Guest Contributor: Tom Caswell, Learning Objects

Competency-based education (CBE) has received a lot of attention as a disruptive innovation that promises to raise course quality and student completion while lowering costs. College for America and Western Governors University are among a small group on institutions “built from scratch” to offer competency-based education. Many more institutions find themselves at various stages of piloting different forms of CBE. What constitutes competency-based education? Is there is a spectrum of CBE implementations, and if so could CBE curriculum design be useful in a fixed-time, credit hour-based setting?

First let’s cover the basics of CBE. EDUCAUSE defines competency-based education as a model that “awards academic credit based on mastery of clearly defined competencies.” 1 While there is no “one size fits all” approach to competency-based education, Johnstone and Soares have identified four principles drawn from efforts to initiate CBE programs at eleven community colleges in the United States. 2

  1. The degree reflects robust and valid competencies.
  2. Students are able to learn at a variable pace and are supported in their learning.
  3. Effective learning resources are available any time and are reusable.
  4. Assessments are secure and reliable.

Mapping the relationships between competencies, learning resources, and assessments is an important part of designing a CBE program. While these CBE “maps” are often created with spreadsheets, new technologies allow this information to drive rich learning analytics. This can provide valuable data to students, instructors, departments, and institutions for targeted improvements.

Even without the benefits of variable pacing, curriculum designed for CBE can improve a face-to-face or online classroom. Much of it is simply about good instructional design. Competencies are carefully defined by faculty subject matter experts using relevant association or industry standards. Instructional designers then assist in mapping competencies to learning resources and assessments. This three-way mapping between outcomes, learning resources, and assessment provides valuable feedback to students, faculty, and instructional designers. Individual students come to know which topics they have mastered and where they should study further. The same feedback loops can be viewed at a course level to expose instructional gaps or deficiencies that should be addressed. Course changes are validated as more data is gathered. This mapping of outcomes creates a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement.

In one presentation of CBE outcomes maps a registrar asked, “Why isn’t this being done with all courses?” If competencies can help us deliver a clearer, more satisfying, personalized learning experience to students – the real question is why not?



1 “7 Things You Should Know About Competency-Based Education.” EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), February 2014. //

2 “Principles for Developing Competency-Based Education Programs.” Sally M. Johnstone and Louis Soares, April 2014. //