competencyworks higher education blog

What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?

December 12, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicNews

Federal Policy

The Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board (CED) issued 13 recommendations for reauthorizing the federal Higher Education Act (HEA) including: Fully authorize competency-based education and allow student-centered models of higher education. See this press release for more, or read this Inside Higher Ed article.


New Resource

The Lumina Foundation released State Policy Considerations for Aligning State Competency-Based Education Efforts Across Education Levels in Arizona. (more…)

Collaboration Opportunity: Exploring Connections between Self-Direction and Student Success in Postsecondary CBE Programs

December 5, 2017 by

AIR has announced a research opportunity on examining connections between student self-direction and their subsequent progression through and completion of their CBE programs in higher education. They seek to understand the relationship between students’ self-direction – anecdotally acknowledged as important, but not yet studied – and their subsequent progression and completion. If you are interested in participating in this study or just want to learn more about it, please provide your contact information at:

The following is information for potential project partners from AIR’s announcement.


CBE programs are often considered to be “learner-centered” and self-directed, but, beyond the experiences of coaches and faculty mentors and single-program cases, we have little knowledge about what qualities or skills make students more likely to be successful in CBE programs. In addition, there has been little research to understand how programs might support students differently based on those qualities or skills.

As a first step toward answering these questions, we invite institutions or programs to collaborate on a research project to examine connections between student self-direction and their subsequent progression through and completion of their CBE programs. Together, we seek to understand the relationship between students’ self-direction – anecdotally acknowledged as important, but not yet studied – and their subsequent progression and completion.

Project Summary

This study will involve (1) administering a validated survey that assesses self-direction, particularly in adult learners, to a cohort of incoming students in CBE programs; and (2) connecting the results of that survey with student progression and completion outcomes. Focal outcomes include completion of the first unit of content,1 completion of a second unit of content, and, when possible, program completion. Where possible, AIR will work with institutions to re-administer the survey after program completion to better understand how participation in CBE programs affects self-direction. We will also consider differences in outcomes across different program types and student characteristics. Findings will be shared with the CBE community and, if possible, published in co-authored journal articles. (more…)

New Research Answers Whether Technology is Good or Bad for Learning

November 29, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on November 14, 2017.

For years educators and scholars have debated whether technology aids learning or inhibits it.

In the most recent issue of Education Next, for example, Susan Payne Carter, Kyle Greenberg, and Michael S. Walker write about their research finding that allowing any computer usage in the classroom “reduces students’ average final-exam performance by roughly one-fifth of a standard deviation.” Other studies have shown similarly dismal numbers for student learning when technology is introduced in the classroom.

Yet there are also bright shining stars of technology use—both in proof points and in studies, such as this Ithaka study or this U.S. Department of Education 2010 meta-analysis.

So what gives? Since 2008 I’ve, perhaps conveniently, argued that scholars and advocates on both sides of this debate are correct. As we wrote in Disrupting Class in 2008, computers had been around for two decades. Even 10 years ago, we had already spent over $60 billion on them in K–12 schools in the United States to little effect. The reason quite simply was that when we crammed computers into existing learning models, they produced begrudging or negative results. To take a higher education example, when I was a student at the Harvard Business School, far fewer of us paid attention to the case discussion on the couple days at the end of the term when laptops were allowed, as we chose to instead chat online and coordinate evening plans. In that context, I would ban laptops, too.

When the learning model is fundamentally redesigned to incorporate intentionally the benefits of technology, say, in a blended-learning model, however, you can get very different results. To use another personal example, I fervently hope that the public school district where my daughters will go to school will comprehensively redesign its learning environments to personalize learning for each student through the use of technology. As we disruptive innovation acolytes like to say, it’s almost always about the model, not the technology.

This finding isn’t unique to the technology of computers in classrooms. It was true with chalkboards as well.

As Harvard’s David Dockterman recounts, the blackboard was reportedly invented in the early 19th century. The technology was adopted quickly throughout higher education in a lecture model to convey information to all the students at once. The first recorded use in North America was in 1801 at the United States Military Academy in West Point—ironically the location of the study that Carter, Greenberg, and Walker conducted—and it spread quickly. (more…)

Webinar on CBE Student Outcomes Metrics Framework


The American Institutes for Research and the Institute for CBE at Texas A&M University-Commerce have developed a CBE Student Outcomes Metrics Framework to support a common language for measuring student success within and across higher education CBE programs. This framework is designed to support local continuous improvement efforts as well as field-wide efforts to build evidence about student outcomes in CBE programs, and is based on ongoing CBE student outcomes research with seven program partners.

In general at CompetencyWorks, we keep the articles and resources on CBE in post-secondary institutions separate from those directed at K-12. However, this is a powerful set of work to guide the field of CBE in higher education and can certainly inform the work of K-12 as we enter into a new stage of field-building and attention to quality. I’m certain K-12 will think differently about student outcomes – and this report can help by providing something to react to. We need to make sure that communication goes both ways. As K-12 thinks more deeply about metrics, it’s likely that it will be helpful to institutions of higher education as well, especially those serving younger students entering directly from high school.

On December 14th from 3-4 pm ET, a webinar discussion will be held on the Student Outcomes Metrics Framework. Presenters will be Kelle Parsons, Researcher, Postsecondary Success, American Institutes for Research, and Carlos Rivers, Operations Research Analyst, Institute for Competency-Based Education at Texas A&M University-Commerce.

Click here to register.

Have You Read the Recent Journal of Competency-Based Education?

November 8, 2017 by

The new issue of the Journal of Competency-Based Education focusing on CBE in institutions of higher education was released last month. There are several articles that might be of interest:

Deconstructing Competency-Based Education: An Assessment Of Institutional Activity, Goals, And Challenges In Higher Education

From the Abstract: Eduventures, an independent higher education research and advisory firm, surveyed institutional leaders and other informed stakeholders on details about the strategies and operations involving CBE at their institutions. The resulting sample includes 251 institutions from across higher education and represents one of the largest samples to date on CBE implementation.

What’s interesting in this article is that the authors introduce CBE as “a menu of tools and practices, rather than a monolithic approach or linear path.” That may be true, or that may be the lens they are using. There also may be a significant risk in only thinking about CBE as tools or practices from which you can select rather than deep models that have a different purpose, assumptions, and pedagogies. I’d read this article with a critical eye – questioning the assumptions in the survey tool and analysis. There may be very different implications in terms of how CBE is organized and knowledge is transferred.

Ensuring Faculty Success In Online Competency-Based Education Programs (more…)

What’s New in Competency-Based Higher Education?

November 7, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicNew Programs


Thought Leadership

  • This article focuses on quality of competency-based programs, and highlights 4 steps on a proactive CBE path.
  • Sajan George looks at recruiting teachers for personalized, competency-based programs.


  • Idaho’s Higher Education Task Force included a recommendation for a competency-based or mastery-based K-12 system.
  • A newly proposed bill, the Innovation in Accreditation Act, in the U.S. House of Representatives would grant broad waivers to accreditors aimed at allowing them to bypass federal requirements in order to encourage innovation.


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


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