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This post has been updated by Van Davis, Associate Vice President Higher Education Research & Policy, and Karen Yoshino, Principal Strategist at Blackboard.

A year and a half ago, one of our former Blackboard colleagues, Deb Everhart, provided an excellent introduction to competency-based education (see original post below). Since then, we’ve seen explosive growth in interest in competency-based education as more and more institutions explore CBE. In 2012 when we began developing the first CBE bachelor’s degree at public institutions in Texas at South Texas College and Texas A&M University-Commerce, there were no more than a couple of dozen self-professed CBE programs around the US. Yet in September, 2015 Inside Higher Education reported that 600 institutions were either offering CBE or pursuing an opportunity to offer a CBE program, including several statewide programs. Meanwhile, research around the development, implementation, and effectiveness of CBE programs has also progressed led by organizations such as the Competency-Based Education Network (CBEN) as well as a new peer-reviewed research publication, the Journal of Competency-Based Education, offered through a partnership between Western Governors University and Wiley Press. As well we are seeing difficult but exciting conversations about CBE taking place across institutions, states, the Department of Education, accreditors, and even Congress.

At Blackboard we’re actively engaged in thinking about competency-based education and helping institutions better understand and develop CBE programs at their schools. And we are excited to share our findings and several new initiatives with you, such as our recent paper: Competency-based education—Higher Education’s answer to the call for change. We’ll also be using this space to share a new set of blog posts covering curriculum and “course” development for CBE programs as well as important topics like faculty development, the mistakes institutions sometimes make when developing and offering CBE programs, change management practices, and the federal regulations, especially financial aid, that impact CBE.

Because we understand how important, complex, and transformational that CBE can be, we’re also excited to be working on several community resources to help institutions think about CBE. In the next few weeks we’ll be launching a resource hub where we’ll curate the most important developments and sources in competency-based education. We’re also excited to be working on an interactive tool that institutions can use to assess readiness for competency-based education that we’ll be launching this summer.

And being engaged in research around CBE and the emerging best practices is also an important part of our work at Blackboard. Building off of our research partnership on CBE with the American Council for Education and in collaboration with the new Institute for Competency-Based Education at Texas A&M University-Commerce, we’re researching the role of institutional change management in successfully implementing CBE programs. We’ll also soon be releasing a new white paper on the role of faculty in CBE programs.

At Blackboard, we understand that higher education is facing unprecedented challenges and opportunities as we think about ways to improve student access and success. We believe that competency-based education is an exciting way to help institutions not only improve student access and completion, but also begin to transform the whole institution as more learner-centered. We’re looking forward to engaging more conversations with you and hearing about what you and your institutions are doing with CBE.

Competency-based education eBook


Original publish date: September 4, 2014

Author: Deb Everhart

At its core, competency based learning (CBL) focuses on learning outcomes rather than time. In traditional educational programs, students are bound to the weekly structure of a term, and at the end of the term, their grades are variable, with some students succeeding and some failing. In competency based education (CBE) programs, time is the variable and student success is the focus, such that all students are expected to successfully achieve the competencies defined for the program (for context, see the U.S. Dept. of Education National Education Technology Plan).

This seems like a logical focus, and in fact CBE programs have been around for decades (see Rebecca Klein-Collins’ CAEL report on CBE). So why is there so much attention to this topic now? One clue is the distinction between CBE and CBL, with the emphasis on learning (check back here for more on why it matters whether we focus on education or learning). We’re in the midst of learner-centric shifts in education, and the drivers for these changes are social and economic, not just technological.

Today, approximately 85% of U.S. higher education students are post-traditional, that is, they are not attending full time, living on campus, being supported by their parents. The majority of students are over 25, need to work to afford education, attend multiple institutions, and are actively working toward job and career goals. Even “traditional” undergraduates are seeking flexibility and transparency in their educational options (online, self-paced, dual enrollment, accelerated degrees, etc.), such that the old distinctions between “traditional” and “non-traditional” are not really applicable anymore. Post-traditional students do not fit in clearly defined categories, and they follow extremely varied educational pathways.

The need for higher education opportunities is greater than ever before, as increasingly jobs require post-secondary education. Research repeatedly emphasizes that higher education leads to greater economic attainment, both for individuals and for our country. But with the recession and the rise in costs for higher education, degree attainment is extremely difficult for many people to afford. Potential students are looking for a more economical means to access upward mobility and are driving huge consumer-driven changes in higher education.

The pressure to make higher education more accessible and affordable also comes at a time when there is a huge mismatch between what employers need and what traditional education is providing. A recent Lumina Foundation/Gallup study yielded this startling finding: 96% of chief academic officers rate their institutions as effective in preparing students for the world of work, while only 14% of Americans agree, and only 11% of business leaders agree that graduates have the skills and competencies their businesses need.

And it’s not just a difference of opinion. Even in this time of stubborn unemployment, 40% of U.S. employers report difficulty in filling jobs due to a lack of applicants with appropriate skills, with the talent shortage most acute in skilled trades. More than half of employers state that this gap has a significant impact on their businesses.

So it makes sense that there’s pressure for changes in educational approaches, and in particular, a drive to make educational programs more aligned to competencies needed by employers. Many people are returning to college after years in the workplace, seeking different/new skills and career advancement. The typical 4-year or even 2-year full-time degree program does not meet their needs. More than half of employees believe they’d be more successful with more education, but at the same time more than half say that graduate degrees are not necessary, while 72% state that programs focused on specific skills are more valuable than degrees. Competency based education programs address these trends.

Concrete investments are driving the development of competency based education programs. Employers and industry organizations are actively working with educational institutions to define the competencies needed for careers in their fields so that students’ learning achievements are a better match for filling talent shortages. Corporations are contracting with universities to bring competency based education programs directly into the workplace. The U.S. Department of Labor has implemented ONET, a competency model across industries, to articulate the relationships between occupations and skills. The Dept. of Labor is also making a massive $2-billion investment in grants to community colleges to implement programs aligned to high-wage, high-skill employment.

It’s not just about jobs—it’s about the new normal of evolving careers and the need for lifelong learning. Today’s learners need to build skills and work toward credentials at any time, at any age, and apply them to an ever-changing landscape of personal goals. Increasing interest in competency based learning coincides with the rise in learners’ need to have more control over their own learning achievements.

To learn more, see our competency based education research with the American Council on Education, including our competency based education lexicon. Check back here for more on a range of competency based learning and competency based education topics: learning and assessment processes, evidence of learning, open badges, regulations and accreditation, and validation and quality.


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