Powerful Together: Competency-Based Education and Online Delivery

Higher education—and sweeping aspects of American life—were upended seemingly overnight in March. Millions of students started the month on campuses across the country and ended it on computers at home. Now, after institutional leaders have absorbed the initial shock and navigated through the spring and into summer, they’re looking to map out an uncertain future for both them and their students.

Suddenly, higher education is urgently looking for educational approaches that can serve students and the millions of workers whose lives have been disrupted, that help them earn high-quality credentials more quickly, are designed around work-relevant skills—and that can be delivered predominantly or entirely online. CBE is designed to check all those boxes, so it’s no surprise that hundreds of institutions are, for the first time, seriously considering it.

CBE focuses on what students truly need to know and be able to do in order to be competent in a particular field, rather than adhering to traditional academic structures. It requires educators to articulate competencies, to figure out how to authentically assess them, and to map an academic journey that scaffolds learning. When done with the necessary thought and rigor, CBE can then increase flexibility, speed time-to-degree, reduce cost and thus risk, and improve connections between learning and work, all without sacrificing quality. And while CBE is not the same as online learning, it often goes hand-in-hand with online pedagogy and delivery.

Of course, all of this assumes that programs are well designed and high quality. And that can’t be done overnight.

But if you believe that higher education isn’t just facing a turbulent fall, but will be fundamentally altered by this crisis, then institutions, policymakers, and funders are right to look afresh at CBE and ways to grow its adoption. As a starting point for that conversation, it’s useful to look at key ways that quality competency-based education complements and augments online delivery.

Flexibility: Competency-based education is designed to give students more control over their learning, including the pace. Students may need to spend more time and attention on some competencies in order to demonstrate mastery, while others may be more familiar or develop more readily. That gives students far more flexibility in how they structure and approach their learning, and when paired with asynchronous online delivery, it gives them a great degree of control over when, where, and how they learn.

Time-to-degree: Giving learners greater control over when and where they learn, in turn, increases the likelihood that they’re able to stay on track and on time to a degree. Direct assessment programs, which are untethered from the traditional credit hour, go even further, allowing students to move more quickly through their programs so long as they continue to demonstrate competency. Such programs also allow students to move more slowly if they need the additional time because of other demands on their time or the challenge of the material. But early evidence indicates that quality direct assessment programs, while limited in number, can speed time-to-degree.

Cost and risk: The biggest risk for a student in pursuing higher education is that she takes on debt without earning a credential with value in today’s marketplace. Quality online CBE programs can attack this problem from both ends with their greater flexibility and clear pathways. They increase students’ chances of staying on track and reduce the likelihood of taking—and paying for—extraneous credits, both of which cut overall tuition costs. Direct assessment, in particular, is well suited to subscription-based models, which charge a set fee for “all you can learn” and give students more control over costs. Quality CBE also addresses the other part of the risk equation—not earning a credential. For many students, the biggest risk to dropping out is that life intervenes and their program is inflexible in its demand on their time. Online CBE is designed to accommodate students’ complex lives, and many programs even allow students to pause their education without dropping out.

Work relevance: CBE is by definition focused on identifying and measuring essential, in-demand competencies. By design, quality programs are oriented around both education and career outcomes. Students can be confident that they won’t be asked to learn something that isn’t relevant to a competency they’ll need in their chosen field. When paired with online delivery and its additional flexibility, this approach can be particularly effective in helping all students—but especially returning workers—develop the competencies they need to start, restart, or advance in their career. That is, of course, especially critical now.

CBE is no panacea, but done well, it can deliver a strong value proposition for students, especially those who might otherwise not have access to higher education. The key to delivering on that promise is an unwavering focus on quality and careful design. In other words, if we want to increase the number of online CBE programs anytime soon, we have to get serious now.