Change is the biggest difficulty for institutions when implementing a CBE program

Karen Yoshino and E-Learn Team
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Pasadena, California, United States

Traditional education has been screaming for a change. Technology has changed society, people, and industries – including higher education. People have realized there are new and better ways to learn.  Companies want people who are good at what they do.  CBE may be a way to achieve both.

Blackboard’s main purpose is to help institutions teach better and to enable students to learn better while integrating technology into education. Ten years ago, they brought Dr. Karen Yoshino onboard.  Dr. Yoshino is a principal strategist and an expert of Competency-Based Education (CBE). CBE refers to “systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on learners demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education”*.  Dr. Yoshino helps guide institutions toward implementing CBE through a process of deconstructing an existing curriculum and reconstructing it into a CBE framework.  She also works to align assessments and develop effective rubrics** that help prepare the school for delivering CBE.

How did you get started working on and promoting the CBE methodology and what exactly do you do currently?

I’m going to back up to when I was first exposed to the concept of educational outcomes. It was when accrediting commissions started putting criteria around defining what students know, think, or are able to do resulting from their educational program.  They also expected institutions to measure how well the programs performed against those outcomes and then use the results to improve the programs. I worked at a couple of institutions where I helped them develop systematic ways to define outcomes and ways to measure them. I also worked at the College Board on the SAT program where I learned that large scale testing was not my cup of tea.  Good fortune and an article in Inside Higher Education led me to Blackboard where I started working as an expert on outcome assessments. That was ten years ago.  When CBE started emerging, I was fascinated by the relationship between outcomes assessment and competency-based education.  The thing that was fascinating for me was that CBE used the same outcomes-based concept to measure student performances, rather than program performance.

When CBE conversations grew, I began studying it. A Blackboard colleague and I started collaborating with the American Council on Education to develop a lexicon for CBE, because people were still forming their ideas of what CBE is and how it works. That was my first introduction to CBE; it was more on the research side.

After noticing how CBE was taking off in colleges and universities in the US, I suggested that Blackboard develop a set of solutions. We wanted to construct a portfolio of solutions because it’s very complex. CBE touches more than just the academic side of the institution if you are going to do a full-blown competency-based program. It can change the practices across the institution.  It’s a game changer.

We now have a CBE team who can help institutions from planning through delivery and from defining competencies to developing courses or modules in Blackboard Learn – or for that matter, whatever LMS the institution is using.  Competency definitions and assessment alignment are my area of expertise. I help my clients create a CBE framework.  Working with academic leaders, faculty, program leads, instructional designers and academic support staff, we go through a process of deconstructing syllabi and reconstructing them into a CBE framework – providing a logic model to connect competencies with content and assessments.  Through this process, clients now have a replicable methodology for scaling CBE to other programs.   I also help them align existing tests with competencies as well as creating effective rubrics to measure their competencies.  The whole idea of CBE is to give students a clear learning target and a path to get there.

Illustration about the main differences between non-student facing institutional services impacted by CBE and Student facing institutional services impacted by CBE. Illustration: TriiBU.

Is there anything else institutions have to do in order to implement a CBE program?

Yes, definitely. CBE should begin with a strategic plan.  Institutions should work with marketing specialists to analyze which programs are going to be most successful with CBE.  They should talk to employers to define what competencies are needed for their CBE programs.  If they are going self-paced, they should work closely with the registrar to define how the competencies will work with existing credit-hour grading systems.  They should work with the finance office to build out the business model, including how they are going to charge for CBE, compensate faculty and other roles. Institutions really have to engage in a very broad level. Blackboard offers planning services to work through these issues.  For some clients it is less of a priority to see the whole package; they want to see first what CBE looks like academically.  In these cases, they are likely to delay planning, and start with the curricular framework first in order to get a solid feel for what CBE looks like from an academic perspective.  Although they may delay the planning, these really should occur in tandem.

So really, the decision of a school to implement a CBE program is a really a big decision and it takes a lot of hard work. Why do you think CBE programs are the way to go?

Illustration showing the path for the instruction paradigm to get to the learning paradigm. Illustration: TriiBU.

First, it makes the task of learning and achievement really clear to students. They have a solid understanding of what they will need to master in order to achieve credit for the lesson. As I said earlier, if students have a learning target, and delivery (including content, assessments, and workflows in the technology) are focused on that target, together with the learner’s ability to see where they are as they make their way through the various competencies in a program, they are much more likely to succeed than if there is a more broadly defined list of goals, objectives, and outcomes. Secondly, it provides a way for higher education to reach new populations of learners – like working adults – to advance in their professions or develop a whole new set of skills but can’t afford the time to attend class 3 times a week and all that entails.  Finally, it provides an alternative approach to the traditional model of higher education (which has been under fire in terms of accountability, affordability, and the need for an educated workforce.)  I use Barr & Tagg’s 1995 article from Change Magazine to illustrate this alternative approach.    In this forward-thinking article the authors talk about a new paradigm focused on producing learning, designing powerful environments for students’ construction of knowledge, where the environment is ready when the learner is ready, that specifies learning results, and where formative and summative assessments are by design used to help learners progress.  I think that it’s this changing paradigm that’s the biggest barrier that people have to overcome.

Do schools always have to begin from scratch to create the assessments that line up with the competencies?

Typically, no.  Most assessments from existing courses can be repurposed and used within the CBE framework.  They just need to be aligned with the competencies and in many cases, need rubrics developed to evaluate performance on the competencies.  But in some cases, yes, they might have to do brand new assessments.  For example, if the existing assessments are measuring at a low level of mastery, they may need to be redesigned to reflect higher order thinking.

Can you explain what you mean that there are already assessments linked to certain competencies?

I love aligning existing assessments within the CBE framework because when we do this it shows how tests, for example, are already measuring the competencies.  This is fun because assessment development and course objective development may be done by faculty in separate workflows.  It’s like when an exposed sheet of photosensitive paper is washed in developer solution, the image appears!  Once programs have agreed on a set of competencies and subcompetencies reflecting the program, we move to the next stage of aligning assessments to competencies. At this stage, we see how existing assessments are aligned, but we can also see if there are any gaps.  This tells us where we need to create new assessment items.  We do the same alignment activity with written “assignments,” which are really a form of assessment.  We align these with the competencies but the difference here is that we typically need to create rubrics to evaluate these.

Do all assessments have to be objective assessments? What happens when an assessment needs to be an open ended question or an investigation?

We use both “objective” and “open-ended” questions in CBE.  Objective test items (multiple choice, true/false, fill in the blanks, matching, ordering, etc.) have a “correct” answer, which makes them very amenable to formative assessments because they can be machine scored so students get quick feedback on their performance. The intent of formative assessments is to prepare the student for tackling the summative assessments. Typically, problem-based, research-based, analysis-based, etc. assessments are what we use for summative assessments.  They require more complex performance on the part of the student but don’t have a “correct answer” in the sense of an objective test answer.  In these cases, we use rubrics to evaluate the student’s performance.  In my mind, rubrics are a proxy for the “correct answer” in multiple-choice-world because they utilize specific criteria for demonstrating mastery of the competency associated with the assessment.

I would argue that change is the biggest challenge for institutions. While higher education has been generally resistant to change, it is surprising to me to see the rapid growth in the number of institutions that are now moving toward competency-based education.

I read that the disadvantages of a CBE program are that there are certain things that can’t be competencies. Like literature or history. You can’t measure that as a competency because it’s not objective. From what you just told me, is that false?

That is not true. Any discipline can be expressed in a competency-based framework. You just have to understand how to express that discipline in terms of knowledge, skills, and abilities that the student will have as a result of engaging in that discipline.

CBE has been around for so many years, why is it that it’s becoming so popular now?

The advancement of technology is what’s made CBE take off recently.  Colleges and universities can now leverage the power of technology to deliver CBE in a self-paced environment with granular feedback on progress.  Technology has made the workflows and structures of CBE manageable and sustainable for institutions.

Can you explain the importance technology has in this case that is so useful for CBE programs?

The best way is to think about how many Word docs, spreadsheets, emails messages, time and effort it would take to organize and deliver content, track each competency by student by assessment score (for both formative and summative), score rubrics, transfer those scores to a master list before you can issue grades.  It would be a nightmare.

Technology allows you to set up the system to do all of those things.  I think the biggest factor is that you’re able to leverage technology to associate competencies and subcompetencies with content, assessments and feedback to learners.

One quick example is when students engage with formative assessments – like multiple choice questions.  Multiple-choice assessments can be machine-scored and give immediate feedback so the learner knows what to go back and review or move forward toward demonstrating mastery at the summative assessment level

Next, when you get into authentic assessments, you are likely going to need rubrics to evaluate each of the competencies and subcompetencies involved.  Technology allows you to read that paper online, score it using the online rubric, and quickly get rubric scores. This saves instructor time in processing scores and providing feedback to learners.

What do you think are the biggest difficulties for a school to implement CBE programs?

I would argue that change is the biggest challenge for institutions. While higher education has been generally resistant to change, it is surprising to me to see the rapid growth in the number of institutions that are now moving toward competency-based education. The reason I say change is the biggest challenge is because it means shifts in practice across the institution.  Earlier I talked about changes needed in marketing, admissions, registrar, bursar, student support, etc as well as how these functions work together.  This cross-functional work suggests changes in planning, governance, leadership, communications, and often times change in use of technology.   From an academic perspective it means change in:  the design and delivery of the curriculum, assessment strategies, student support practices, and in how achievement is awarded.  So while the challenge and difficulty of change is real, I think the idea of CBE energizes the impulse to innovate among faculty and academic leaders.  They’re eager to try new strategies – especially if it benefits students.  As an educator this is the most exciting time to be in higher education.

Karen Yoshino, Principal Strategist at Blackboard Inc. Photo: AFP Kyle Grillot.
Karen Yoshino, Principal Strategist at Blackboard Inc. Photo: AFP Kyle Grillot.

What are the main mistakes people make when implementing CBE?

One of the common mistakes that I see is that institutions start off worrying about the technology.  It’s almost as if the they believe the right technology will result in quality CBE delivery.  In these cases, the institutions haven’t thought through the design, flow, practices, and structure of their CBE model.  My advice is to first develop your model so you can evaluate the merits of various technologies to support that model.

Why is CBE good for industries, employers, and for student’s future jobs?

Employers have been citing skills gaps among their workforce.  Because many CBE programs (properly developed) have worked with employers to define the skills they need this issue is minimized.  Employers can see what skills they will get in an employee who has been through a competency-based program and also be assured that those skills have been achieved at a stated level of mastery.

Many CBE programs are focused on employment skills – often in the form of specialized certificates or micro-credentials.  This is a great benefit to those adult learners who are working in a field but need to build up their skills to advance their careers.

What are the benefits for the institutions?

New programs and new models of delivery give institutions the ability to attract and serve new populations of students.  This means revenue, particularly in an environment where the population of traditional age students and state funding are both on the decline.  Adult learners can bridge that challenge.  I’ve read that there are over 45 million adults 25 years and above who have some college experience but no degree. That is a huge market!

Do you think that CBE is the future of education?

I certainly hope so – not only because I’m very passionate about it –  but the numbers seem to indicate that it will have a place in the future of higher education.  As distinguished from MOOCS, there is an underlying theory and value proposition. It’s a game changer in fundamental ways, not just a way to expand the educational experience in selected courses. CBE makes a strong argument that it brings value to learners, institutions, and employers.



Karen Yoshino, Principal Strategist at Blackboard Inc.




Photos by AFP Kyle Grillot


CBE definition according to the The Glossary of Education Reform.
A rubric is a guide listing specific criteria for grading or scoring academic papers, projects, or tests according to Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

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