Competency based education (CBE), sometimes called outcome based education, has for years been a utopian ideal for technocratic reformers. The theory that anyone who knows the material should get credit for the course, no matter how many hours they have spent in class, is often an important feature of proposals for low-touch, online educational reform. It has had its fits and stumbles in terms of wider acceptance, and in many ways the pandemic dealt it a hard blow, because it became very obvious that one of the important things that colleges were doing was having students sit in classrooms with peers. But at its core, it has a kind of seductive appeal.

In universities in the US there are any number of required courses and prerequisites to get a degree, but an almost universal requirement is a credit minimum. The school doesn’t want to award you with a diploma unless you have taken at least X many classes. Each course has a certain number of credits, which usually is the number of hours per week spent in class for that course. Four credits is pretty standard with three hours spent in lectures and one in a discussion section, but it can vary, and 3 quarter credits are worth 2 semester credits.

Competency based education essentially lets you test your way to credits. You take exams, sometimes even harder exams, to prove that you know the material well enough to be awarded with the credits.

For proponents of CBE, their problem is not just that the idea is a bit unpopular in university circles, but that the accrediting system in the US didn’t allow it for a long time. However the tide is turning. There are now a number of accredited programs that offer this that offer a fully CBE experience.

From the perspective of the school it makes complete sense. CBE is mostly hands off and self study, placing the onus on the student to motivate and progress at a pace that is comfortable for them. The tuition is often lower (WGU, a fully CBE university, charges only $7,452 per year for undergrad), but that is in part because the marginal cost is rock bottom. It takes some upfront money to develop the syllabus, record some content, and structure some assessments, but then the university will only have to pay for minimal administrative assistance and possibly some grading. A course can be made once and then reused until the material it contains is no longer true. And the class sizes can be fairly large since the students are mostly studying individually.

In many ways, this is a MOOC. The courses are not always “massive” but CBE is the theory that underlies almost all MOOCs. From a tech and business point of view, it is scalable, scheduleable, and cheap. For adult students who need to fit classes around a job, it could be ideal. But as we have seen with MOOCs and as we saw during the pandemic, making students self-motivate often leads to lower levels of learning.

In spite of the drawbacks, there are believers in what CBE can do. There is some well thought out literature which comes to a mildly positive conclusion about the impact that CBE can have. And CBE is so popular from a business perspective that many schools, especially for the medical field, have taken it up, so now there is a wealth of data on how effective it is. While its not likely that CBE programs are better learning environments, it is also not unlikely that they are much worse.

The largest advocate of CBE is the Competency-Based Education Network or C-BEN as they call themselves. They recently released a report which outlines their objectives. EdSurge describes it as a “glossy document” which seems apt given that the document reads like a buzzword-rich sales pitch. It identifies goals and breaks down the different kinds of stakeholders including EdTech as a whole.

For EdTech they want to do things like “Create incentives for interoperability innovation by showcasing ed techs who support quality CBE implementation” and “Design and publish representative models for user-centered workflows end-to-end to demonstrate both tech interoperability and human process considerations”. What conclusions or next steps we are supposed to take away from these sentences remain unclear, but if you can decipher them, you can probably produce some pretty glossy documents as well.

While the specifics are a little unclear, it is hard to deny that CBE is growing. As they say in the report, since they were founded in 2017, they have grown “from 30 founding members to over 600 institutions.“ The lure of low cost degrees will keep students and educational reformers continually interested.

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