The ABCs of CBE

Five things to think about when transitioning to competency-based education.

GUEST COLUMN | by Steve Pappageorge

CREDIT Helix EducationEven as institutions continue to wrap their arms around competency-based education (CBE) – what it means, how one should think about it, and how it can transform the learning process – this innovative learning model is emerging as a viable way to deliver a true outcomes-based approach to higher education. It’s also meeting the needs of an ever-changing student population who, more than ever, heavily contemplate technology, cost, and employability as part of their overall educational experience.

As with most emerging models, CBE isn’t something to be casually adopted. While it has the ability to significantly alter the entire education process as we know it, it requires careful planning, implementation, and, most importantly, continuous improvement along the way.

The opportunity to leverage current teaching methods while easing into competency-based education can be a win for schools and a win for students. 

Let’s start with a simple definition of what CBE means to institutions and the students they serve. According to ELI, the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, “Competency-based education awards academic credit based on mastery of clearly defined competencies.”

At my company, we view CBE as the merging of three important elements – instructional content, assessments, and outcomes.

Students engage with content in a self-paced, self-directed environment that relies on their own aptitude to advance through coursework based on the application of their knowledge and demonstrated competencies. Curriculum builds on itself, driving and enhancing a student’s ability to learn, while de-emphasizing the amount of time it takes to complete traditional requirements necessary to proceed to subsequent lessons. The result is a highly customized learning experience that can boost outcomes such as completion, retention, and graduation rates.

Whether schools are already starting to implement a CBE model, testing the waters, or simply considering its benefits, there are several key things that will make the process more efficient and effective.

Engage in Diligent Evaluation and Planning

Don’t underestimate the complexity, time, and effort required to design and build a CBE program. Dedicate enough time to conduct a thorough evaluation of the institution’s objectives, its willingness to change, use of technology (how it engages students, how interactive it is, how it tracks student performance), as well as an analysis of course structure, content development, student support, and faculty involvement.

Set Realistic Growth Goals

We believe in the philosophy of starting small and growing steadily. The opportunity to leverage current teaching methods while easing into competency-based education can be a win for schools and a win for students.

Keep Track of all of the Moving Parts

The transition to a CBE model isn’t necessarily an easy one, so it is essential to engage a good project manager.  From the transition itself, to content development, delivery, platforms, and support, there are a lot of pieces to the CBE puzzle, and those pieces rely on each other in order to ensure the overall quality of the student experience and the cohesiveness of the program.

Make Time for Change Management

It is important to recognize that CBE impacts the processes and procedures currently in place.  Administrators and faculty will need time to adjust and be trained on the new approach. Being open-minded to recognize when something is working and when adjustments are needed is also key. Collecting and analyzing data will help schools continually improve the CBE experience.

Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate Again

Organizational buy-in is critical. Sharing objectives, status, and timelines on a regular basis with all key stakeholders (presidents, deans, directors of online learning, faculty, coaches, instructional designers, and more) gives everyone a sense of ownership, responsibility, and pride in what the school is accomplishing.

A well-thought-out CBE strategy can help institutions increase student success, lower costs, better serve new student populations, and continually improve the education experience. Through this differentiated, customized, and meaningful approach to learning, schools and students alike can experience improved outcomes and optimize the cost of graduation.

Steve Pappageorge is Chief Product Officer and SVP at Helix Education, where he is helping define and implement the company’s competency-based education methodology and its student lifecycle solutions, including Helix LMS, a learning management system built for competency-based education. He previously served as Dean of the College of Continuing Education, New Programs and Outreach at DeVry University where he was responsible for the successful expansion of its continuing education programs, including the development of its competency-based learning initiative and initial MOOC offerings. Contact Steve through:


    Leave a Comment

    %d bloggers like this: