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A guide for implementing a CBE program.

CBE: step by step.

Many colleges start this process by adapting their own existing programs.

When developing a new program, it helps to determine who will be involved in defining the overall competencies/outcomes for a program. If it is a program that results in degrees or certifications that prepare students to go directly into the workforce, using a council that includes academics and employers is a good way to ensure the students will be learning and demonstrating the appropriate skills and knowledge.

Once the high-level competencies are established, they need to be mapped into a curriculum.

The first step in mapping competencies into a curriculum is to break them into topics that in turn map into courses.* This is usually done by internal teams that may be exclusively faculty (content experts) but can also include other members of the academic team like instructional designers (pedagogy experts). If the assessments are to be developed independently of the courses, the topics can be used by the assessment designers to create appropriate tools that allow students to demonstrate their mastery of the topics.

Once the courses are defined, the learning materials or courseware needs to be developed.

Learning materials or courseware can be developed within your institution or they can be located from external sources (commercial publishers’ products, or open education resources like the Kahn Academy or MOOC’s). These learning materials need to be available to the students in a manner that allows them to progress at their own pace. That means the full set of learning materials need to be available to the student when he or she starts the course.

Development of a new competency-based program is highly iterative.

At every step of the process before the program launch, all the stakeholders weigh in. Even after it’s up and running, a program and its courses can and often do evolve. New marketplace demands and student needs, as well as constantly improving learning resources, mean that program and course development is an ongoing process.

Developing CBE programs.

A CBE certificate or degree program is made up of CBE courses that allow students to progress at their own pace toward earning a certificate or degree. CBE programs have clearly defined learning objectives, or competencies, that students must master upon completion of the program. In most programs, students must pass a capstone assessment or complete a capstone project to demonstrate mastery of these program-level competencies.

There are five guiding principles for the development of high-quality CBE programs*:

  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. The process for mapping competencies to courses, learning outcomes, and assessments is explicit.
  5. Assessments are secure and reliable.

Colleges that have created pilot CBE programs have identified competencies, or learning objectives, that they expect students to master upon completion of a certificate or degree. Some colleges use or adapt existing learning objectives that are already associated with the certificate or degree; others engage faculty and industry representatives to develop new competencies and to update existing ones based on industry standards.

*Source: Johnstone, S. M., & Soares, L. (2014). Principles for developing competency-based education programs.Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 46(2), 12-19.

Developing CBE courses.

A key characteristic that distinguishes CBE from other educational programs is that students can progress at their own pace. 

As students can progress at their own pace, they make progress toward course objectives based on demonstrating the knowledge and skills required at each step (or module) along the way. That is, learning becomes the constant—and is demonstrated through mastery of learning objectives, or competencies—and time becomes the variable. Some students can accelerate their progress as other students might take more time and practice to advance. At some colleges, students can begin or complete their coursework throughout the year, rather than tied to an inflexible semester system.

​In most of the community colleges that are developing CBE programs, the CBE courses are based on existing courses that faculty have been offering for years. As with online education, CBE courses represent a new mode of delivery in most of these cases, but not a new curriculum. In these college programs, faculty members adapt the existing courses to a CBE model, based on existing faculty procedures and requirements at the college.

Where the CBE courses represent new curriculum, faculty members are more likely to work in teams to create the new courses based on existing procedures and requirements for new curriculum development at the college. Typically, faculty lead these teams.

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Creating competency-based assessments.

Colleges have adopted a wide range of approaches to providing assessments for students in CBE courses, based on faculty direction. Assessments can take many forms, including multiple-choice tests, presentations, demonstrations, and research papers. Multiple-choice assessments are scored automatically. Projects and papers are typically scored by evaluators or faculty members working with a common rubric.

Colleges with high-quality online programs offer robust assessments that are proctored with secure systems either face-to-face or electronically. Similarly, colleges that offer high-quality CBE programs offer these same tools. With robust assessments that are computer generated, programs can administer different versions of questions so that students cannot post common results. Below are some examples:

At Western Governors University and at some community colleges:

  1. Students take formal pre-assessments at the beginning of each module (or course segment) to determine the material they’ve already mastered (if any) and where they need to focus their learning. Students that pass the assessment can move on to the next module.
  2. Students may take quizzes while studying within a module. In most cases, these quizzes are not part of their ‘grades’, but rather help them determine what they have learned or may need to learn before taking the module’s final assessment.
  3. When students have completed studying within a module, they take another formal assessment on the material in that module. Each college determines its own procedures for the taking of formal assessments.
assessment or certification

In most programs, students must also pass a capstone assessment or complete a capstone project at the end of their coursework to demonstrate mastery of the program-level competencies.

Program development guidance.

NCHEMS Cost Model

NCHEMS has developed a cost tool related to developing competency-based education programs for institutions, with support from the Lumina Foundation.  This cost model is designed to help institutional leaders unpack the activities, costs, and revenue related to starting and maintaining CBE programs.

NCHEMS Cost Model

Recorded webinars.

This webinar explores the WGU curriculum development process and it's impact on the learning experience for our students.

The information weaves together how WGU develops curriculum and how CBE should be designed and developed.

Recorded April 10, 2018.

How is data used to advance student outcomes?
Where does the data come from?
Who uses the data and how it used?
How is the data reported?

Dr. Kurt Gunnell answers these questions, and more.

Recorded March 13, 2018.

WGU uses a systematic approach to developing scalable learning. Experience what this model looks like and see a demonstration of how the model is supported by analyzing market trends, work-relevant competencies, and the unique interplay of how learning resources are curated through that process.

Recorded February 13, 2018.

Bob Collins, WGU's VP of Financial Aid, will discuss current legislation surrounding financial aid at the higher education level, as well as explain WGU's Responsible Borrowing Initiative as well as the compelling results of that program.

Recorded January 16, 2018.

How does WGU put students at the center of everything we do? See how support goes beyond academics and the associated outcomes of the additional supports.

Recorded December 12, 2017.

Stacey Ludwig-Johnson will walk through the student experience at WGU, including the student portal interface and a variety of connected learning and student resources.

Recorded on November 14, 2017.

Hear from a variety of faculty across WGU's four colleges: how WGU faculty works together and with students.

Recorded October 10, 2017.

This webinar covers:

  • UMUC's competency framework model
  • development of the eT, extended transcript
  • pilot results and how those are guiding transcript iterations.

Recorded April 19, 2017

In a flexible method of learning like CBE, how do you keep students progressing, on track, for completion of degree programs? WGU has specific strategies to increase student success and completion statistics. Hear what those are.

Recorded on March 1, 2017.

This webinar offers three approaches to student orientation courses in a CBE model of learning, each focused on how to inform incoming students about how they will learn and progress in their CBE program.

Recorded February 15, 2017.

See various proctoring models and hear some best practices for assessment and proctoring credibility and security.

Recorded January 18, 2017.

See what actual CBE courses look like at several higher education institutions.

Recorded November 30, 2016.

Financial aid is complex. Listen to this wide-ranging discussion between several seasoned higher education financial aid professionals.

Recorded November 16, 2016.

Three seasoned CBE professionals in higher education discuss the challenges and cornerstones of institutional buy-in for CBE learning models.

Recorded October 19, 2016.

What happens when the funds are gone? This webinar unpacks the issues and offers solutions for the sustainability of CBE education, hosted by WGU's Sally Johnstone.

Recorded on may 3, 2016.

A discussion of the evolving regulatory issues for competency-based education programs, including challenges that partner colleges experienced during implementation.

Recorded on April 5, 2016.

A panel discusses the very interesting challenges and some solutions that community college partners delivered during the implementation of CBE programs.

Recorded on March 1, 2016.

Hear about some of the strategies that our partner community colleges have utilized to address student retention. The webinar includes several presentations, followed by a panel discussion.

Recorded on February 2, 2016.

CBE learning models are highly successful with motivated students. Hear how four colleges use different strategies to attract the most motivated students.

CBE competencies need to align with the real-world skills that graduates will need in their chosen careers. Hear from a panel of representatives from higher education institutions that employ CBE on how they assure their programs truly reflect local workforce needs.

Recorded on December 1, 2015.

How does faculty work together in a CBE model? Several professionals discuss a variety of methods they employ.

Several experienced developers and implementation specialists speak to what CBE is, reasons to choose this model, and how to implement CBE programs.

Recorded on October 6, 2015.

This information on CBE was funded in part by grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more information, or to start a conversation, email us.