Competency-based Education: the solution to all our problems?

Aug 13, 2014 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

In my role as an eLearning Director at a small technical college in Washington state, I attended a series of workshops put on by Western Governor’s University, going over various aspects of their online competency-based education model.

Competency-based education is just what it sounds like, based on student competencies — their ability to prove their proficiency in certain skills. It’s not about seat time or credit hours, it’s about what they can do. If you do a quick google search on it you’ll come up with lots of ads for WGU, and a couple of sites from the US Department of Education. It’s a popular thing these days here in the US and it seems like folks are pushing it pretty strongly. This was the first thing that made me a little wary of it.

If you amend your google search to only include countries like the UK, Australia, and Canada, almost every result talks about CBE in medical fields. Yes. For medical fields CBE makes perfect sense, but most of these sites aren’t talking about the self-paced model that the US search brings up. This was red flag number two.

At the workshop, there was one presenter talking about the computer help desk program that he was the Dean over. He spoke volumes about how students are supported and learn through technology and are assessed, but when it came time to talk about how students interacted with each other, red flag number three popped up. They don’t. Because every program is self paced, the degree to which students interact with each other varies. Some programs they don’t speak to each other at all, like this example.

Everything I know about learning points to the fact that building community, sharing experience, learning in a social context, and building off of our peers’ ideas, especially online is the gold standard to which we should all aspire to both as instructors and administrators. We are not in online education to boost FTE or to move students through a conveyor belt of education are we? I’m definitely not.

So I dug a little deeper. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario commissioned a report on CBE as a potential model they might want to implement.

The literature review found no studies that directly or indirectly examine the productivity of CBE, nor any evidence that competency-based education provides a better platform for student success. According to the report, there are no studies comparing the labour market success of CBE graduates and those from traditional programs. There is no systematic, comprehensive study indicating that the purported skills from a CBE program translate into performance, either in graduation results or in the labour market. “This is not to say that CBE does not improve student performance,” say the authors. “It may well, but we could not find any evidence that it does.”

So if CBE hasn’t been researched enough to be deemed a better model for education, then why are we doing it?

Now that Federal Financial Aid has opened to up to support these types of programs, I am a bit more wary.

Is CBE being pushed because it to reduce costs for students, to provide them a fast track towards a degree or is it just a quick way to collect tuition payments and report completion? Completion is great and all, but what about job placement, salary increases and positive effects on local communities? WGU is a non-profit university, so at least they don’t have the same reputation as some for-profit schools, but still, call me crazy for wanting to see evidence that these educational practices work. Maybe after I see that, I’ll change my tune.


Productivity Implications of a Shift to Competency-Based Education: An environmental scan and review of the relevant literature, retrieved from on July 22nd, 2014


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *