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New Resources Aim to Increase Understanding of CBE Program Designs

November 8, 2023 3-minute read
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Competency-based education (CBE) is a model that acknowledges learning in other settings, making it a strategy for recognizing the diversity of learning and not just what occurs in traditional classroom settings. That’s particularly important for learners from low-income backgrounds who may have gained skills through work, military experience, and other ways of learning.

Many colleges and universities are adopting CBE models to acknowledge learners’ previously acquired skills, which can save learners time and money by validating that learning and applying it to a credential. However, there are many variations in CBE model designs at institutions across the U.S. and those variations have not been documented systemically. Additionally, while the field knows these programs can provide a more equitable learning experience, there is a lack of sufficient and rigorous evidence on the impact and efficacy of those various CBE models.

New resources from American Institutes of Research (AIR) and the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) help address the knowledge gap about what works when it comes to program design by supporting the exploration of CBE program design features. The Postsecondary CBE Program Model Map Framework was developed to document and understand the variety of CBE program model designs. An accompanying research brief shares emerging insights from a survey of postsecondary CBE programs in the U.S. about their design features.

Variations in CBE program design demonstrate the innovation and experimentation of institutions. However, they can make it challenging for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to differentiate effective program design features and understand what works for learners. The framework organizes program design features into several distinct categories, identifying distinct design features that help stakeholders understand existing and emerging CBE model types being used at U.S. institutions.

For practitioners, the framework is structured to understand the ways CBE models may vary. It can also support practitioners with ongoing conversations about these programs. For researchers, the framework provides information around the varying design features of CBE programs and the types of practices within them.

The research brief serves as a “snapshot in time” and is aimed at helping practitioners and researchers understand the current diversity of CBE programs. It is centered around the learner’s perspective of design principles and is a great resource for institutions considering designing or redesigning a CBE program. Information included in the brief can prompt further research that helps the field understand which programs are most effective for different learner populations.

At Ascendium, we see CBE as an important strategy to support learners from low-income backgrounds who are disproportionately likely to have gained skills from work or military service and for whom alternative ways of demonstrating their skills would create a greater path to upward mobility. Without flexible and accelerated education delivery models like CBE, these learners could face limited career opportunities that could lead to a good job. We’re pleased to support resources that offer insights on CBE program design features and encourage further research on which features are most effective, as well as which features are most effective under what conditions and for different populations of learners.