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Competency-Based Education

CBE Interest High in Higher Ed; Complexity Holds Back Activation

Almost every university or college has some level of interest in providing competency-based education (CBE) of some form. The primary motivator for their interest is delivering access to "non-traditional" learners, followed by a desire to improve completion rates and address workforce needs. CBE offerings are especially of interest to non-traditional students; nearly twice as many adult students as traditional-age students enroll in CBE courses.

Those are a few of the findings in a new CBE report based on survey results from 251 American institutions, including responses from "CBE advocates, skeptics and everyone in-between," as the report's authors wrote. "Deconstructing CBE: An Assessment of Institutional Activity, Goals and Challenges in Higher Education" was written by researchers from Eduventures and heavily supported by Ellucian and the American Council on Education.

CBE is an educational approach in which the learning outcomes are laid out for the student, and he or she can tackle them at an individual pace — no matter how quickly or slowly that pace turns out to be. The student proves mastery over the outcomes through various kinds of assessments. As the report noted, CBE is currently a much-studied topic in higher education. This particular survey focused on understanding "how CBE is implemented."

The report found that there is no lack of interest in the topic. Seventy percent of respondents have some level of CBE activity going while another 27 percent have "early-stage" interest. Among the 97 percent that have some form of CBE activity, 38 percent were aspirational; they had no course in place, but they did have active plans. Another 37 percent offered CBE courses; and the remainder offered CBE programs.

Among the drivers for these activities:

  • Giving access to non-traditional learners, cited by 68 percent of respondents;
  • Improving completion, referenced by 57 percent of survey participants and 77 percent of people at two-year schools;
  • Addressing workforce needs, designated by 54 percent of all participants and 68 percent of those affiliated with associate degree programs.

Among students who enrolled in CBE offerings, 68 percent were "adult" students and 35 percent were traditional students aged 24 or younger.

In spite of strong interest in CBE, what holds many institutions back from making full-on commitments are, the report stated, "the complexities" of implementation and definition. Therefore, programs are frequently executed on a small scale and in many different formats. At most schools, for example, CBE activity takes place at the department or course level, not at the certificate or degree level.

The research also found that CBE is "delivery mode neutral." There is no absolute link between CBE and online, blended or face-to-face courses. "While online platforms and tools often play a major role, more 'basic' tools, such as early-alert systems and real-time communication networks, are much more widely implemented compared to novelties like adaptive learning and other CBE-oriented tools," the report stated.

Institutions are also cautious about CBE because most view it as requiring "more work." As the report explained, most respondents said that "faculty tend to create their own competencies and courses from scratch, rather than leveraging — at least in part — pre-existing resources."

"While colleges and universities are seeing a rise in this substantially underserved market, they need help to take CBE from concept to practice," said Jeff Ray, president and CEO at Ellucian, in a prepared statement. The education technology company produces Ellucian Brainstorm, a purpose-built CBE solution. Ray said his organization is working with "several" early adopters of Brainstorm that "are already seeing positive results." One institution, in particular, he noted, has participants who are completing the CBE course in "less than half the time it traditionally takes, and those students are now positioned to make $43,000 a year."

The report profiled three schools with CBE programs in place: the University of Maine at Presque Isle, Salt Lake Community College and Valdosta State University. The study also explores how CBE is being delivered, what roles are played by online tools and platforms and how CBE compares to traditional higher education in terms of effort, outcomes and communication.

"Deconstructing CBE" is available for registration on the Ellucian website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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