based Transcripts Don’t Disadvantage High School Graduates in the Admissions Process

August 23, 2017 by

A transition to a competency-based education system brings with it many small and large changes. In order to serve their students better, districts, schools, and teachers change instructional practices, strategies, feedback, and, frequently, reporting. These changes are made in order to more accurately capture what a student knows and is able to do – how they are performing in relation to rigorous, common, shared expectations. While all of these changes should be made in consultation and collaboration with school communities, in response to the vision that they have for graduates, some of these changes are more visible to them than others. Transcripts represent one of the most visible – and public – of these changes.

The ultimate goal of our system is to graduate students who are college and career ready and prepared for the futures of their choosing. Admission to a college and university is a huge part of that future for many of our graduates, and it is only natural that students and parents will immediately think about the implications that the shift to competency-based education has on college admissions. These concerns can be particularly acute for parents who were served well by more traditional educational systems and those whose students have historically thrived in such conventional academic settings.

The Great Schools Partnership and the New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC) have worked to address these concerns in a variety of ways. The engagement began by working, over the course of a year, with deans and directors of admission, high school guidance counselors, and principals to create a sample competency-based transcript that would serve as a model for secondary schools to use, change, and adapt to their local context with the assurance that it met the needs of a variety of admissions officials. At the conclusion of this process, the group of deans and directors of admissions requested to continue working together to create a sample school profile, knowing just how critical a clear, complete, brief, easily understandable school profile is in the admissions process. The school profile conveys important descriptive information about the school, its academic program, and its community, and they are customarily included in student applications to colleges and postsecondary programs. The school profile is especially important for admissions staff with fewer resources and limited internal capacity.

Following that process, the NESSC transitioned to gathering a repository of letters from public and private colleges and universities that unequivocally state that students from competency-based systems are not disadvantaged in the admissions process. To date, the NESSC has collected statements from seventy private and public institutions of higher education across New England (including Harvard, Dartmouth, MIT, Tufts, and Bowdoin). These efforts are ongoing and additional statements will be added and are available for download on the NESSC website.

Additional resources about engaging with your community around these questions (and an interview with Nancy David Griffin, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs at the University of Southern Maine) can be found here.

Questions about competency-based learning and college admissions are not context specific. They are at least a consideration in every district implementing competency-based learning. In every community, there are students, parents, teachers, and community members who would like to better understand the ways in which this transition impacts the college admissions process. These questions recognize that there are serious flaws with traditional educational systems: the assumption that traditional grades are equivalent school to school and classroom-to-classroom is false. The assumption that earning a high school diploma means that a student is prepared for college coursework and experiences is false, proven wrong by the high rates of remedial course taking across the country. (more…)

Alternative Credentials are Reshuffling the Higher Education Deck

August 17, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on July 25, 2017.

“Hard problems often solve themselves, if we get the categories right.” – Clayton Christensen

In a simple version of the world, work and learning are considered separate spheres. But in fact the categories are not so clear. The world of work involves learning too, and while much of this learning is experiential or “on the job”, companies have built a range of solutions to help their employees develop and learn new skills, including internal training sessions, external seminars, and corporate universities. They also turn to colleges and universities. But these institutions are but one piece of the puzzle.

We generally break learning down further into a neat progression of schools: elementary, middle, high, college, & graduate. But here, too, the complexity of the real world defies our schemes to classify it. For instance, 40-60 percent of college students require remedial classes, to the tune of $1.3 billion per year. Put differently, this means that millions of college students are spending money—including their own cash, federal loan dollars, and federal grants—to take high school courses from colleges and universities.

This is one of many examples of the costs of getting the categories wrong in higher education.

Interdependent vs. modular architectures

The simple story—of education neatly preceding work—describes a modular architecture, whereby colleges make sure that students meet employers’ specifications, and then send them off to those employers, their education complete. Modular architectures favor flexibility, because the pieces can be put together in different ways. Companies can recruit college-educated workers from a variety of different institutions and students can bring their degrees to bear in a variety of professions.

But in reality, learning doesn’t end with a graduation ceremony. Corporations are spending billions on training, using many avenues, of which traditional higher education (either on campus or online) is but one. Much of the training that happens within companies could be described as an interdependent solution. Interdependent solutions are preferable when standards are not well defined—just as the learning and skills outcomes of traditional higher education are highly variable between institutions and between students. Companies optimize the performance of their employee preparation and training by building their own solutions.

For instance, McKinsey, one of the world’s top consulting firms, has long recruited some of the best and brightest from the world’s elite universities. But once new consultants arrive at McKinsey, their first stop is more training. These internal training efforts formalized into McKinsey Academy, which has since evolved to be a profit center in its own right, providing McKinsey’s clients with leadership training in the form of in-person seminars as well as online courses.

Industry architectures are rarely either purely modular or purely integrated. Reality most often lies somewhere in the middle. These architectures are also not fixed over time—they oscillate toward modularity or integration as needs change. This is true in education; industry practices around training and credential requirements shift over time. Corporate universities represent a shift to a more integrated solution for training business and management functions. But other roles, like nursing, have seen a move toward a more modular architecture as requirements for degrees replace on-the-job training practices. (more…)

New Metrics and Student Engagement System

August 4, 2017 by

It is definitely time for the competency education innovators in K-12 and higher education to be learning from each other.

One of the opportunities for learning from each other is in thinking about information management systems that support student learning and collect what students know and are able to do in some form of a transcript. For example, in skimming the case study on the University of Wisconsin Flexible Option, I found two ideas that can push our thinking forward in K-12.

Metrics on Pace

In the Metrics Framework, the University of Wisconsin identifies three elements of pace:

  • Measuring rate of assessment completion within each subscription period (time) to reach personal educational goals
  • Assessing rate against student’s planned rate
  • Measuring nature of student’s engagement with curriculum

For aggregated student level data, University of Wisconsin is “aggregating average (mean, mode, median) pace through a program. This aggregate should be measured from student matriculation to completion (or other reason student leaves program). Aggregate pace can also be measured yearly. Aggregate pace can also be analyzed by types of students including demographics, professional interests, etc.”

Student Engagement System


What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?


What's new! star graphicExpansion of CBE in Higher Education Programs

  • Queen’s University’s medical program in Canada will become the first in North America to make the change to competency-based medical education.
  • Southern New Hampshire University announced a new Workforce Partnership Team to work with partners (employers, nonprofits, the public sector, and more) to meet students where they are with educational opportunities suited to their needs.

New Resources and Reports

The University of Wisconsin Flexible Option released a new case study website as a resource for other institutions looking to develop competency-based programs. It includes tough decisions and helpful resources in six key areas:

  • Academics: Faculty and curriculum development and factors influencing program offerings and quality
  • Budget: Business model, funding sources, and factors critical to success
  • Communications: Building stakeholder relationships
  • Enrollment Management and Technology: Student services and back-office operations
  • Metrics: Defining and measuring student and program success
  • Policy: Policies impacting direct assessment CBE models

New reports include:

New report findings include:

  • Education Dive reports that recent surveys of higher education highlight a dramatic shift in the ‘typical college student’ over the past ten years, with colleges now enrolling older students on non-traditional pathways, calling for IHE to adapt to the changing demographics through competency-based education programs.
  • A recent report found that colleges could earn about $1 million annually if they increased student retention. This article points to the benefits of adopting new strategies and using data analytics to provide better student experiences while boosting graduation rates.
  • A report for the Australian Skills Quality Authority found that” in competency-based training systems there are still circumstances in which mandating duration is seen as necessary as one means of regulating quality.”


WordPress SEO fine-tune by Meta SEO Pack from Poradnik Webmastera