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C2C Digital Magazine (Spring / Summer 2017)

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Book Review: Building Competency-Based Education in Higher Education

By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University


Figure 1:  "Handbook of Research on Competency-Based Education in University Settings" (cover)  

Handbook of Research on Competency-Based Education in University Settings 
Karen Rasmussen, Pamela Northrup, and Robin Colson

The state of higher education in the U.S. leaves room for improvement.  Tuition costs have been spiraling higher, leaving many capable learners without opportunities.  Many capable people are shut out of higher learning because of cost challenges, which in turn holds back U.S. industry.  College learner retention is a challenge.  There is employer dissatisfaction with some of their newly hired college graduates, with suggestions that they are not prepared for work.  
These are some of the issues that competency-based education is set up to solve, according to Karen Rasmussen, Pamela Northrup, and Robin Colson’s Handbook of Research on Competency-Based Education in University Settings (2017).  

Competency-based education (CBE) is generally defined as education which focuses on mastery of particular applied knowledge and skills in a workplace setting.  A more specific definition comes from the 1970s, with CBE defined as 

“a data-based, adaptive, performance-oriented set of integrated processes that facilitate, measure, record and certify within the context of flexible time parameters the demonstration of known, explicitly stated, and agreed upon learning outcomes that reflect successful functioning in life roles” (Spady, 1977, p. 10, as cited in Ozdemir & Stebbins, 2017, p. 251).  

With the advancements in technologies used for online learning, there is increased hope that CBE and CBT (competency-based trainings) may be more effective and easier to deploy.  Earlier efforts (starting in 1974) at prior learning assessment (PLA) are also a part of CBE by extending credit for capabilities demonstrated through exams and learner-created portfolios. (Ozdemir & Stebbins, 2017, p. 253)  

Learning from Others’ Best Practices

If a reader is going with only a couple of the readings in this text, one would have to be Robert Mendenhall’s “Western Governors University:  CBE Innovator and National Model” (Ch. 19), and the other would be Devrim Ozdemir and Carla Stebbins’ “A Framework for the Evaluation of Competency-Based Curriculum” (Ch. 13).  

A fully online university, somewhat unshackled by legacy expectations may be the optimal real-world lab in which to evolve competency-based education.  Western Governors University, started in 1997, was created as a non-profit, fully-online, competency-based university.  In 1999, Robert Mendenhall became its second president, and he served in that role until April 2016.  WGU was created to expand access to higher education, based on a revolutionary business model for higher quality education at more accessible cost.   Over time, this university also determined to focus on student outcomes and student success as the university’s raison d’être, and to “continuously measure and improve performance through data-driven decision making” (p. 379).  

The “competence” in competency is an integrated three-dimensional construct consisting of the domain, a taxonomy of related skills, and cross-cutting themes between the domain and the skills (p. 383).  By the time a learner graduates, he or she should be able to do tasks at the level of “novice practitioner.”  

One popular assumption of CBE that WGU has not accepted is that CBE must be “more training than education, more skills-based than higher order thinking”; rather, general education competencies are a critical part of CBE, and WGU learners take the College Learning Assessment (and scores in the 65th percentile nationally “in value-added score”) (p. 384).  

To actualize the university goals, WGU reconceptualized the faculty role as mentors to learners.  Learners themselves interact with co-learners in discipline-based virtual communities.  Those who evaluate the learning are non-mentors but subject matter experts in the related professions (and retained as part-time faculty in 2010 vs. as independent contractors) (p. 390).  Much attention is put into defining and continuously re-defining the learning competencies for the various programs.  A lot of attention goes into the building of competency assessments, based on the principles of Evidence-Centered Assessment Design, with the work spearheaded by the WGU Assessment Council (“a team of national experts in assessment”).  Mendenhall (2017) writes:  

WGU assessment development faculty and staff complete the following steps:
    • Establish the importance, level of difficulty, and how many and what type of items are needed to ensure mastery for each competency.
    • Review, modify, and approve the assessment blueprint.
    • Develop items (either internally or using a third party), and then edit and review for grammar, psychometric properties, and sensitivity.
    • Pilot test assessments.
    • Establish passing scores.
    • Conduct a final review of the instruments and the standard setting before approving.
    • Monitor the effectiveness of the assessments.
    • Recommend revisions as necessary.  (p. 385)  

Competencies are defined and tuned to the specific cognitive level of the desired professional tasks (p. 386). Learners receive quantitative and qualitative feedback, so they understand where they need to improve, and there are authentic “targeted improvement projects” that have been field-tested that they may engage to improve their learning and mastery performance.  (Mendenhall, 2017, pp. 387 - 388)  Given the importance of university and learner relationships, WGU used a mainline relationship management system and other systems to engage with learners.  

Another best practice in this chapter is the reliance on rigorously-acquired data, including those acquired by external evaluators and assessors.  Western Governors University engaged in comprehensive reviews of academic programs.  They focused on four performance indicators:  student satisfaction, student retention, student graduation, and student academic progress (Mendenhall, 2017, p. 395).  One interesting data point involved dropping student borrowing costs from FY2013 – 2015 (Mendenhall, 2017, pp. 397 - 399).  Where is Western Governors University currently, in terms of baseline metrics? 

After 18 years, WGU ( has become a national model for successfully implementing competency-based education at scale and at an affordable price. WGU currently has over 60,000 students in more than 50 bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in business, information technology, K-12 teacher licensure preparation, and health professions. WGU has over 55,000 graduates and continues to grow more than 20% per year. Significantly, WGU has leveraged technology, organization, and focus to be entirely self-sustaining on tuition of only $6000 for a 12-month year, and has not increased tuition since 2008. In addition, students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in an average of 2 ½ years (vs. 5 years nationally), and master’s degree recipients typically complete in 2 years, even while working full-time. Finally, WGU graduates have better employment outcomes than the national average for more traditional state university graduates. (Mendenhall, 2017, p. 380)  

Another central not-to-miss work is Devrim Ozdemir and Carla Stebbins’ “A Framework for the Evaluation of Competency-Based Curriculum” (Ch. 13).  These authors suggest that, in one sense, modern competency-based education is in its “early stages,” without defined best practices (Ozdemir & Stebbins, 2017, p. 250) or even shared definitions and practices (p. 252). The authors note that competency-based learning is considered an invalidated approach in many teacher education programs (p. 252).  Ozdemir and Stebbins (2017) write:  

This new generation of competency-based education is considered “the sixth generation competency-based education” (Ford, 2014). Sixth generation competency-based education is a result of a number of innovative and mostly online degree programs changing their student admission process and allowing prior learning credits based on students’ successful demonstration of competency attainment. (p. 252)  

This work offers a parsimonious Competency-based Curriculum Design Model, which starts with the desired competencies.   Then, there is backwards design from this desired end state, with the definition of Measurable Indicators, Assessment and Instruction, and then Learning Outcomes (Ozdemir & Stebbins, 2017, p. 257).    

In Theory

Christine K. Sorensen Irvine and Jonathan M. Kevan’s “Competency-Based Education in Higher Education” (Ch. 1) suggests that the time for considering CBE has arrived again, particularly given advances in technologies, learning data analytics, and the pressures to lower learning costs.  To actualize competency based education, the authors suggest that five components are required:  

(1) measure of learning outcomes rather than seat time, (2) students advance upon mastery, (3) competencies that are explicit, measurable and transferable, (4) rigorous assessment methods, and (5) personalized learning approaches (WICHE, 2014, as cited in Sorensen & Kevan, 2017, p. 2).  

For those who might be overly protective of the credit-based model (based on the “Carnegie unit” originated in 1905 by Andrew Carnegie), it helps to note that grades are noisy measures of understanding and capability.  The graduates from the “ivory tower” still need work.  There are practical considerations.  

Those who are interested in building CBE into higher education face challenges:  a lack of recognition by accrediting agencies and the U.S. Department of Education, political considerations, and technological barriers. There are some signs of advance, however, such as initial policy work, some technology tools, defined effective practices, some links between “student progress…to a predetermined number of credits” (Book, 2104, as cited in Sorensen & Kevan, 2017, p. 10), and the harnessing of open educational resources (OER) (p. 18).  It may be that these ideas have come to the fore again because of a confluence of perceived needs with a sense that CBE may be part of the evolving solution.  

A Sense of History

Kristin A. Jones and Steven G. Olswang’s “Building Competence: A Historical Perspective of Competency-Based Education” (Ch. 2) explores what competency-based education has been historically and how it has evolved through to the present.  Learning programs that emphasize “demonstration of skills and knowledge acquired through work or life experience or through prior learning activities,” according to these authors, “are generally referred to as competency-based education, as well as standards-based education, outcomes-based education, inquiry-based education, and problem-based learning” (Jones & Olswang, 2017, p. 29); CBE draws influences from each (p. 31).  The authors define the respective approaches and how they differ in theory and practice.  As a starting point for CBE, the authors point to David McClelland’s 1973 paper “Testing for Competence Rather than for ‘Intelligence.’” They use an updated version of CBE, with references to applied technologies:  

CBE is largely a student-centered approach to learning that places more control with the learner, typically providing a majority of the instructional content through online instruction that includes open educational resources (OERs); webinars, videos, and podcasts; web-based research and literature reviews; peer collaborations and discussions; etc. Students complete the instruction on their own schedules, to a great extent, and they progress based on their ability to demonstrate mastery of the competency. This can be accomplished in as little or in as much time as the learner feels is needed, with as little or as much support from a learning coach or mentor as the student requires. A learning coach or mentor is similar to an instructor in the sense that he/she has the requisite background knowledge, skills, and abilities within the area of study. Within the CBE format, however, the learning coach guides the student through the learning process via conversations, open-ended questions, and directing the student to various resources at the request of the student. (Jones & Olswang, 2017, p. 30)  

The authors suggest that those who would create CBE need to align theoretically and practically.  They share a table that differentiates between competency-based education and instructor-led education (Jones & Olswang, 2017, p. 35).  It is helpful that the authors address some of the criticisms leveled against CBE—that it generally only works for learners with particular traits, such as those with prior work experience in a field of study, those who are “self-directed and can set goals with timelines,” those who do not fit with traditional learning settings, and so on (p. 35).  There are other concerns, such as the actual quality of learning if people are speeding through the contents (p. 36); does CBE differentiate between “true learning and experience”? (p. 36) The authors do share research that lists ten Shared Design Elements and Emerging Practices of Competency-based Education Programs (2015) that are present in successful programs:  

  • Clear, cross-cutting and specialized competencies;
  • Coherent, competency-driven program and curriculum design;
  • Embedded process for continuous improvement;
  • Enable and align business processes and systems;
  • Engage faculty and external partners;
  • Flexible staffing roles and structures;
  • Learner centered;
  • Measureable (sic) and meaningful assessments;
  • New or adjusted financial models;
  • Proficient and prepared graduates (Jones & Olswang, 2017, p. 37)  

For all the endeavors in this direction, this chapter gives the sense that CBE is not yet legitimated nor accepted.  By contrast, the authors describe CBE as “legitimate and growing as well as historically sound” (Jones & Olswang, 2017, p. 38).  It seems that CBE will exist, but how much progress (encroachment?) it makes into the area of traditional higher education is not yet clear.   

When did Competency-Based Education Originate (according to Google Books Ngram Viewer)?

According to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, supported by Google’s scanned books project, the years of interest for “competency-based education” include the following:  1800 – 1974, 1975 – 1977, 1977 – 1978, 1978 – 1998, and 1999 – 2000.  

In Deborah Everhart and Deborah M. Seymour’s “Challenges and Opportunities in the Currency of Higher Education” (Ch. 3), competency-based learning is seen as complementary to the more traditional credit-hour learning in higher education.  CBL is “a means of documenting student achievement, but also to create meaningful connections between jobseekers and employment, for faculty and staff development, and for economic development” (Everhart & Seymour, 2017, p. 41).   In this scenario, credit hours are an Industrial Age artifact with a focus on “seat time” instead of achievement and mastery of learning outcomes.  With approximately 85% of U.S. higher education students defined as “post-traditional,” [“they are not attending full time, living on campus, or being supported by their parents” (Soares, 2013, as cited in Everhart & Seymour, 2017, p. 42)], the new demographics may suggest a need for new ways of approaching teaching and learning for work life, self-actualization, and upward mobility.  

The authors list some challenges to CBE assessment and the awarding of alternate credentials like “badging” (defined as a credential showing “a person’s achievement at some level of competency”) and “stackable credentials” (defined as “part of a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time”) (Everhart & Seymour, 2017, p. 45).  

Employers play a critical role in CBE, its design and deployment (this also suggests that they may have a role in funding CBE programs and hiring its graduates).  

As CBE programs tend to be closely aligned with workforce opportunities and professional credentials, employers are key stakeholders both in the formulation of the competencies needed to achieve a competency-based degree and in the degree’s marketability. Many competency-based program designers interview employers about the skillsets necessary for career success, and many include employers in the development of their competencies, instructional materials, and assessments. Some CBE programs include an on-the-job component (e.g., co-ops and internships) in which employers play a critical role in the success of students achieving their learning goals. Such employer participation in the creation and implementation of pathways to success for students is an important component in CBE program efficacy. (Everhart & Seymour, 2017, p. 52) 

CBE at a Smaller Private Institution of Higher Education

Tammi Cooper’s “People, Processes, and Philosophies:  Designing a CBE Program within a Traditional University” (Ch. 4) focuses on the hard work of building a technology-enabled undergraduate CBE program at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (UMHB), a residential Christian university.   

As of the 2015 – 2016 academic year, this university had 3,000 undergrads and 600 graduate students (Cooper, 2017, p. 67).  This school started work on its online competency-based bachelor’s degree program (its UMHB MyWay program) in Fall 2014, and it was expecting its first cohort of learners in August 2016.  At the time of publication, the school was awaiting accreditation for this program.  This chapter describes some of the learning from the creation of this program and uses a basic business model as a core component (in other words, the program has to be self-sustaining with enough tuition paying students to support it).  Some key program features are described:  

  • Unlimited access in 6-month flat rate subscription terms with monthly starts.
  • Self-paced and fully online.
  • Competency-based curriculum designed by academically qualified UMHB faculty.
  • All assessments must be mastered, each requires a mastery level of 80%, re-attempts are allowed.
  • Students interact with completion coaches and faculty subject matter experts as a support network.  (Cooper, 2017, p. 68)  
This chapter gives the sense that CBE does not only belong to the large and well-funded institutions but may be actualized with savvy leadership and hard work.  

Julie Uranis and Tanja Bibbs’ “The Challenge of CBE Programs: Administrative and Technological Considerations of Non-Semester-Based Programs” (Ch. 5) provides a real-world sense of some political challenges to adding competency-based education to a university environment, where certain academic practices already occur.  What should administrators understand about adding load to the existing educational system?  How should they plan for learner needs throughout the entire CBE learner lifecycle (including “recruitment, marketing, preadmission support, admissions, advising, orientation, registration, billing, programs of study, access to institutional resources, transcripts, and key performance indicators” (Uranis &  Bibbs, 2017, p. 92)?  How can administrators advance this work even in an environment without explicit and direct support at the top?  Is there a way to tell whether CBE would be feasible or infeasible to actualize, especially in a context of “lacking the resources to develop a program outside existing governance, policies, and systems” (p. 92)?  The asking of the premise question seems somewhat idealistic, given the limits of institutional capacity, and the turfiness on university campuses, and how jealously resources and domains are protected.  An assumption seems to be that attracting “student-consumers” (p. 94)—identifying new markets—may be sufficient to align organizational interests to accommodate CBE, but that may be an over-simplification.  

Uranis and Bibbs describe something of an “all you can eat” model for CBE, with a six-month subscription fee, which would enable them to consume his or her fill of courses and learning.   They write:  

Typical subscription models allow students to pay a set fee for a set period of time and earn as many credits or competencies as they desire during that period (Kelchen, 2015). For example, an institution might charge a $2,500 subscription fee for a six-month period of time during which a student can take as many courses as they wish. If they complete 24 credit hours, the cost for each is only $104.17, significantly less than most institutions currently charge for undergraduate tuition. Therefore, subscription models of tuition can provide CBE students with an opportunity to reduce the total tuition costs of earning a college degree. (Uranis &  Bibbs, 2017, p. 104) 

Some assumptions of the above model are that the learners are sufficiently motivated and self-disciplined to self-learn with minimal support, with minimal context.  “The Challenges…” seems like it would be a helpful initial step in terms of conducting an environmental scan to understand how amenable an institution of higher education may be to incorporating CBE, but it seems to lean more towards possibilities and to under-estimate on-ground challenges.  

Technological Challenges

Jonathan M. Kevan and Christine K. Sorensen Irvine’s “Academic Technology for Competency-Based Education in Higher Education” (Ch. 6) describes the challenges of finding vendor-based products, even adaptive ones, to deliver competency-based education at scale, even with so much available for online learning.  This work is written to those just starting out in this endeavor.  Interestingly, for all the various universities offering CBE, it is not clear if any of the technologies they’ve created or adapted are available for others’ use (by contrast, some creators of MOOCs have made their platforms available for open-source use).  Kevan and Irvine point to Glowa’s three facets of CBE (2013) that create challenges:  

  1. Instruction is based on a profile of the student’s progress towards mastery (i.e., adaptive);
  2. Instruction continues if mastery is not achieved; and
  3. The process must be visible (i.e., transparent) to students (as cited in Kevan & Irvine, 2017, p. 118).    

A longer list of desirable CBE features has been created by Competency-based Education Network (C-BEN) and IMS Global.  Adaptation of technologies built for credit hour learning is a lot tougher than it may seem.   For example, what exists to “profile” learners, both as they begin a course of study and as they learn and evolve?  What sorts of learning analytics would be helpful for CBE, and how should the results be reported out to self-directed learners?  Personalized learning environments (PLEs) are thought to be the closest online learning systems to CBE because these enable individualized contents and support lifelong learning (Kevan & Irvine, 2017, pp. 125 – 126); however, there is still not a clear convergence on particular technologies to help actualize CBE.  

If it is difficult to harness and retrofit existing technologies for CBE, then it may be better to create a born-CBE modular infrastructure from scratch.  Jon Mott, Greg Williams, Rob Nyland, Michael Atkinson, and Arin Ceglia’s “The Next-Generation CBE Architecture:  A Learning-Centric Standards-Based Approach” (Ch. 7) describes a modular system which enables end-to-end support for CBE with the following:  “a system of record, a digital learning environment, a recommendation engine, a financial aid processor, a competency dashboard, and a competency transcript. In order for these components to work together cohesively, data standards for interoperability (LIS, OneRoster, and LTI)” (Mott, Williams, Nyland, Atkinson, & Ceglia, 2017, p. 134).  In terms of learning infrastructure, they point to the need for “backward design, authentic assessments, various learning workflows, personalization and adaptivity, and learning and performance analytics” (p. 134).  This chapter gives a sense of general feature needs but is not a blueprint.  

Not only does the back end have to work effectively, but the frontend infrastructure is even more important (p. 136).  One important insight is that online systems are not built around delivering contents but about building and maintaining relationships with (lifelong) learners—at the core of CBE (Mott, Williams, Nyland, Atkinson, & Ceglia, 2017, p. 136).   Their vision is for a “modular, federated, and interoperable” system, and they offer a caution:  “No single, monolithic system or corporation can or should “manage” the entire CBE workflow for administrators, faculty members, advisors, students, and others” (Mott, Williams, Nyland, Atkinson, & Ceglia, 2017, p. 136).    

Understanding Competencies from Group Insights

Mambo G. Mupepi’s “Using Communities of Practice to Identify Competencies” (Ch. 8) proposes using larger groups to understand divisions of labor in industries (2017, p. 157).   If CBE is to work at all, the competencies have to be accurately mapped and understood.  In this context, the author defines a “community of practice” as “a collaborative forum that can be enacted to create diffuse and distributed explicit knowledge and expertise within a specific topical area” to ultimately build organizational capacity through knowledge and expertise-sharing (Mupepi, Mupepi, & Motiwan, 2015, as cited in Mupepi, 2017, p. 158).  

Robin Colson and Atsusi Hirumi’s “A Framework for the Design of Online Competency-Based Education to Promote Student Engagement” (Ch. 9) focuses on a core principle of college learning—that students have to be engaged to learn effectively and to ultimately persist in the course of study.  In a context where the learning is self-paced and asynchronous, and learners are non-traditional (often meaning that they have many other commitments in life), learner engagement may be even harder to actualize.  Based on a three-level interaction model—of International Learner-Self Interactions (Level 1), Learner-Human and –Non Human Interactions (Level 2), and Learner-Instructional Interactions (Level 3), the authors propose ways to build CBE learner engagement (Colson & Hirumi, 2017, pp. 175 – 176, 183).  

Karen M. Mattison, Stacy L. Sculthorp, Heather Schroeder, and Jaclyn Zacharias’s “A Return to Doing:  How Authentic Assessment Changes Higher Education” (Ch. 10) points to authentic assessment as “the heart of competency-based education and as the instrumental element that differentiates competency-based education from traditional approaches” (2017, p. 186).  To ensure that the assessment is accurate, these authors suggest the importance of applying “reliability” and “validity” measures in an applied context, in the same way that research instruments are often assessed.  
Michelle Navarre Cleary, Gretchen Wilbur, Kathryn Wozniak, Derise E. Tolliver, Catherine Marienau, and Pamela Meyer’s “Learning, Adults, and Competency-Based Education” (Ch. 11) focuses on how to empower CBE students to be effective competence-based learners.  In this work, they focus on two types of learning:   “learning how to articulate learning and learning how to learn for competence development” (Cleary, Wilbur, Wozniak, Tolliver, Marienau, & Meyer, 2017, p. 211).  In the rush to set up CBE programs, learning itself may be getting short shrift.  After all, CBE learning requires not just the acquisition of knowledge and skills but also the ability to apply that new learning in new contexts.  Assignments that build learner metacognition are described:  

There are two main branches of metacognition in a learning context: awareness of learning and regulation of learning. To support metacognitive development in CBE, educators, advisors, coaches and mentors can help learners focus their attention on four general areas: 
    1. Organizing and planning for developing competence,
    2. Tracking and monitoring developing competence,
    3. Directing learning and seeking support while developing competence, and
    4. Evaluating developing competence. (Cleary, Wilbur, Wozniak, Tolliver, Marienau, & Meyer, 2017, p. 216)  
To this end, weekly or semi-monthly surveys were created to spark learner metacognition.  They describe this survey: 

Wozniak’s (2015) questionnaire asked learners to define how they see themselves, how the instructor should see them, how they are currently developing competence, and how learners and instructors can work together. Weekly or semi-monthly check-ins on these topics scaffolds learners in their metacognitive development such that these prompts become second nature. The goal is to provide learners with the supports they need to make a plan for developing competence, implement it, and follow it.
In so doing, Wozniak invites learners to take ownership and authority over their developing competence, while still offering them support and holding them accountable to their competence goals. This invitation can be a new experience for adults, as a recent SNL student expresses: “There was so much self-reflection that I felt as if I was interviewing myself. I had to point out my skills and explain why I am pointing them out and think of both past and future goals; I hardly ever thought about it so hard (Cleary, Wilbur, Wozniak, Tolliver, Marienau, & Meyer, 2017, p. 218).    

Part of this metacognition exercise is to help learners break out of traditional learning assumptions (Cleary, Wilbur, Wozniak, Tolliver, Marienau, & Meyer, 2017, p. 219).  One particularly interesting angle in this chapter is the role of CBE and CBL in the international context and how to enable such learning in different cultural contexts.  

Nancy B. Hastings and Karen L. Rasmussen’s “Designing and Developing Competency-Based Education Courses Using Standards” (Ch. 12) point to the central role of standards in building CBE—for learning design and for learner focus.  

Capturing Relevant CBE Metrics

Aaron Brower, Rebecca Karoff, Sandra Kallio, and Mark Mailloux’s “Measuring What Matters:  The UW Flexible Option’s Framework to Measure Success from the Student Vantage Point” (Ch. 14) describes an effort to move away from legacy metrics of learning success to those more aligned with CBE.  They describe their applied model, UW Flex, which enables the earning of degrees and certificates with direct assessment across institutions in the UW system:  

The framework defines student success as students moving through programs at their own pace, demonstrating mastery of subject matter, and meeting academic goals. Program-level metrics aggregate each of these three student-level metrics to provide useful information about the success of a program (Brower, Karoff, Kallio, & Mailloux, 2017, p. 268).  

While learners’ success metrics are captured at an individual level, those numbers are captured for programmatic purposes.  Some common questions include the following:  

    • What proportion of students is interested in achieving the Bachelor of Science in Nursing vs. individual competency areas?
    • Which competency areas are most sought out? Are there patterns among the students who have different goals? For example, are students pursuing the Bachelor of Science in Nursing more likely to have been in their job for more than seven years or to be seeking a promotion?
    • Are there demographic or professional-interest profiles of students who have certain educational goals within a program?
    • Are students who pursue certain competencies more (or less) satisfied with their education than others? (Brower, Karoff, Kallio, & Mailloux, 2017, p. 276)  

In addition to learner pacing data, they also acquire the following:  “foundational measures for headcount, re-subscription, mastery rates, admissions ratios (e.g., admit rate), subscription type (all-you-can-learn subscription vs. single competency subscription), access rates, demographics of participants, and geographic distribution of participants” (Brower, Karoff, Kallio, & Mailloux, 2017, p. 278).    

Cases of CBE in the Wild

In the final section are cases, with varying degrees of transferability.  Valora Washington and Brandi N. King’s “Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential: A Competency-Based Framework for Workforce Development” (Ch. 15) describes the years of work contributing to a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential that aligns with the regulatory environment and workforce needs.  

Naomi Boyer, Patricia Jones, Eric A. Roe, Kathleen Bucklew, Kenneth Ross, and Marcia Conliffe’s “Polk State College’s Engineering Technology OEEE Associate’s Degree” (Ch. 16) highlights talent gap areas in the U.S. workforce and the need to more quickly create the talent and skills for Advanced Manufacturing.  The authors describe their work:  

This case study describes an Open Entry Early Exit (OEEE) program focused on untangling the web of systems, assumptions, roles, relationships, and interagency processes to address the national emphasis on affordable, compressed and flexible degree attainment, particularly in science, technology,  engineering, and math (STEM) talent gap areas. To this end, Polk State College has empowered nontraditional students with an affordable, accessible option that was initiated as a result of a National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (NSF-ATE) project award. The project was designed to transition a traditional Engineering Technology Associate in Science degree program to a hybrid competency-based, modular, non-term, self-paced, learner-centered, faculty-mentored format.  (Boyer, Jones, Roe, Bucklew, Ross, & Conliffe, 2017, p. 308)  

This work involves an all-of-university approach in order to fully develop a working and innovative program.  There are difficult demands for faculty, too, because they have to grade “on a daily basis” and monitor fairly constantly.  Besides the complex work described by the authors, they also discuss the challenges with working with veterans and their allowable educational expenses (Boyer, Jones, Roe, Bucklew, Ross, & Conliffe, 2017, p. 329).    

An Augmentary CBE Model to Traditional Courses

Kimberley Pearce and Brian Worden’s “FLEX Path:  Capella University’s Innovative Pathway to a Degree” (Ch. 17) describes an alternate delivery model to higher education learning built alongside a traditional curriculum.  Founded in 1993, Capella University offers a range of learning options in higher education.  The authors describe the university’s CBE bona fides:  

Capella’s bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees and certificate programs have been offered online through a learning-outcomes- and competency-based curriculum since 2002 and rely on the documented alignment of all curricular, instructional, and assessment components. We have long been engaged in the public discussion around higher education reform and academic quality and have actively supported initiatives by groups such as the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The university is a member of the Lumina Foundation-sponsored Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN). (Pearce & Worden, 2017, p. 341)  

FLEX Path was launched in 2013…  

with the approval of the Department of Education and our regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission. Offered as an alternative delivery model, first for our BS in Business and MBA, FlexPath is a pathway to the same degree, through the same competency-based curriculum, as the credit-based option. By offering a flexible, new degree delivery model, FlexPath gives a student the opportunity to earn a degree at her own pace while leveraging the knowledge gained through work experience. This pathway to a degree holds particular appeal for working adult learners, who typically have extensive work experience and areas of expertise which are not reflected on their transcripts and who are highly self-directed. More broadly, FlexPath and similar delivery models offer an innovative solution to problems facing our nation’s higher education system—rising tuition costs, low completion rates, and low employer satisfaction with learning outcomes (Pearce & Worden, 2017, p. 342).    

The strength of this approach is that learners are offered a different path to extant university degrees.  Ideally, CBE would enable access to the learning but at lower cost.  Note that the credential is the same as those taking traditional university courses. Theirs is a “crosswalk” between competency demonstrations and the credit hour (Pearce & Worden, 2017, p. 343).  In this chapter, the authors provide some highlights about FLEX Path.  

In Wenxia Wu, Brian C. Martin, and Chen Ni’s “A Systematic Review of Competency-Based Education Effort in the Health Professions:  Seeking Order out of Chaos” (Ch. 18), the authors explore the adoption of competency-based education in the health professions.  The health professions are critical for human well-being. With new scientific discoveries, medicines, technologies, and health interventions, those working in this field are expected to deliver.  These authors engage in an in-depth literature review to study competency-based education in the health professions.  Core competency areas, based on the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, focuses on six core competency domain areas:  patient care, medical knowledge, interpersonal and communication skills, professionalism, practice-based learning and improvement, and systems-based practice (Wu, Martin, & Ni, 2017, p. 357).  In this review, only eleven health professions had established standard competencies defined, including:  acupuncture and oriental medicine, counseling, health information management, healthcare management, marriage and family therapy, nuclear medicine technology, nursing, nutrition and dietetics, occupational therapy, physician assisting, and social work (p. 358).  The respective disciplines are at differing stages of development and maturity, as fields.  

From the articles, they identified 72 competency domains “ranging from clinical practice to customer service” (p. 358).  The top three most listed competency domains were, in descending order, professionalism and ethics, scholarship and research, and management (Wu, Martin, & Ni, 2017, p. 360).   In healthcare, the authors note, competencies are respected:  

Once competencies were identified, in 76% of cases, they were used to drive curricula and/or course development, and were often tied to student learning outcomes (71%). Busenhart (2014) noted competency-based curricula focused on setting standards to ensure the relevance of curricula/courses to practice, but cautioned different student learning styles and abilities may require flexibility in delivery. (Wu, Martin, & Ni, 2017, p. 362)  

From the published articles, the authors identified common challenges with implementing CBE, recruiting participants and uncertified data (35%), unclear definitions (19%), lack of faculty training (15%), student situations (15%), lack of effective assessment (12%), and lack of empirical evidence (4%) (Wu, Martin, & Ni, 2017, p. 368).  They also explored emerging trends for this issue in the health professions. Their work here is smart and analytical.  Their methods of analysis are transferable to other contexts and so is valuable beyond the field of the health professions.  


Karen Rasmussen, Pamela Northrup, and Robin Colson’s Handbook of Research on Competency-Based Education in University Settings (2017) was comprised of four parts:  Setting the Stage, Building the System, Going Live, and Case Studies.  This book reads as a contemporary sampler of competency-based education, with theory, research, and plenty of practical experiences.  There are many areas yet to explore and understandings to be achieved in this area.  If this work shows anything, it is that seemingly simple challenges can be quite complex in-the-real.  

About the Author

Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University. She may be reached at  


Thanks to IGI-Global for a watermarked digital draft for review.  

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