cbe and cbl

5 critical considerations for CBE and CBL implementation

Expert details the differences between CBE and CBL and why these differences matter will matter in your school or college.

As schools begin to invest in competency-based education (CBE) and higher ed institutions set up competency-based programs, two of the big questions often unanswered become “is their focus on education or on learning?” And “what’s the difference?”

Educators can argue that the characteristics of CBE call for increased attention to learning: clearly defined competencies, flexible time structures for competency mastery, and teacher and faculty roles for mentoring learners, to name a few.

But to what extent is academic culture, even in CBE programs, actually changing to be more learner-centric? How often are educational business decisions made with clear consideration of learners’ perspectives? Are academic credentials simply assumed to represent relevant learning, or do they actually document and verify competencies with evidence of learning? Are we meeting the needs of lifelong learners?

flipped classroom

1. First and Foremost, Focus on Learning

How do we get from educational “business as usual” to cultural changes, even transformation, that make learning central? We need to understand that it’s not just about us, the academics.

Learning outcomes, which can be represented as competencies and credentials, have value for stakeholders in ecosystems within and beyond academia: learners, employers, government and policy officials, economic development professionals, academic leaders and administrators, faculty and curriculum specialists, accreditors and quality assurance entities, to name a few.

Stakeholders who determine the value to credentials and competencies are more concerned with competency-based learning (CBL), which is a broader concept than CBE. CBL refers to learners’ acquisition of knowledge, skills, and abilities in any context, whether or not it is part of an educational program or happens in a formal educational setting.

Focusing on learning achievements, regardless of context, fosters innovations that are not constrained by traditional educational models or the difficulties of changing these models. Empowering learners and enabling them to achieve their lifelong learning goals are at the heart of CBL, and modifying educational practices (CBE) should be a servant to this end.

Today’s adult learners face the challenges of constantly changing social, economic, and employment contexts. Most will experience dramatic swings in local and national economic trends, and they’ll witness entirely new industries and career paths emerge while others collapse. No one can assume a stable career. We all need to learn how to learn.

How well do our current educational structures support these circumstances? Short answer: not very well. Is CBE the silver bullet? Short answer: no. Can a focus on CBL help? Short answer: yes.

Joi Ito (Director of the MIT Media Lab) makes a useful distinction between education and learning: “Education is what people do to you and learning is what you do for yourself.” The proliferation of innovative online learning opportunities reflects not only the needs of a changing society, but also the universal desire to learn continuously. Khan, MOOCs, boot camps, career academies, even what is seen as enrollment “swirl” in community college courses reflect the demand for just-in-time, just-enough learning, often focused on achieving specific competencies.

CBL approaches to academic innovation can help define new structures that combine fundamental values of education with the opportunities of a learning-hungry world.


2. Start with Backward Design

Competencies are the starting point for defining learning pathways that lead to well-defined achievements. Start with a valid, relevant competency set that reflects what learners should know and be able to do. (For analysis of what makes competencies and credentials valid and relevant, see Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials.) It could be a large, comprehensive set, like AAC&U’s LEAP VALUE rubrics, or a concise, targeted set, like Engineering Graphics.

Also, define assessments that provide valid evaluation of learners’ competency mastery, including the specific criteria that assessors will use to consistently determine levels of mastery (typically with rubrics). Curate, create, and compile learning activities and resources that will help learners achieve mastery. These could be stand-alone activities and resources (as is often the case with just-in-time learning), and/or structured learning pathways. Curate the combination of competencies, assessments, and learning resources based on the needs of your target learners. This is backward design, starting with a focus on defining the desired learning outcomes. These are the fundamentals of a CBL foundation.

(Next page: CBE and CBL implementation tips 3-5)


3. Then Consider Educational Structure

When you’ve defined a CBL foundation, then make decisions about the educational structure you’ll use to deliver it at your school or institution. How will learners access the competency-aligned learning activities, resources, and assessments? Are there courses, modules, self-serve lessons? Are there instructional components led by teachers and faculty, and/or coaches and mentors to guide and support the learning process? Peer learning? Can learners choose their own activities and resources? Are classes or similar academic units required, or can competency mastery be demonstrated through stand-alone assessments, workplace-embedded performance, and/or documentation of prior experiences, training, and education?


5. You’ll Probably Need CBL and CBE

CBE could combine any of these approaches, but innovation is often constrained by deeply entrenched academic structures, cultural norms, financial bureaucracy, and even the traditional expectations of students, parents and degree-seekers. Understandably, difficult changes in educational business processes make it slow going to get to the benefits of CBE, and in fact these difficulties are fertile hunting ground for anyone who wants to shoot down CBE innovations.

For example, what if you set out to redesign the curriculum, change educator loads and roles, award credit for prior learning, and offer flexibility in term/time structures? How long will it take to make these changes? Other challenging examples from the C-BEN CBE Design Planner include “Progress to graduation is determined by the learner’s development and demonstration of selected competencies” and “new or adjusted financial models.” These are important innovations, but they are likely to take painful years to implement.

Here’s where CBL can help. Even small CBL changes can have an immediate impact on learner motivation and achievement by helping learners understand the value of competencies. The CBE Design Planner provides an extensive range of resources for implementing full CBE programs, but it also explains CBL approaches that are not dependent on CBE business process changes. Straightforward CBL “wins” that can be realized with little complexity include “Learner agency and choice,” and “Competencies are specialized (field specific) and/or cross- cutting (i.e., problem solving, critical thinking).”


5. Visualizing the Benefits of CBL

To visualize these wins, let’s riff on a scenario that’s set up in Communicating the Value of Competencies:

Faculty in the English Department at (fictitious) Mountainside College wanted better ways of understanding what students were learning in different English courses. They wanted learning outcomes that were applicable across the department and also meaningful in courses the students took outside the department. They decided that they would phase in the option to adopt AAC&U LEAP VALUE rubrics in their courses. Most faculty adopted the rubrics for “Critical Thinking,” “Written Communication,” and “Reading,” and many others also adopted “Inquiry and Analysis,” “Creative Thinking,” “Teamwork,” and “Information Literacy.” By using LEAP, they avoided the difficulties of writing their own competency sets, and they borrowed lessons learned from colleagues at other institutions who were already using the rubrics.

The first win was transparency. Students in the courses had a clear understanding of how they would be evaluated on specific criteria such as “Content development” and “Context and purpose for writing.” Faculty understood how to evaluate different types of projects consistently, so they were more comfortable giving students choices. Students also saw the consistency across different English department courses since faculty were using the same rubric. The English department gained transparency outside the department because other faculty knew what to expect from students who had achieved competencies in their courses.

Another win was portability across courses and departments. More and more faculty trusted that students who had been in entry-level English courses were coming into their upper-level courses with specific competencies mastered. This gave them more time to focus on the competencies in their own courses and not remediation.

Mountainside’s career services office recognized the relevance of these competencies not only in courses, but also careers. They created sets of badges for the competencies and provided a process for the registrar’s office to verify them. They held workshops to help students learn how to describe their own competencies and include them in their resumes and cover letters. Students soon began using the badges in their online professional profiles and including evidence of learning, such as writing samples, in their portfolios. They benefited from a clear understanding of the value of the competencies for helping them tell their story to employers.

In this scenario, no one slaved for years over disruptive CBE business process changes. No one fought to the death in faculty senate meetings. No one struggled to attain a multi-million-dollar innovation budget. Which is not to say that larger, more complex CBE pursuits are not important (and in fact they could be critical to the future of higher education institutions).

The key point of this scenario is that learners benefit. They benefit from understanding the value of their learning achievements and how to communicate their competencies. And when changes like this proliferate, even small changes, education provides more value among ecosystems of stakeholders.

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