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Online Competency-Based Education (CBE)

Most people in the U.S. are used to thinking about learning in terms of outcomes. From the time we are children, we sit in a classroom, do the same work as our classmates, and receive grades based on that work. Our grades determine whether we are allowed to move to the next grade level, and ultimately whether we earn a diploma or a degree.

Unlike this type of rigid teaching and learning, competency-based learning, or competency-based education (CBE), acknowledges the fact that not all students in the same course will learn at the same pace or in the same way. Instead of relying on a rigidly structured timetable, CBE allows students to advance to another part of a course, or to another course entirely, based on their demonstrated mastery — or competence — in a certain area.

It is important to note that competency-based learning is not a term with a universally accepted definition, and the way it is applied to K-12 institutions often differs from what it means at a collegiate level. CBE in the K-12 setting may involve standardized testing or alternative course delivery, such as independent study, for students who do not excel in a traditional setting.

In a higher education setting, CBE can often be used as basis for students to receive academic credit for life experiences and professional knowledge, allowing them to skip certain core courses and earn their degree faster. This piece will focus on how CBE is applied to institutions of higher learning, particularly at online universities.

The Benefits of Competency-Based Learning

Proponents of competency-based learning point out that in a traditional educational model, a student will earn a certain number of credits based on the courses that they choose and pass. Every student who passes a course earns the same number of credits, whether they get an A or a D. In the competency model, students earn credits based on the actual skills they have mastered. Those students who are unable to master a skill or ability, or demonstrate a certain level of knowledge, will not be awarded credits.

For online learners, many of whom want to be able to balance their learning with other responsibilities such as work and family, competency-based learning can add an extremely welcome level of flexibility. Students are not bound by certain course schedules and semester timing, nor are they forced to take courses where they are re-learning material they already know, which can often help online learners finish their degrees faster. In order to earn credit and reach another level, students must demonstrate mastery, generally through an objective assessment (such as a test) as well as a performance-based assessment. Students will be well aware of the criteria against which they will be judged and can work towards those competencies.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education endorsed the idea of competency-based education, saying: “Competency-based approaches to education have the potential for assuring the quality and extent of learning, shortening the time to degree/certificate completion, developing stackable credentials that ease student transitions between school and work, and reducing the overall cost of education for both career-technical and degree programs.”

Universities That Have Embraced Competency-Based Learning

University of Wisconsin

UW Flexible Option is part of the University of Wisconsin system and offers competency-based learning programs. Indeed, the entire Flexible Option program is competency-based, allowing students to earn bachelor’s degrees in Business Administration, Nursing, Biomedical Sciences: Diagnostic Imaging, or Information Science and Technology. The UW program also offers certificate programs in Business & Technical Communications, Project Management, and Substance Use Disorder Counseling. Flexible Option programs are offered online, but in-person assessments may be necessary for some degrees or certificates.

University of Michigan

In 2014, the University of Michigan’s first competency-based degree was approved by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. The program culminates in a Master’s of Health Professions. The UM program does not include any traditional classroom work, instead students interact with mentors by phone, email, and video chat. If the student and mentor do live near one another, interactions may take place in person, but that is not a requirement.

Rasmussen College

Rasmussen College offers its online students Flex Choice, which allows them to choose how they blend traditional educational models with competency-based programming. Flex Choice includes not only credits earned at Rasmussen, but students may also qualify for credits earned from life or professional experiences, helping them to earn their degree faster.

University of Maryland Global Campus

Offering many online programs, the University of Maryland Global Campus has also begun to embrace competency-based learning, although they have not entirely switched to this model. The initial programs offered by UMGC with competency-based structures were Public Safety Administration, Computer Networks and Security, and Human Resource Management, which were first offered in the 2014-2015 academic year.

Western Governors University

Online institution Western Governors University is a competency-based, nonprofit online school. WGU has one of the most diverse, competency-based program lineups of any school, offering a range of degrees in teaching, business, information technology, and health professions. WGU earned its regional accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

Purdue University

In 2016, Purdue University announced its first competency-based degree, a Transdisciplinary Studies in Technology program. The degree will be offered by the Purdue Polytechnic Institute. For this particular program, hands-on learning is the focus. The degree was developed as part of the Purdue Moves initiative, which is “designed to broaden the university’s global impact and enhance education opportunities for all students.”