competencyworks higher education blog

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.”


What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?

July 6, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicThe Competency-Based Education Network, a grant-funded group of 30 institutions with competency-based programs, has become a free-standing nonprofit association and is opening up its membership. See this article in Inside Higher Education.


CBE in the News

  • This article highlights Temple University’s efforts to establish competencies for business education.
  • Steve Gunderson, former congressman and current president and CEO of the Career Education Colleges and Universities, wrote an article about connecting the Higher Education Act to jobs, including a recommendation to provide access to and recognition of credentials and competency-based pathways.
  • This article describes why Rwanda needs CBE in institutions of higher learning.



C-BEN Opens to New Members

June 19, 2017 by

The Competency-Based Education Network (focus on higher education) or C-BEN has opened its network to new members! You can find the new member brochure here, which includes information on the four categories of members: U.S. Institutions of Higher Education; K-12, International Institutions of Higher Education, Government, Associations and Non-Profits; Corporations and Service Providers; and Individuals

C-BEN has already done an amazing job in creating quality standards and tackling tricky issues for competency-based education in institutions of higher education. They operate with a set of core principles and have demonstrated powerful collaborations to harness the potential of competency-based education. In the announcement, other strands of their work include: promote and advance competency-based education as a strong and legitimate pathway to high-quality degrees and credentials for all learners; play a defining role in the growth of the movement; build and scale high-quality competency-based education programs; and advance the latest in innovative competency-based learning practices.

The next CBExchange is September 20-22, 2017, in Phoenix, AZ with a member-only convening September 19-20.If you are interested in presenting a session at CBExchange, the Request for Proposals process is open for submissions. Please submit your proposed session no later than July 10, 2017.

What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?

June 5, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicNew Resource: The Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) released the first ever set of Quality Principles & Standards designed specifically for post-secondary competency-based education (CBE) programs.

High School Transcripts: More than 100 private schools across the U.S. formed the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) and are embracing a new high school transcript, in hopes to transform the college admissions process. (More on this from EdSurge and the Christian Science Monitor.)

Blog from Ireland on CBE in Higher Ed: Warnborough College published a blog on Competency-Based Education—What it is and why it’s relevant.

For more news and updates in competency-based higher education, sign up for our monthly newsletter on our homepage and follow us on Twitter: @CompetencyWorks.

What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?

May 5, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicUpcoming Event: The Saylor Higher Education Summit is being held on June 21-22 in Washington, D.C., which brings together leading decision makers and influencers across higher education who will share programs, initiatives and ideas such as competency education. Learn more here.

The Journal of Competency-Based Education 

A new issue of The Journal of Competency-Based Education has been released. New articles include:

  1. Designing quality into direct-assessment competency-based education
  2. “Right on the money”: CBE student satisfaction and post graduation outcomes
  3. Editorial
  4. Competency-based education as a force for equity
  5. Student success and retention using new definitions created for nonterm, direct assessment CBE

Education Dive reports: A report recently published in the Journal of Competency-Based Education shows CBE programs remain popular among older, “nontraditional” students who already have work experience, with just 10% of undergrads at CBE institutions under the age of 25. For more on the kinds of students most likely to enroll, read this article from eCampus News.

For more news and updates in competency-based higher education, sign up for our monthly newsletter on our homepage and follow us on Twitter: @CompetencyWorks.

What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?

April 4, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicThe Future of Higher Education

  • Michael Horn joined EdNext Editor-in-chief Marty West to discuss micro-credentials for teachers, and how professional development is changing in this EdNext podcast.
  • Brian Peddle offers commentary on the college transcript of the future—and the processes holding it back.
  • The 2017 New Media Consortium Higher Education Report identifies trends and technologies that will impact the future of higher education. Competency education is noted within as an innovative idea reshaping the higher education experience.

New Competency-Based Programs

  • University of Maine at Presque Isle is implementing a proficiency-based approach, where freshmen use an educational ‘roadmap’ to show their proficiency in over 100 learning outcomes by graduation.
  • The American Public University System, with enrollment at 90,000, now offers four competency-based undergraduate degrees that require students to master at least 60 competency-based modules for completion – eliminating the credit hour standard. Read more from Education Dive.
  • Southern New Hampshire University will offer competency-based programs (health-care management, communications, general studies, and management) to federal employees through College of America—allowing them to develop skills immediately applicable in the workplace.


In Wisconsin, Innovation Does What Budgets Can’t

March 28, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on March 23, 2017.

It’s budget season in Wisconsin. As in recent years, there is much discussion around tuition rates, state support and maintaining the University of Wisconsin as one of the nation’s premier research universities. But under the radar, the UW System has quietly been innovating against the affordability and workforce challenges faced by the state through a program called UW Flex.

Wisconsin is experiencing a shift from what has historically been heavy employment in manufacturing to jobs that require far more education. But, like many state universities, the UW System has also seen a long-term decline in state appropriations, and tuition has risen in order to pick up the slack in the budget.

Wisconsin faces a challenge: How can the state skill up quickly to meet demand for the new jobs in today’s economy? How can innovation create a college education that is lower cost and accessible, not just to high school seniors, but to working adults who need to retrain?

In order to meet the demands of the 21st-century economy, a team at UW began to experiment with developing a competency-based program. In competency-based education, learning is fixed and time is variable, meaning that students can spend as much time as it takes to demonstrate proficiency and mastery of each competency–and cannot move on until they do. This stands in contrast to a traditional program, in which time is fixed (a semester, for instance), and learning is variable.

Perhaps most importantly for UW leaders, competency-based education can also be designed to align to workforce needs by matching learning competencies to work-based skills and dispositions. Because of their flexibility, these programs can attract students who are older and already working, which allows Wisconsin to help retrain workers displaced by the shift away from manufacturing. (more…)

College Transformed: Five Institutions Leading the Charge in Innovation

March 21, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on February 22, 2017.


Higher education leaders today confront a bevy of criticisms ranging from worsening affordability and persistent socioeconomic disparities to a lack of relevance in the ever-changing economy. Institutions are beset by internal challenges and external pressures. Business models are cracking under enormous pressure as state appropriations decline and net tuition growth wanes. Business as usual simply can’t continue.

The nature of competition in higher education is changing—presenting both challenges and opportunities. For decades—centuries, even—higher education has been on a continuous trajectory of developing more complex and comprehensive institutions to build and disseminate knowledge and educate students. But technology is enabling a new, disruptive path: simpler, more affordable, more accessible educational experiences, built in alignment to the needs of the workforce. Leaders can look to examples of institutions that are successfully innovating in the new environment, some along this new disruptive path, and others by incorporating disruptive technologies to move forward along the traditional trajectory:

  • Arizona State University: Its open-access Global Freshman Academy creates a new pathway into the institution, and an innovative business model allows students to pay when they successfully complete courses.
  • Northeastern University: Drawing on its expertise in experiential learning, it established a coding and analytics bootcamp that defines success by student outcomes in the workforce.
  • University of Wisconsin: In order to address workforce challenges in the state, it deploys a competency-based degree program that draws on the academic resources of the UW System to develop new, accessible programs targeted to adult learners.
  • Simmons College: In partnership with 2U, the college transformed its business model by developing high-quality, online graduate programs that expand its reach beyond geographical constraints.
  • Southern New Hampshire University: Its radically affordable College for America creates opportunities for adult learners through a competency-based degree program in which the university partners with employers.

Leaders at these institutions used a variety of strategies to ignite different types of innovation, including building heavyweight teams, developing autonomous units, partnering with external organizations, and creating alliances with employers. But similarities also emerge: successful innovators focus on solving specific challenges for specific types of students and proactively build their institutional capabilities for innovation. (more…)

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