Competency Based Education Q&A Hangout for the Online Learning Consortium

Can you share with us a high level overview of Competency Based Learning?

The big, big, big picture overview is best illustrated by a quote from Sal Khan, creator of Khan Academy.

the problem with the current educational system is that
the time spent teaching one subject is fixed,
and only the student’s level of mastery is variable.

CBE reverses that so that student mastery becomes fixed, and time becomes variable.

What are core characteristics of a Competency Based Education Program?

  1. explicit learning outcomes & standards for assessment
  2. a flexible time frame to master these skills
  3. A variety of instructional activities to facilitate learning
  4. Criterion-referenced testing of the required outcomes
  5. Adaptable programs to ensure optimum learner guidance

(Malan, 2000)

Competency Based Learning is getting more attention now – how can it help solve some of the challenges we are facing now in the educational environment?


CBE allows instructors to hold students accountable and support them through a revision process until they reach success.


Many CBE programs are designed in partnership with likely employers, creating a stronger connection from school to work.


CBE is designed for efficiency, lowering costs for students and battling the rising cost of a college education.

Bloomberg reports that the cost of a college degree has gone up by by 1,120% over the past 35 years.

The average Class of 2014 graduate would owe $33,000 in student loans. [WSJ]

WGU costs just under $3000 for a six month “all you can learn” subscription. Avg time to completion, 30 mos, $15K. Avg time to completion: 60 mos.

SNHU costs $1250/6 months.


CBE is great for working adults who need to fit school around work and family responsibilities.

How can CBE fit in with an organizations mission?

I think that most universities are moving towards aligning instruction to learning outcomes already– accreditors are starting to require it.

The next question to ask is “how are we supporting students to achieve these outcomes?” “Who succeeds in our program and who falls through the cracks?” We have gotten used to a certain percentage of “acceptable losses”– students that we couldn’t reach.

Especially if your institution serves struggling learners, non-traditional learners, learners from underserved populations. These are people who need more time, more tries, and more personalized support to succeed.

A CBE program, really, is one answer to the question “What would our school look like if every student were supported to succeed?”

What results is a radical rethink of what a school even looks like– affecting everything from the role of students, faculty, administrators, community and industry partners, the school year, the business processes– everything.

Is there any data/research out there on who tends to gravitate towards CBE and who is successful in this platform?

Many of the materials I’ve seen are published by the leading-edge institutions themselves– they all have a page on their site asking students “Is University X right for me?” The Western Governors quiz emphasizes that students do better in CBE if they’ve had previous work experience in their field of study, they’re highly motivated and possess strong organizational and technical skills to keep up with the sometimes isolating and confusing aspects of taking courses online. They recommend developing your own personal support networks and “making room in your life” to commit to your education.

This is clearly a model designed for busy working professionals who want to advance in their field. However I see the basic principles of CBE as simply good pedagogy, and I’m excited to see it implemented in other programs that are not so closely tied to a specific job field. I think that the focus on transparency, performance-based assessment, and high-touch student support is a valuable approach to supporting the modern college learner.

What role can faculty play in Competency Based Education?

Faculty play a critical role in competency based ed, but it’s not the traditional role that we’ve inherited. Faculty will spend less time developing and delivering lectures, and more time having targeted interventions and 1:1 revision meetings with students. Rather than delivering content (which video does very well), they will need to focus on the teaching tasks that only humans can do — listening, inspiring, responding, and supporting students to demonstrate mastery.

How can adaptive technology be used in Competency Based Education?

Adaptive technology can deliver learning activities to students dynamically in response to their performance on previous tasks. Rather than routing students through a one-size-fits-all course experience, you can trigger targeted practice, revision, and multiple presentations of a text if students are showing signs of failure. I go into more depth on this in my recent post Modular Learning Platforms in CBE.

What steps can be taken to transition into a competency based model?

Pearson has published a CBE Readiness Assessment that your institution can use as a self-study guide. CBE is a complex and inherently transformative solution, and this document really helps you understand all the moving parts so you know what to expect. We are also happy to consult with institutions interested in exploring CBE. Just give a holler.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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