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How universities are braving the choppy waters of CBE

By Andrew Barbour
December 8th, 2015

As older, working students become the face of higher education, universities are venturing into the world of competency-based education—but the technical challenges are significant.

competency-based-CBEWith nontraditional students far outnumbering the ranks of callow youth entering college straight from high school, competency-based education (CBE) appears—at last—to have reached escape velocity.

A year ago, fewer than 50 institutions nationwide offered CBE programs. Now that number has exploded to more than 600, with additional initiatives coming online all the time. Most of these entrants are complete neophytes to the world of CBE, and they face significant challenges as they attempt to accommodate CBE’s unique demands within their institutional structures.

Vendors, too, are trying to stake out their space in this emerging market. In October, for example, D2L announced the launch of its Brightspace Competency-Based Education Solution. Built around its Brightspace LMS, which has the flexibility to accommodate both traditional and CBE education, the solution encompasses a combination of consulting services, courseware development, training, and sharing of best practices among university clients.

“CIOs and provosts don’t know where to start,” said Renny Monaghan, chief marketing officer at D2L. “Everybody’s excited about CBE, everybody wants to do it, but they’re really starting at the very beginning. They’re asking questions like, ‘Do I need to choose technology? What kind of budget do I need? How long does it take?'”

Not surprisingly, companies like D2L are hoping that colleges and universities turn to them to figure out the answers. In some ways, tech companies are a natural fit for CBE, since it’s a form of education that is almost impossible to scale without a robust technology solution in place.

It’s a lesson that the University of Wisconsin Extension has learned firsthand since it launched its Flexible Option CBE program in 2013. The program, which is intended to serve the state’s approximately 80,000 adults who are interested in further educational opportunities, currently has about 1,000 students pursuing everything from certificates in technical writing to bachelor’s degrees in science and nursing, diagnostic imaging, and information studies and technology.

(Next page: Technology still a “work in progress”)


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