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Competency-based education (CBE) in higher education: A landscape overview

Nhi Nguyen
Rebecca LeBoeuf
Rebecca LeBoeuf
|
August 23, 2023
Table of Contents

In one of our recent articles, we discussed the concept of Competency-based education (CBE) and its great potential to support quality, flexible, and inclusive higher education. In fact, CBE remains a rather novel framework and its adoption would undoubtedly differ across faculties, institutions, and even continents. There have been numerous publications and reports reflecting the state of CBE implementation, yet these are mostly regional-focused. In order to provide a comprehensive, comparative overview of the current CBE landscape, we consulted multiple resources by different organizations, institutions, and researchers in the US, Europe, and Asia-Pacific and came up with this article. In this, we aim to answer the following questions:

  • How is CBE understood and defined by postsecondary institutions worldwide?
  • What are the motivations behind CBE adoption at higher education institutions?
  • How is CBE being implemented at a global scale?
  • What are the current challenges and barriers perceived by institutions worldwide during CBE adoption?

The findings summarized in this article reflect the time period and data collected in these reports (from the 1980s till now) and therefore are subject to change over time.

You can find an overview of the organizations, reports, and research used in this report in the References and Further Readings section.

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The definition: How do institutions define CBE?

The US

According to the 2020 NSPCBE report, CBE has attracted attention from every key stakeholder in higher education like leaders, policymakers, administrators, and others as a novel approach to educational transformation and innovation.

As an emerging framework, the definition of CBE is a work in progress with different established definitions and explanations. These definitions; however, all come down to several common elements:

  • The learning experience is designed around a set of competencies.
  • Student success is determined by mastery of the defined competencies, and the time taken to demonstrate competency can vary among the students.
  • The CBE course and programs allow utmost flexibility, where students can follow the learning at their own pace.
  • The faculty takes on different roles: content creators, facilitators, coaches, assessment administrators, and more.
  • CBE requires institutions to actively provide timely, efficient student support as students are encouraged to take ownership of their learning.
  • The emphasis on competencies rather than grades and credit hours in CBE fosters a learner-centered curriculum that addresses different learning preferences and abilities.

Europe

Competency-based education remained a marginal part of teaching and learning strategies at European higher education institutions for many years until its emphasis on student learning led to more initiatives adopting the method (McClarty & Gaertner, 2015). According to Katherine Casey and Chris Sturgis, competency-based education is “a system of education designed to equitably ensure all students develop the success skills they will need for college, career and life”. The CBE method focuses on facilitating education that encourages students’ mastery of the core competencies – the ability to complete a task by integrating knowledge, skills, attitudes, and professionalism required for their chosen fields of study while allowing faculties to evaluate how well their learners accumulate the desired skills.

The CBE model presents “a foundation for personalized learning, shaping the culture, structure, and pedagogy, that allow students to play an active role in their learning and achieve this broader definition of success.” (Casey & Sturgis, 2014). This makes CBE different from traditional education, which focuses on the end results rather than the entire learning process.

Despite taking different formats, CBE must ensure two elements: (1) a competency framework and (2) competency assessments. The competency framework centers around the concept of competencies, which refers to “skills, abilities, and knowledge needed to perform a specific task.” These competencies vary according to subject domains or degree programs.

However, “the major development effort” of CBE lies in “the design of appropriate performance assessments (Harris & Keller, 1976). It is critical that the successful adoption of the CBE model demands “high-quality competency assessments linked to meaningful labor market outcomes.” (McClarty & Gaertner, 2015).

Australia

The competency-based approach was introduced into the Vocational Education Training (VET) sector during the late 1980s “as part of wider economic policy measures to improve the skill levels of the Australian workforce”. Known as competency-based training (CBT), the framework has remained a critical bridge between VET institutions and the industry.

The most widely accepted definition for CBT was developed by the Australian Vocational Education, Employment and Training Advisory Committee in 1992:

“CBT is training geared to the attainment and demonstration of skills to meet industry-specified standards rather than to an individual’s achievement relative to that of others in a group.”

Erica Smith and Jack Keating later proposed a set of critical characteristics for CBT in their book “Making sense of training reform and competency-based training”, which are:

  • Centering on a set of competency standards
  • Outcome-focused instead of input-focused
  • Industry-involved
  • Acknowledge prior learning
  • Modularized courses
  • Flexible and self-paced in delivery and learning
  • Assessment based on the demonstration of skills
  • Assessment criterion-referenced and ungraded
  • The defined competencies are widely recognized

CBT introduction into the Australian VET sector involves the following elements:

  • Key competencies and employability skills development and introduction
  • Training packages introduction
  • Introduction of the Australian Qualification Framework
  • National quality standards development and implementation

The key competencies are defined by the Mayer Committee as those:

“… essential for effective participation in the emerging patterns of work and work organisation. They focus on the capacity to apply knowledge and skills in an integrated way in work situations.”

Later on, the definition of employability skills was development, which states:

“Employability skills are the skills required not only to gain employment, but also to progress within an enterprise so as to achieve one’s potential and contribute successfully to enterprise strategic directions. Employability skills are also sometimes referred to as generic skills, capabilities or key competencies.”

You can find further explanations of the training packages in the Adoption section.

The motivation: Why do institutions choose CBE?

The US

From the responses in the 2020 NSPCBE, the primary motivations for institutions were to improve the learning outcomes and respond to workforce needs. For those already adopting CBE, they envision the CBE program as “part of a broader initiative on educational innovation” while the institutions with interest in CBE wanted to utilize the framework to “expand access for nontraditional learners”.

The outburst of COVID-19 and the transition to mixed instructional modalities like online or hybrid also influence the interest in CBE, as many institutions reach a higher comfort level with pedagogical technology and realize the potential of the model in responding to future disruptions or uncertainties.

Concerns over poor student outcomes and increased dropout rates also play a critical role in driving renewed interest in CBE. Furthermore, instructional technology advancement and data management advances have extended the value of competency-based learning across institutions.

Europe

In Europe, the adoption of CBE is driven by a shift in assessment mindset, from assigning numerical grades to providing an objective, holistic evaluation of students' mastery of real-life skills.

The European Council has strongly acknowledged the importance of developing lifelong skills or competencies:

Today, young people need a broad set of competencies to find fulfilling jobs and become independent. Increasing the level of key competencies is at the heart of the European Education Area.

That’s why a Recommendation on key competences for lifelong learning was developed in May 2018, which defines 8 key competencies to become innovative, engaged, and independent citizens. In order to develop these lifelong skills, students need to be provided with a high-quality education that encourages a variety of learning approaches, flexibility, and a growth mindset. Competency-based education is then the perfect approach to achieve this goal.

Australia

By the end of the 1990s, CBT has become a significant and vital part of the Australian VET system. According to the National Centre for Vocational Educational Research, CBT adoption was motivated by many benefits that the framework generated, which are:

  • The opportunity to acknowledge and formalize work-based learning in higher education, which helps increase the Australian skill pool through the acquisition of the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) credentials
  • The ability to provide practical skills through training based on both national industry and specific enterprise standards.
  • Its effectiveness in nurturing procedural knowledge and problem-solving ability, which is well-suited for technical skill acquisition.

CBE adoption: How is CBE being implemented?

The US

The NSPCBE found that institutions of nearly all categories are adopting CBE, including rural community colleges, R1 universities, and minority-serving institutions namely historically Black colleges and universities and tribal colleges.

Out of 488 institutions that responded to the survey, nearly half reported being in the process of adopting CBE, and 65 institutions were executing at least one full CBE program. Furthermore, CBE is currently being implemented at either course or program-level stages among these institutions, with the most common steps taken being those that require less support from outside academic units like competency and assessment establishment.

That is, institutions have been focusing on competency definition and measurement, flexible learning, and mastery of competencies for advancement across programs in implementing CBE. The NSPCBE also revealed new adoption efforts such as involving external partners in competencies development and especially evaluating and selecting technology providers.

The CBE landscape continued to pick up after 2020, as many state leaders are turning to CBE as a critical strategy for creating a more accessible, affordable, and effective postsecondary education for a broader range of students. This led to a surge in CBE programs among public universities and community colleges. Below you can find several outstanding examples of how these institutions develop competency-based programs.

Western Governors University (WGU) is among the early providers of CBE, which offers more than 110000 students both bachelor's and master’s courses in several fields ranging from education, business, and information technology to health professions. These degrees are delivered in different modalities such as online, in-person, and more. WGU’s CBE programs receive higher completion rates and student/ employer satisfaction.

California Community Colleges (CCC) have long recognized the impact of CBE and have been implementing this framework since 2020. A CBE Workgroup was established to take charge of the implementation process, which involves the following stages:

  • Step 1: Develop a universal definition of CBE
  • Step 2: Design the CBE program
  • Step 3: Reach approval of program and course standards
  • Step 4: Establish Policy and Guidance
  • Step 5: Implementation and Evaluation

At Salt Lake Community College’s School of Applied Technology, faculties have been issuing a range of CBE certificate and degree programs that offer students flexibility in terms of enrollment, scheduling, modalities, and progress tracking. Furthermore, these programs are closely aligned with industry standards, and transferrable to other programs. The successful implementation of the CBE model at Salt Lake has motivated the Utah state legislators to fund a set of CBE courses that will be accepted for transfer statewide.

Europe

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), a business school based in the Netherlands, has a long-standing tradition of delivering high-quality education grounded in pedagogy and innovation. In order to foster competency-based education that ensures students’ professional success, RSM has been developing a framework that distinguishes students by key competencies related to various business roles.

This overarching framework is currently in the stage of experimentation, with the eventual goal being to highlight the institution’s perspective on lifelong learning, generate a guiding concept for the vision of educational programs, and most importantly address all the strategic priorities.

The current version of the Competency Framework organizes competencies into six distinct business roles unique and interrelated to each other: Expert (program-specific competencies), Positive Impact Agent, Collaborator, Communicator, Critical Thinker, and Leader. Each of these roles is identified by a set of key competencies – the essential knowledge, skills, and attitudes of an RSM student. A key competency then consists of enabling competencies, which explain the actions needed to achieve the key competencies and differ across educational levels and program specialties (discipline-specific).

RSM aims to continue refining the framework and factor in the possible need for adjustments that may emerge with future developments.

Leiden University has also been adopting a CBE approach in its curriculum, by formulating a set of competencies that students need to develop throughout the learning trajectory: creative thinking, research and assessment, media-technical skills, persuasion, collaboration, and self-directed learning. Most importantly, the curriculum must be designed and curated around these competencies. For a bachelor-wide science communication program at the Faculty of Humanities, instructors created a blog writing course, in which students are encouraged to develop the desired skills by engaging in a writing circle of drafting, feedback, improving, submission, and reflection. Since CBE reflects students’ progress toward the desired competencies, it is important that institutions find an effective way to collect students’ learning data. For a course of the MSc Crisis and Security Management at Leiden University, instructors have come up with the Portfolio, which compiles students’ assignments produced during the specialization courses and common courses, along with reflection papers and problem analysis reports. Besides indicating whether students have achieved the desired competencies, the portfolio functions as a showcase for future employers, or a part of the labor market preparation in the CSM-programme.

At Inholland University of Applied Sciences, CBE adoption is also at the competency development and measurement level. That is, the institution is working on the competency definition and the competencies or learning outcomes (LOs) that are assessed through a combination of various learning activities. Students’ performance in these assignments is gathered in a development portfolio, which showcases their learning progress and achievement in accordance with the intended goals. With CBE, Inholland aims to create a student-centered learning environment, where students are motivated to request and provide feedback.

Australia

In order to implement CBT within the (VET), two major changes were executed in 1990 namely: 1) the introduction of competency-based training that targeted the development of industry-related competencies; and 2) the launch of Industry Training Advisory Boards (ITABS) consisting of employer representatives to support the development of standards and accredited courses.

Competency-based programs were then introduced primarily in the Australian VET sector in 1992 to form a major component of the National Training Reform Agenda. These programs, which are known as “training packages” aim to provide a highly skilled and flexible labor force to service the needs of national industries in a growing and competitive global market.

Training packages are the central factor in the implementation of CBT in Australia. They describe the skills, knowledge, and other attributes required from a person to perform effectively in the workplace; they also present qualifications framework and assessment guidelines. Qualifications in these training packages can be a certificate I, II, III, or IV, diploma, advanced diploma, vocational graduate certificate, or vocational graduate diploma recorded on the National Training Information Service.

Though CBE in Australia has largely been confined to the VET sector, the Federal Labor government also suggested its relevance in higher education (HE). This proposal has met with controversy from educationalists with the argument that CBE is too “compartmentalized” to promote the holistic development of graduate attributes. However, many still acknowledge the need to introduce competency-based programs into the HE sector, due to a shift in the perception of learning: from the acquisition of factual knowledge to the development of skills or capacity.

The term capacity was favored over “competency” as it represents a broader notion that extends beyond basic knowledge and skills towards flexibility and adaptability to demonstrate potential and professionalism. According to Leonard Cairns, Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University, capacity refers to:

"The confident and mindful application of both current and potential ability (competence and capacity) and values within varied and changing situations to formulate problems and actively work towards solutions in a self-managed learning process."

However, later on, the HE sector started to acknowledge the significance of “Competency Standards”, which were adopted by the Curriculum Advisory Committees in both the VET and HE sectors as a guideline for curriculum development, validation, and maintenance. Brian Tritton provided a comprehensive definition of Competency standards in his thesis on “Competency-based Learning in Higher Education”, which is:

"Competency standards cover every facet of an occupation and specify as clearly as possible what is considered to be the minimum knowledge base, including the skills and attitudes required for the entry-level practice of the occupation."

These Competency Standards have been developed by representative industry bodies and are an integral part of National Training Packages in VET sector programs.

An example of this approach for HE graduates implemented by MBDS University in their Teaching and Learning Strategy 1998-2000 listed seven desirable attributes as outcomes in the development of graduates. These include: knowledgeable; critical; creative; responsible; employable; committed to lifelong learning; and demonstrated leadership in their chosen profession. These attributes require the underpinning of generic capabilities, produced by the transfer of learning into practice.

The future: What do institutions expect regarding CBE implementation?

Despite the apparent advantages of introducing CBE programs in higher education, there are real barriers to implementing the framework at an institution-wide level. The most prominent challenges, according to the institutions that are adopting and planning to adopt CBE concern several areas.

Regarding accountability, it is challenging to update the internal business systems and processes to embrace CBE. Another issue lies in overcoming the legal and policy obstacles to adopting a completely novel approach that departs from accreditation. The funding mechanisms, tuition, and aid policies based on credit hours can also hinder CBE implementation.

Transition to CBE requires the introduction and mastery of new technology, which would take time for institutions to provide faculties with sufficient training. Furthermore, institutions adopting CBE emphasize the need to develop a sufficient system to grade and report student progress, establish common mastery transcripts, and aggregate system-level success measures.

Lack of expertise regarding CBE is another challenge, which can make the CBE implementation process much longer.

Institutions also emphasized the need for further evidence about CBE programs’ potential impact on the cost and outcomes of students and consistent support of the institution’s leadership.

Despite the perceived barriers to CBE implementation—both internal and external to the institution, institutions remain optimistic about the future of CBE. According to the 2020 NSPCBE, a large majority of the surveyed institutions expressed optimism that CBE adoption will grow in the next few years. 82% of respondents said they expect CBE to grow nationally over the next 5 years. 64% of institutions having adopted CBE expect to grow the number of programs at their institutions. Over the next 5 years, 75% of institutions that haven’t adopted CBE expect to adopt some elements of CBE.

Referenced and Further readings

Here you can find the reports, research, and organizations whose content are referenced in this article: 

The National Survey of Postsecondary Competency-Based Education (NSPCBE) is an annual, web-based survey that focuses on investigating the adoption, motivation, attitude, and implementation of CBE at many post-postsecondary institutions in the United States. The NSPCBE was administered between 2018 and 2020 across different institutions that are adopting or interested in adopting CBE.

The Policy Brief on New Educational Approach to Serving Low-Skill Adult Learners, which was released by the California EDGE Coalition, provides an overview of how other US states are adopting CBE to create personalized, flexible learning environments.

Competency-Based Education: A Strategy for Skills Upgrading in California is the policy brief developed by the California Edge Coalition, which represents business, labor, social justice, education, and workforce organizations to promote quality higher education where individuals can develop skills needed in today’s market.

Show what you know: A landscape analysis of competency-based education, a report issued by the XQ institute provides an analysis of the status of competency-basededucation in the U.S., including recommendationsfor action.

The National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) is the national professional body in charge of collecting, managing, analyzing, and communicating research and statistics on the Australian vocational education and training (VET) sector. Below are the reports by the NCVER that we used in this article:

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