Lessons from an Academic Mountaineer: Exploring the Terrain and Getting a Grip on Competency-Based Online Education

The pandemic has unearthed latent issues of access, equity, and attainment of valuable higher educational credentials. Confronted with these challenges, universities should explore the competency-based online model: at WGU it has been effective in transforming the traditional relationships among students, faculty, the institution, and the market.
Written by Linda A. Wendling

Evaluating the Effort: The Promise of Competency-Based Education

There have always been challenges in higher education; however, the current pandemic has exacerbated all of them at once like an avalanche. Many of us at Western Governors University (WGU) feel called to answer some of the tough questions about succeeding at online teaching and learning because of the positive outcomes our student body has achieved. WGU is in a position—indeed, a vantage point—along the path to providing quality online education, and so can answer some of the questions that are circulating in these times of uncertainty and rapid change. Just as there are myriad reasons to engage in face-to-face, traditional brick-and-mortar education, there are equally as many reasons for the various types of online education. The purpose of this article is to establish online competency-based education (CBE) as one viable option for students and faculty and to underscore its flexibility and its foundation in quality by explaining the methods for designing, delivering, assessing, and improving the CBE experience. As a mountain guide does not design your journey or tell you how to experience the climb, but offers expertise for use in maintaining the quality of the climb.

Starting on the Steep Slope: Decoupling Time and Place From the Learning Experience

The pandemic forced many institutions and faculty to pivot almost instantaneously to remote delivery. 2020 has forced higher education to examine how to support a variety of learners receiving online content. This is neither easy nor fast work; therefore, the whiplash transition to online learning that was necessary to protect the health of our families and communities is not to be lambasted or harshly criticized. Every person employed in education has done as much as possible to support individual students in their transitions. However, this under-preparedness should also serve as a learning tool so that our educational system is not this under-prepared again. We can anticipate other disruptions, but none of us can know how those disruptions will manifest. We do know, however, that future disruptions are likely.

The first step away from “base camp” is how to translate time, for time has been the traditional measure of student progress. Postsecondary institutions allocate “credit hours” to indicate how many hours per week a class will meet over a term and how much time a student should expect to spend studying or participating in outside-the-class learning activities.

The false assumption that time equals learning has, due to the pandemic, been dragged out of the shadows of habit and routine. Marching in rhythm to the constant pace of traditional learning has not been shown to be most effective (Cogan, 2010). In an attempt to acknowledge differences in learner preparedness and pace of learning, traditional classes in elementary and middle schools have been “tracked” to a certain extent by “ability grouping” wherein students have been designated as remedial, average, or gifted and talented. But this system does not account properly for the pacing needs of its students, and it’s worth is still being debated after 70 years (Stroud, 2002). It is particularly noteworthy that experts appear to agree that the imposed pacing in “ability grouping” has significantly disadvantaged those who were designated as “at risk” (Stroud, 2002). Many who should have been given a gifted-and-talented opportunity were passed over due to the inherent biases of measuring for that potential (Ferguson, 2016). The pandemic has radically disrupted our “normal” and revealed the disparities in the traditional, time- and place-based learning models. “We should be asking: How do we make our school, education, and child-development systems more individually responsive to the needs of our students? Why not construct a system that meets children where they are and gives them what they need inside and outside of school in order to be successful? Let’s take this opportunity to end the ‘one size fits all’ factory model of education” (Mineo, 2020). The same exploratory approach can and should be taken to post-secondary education. Flexibility and nimbleness are two of the most important characteristics in designing a pedagogical response to both today’s crisis and the future’s demands for differentiated opportunities to increase positive student outcomes. Institutions have been jolted out of the idea that one-size-fits-all. “Students [in college] are whole people; therefore, differentiation should transpire in a holistic manner. Differentiation must consider readiness levels, interests, learning profiles, and affect regarding the teacher, course material and environment.” (Turner et. al, 2017).

The pandemic has radically disrupted our “normal” and revealed the disparities in the traditional, time- and place-based learning models.

CBE, because it is decoupled from time, permits individual tailoring to a student’s demonstrated performance and mobility in the pacing of coursework attuned to the learning set undertaken at that point. It does not pigeonhole a student in a “track” and, therefore, avoids the problem when a “gifted” student is enrolled in a more challenging class that does not “fit” with his/her actual aptitude in that subject. Conversely, a student who may not have been traditionally recognized as “academically talented” may progress at an accelerated pace in a subject where he/she is demonstrating advanced competence. Freed from predeterminations, CBE allows students to accelerate in the courses where their “talent” complements the subject matter and to slow down when another subject takes more time to master.

Competency-based education removes time as an indicator of learning because, in truth, it is not a good proxy measurement. Since 1906, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching questioned the adequacy of the credit hour to accurately measure learning. In 2013, the Carnegie Foundation formed a committee to “consider how a revised unit, based on competency rather than time, could improve teaching and learning in high schools, colleges and universities” (Silva et al., 2015). Higher education cannot remain entrenched in a system just because moving away from it poses challenges. Millennials and Gen Z, those who have never known a world without technology integrated into their everyday lives, represent not only a social shift in the world that is now comfortable online but also the new balancing act between work and school and the ability to demonstrate direct application of their education to employers in the online world.

Technology has enabled us to do many things that were formerly only possible in physical proximity and where time was a commonality among all learners. Where textbooks and teachers were finite and geographically constrained, the quality of education could be predicted more or less by the socioeconomic status of the students. However, as the pandemic has demonstrated, taking those commonalities of time and place away, learning is happening on many different schedules. Technology can provide synchronous or asynchronous delivery methods, simulations, game theory learning, chat rooms, forums for discussion posts, pop-up tutorials, peer group time, and a host of other creative learning platforms that not only engage the learner but also demonstrate equivalent learning outcomes. For an example, recorded webcasts (asynchronous learning) can actually be beneficial to students as they are able to review the lecture for information they may have missed the first time around (Vaccani et al., 2016).

On our way up to the summit of excellence in self-paced, online learning, there are rocky issues to overcome. Anecdotally, in the pandemic, instructors have seen the vast differences in work ethic, work production, and work time needed to complete an assignment now that students are physically decoupled from their traditional learning environment. However, these outcomes have been influenced by other factors not directly tied to individual student learning but rather the inequities and barriers that students may be facing. The pandemic has exposed the access barriers and inequalities on a variety of scales; these obstacles cannot be ignored. Students and teachers alike are struggling to acquire appropriate devices for online learning and to find reliable internet access, and some are struggling with its cost (Winthrop, 2020). It is the right time to examine how to level that playing field. It will take additional technology tools and training to address this myriad of variables, but it is an ethical imperative to do so now that the broad extent and pervasiveness of this “achievement gap” has been brought out in the open (Reilly, 2020; Casey, 2020; Goldstein et al., 2020). Higher education’s promise to be a “great equalizer” (Mann, 1838) in providing a means to improve personal circumstances and open avenues for advancement has not been realized to its full potential. There is an educational “arms race” wherein those without access to a quality education are falling rapidly behind (Rhode et al., 2012). One of the greatest factors regarding access is not just tuition; it’s having to juggle life’s other requirements – employment and family are two of the biggest impediments when a student needs to attend classes on the institution’s time and place requirements. So, what happens if we remove the time and place restrictions using online CBE to soften the edges of this rocky terrain?

The pandemic has exposed the access barriers and inequalities on a variety of scales; these obstacles cannot be ignored.

The Tools and Team to Tackle the Terrain: How to Design and Execute Online CBE

So far, we have identified the obstacles in the rocky terrain during the climb to the CBE solution, but practically speaking, how does an institution create CBE programs and, importantly, accredited CBE programs? WGU uses two innovations to accomplish this; the first is in our curricular design and the second is in our disaggregated faculty model.

Curricular design starts with an examination of each and every competency (an identifiable piece of knowledge or skill) that would be expected of a functioning professional, practitioner, or graduate in each field of study. This exercise identifies insular learning objectives that can be assessed individually. The exact number will vary depending on the size and scope of the credential in question. Each objective is then weighted on a conventional taxonomy scale to assign accurately the level of difficulty to the task. For example, the lower end of the scale represents the ability of the student to know (“identify” or “explain”) while the higher end requires the student to demonstrate mastery (“analyze” or “create”). An algorithm is applied to each course, and the number of competency units represented in that course can be calculated. In order to better serve our students who may wish to transfer, WGU generally allocates three credits per course in its design process so the translation to the credit hour measurement is approximated; however, in rigorous coursework the number of competency units can be more than three.

However, not all higher learning is so purely academic. There are challenges to online education that can isolate students and fail to instill the soft skills that are necessary in the market. To complement the academic coursework, WGU has created a “Social & Emotional Learning” (SEL) division and hub to support our faculty by trainings, resources libraries, strategies and tools to improve interactions with students and foster their own growth in this area. SEL opportunities are woven throughout the student journey in both coursework and WGU’s cultural practices. To sharpen professionalism, WGU has launched a pilot “virtual internship” where students in a communications course are matched up with companies who can mentor them and give them hands-on experience and feedback. All the interactions and project management occur online, but the students are in synchronous company meetings, as has become the norm in these times of restricted travel. The success of this experience is sure to launch more opportunities like it to a broader student base. Students also need a way to interact with each other for support and camaraderie; taking a journey alone is not for everyone. To this end, WGU has several student affinity and programmatic clubs. For example, WGU currently has one of the largest student chapters of the Society for Human Resource Management and coordinates both local and national events for student participation. It is vital that all institutions of higher education continue to look for more outreach opportunities and be creative in the modalities to build communities to enhance classwork and expand social consciousness, particularly in light of the current isolationism due to COVID-19.

These groups of competencies are then allocated appropriately into individual courses. To determine whether students have mastered these competencies, our assessment designers create psychometrically sound testing. Our disaggregated faculty model also has distinct roles for course, learning resource, and assessment designers, again to play to our experts’ strengths. This is possible at WGU’s scale of operations and may not be adoptable wholesale; however, some disaggregation may be available to optimize the talents and interests of your faculty. These assessment designers align each testing item—objective or performance—to each competency. The assessments can take many forms, and each is accompanied by a detailed rubric for the evaluation faculty to use. Evaluation faculty are trained to provide inter-rater reliability and an objective eye when giving feedback. Course instructors do not evaluate the assessments in order to eliminate bias (Silva et al. 2015 p. 27).

Data regarding each assessment is collected for quality review. This means that each assessment item can be reviewed for rigor and relevancy and can, therefore, be updated or replaced to address the changing needs of the market. Analysis of the assessment results is made available to faculty and staff in quarterly reviews, a much shorter timescale than most traditional coursework. This is another benefit of WGU’s CBE model: We start a new cohort of students every month, data is updated continuously, and any corrective action can be pinpointed quickly and assessments and/or learning resources modified accordingly. This kind of data-driven design and decision-making has the potential to take much of the variability out of learning outcomes and serve the students, the instructors, and the potential employers better. While it may be difficult to reproduce this comprehensive and relatively short cycle of continuous improvement without great effort and, potentially, scale, we are presenting it here as a model. Many institutions may have some capacity through their learning management systems to deploy uniform assessments supported by detailed rubrics for evaluation and collection of results for a unified analysis.

Leading with this service mentality has also led to another WGU difference: eliminating rankings of students by their ability to score well on tests and exams on the first attempt. The mission of WGU is to improve quality and expand postsecondary educational opportunities to those for whom traditional education is not practical or desirable. With the focus on achievement, we can support that non-traditional student in multiple ways to attain a degree or credential goal. WGU has calculated a “pass” as the equivalent of a traditional “B,” so all WGU students hold a GPA of 3.0 for courses and degrees completed successfully A traditional grading and/or ranking system merely demonstrates the capacity of the student at that singular point in time to score well. WGU’s goal is to produce a set of graduates, each of whom has demonstrated mastery of every competency that he or she will need to succeed in a chosen field. Traditional grades may permit excellence in one area of coursework while another area is lacking. WGU graduates are all at least equally competent in all areas. Students do receive exact scores for their assessments to gauge their progress (“not competent”, “approaching competency”, “competent”, and “exemplary”). Excellence awards are given for exceptional work. Graduates are able to rise to the level they set for themselves as they ascend in their fields of practice. WGU’s system of evaluation echoes many of the professional-entry exams that require candidates to demonstrate competency by surpassing a psychometrically set cut-score.

Onwards and Upwards: Learning from the Journey to Plan for the Future

The current pandemic has disrupted lives, livelihoods, and entire industries. Higher education has not been spared; the “ivory tower” cannot protect against such an insidious, albeit tiny, foe. We each are operating outside of our comfort zone, but disruption does not always end in discomfort. We can use this situation to address some of the challenges that higher education has been facing and will continue to face in both the short and long term. Each institution will need to discover which modalities are most appropriate to deliver on their individual missions. Higher education has long stated that the diversity in institutions’ visions and academic community are vital to keep educational offerings vibrant; this is, perhaps, the moment to pivot to work on relevancy and access.

There is a global call for educational institutions to reflect on current practices and avoid a return to the status quo. Institutions that are preparing to return to normal without applying lessons learned about preparedness, quality, access, and “future-proofing” have lost the vision and mission of higher education. “Strategic planning can be a challenging exercise, and many universities often encounter a disconnect between strategy and innovation—they assume that their current business model can extend into the future with only incremental improvements, or they remain uncommitted to a variety of visions for the future, many of which are impractical.” (Johnson & Davis, 2014).

There is a global call for educational institutions to reflect on current practices and avoid a return to the status quo. Institutions that are preparing to return to normal without applying lessons learned about preparedness, quality, access, and “future-proofing” have lost the vision and mission of higher education.

It is the duty of higher education to evolve and serve all of those who wish to attain a relevant learning credential in whatever form that takes. All aspects of higher education can benefit from transformation, whether a “teaching-forward,” research, or clinical/technical institution. Accreditors will need to learn how to evaluate institutional and programmatic effectiveness to assure students and their families that the quality of the academic offerings is held to the same standards as traditional contact hour classes. The COVID-19 crisis has forced students to become distance learners and institutions to becomes distance education providers, but the lesson it teaches us is that some students and some programs are well-suited to this modality. Admittedly, distance and online learning cannot be the answer to all educational requirements. There is a need for some in-person teaching and learning for certain fields of practice and professions. A revival of apprenticeships and other mentorship models could fill the gaps that hands-on education needs.

The Summit

The challenge to be surmounted is to create practical vision for the future—what does your institution need to look like in the next six months for you, your students, your instructors, and your stakeholders? What does long-term success look like for your institution? Is CBE the solution to all issues in providing quality education? Not at all. But what we have learned from the pandemic is that viable options need to be in place and the provision of education needs to flex according to the needs of the students. How can you adapt your current strengths to new modalities/realities that are coming? Can you build flexibility into your five-year plan to account for contingencies? (Smith et al., 2020) As a dedicated educator and administrator here at WGU, I have offered my viewpoint that WGU’s model can serve as an academic guide for those who would like to climb this transformational mountain and reach their pivot point.


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Goldstein, D., Popescu, A. & Hannah-Jones, N. (2020, April 8). As School Moves Online, Many Students Stay Logged Out, New York Times.

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innovation online education competency-based education post-COVID-19

About the author

Linda A. Wendling
Senior Manager, Academic Engagement – Colleges of Business and IT, Western Governors University (USA)

Linda Wendling earned her BA in French with a minor in political science from Rutgers College, and her JD from Seton Hall School of Law. After leaving the active practice of law in 2001, she turned to academia. She joined the faculty of Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey as the Founding Program Director for Paralegal Studies. Living by the belief in lifelong learning, after moving to North Carolina in 2007, she pursued a Master’s degree in Constitutional History at North Carolina State University. Additionally, Linda earned an LL.M. in Environmental Law in January 2016 from Vermont Law School. The culmination of her studies was an appointment to the Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21) as a U.N. delegate to assist Myanmar in preparing their position papers for international negotiations. Linda is currently employed at Western Governors University as the Senior Manager of Academic Engagement for the Business and Information Technology Colleges. She has authored three legal textbooks on Paralegal Practice, Legal Ethics, and Contract Law and, as an Earth Law Center volunteer associate, is a contributing editor for the 2020 Earth Law textbook from Wolters- Kluwer. Her other professional pursuits include serving as both a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Examiner and an American Health Care Association Master Examiner, North Carolina Regional Representative, Mid-Atlantic Region of the Association for Continuing Higher Education, and an Earth Law Associate at the Earth Law Center.

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