How universities are braving the choppy waters of CBE

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”)

Still a Work in Progress

While UWEX did not avail itself of D2L’s consulting services, it did select Brightspace as its LMS for the CBE program. Key among the attractions of Brightspace was its flexibility. CBE differs from traditional educational approaches in that student progress through a course is not necessarily a straight line. “A cornerstone of our program is that students often bring prior knowledge to their studies,” said Ryan Anderson, UWEX’s director of instructional design and development. “We build these courses in a way that allows students to jump into a particular competency where they may already know the material and take the assessment right away. We try not to build a lot of gates that students have to pass through.”

Even though Brightspace meets many of the LMS requirements that UWEX initially identified when it first planned Flexible Option, the truth remains that CBE overall—and the technology that supports it—is very much a work in progress.

“The need for CBE has been there for 10 years, but technology is only now beginning to catch up and, frankly, we aren’t there yet,” said Aaron Brower, provost and vice chancellor of UWEX. “It has been hard work to ensure that we don’t compromise our educational model for the sake of the technology that’s available.”

It’s a viewpoint echoed by Anderson. “There really wasn’t any out-of-the-box product that would have met all our needs,” he said. “If you talk to other folks pursuing CBE programs, I think you’ll find there’s a lot of cobbling together of solutions.”

The Challenges

One of the challenges facing the development of turnkey CBE tools is the fact that there’s little agreement among institutions of higher education about just what CBE encompasses. “We don’t have a universal definition for competency-based education across the entire US,” said Anderson. “As a result, I think it’s difficult for vendors to respond in a way that’s systematic and all encompassing.”

Even if a unified definition did exist, CBE would throw many existing legacy systems for a loop, making it difficult for schools to repurpose existing enterprise solutions. “We’re still facing lots of technology challenges when it comes to simple things such as transcripts,” said Brower. “A transcript looks very different in the CBE world, and no new system adequately helps us transcribe what students are doing. The same is true of bursar functions, recruiting, our basic student information system, and reporting. Even the data around retention rate and enrollment are tricky in a CBE world.”

The CBE challenge extends beyond the individual enterprise applications to how these systems communicate with one another. “We need to have our LMS communicate seamlessly with our SIS, for example, and we’ve spent a lot of time and effort to facilitate that communication,” said Anderson. “While we have some significant challenges within the individual applications, getting the various technologies to communicate with one another may be a more difficult problem to solve.”

Moving Forward

For Brower, the most logical way forward involves the development of industry standards that would allow products from different vendors to work seamlessly together. “The model that would work best for us is plug-and-play,” he said. “Rather than create one giant system that tries to solve all aspects of a student’s life cycle, I’d rather have a standardized student database that makes it easy to plug in a different vendor for learning management, a different vendor for recruitment, and so on.”

As universities search for workable solutions, the danger today is that technical compromises and jury-rigged solutions will have an outsize—and negative—impact on how CBE programs are structured on campuses nationwide. As it is, noted Brower, too many existing systems are already oriented toward the needs of faculty and administrators.

“The focus on the student experience has truly gotten lost, but in the CBE world—in the self-paced learning world—that focus is particularly critical,” concluded Anderson. “We need to recapture that focus.”

Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor with eCampus News.

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