3 things to get right when designing CBE programs – Blackboard Blog

Source: 3 things to get right when designing CBE programs – Blackboard Blog

Starting a new competency-based education (CBE) program introduces a dizzying array of academic and administrative decisions. While the academy is typically supportive of structuring and teaching one’s discipline with a great deal of freedom to define teaching approaches, assess students, and deliver courses, CBE calls for a more structured, collaborative, and standardized approach. Without agreed on structure, approach, and standards, the complexity of CBE can lead to a mixture that makes scalability of CBE methodology challenging if not unsustainable. Here are the three critical academic and curricular considerations to building a CBE program.

#1. Nail down competencies

Effective competency definition has three key elements. The learner, or anyone else, reading through the competencies has a clear understanding of (a) a summary of what the competency is about, (b) a specific definition of the competency, and (c) the associated topics that will help assess the competency. Nailing down the competency means getting the right language around competency definitions. The clarity of program competencies will determine: (a) how readily learners will grasp the knowledge, skills and abilities they will need to master; (b) how cogently and consistently content is designed and delivered throughout the program; (c) how clearly mastery is demonstrated through well-aligned assessments.

One of the most common missteps we make in higher education is extending the language of program outcomes into competency definitions. Outcomes statements often combine many competencies into a nicely worded statement. Take, for example, one of the competency statements for historians: “Construction of simple essay arguments that use historical evidence.” This example of extending outcomes language as a competency contains at least four competencies that require greater granularity– each of which contain multiple criteria for evaluating the competencies:

  1. Knowledge of historical events
  2. Analysis of historical events
  3. Argumentative writing
  4. Information literacy

Note in this particular example, the competency statement is easily converted into an assignment something like: “Construct a simple essay argument in favor of the actions taken by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, using historical evidence, based on pages 272-302 of Dittmer.” Outcomes statements that are easily converted into assignments are typically written in outcomes style and are not sufficiently granular to convey the competencies and subcompetencies of a program, course, or learning unit.

So what is granular enough? Below you will see the results of what a competency in the area of civil rights history might look like. Note that I had to corner a colleague who has taught in this area, but what you see below is how one of the competencies – “Analysis of historical events” – might look like.

Competency Name Competency Definition Subcompetencies
Analysis of modern American Civil rights movement Describes, classifies and critiques the origins, actions and consequences of American civil rights Desegregation of troops after WWII
Disenfranchisement of Black WWII veterans
Second wave feminism
1964 Civil Rights Act
1965 Voting Rights Act
Brown v Board of Education
Political shift of south
White flight

This or a similar approach for competency definition sets the basic framework upon which we can align curricular content, assessments and learner pathways. Note that this step should be participatory and not driven by a single program. While the curricular content will change, the competency framework should be applicable to initial and subsequent CBE programs. Why should there be a common framework? The proximal argument for a common framework is related to the manageability and sustainability of the competency system within the technology platform. More important, however, is that a standard way of expressing competencies across programs makes learning visible to students.

#2. Use the instructional model to drive technology

Once the competency definition and learner pathways model is known, we can turn to the question of how CBE programs will live in the technology. In addition to thinking through the functionality that’s present or missing in the learning management (LMS), relationship management (CRM), and student information systems (SIS), this is an ideal time to think through CBE delivery through the learner’s perspective. This stage is more than instructional design. It takes into account how the technology will support a number of user experience (UX) considerations, such as:


  • Where does the learner see course/module level competencies and sub-competencies (assessable topics)?
  • Where does the learner see how competencies and sub-competencies relate to the learning materials in the course/module?
  • If program level competencies or general education competencies are involved, how do they appear in the competencies, sub-competencies, course materials, and assessments?
  • Has a threshold for competency mastery been clearly identified?
  • Do students need to achieve the threshold for each competency or at the course, module, or program level? In other words, can students not meet a competency threshold and still get credit for the program?
  • Technology questions:
    • Where do competencies and sub-competencies reside in the LMS?


  • What formative assessments are available for learners?
    • Objective tests
    • Assignments or exams evaluated with rubrics?
    • How does remediation on knowledge or skills acquisition occur?
    • To what extent do formative assessments count for credit in the course/module?
  • What summative assessments are used to evaluate competency mastery?
    • Objective tests
    • Assignments or exams evaluated with rubrics?
  • Technology questions:
    • How are test questions physically aligned to competencies in the LMS?
    • How are rubric rows physically aligned to competencies in the LMS?
    • How does the student track their progress through the course/module and through the program in the LMS or through other technology?


  • Do learners have a clear pathway through materials and assessments?
  • Technology questions:
    • Is there a mechanism for the use of adaptive release, etc. to assist learners in developing a pathway through the materials and assessments?
    • How do instructors track learner progress among competencies in a course/module? Across the program?
    • How do advisors track learner progress among competencies in a course/module? Across the program?
    • How are the results of learner mastery (grade, complete, not complete, etc.) exported from the LMS into the SIS or system of record?

Again, a standard approach is important from the very beginning. It is a mistake to build out the learning platform to accommodate the preferences of a small group of faculty who are the first to tackle CBE in the institution. It is wise to think through the long-term implications of a technology structure that will support new disciplines and programs over time.

#3. Bring the right people to the table

Designing a new CBE program is BIG. Ideally it involves a number of people who have vested interest in the program quality and outcomes. The following are a few good practices we’ve learned from working in the field.

  • Employers provide critical input on what knowledge, skills and competencies they are looking for in the hiring process.
  • A mix of junior and senior program faculty in will bring ownership, energy and wisdom to the design process.
  • Strong leadership will help secure resources and bring positional authority for important decisions that arise during the design process.
  • Instructional designers will bring knowledge and expertise about the capabilities and limitations of the learning platform.
  • Non-academic staff (marketing, admission, financial aid, registrar, library, student support, etc.) will all be impacted by CBE and will be instrumental in designing how their practices will change to support the flexibility needed in a CBE environment.

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