Tuesday, 03 May 2016 21:41

Critiques and Issues of Competency Based Education (CBE)

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In our previous article we introduced Competency Based Education (CBE). Yet, CBE is not without its critiques and issues. These are generally either criticisms of the concept itself or issues that might arise in implementation. 

The varying conceptualizations of the term competency can create an unintended subjectivity into the process of creating and implementing a CBE program (Abner, Bartosh, Ungerleider & Tiffin, 2014). This criticism is essentially pointing out the confusion that can arise when the term Competency Based Education is used without first providing a clear definition of competency. Competencies can be defined in the context of general cognitive skills, specific job related tasks or specific behaviours. Without coherence in the definition of a competency the objectivity is compromised through communication of the competencies. The solution to such an issue is to ensure consistent understanding of the term competency and each individual competency among staff, students and faculty. However, when the term is used loosely and without shared understanding, it can create instability in the program development.

The program and institution must also consider organizational challenges that are not related to pedagogy when designing and developing a CBE program. Although these challenges may not seem to be curricular, they need to be considered as most support systems and management systems are designed for a traditional credit model and need to be considered for a CBE model (Johnstone & Soares, 2014).

Data management systems

Many institutions are very invested in their data management systems both financially, though contracts, and procedurally, through their internal processes. The primary data management systems that would be impacted by a switch to CBE are the Student Information System (SIS) and Learning Management System (LMS) since these are integral for the tracking of student success (Vander Ark & Schneider, 2014). Currently these are generally two different systems that operate in a complimentary way in a credit system. Though some LMS, for example Canvas, allow for the tracking of mastery of a competency by a student, there is no interoperability with SIS to maintain that tracking. Brandman University in Irvine, California has developed a customized solution for their CBE programs, but this is a costly endeavour (Klein-Collins, 2012). Vendors are actively engaged in creating commercial solutions (Leauba, 2015) but this process is complicated by the fact that not all CBE approaches are created equal (Glowa, 2013), so unlike the credit model, CBE programs vary greatly in the needs that they have for data management.

Student support services

Johnstone & Soares (2016) illustrate a number of challenges that arise in supporting students in a CBE model where asynchronousity is required for individualized pacing. To keep students progressing at a rate that allows for accelerated or individualized pacing, there must be flexible academic assistance. Many institutions have done so through the acquisition of a large number of learning materials that can be archived for students to use 'just in time'. The impact of administrative assists for students also need to be taken into account. Most traditional non-academic support services are provided on campus during regular business hours. If a CBE program is running online, students will likely require access to these services remotely and outside of regular business hours.

Changing faculty models

Prior to providing academic support, students who are struggling must be identified (Johnstone & Soares, 2016). This can be made simpler by electronic tracking tools, such as in an LMS, but may also include a faculty model that formally integrates this role into one or more faculty positions. Some CBE programs have academic staff who track student progress and contact those who appear to be struggling. This person would then help identify the issue that the student is having and refer them to a faculty member with the required faculty expertise, if the issue is academic, or the correct department, if the issue is administrated. 

This is only a short list of factors to consider when implementing a CBE model and could almost be used as a checklist of questions that should be considered prior to implementation, not a list of reasons to not implement. Related considerations include financial aid processes, articulation agreements, accrediting bodies, student advising, recruitment and staffing.

Because of the proliferate impact that a CBE program might have, steady support and strong vision are crucial during the design, development and implementation of a CBE program (Book, 2014; Klein-Collins, 2012). The criticisms and issues presented in this summary are presented as considerations, rather than pitfalls, of CBE.

Keep an eye out for future articles exploring Competency Based Education on LC2.


Book, P. (2014). All Hands on Deck: Ten Lessons from Early Adopters of Competency-Based Education. Boulder, CO: WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. Retrieved from http://www.cbenetwork.org/sites/457/uploaded/files/AllHandsOnDeckFinal.pdf

Glowa, L. (2013). Re-Engineering Information Technology: Design Considerations for Competency Education. International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Retrieved from http://www.competencyworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/iNACOL_CW_IssueBrief_ReEngineeringCompEd_final.pdf 
Johnstone, S. & Soares, L. (2014) Principles for Developing Competency-Based Education Programs. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 46:2, 12-19, DOI: 10.1080/00091383.2014.896705

Klein-Collins, R. (2012). Competency-Based Degree Programs in the U.S.: Postsecondary Credentials for Measurable Student Learning and Performance. United States: Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Retrieved from http://www.cael.org/pdfs/2012_competencybasedprograms

Leuba, M. (2015). Competency-Based Education: Technology Challenges and Opportunities.  Educause. Retrieved from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2015/10/competency-based-education-technology-challenges-and-opportunities 

Vander Ark, T. & Schneider, C. (2014). Assessing Deeper Learning: A Survey of Performance Assessment and Mastery-Tracking Tools. United States: Getting Smart. Retrieved from http://cdno4.gettingsmart.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/FINAL-Assessing-Deeper-Learning.pdf 

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