4 Things to Consider When Starting a CBE Program

Jon Scoresby
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If you pay attention to educational development, you may have heard of competency based education (CBE). In 2015, Inside Higher Education[1] reported that approximately 600 institutions have some form of a CBE program in the design and development phase, and that number was up from around 50 from the previous year. As CBE continues to grow, it may seem like the sparkly new toy that everyone wants and are trying to learn more about.

Organizations like C-BEN[2] (Competency-Based Education Network) are focused on creating principles and stComandards[3] that can be used to help guide the development of a CBE program. C-BEN has also created the CBE Design Planner[4] to help guide development. It is true that CBE provides a lot of opportunities for prospective students, such as working as fast or slow as one wants, flexibility, and focusing on mastery of learning. To build and launch a full program, however, institutions have a lot of work in front of them.

There is no one right way to develop a CBE program. Every CBE program (e.g., WGU, CfA, Brandman, SLCC) is different. These programs are different because of the types of students they serve, the technology systems that are implemented, the faculty model that is used and so on. Even though the end product will be unique, those who develop a CBE program can implement similar best practices to develop their ideal CBE program. 

CBE is not just a new way of learning or a new modality to deliver a course or curriculum to students. A full CBE program is a system of moving parts, and those parts touch almost every facet of a higher educational institution (e.g., Bursar’s Office, Faculty, Financial Aid, Registrar’s office, Curriculum Development, etc.). It is somewhat similar to starting a whole new college. See Figure 1. Because there are so many parts to the development of a CBE program, it is a good idea to have a plan in place before development starts. Here are four essential practices to consider when building a CBE program and the enveloping infrastructure.

Curriculum Development

  • Mapping Competencies
  • Faculty interaction w/students
  • LMS assessment
  • Learning outcomes
  • Program requirements


Student Success

  • Team Cross-training
  • Advisor
  • Tracking System
  • Faculty Advising
  • Program Progress
  • Enrollment Management 
  • CMR Dashboard

Faculty Mentor

  • CBE Training required
  • LMS Training 
  • Competences vs learning outcomes
  • Curriculum design


Financial Aid

  • Define Academic Related Activities
  • Training
  • Disbursement terms
  • Define Terms (nonstandard / standard)
  • Subscription model 


  • Competencies
  • Rubrics
  • Assessment
  • Faculty Journals
  • Academic Related Activities
  • Student program progress
  • Dashboards

Registration Budget Systems Admissions/ Enrollment Marketing
  • Terms    (nonstandard / standard)  
  • Subscription model
  • Grades
  • Transcripts
  • Diplomas / Certificates
  • Transferability
  • Articulation agreements
  • Faculty & Staff Training  
  • Curriculum development 
  • Staffing & Administrative overhead  
  • Material – Instructional  supplies
  • Conferences
  • Faculty Load / Release time
  • LMS
  • Financial Aid
  • Document Management
  • CRM
  • Assessment
  • Tracking system
  • Recruiter training
  • Employer events
  • PR publications about CBE
  • Visit to employers 
  • Ads (radio, direct mail, online) 
  • Scholarships 
  • Tuition match

Billing Workforce development Acredditation Prior Learning Assesment
  • Terms
  • Refund policies
  • Certificates
  • Financial Aid
  • Scholarships
  • Customized CBE programs
  • Making employers aware of CBE
  • CBE Application
  • Focus Visit
  • PLA qualifications?
  • Military Credit
  • CLEP exams
  • AP exams
  • Transfer credit
  • Portfolio



Special: Competency-based Education (CBE)

Program Development Plan

Creating a Program Development Plan up front is worth taking the time, and in the end, it will help the work move forward more efficiently. It is important to define roles and responsibilities early in the planning process, especially who is driving the effort. In the case of a higher educational institution, where does ownership of the CBE program lie? Does ownership lie with the college, a centralized CBE unit, the whole institution, or some other option? The goal of the plan is to direct those involved to the answers when questions arise. Some guiding questions to ask when building the plan might include:

Who is involved, and what will they do?

What needs to be done, and how does it get done?

What technology is needed? Can we use existing technology?

What institutional resources are impacted?

CBE Model Strategy and Vision

The model strategy is the way the students will experience CBE and complete their programs. A  model strategy needs to be in place in order to direct the development of curriculum.  There are a few choices that will need to be made when choosing a CBE model strategy. Each one is different and has its own characteristics. The aspects of model strategies include:

Credit hour aligned or direct assessment

Non-term or term-based

Classroom-based, online/self-paced, or hybrid*

Once a CBE model strategy has been decided upon, plans can be made for what programs to build. It should be noted that not all programs are suited for this type of learning. Programs should be chosen based on trends in the job market. A CBE program in skydiving may be exciting, but is there really a market demand for such a program? A source like the O*NET Database[5] can be used to identify the trends.

Define Processes and Procedures

One of the most essential features in CBE program development is defining the processes and procedures that will be followed during development within all areas within a CBE program. These may include curriculum design, assessment development, faculty and staff training, student experience, accreditation, etc. When processes and procedures are defined, they become the instructions for what is trying to be accomplished.

For example, a course developer, when trying to develop a course without instructions, is simply playing a guessing game. A crucial element of the process and procedure defining effort is to create a definition of what is good. For example, what makes a good competency statement? Why is this assessment better than that one? Why is this faculty model good? When good is defined, the resulting effort can be measured against that definition and then that definition can be used to train others on how to work within the defined processes and procedures.

Test Everything

Finally, test everything. When finished with a course or program, how do you know if it is good or complete? It is the same with your development process and final products (course, programs, competencies, learning activities, assessments). Design a plan to test your development model. Ask yourself, did we achieve our definition of good? Can we be more efficient?

Work with all involved teams (curriculum, IT, bursar’s office, registrar, etc.),  to test the whole system. This means finding out if students can register, get financial aid, contact advisors, access the content within the learning management system, etc. After you have tested everything, review, revise, implement, and do it all again. CBE program development requires an integrated continuous review process as programs expand and improve.


Time in the Classroom vs. Learning on Your Own Time


1Inside Higher Ed (2015). Keeping up with competency. Retrieved from: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/09/10/amid-competency-based-education-boom-meeting-help-colleges-do-it-right.

2Competency Based Education Network. Retrieved from: http://www.cbenetwork.org/

3Competency Based Education Network (2016). Quality Principles and Standards Released for Competency-Based Education Programs. Retrieved from http://www.cbenetwork.org/news-and-insights/quality-principles-and-standards-released-for-competency-based-education-programs/

4CBE Design Planner. Retrieved from: http://www.cbedesignplanner.org/ 5O*NET OnLine. Retrieved from: https://www.onetonline.org/ *Photos by: AFP Caitlin O’Hara

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