Definitive Guide to Develop a Competency Based Education Initiative (Updated for 2023)

Comprehensive Step-By-Step Competency Based Education Start Up Kit. Includes detailed action plans to design, implement, and evaluate a CBE initiative. Updated to get started in 2023.

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Step-By-Step Competency Based Education (CBE) Start Up Kit

Action Plan for Designing, Implementing, and Evaluating your CBE Initiatives

Competency Based Education - Building a Path to Enrollment Growth


Part 1 - Kick-off the right way!
Part 2 - Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan (Curriculum Design and Development)
Part 3 - Technology; The Right Tools for the Job
Part 4 - Conclusion

Some of the fastest growing jobs today would not have been recognized 10 years ago. Workers today must be prepared for new roles and responsibilities as new job markets open and others end. The reality is, almost every job evolves; new tools, new technology, and new processes change the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed from workers.

Over the last decade, we have seen an extraordinary increase in the number of students who work while in school. Traditionally this meant the student who is working part-time to help put themselves through college. The number of students who work part- or full-time now represent 70% of the total post-secondary enrollment.  

According to the  National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), from 2015 to 2025, post-secondary enrollments will increase by just 3 million.  This number is evenly split between traditional age campus-based students and working adult students over 25 years of age. The growth rate of non-traditional age students is twice that of traditional age students. In fact, the fastest growing segment in post-secondary education is the working adult returning to higher education.  

Opportunity Zone:
As the population of non-traditional students rapidly increases, what initiatives is your institution planning to meet this need?

As this demographic trend gains momentum, learners will demand new and innovative educational modalities. Hundreds of millions of dollars are now invested into alternative models targeted explicitly at working adults looking to up skill, retrain, and learn new knowledge that will directly impact their job prospects and career development.  Thousands of employers, especially those in healthcare and technology, now understand they must take a direct and active role in developing their employees. They are sponsoring new kinds of post-secondary learning; the fastest growing employee incentive is a tuition benefit that targets specific learning programs.  In fact, the new normal is not the student who must work - it is instead the employee who needs to learn.

Competency based education (CBE) and self-paced has proved one of the most popular options for working adults, these employees who need to learn with a flexible schedule. Current course management solutions, like the traditional LMS may pose challenges as your institution works to redesign systems and processes to support competency-based models. Exploring or redesigning for competency-based models will require thoughtful consideration of how to align your programs to your goals around CBE, a willingness to experiment with new solutions and technologies, and the time and resources to commit to a new venture.

CBE is not a new concept. The Department of Education defines competency-based education as “a self-paced, relevant, and efficient academic structure that allows students to progress by demonstrating mastery regardless of place, time, or pace of learning” and also states that “it often produces better learning outcomes for a new audience of adult learners, emphasizes workforce alignment, is significantly more affordable to the institution and student, and dramatically increases student access.”

For decades a significant number of institutions have incorporated competency-based programs within their existing educational framework. The main differentiator of CBE is that it intentionally shifts the currency of education from time to outcomes. Given current regulations, existing infrastructure and processes, as well as accepted ways of teaching and learning, this can prove a challenging endeavor and will require change management. The decision to deploy a CBE initiative should be done with detailed purpose; you should use the experience of others to help you successfully implement your CBE programs and courses to your students.

If executed well, CBE can provide a great deal of benefits to both learners and the institutions that support them:
  • Change the meaning of failure from “not able” to “not yet able”
  • Assess future employees as “doers” and not “knowers”
  • Support a flexible and lifelong learning path where life can happen as you continue to learn rather than around a learning schedule
  • Help students reach career goals through work-aligned assessments that translate seamlessly to skills employers need

Part 1: Kick-off your CBE program the right way!

Every institution has at some time explored a new initiative, you know the pains of not planning thoroughly and efficiently exploring your program goals. As with most significant change, the initial steps to create a Competency Based Education (CBE) program may feel overwhelming.  You may be asking yourself, how do I efficiently explore program goals at the same time many of the participants will be learning about a new online modality, and administrators are also considering potential new business models?

Opportunity Zone:
At this critical stage, it's vital to ensure the partner you select is highly qualified in both self-paced and CBE domains. Check references and ask questions to ensure a positive outcome.

Those new to self-paced and CBE often begun by first addressing goal-oriented framing questions that can help guide a three-part plan that addresses; Discovery and Process, Program Selection and Development, and Technology and Evaluation.

First, consider the following questions to help frame your goals around CBE:

  • What are the benefits broadly of CBE, and why are these important?
  • How do these benefits translate to your institution specifically?
  • What are your institution’s unique goals around CBE?
  • How will your institution measure success of the CBE offering?

Kick-off this process by inviting individuals across departments and across roles at your institution to sit down and go through an envisioning exercise.

  • How does your institution define CBE?
  • What is your institution’s flavor of CBE?
  • What are your short- and long-term goals around competency-based programs and initiatives?
  • What stories do you hope students and staff tell about their experiences with CBE at your institution in 5 years?

Discovery and Process

Use existing expertise to move rapidly

It is essential that you create a plan that moves you rapidly from concept to program go-live. The adage that perfection is the enemy of good is absolutely relevant. Sometimes the challenge can be getting the right people at the same table to move important decisions forward, or running into roadblocks with leadership buy-in or getting enough resources to invest in significant change. But if you don’t move quickly, it is likely the initiative will stall.

Expert consultants with a track record of success can help fast-track program development efforts and decrease the cost in both time and resources.  We believe in following an iterative cycle to program design, development, and evaluation. Identify your goals and work towards accomplishing the necessary elements to get your program(s) running, but make sure that you have data collection methods in place to gather data that can inform future iterations of your courses and competencies. As you deliver your courses and programs, you will want to gather valuable information from both formal and informal feedback you receive from students, faculty, and other staff at your institution.

Opportunity Zone:
Have you connected with others who bring prior experience? Identified peer or like campuses that have launched programs?

We are a member of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) and use their resources to support our clients in ensuring quality.  We recommend you join and connect with other institutions in C-BEN, a group of colleges and universities working together to address shared challenges to designing, developing and scaling competency-based degree programs.  Initially founded by the Lumina Foundation, C-BEN is an independent non-profit professional association dedicated to peer collaboration, an exemplar of how all participants in education can work together.

C-BEN also released its Quality Framework for Competency Based Education Programs (QFP) in September 2017.  This is an invaluable resource which can help provide institutions with a guide for getting started with new CBE programs or evaluate and improve upon existing ones.

Leverage best practices from like-minded institutions - C-BEN and CBExchange

Partnerships with universities at the forefront of CBE are key to learn about the barriers that institutions face in the self-paced development process and help them overcome these challenges.

We have also developed internal experts and have access to education partner experts.  These professionals use a variety of frameworks to help guide curriculum development and evaluation of college-level learning. Some of these include Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) and Connecting Credentials to the Association of American Colleges & Universities Essential Learning Outcomes (LEAP), SUNY Empire State University's Global Qualifications Framework, and Quality Matters. These and other tools provide critical reference points to guide initial program development.

Connecting with other institutions at various stages of CBE program development is essential in learning about different strategies, products, and methods used.

Attend C-BEN’s annual meeting, CBExchange, held every September/October. It is the largest gathering of like-minded people who are actively offering CBE programs and sharing ideas that make these programs some of the most valuable learning opportunities to returning adult students. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) also holds an annual fall conference and one of its core tracks focuses on competency-based learning.

Understand your broader institutional context:

You intimately understand the contexts within which your new CBE program will live. Use CBEN’s QFP to evaluate where your institution is on each of the 8 quality elements. Do you have the right people at the table? Do you have the necessary resources to get started? For each element and standard, where is your institution along the spectrum: Initial, Emerging, Developed, or Highly Developed?

Connect with institutions that have some expertise in each of these areas and learn about different approaches you may also find will work for your institution. We worked with more C-BEN members than any other solution provider, for example; Lipscomb University, Central New Mexico Community College, University of Louisville, Brandman University, University of Maine Presque Isle, Thomas Edison State University, SUNY Empire State College.  We have earned and learned appreciation of a variety of contexts and models; we will bring the experience of how others have addressed challenges and reached goals.

Opportunity Zone:
Connecting with peer networks can increase awareness of current trends and lessons learned. Since self-paced learning impacts multiple institutional stakeholders - get as many involved as practical.

An innovative platform that fits into your overall academic is key to smooth interoperability and to ensure IT, administrative, and regulatory requirements are aligned. An innate ability to share both expertise and experience in these crucial and critical areas ensures that you can face your implementation challenges with confidence.  

Program Development

Understand, communicate and manage

Now it’s time to apply the crucial decisions made in the discovery and planning processes. Do not forget that you must continually support all participants in the development of your selected program; faculty, instructional designers, technologists, etc.  Proactive project- and change-management in concert with robust communications are critical to the success of the CBE program development process.

Opportunity Zone:
What if we don't have instructional designers and technical bandwidth? Don't worry that isn't a show stopper. Don't reinvent the wheel if customizable programs, already accredited and approved by the USDoE exist. We've helped major universities through this process before. Also, we have off-the-shelf technology solutions that make self-paced and competency based programs a breeze to implement regardless of the student information system.

CBE programs will share some curriculum development processes with traditional programs.  While this can be a benefit, it’s also a risk; there may be a strong tendency to revert to more familiar patterns. Your effective, ongoing management can prevent the reversion to long-established patterns and inconsistent practices.  We help college and university partners see change as opportunity, opportunity to create something effective and unique for the students who will benefit from CBE. Remember to focus on the learner - create a coherent and quality backwards designed CBE program with authentic assessment and measurable outcomes, one that translates to a student-centered learning environment.

What programmatic policies will you need to consider changing to align with the competency-based approach your institution will be exploring?

Curriculum and Program design

CBE program methodologies do require a shift in the curriculum design and development approach. Keys to success are careful attention to project management and ample communication. With multiple subject matter experts and instructional developers moving forward in parallel work streams, the risk of deviation from the project blueprint is ever present. There are techniques and experience you can learn from others, take advantage of their successes.

Opportunity Zone:
What if we don't have a project manager? That isn't a problem, We can provide high-quality and experienced project management to support all aspects of your Competency Based Education and Self-Paced Initiative.

It is important to train faculty and other subject matter experts in the process of backwards design, which refers to the process of identifying competencies and the evaluation of those competencies first, and then developing the learner pathway to guide students to mastery of these competencies.

To start, identify the overall program outcomes and competencies:
  • What does a graduate of a program look like in terms of his/her ability to work in a given position or industry?
  • What are the competencies (knowledge, skills, and behaviors, and attitudes) that a graduate needs to obtain in order to be ready for today’s workforce?
  • What evidence will prove that a student can demonstrate mastery of a competency?

Then, consider the alignment of these goals to the actual learner experience:
  • How will students know how close they are to demonstrating proficiency or mastery of a competency?
  • What experiences best prepare a student to demonstrate competence?

As part of this process, leverage frameworks like DQP, AAC&U Leap Value Rubrics, the GLQF, and Connecting Credentials, among others, to help define the expectations and evaluation of competency at various levels and across multiple disciplines. Using these frameworks, in combination with existing institutional, program, and course learning outcomes that your institution has already defined will give you an opportunity to develop ways to categorize, evaluate, and integrate competencies that span different fields of study. For example, how does your institution teach and evaluate 21st century skills like critical thinking, collaboration, teamwork, and communication?

Content development

A key decision in the development process is whether to create, transform or acquire existing content. Using subject matter experts to create original content may be an arduous process, but if you start with a single course or competency, it may give you a better sense of what resources you will need, and it may give SMEs and instructional designers the freedom to experiment with new models of teaching and learning.

Opportunity Zone:
What if we need to bring a new CBE program online in under 100 days? No program, We have complete, high-quality undergraduate general education, business, information technology, and a Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership. These programs are completely customizable and already in successfully in use at other major universities.

You may already have quality content in existing programs that you would like to leverage in a competency-based format. Using a backwards design process, start with defining competencies and identifying what mastery would look like. Use this to frame the learner experience. Focus on alignment, engagement, and relevance. Are assessments and resources aligned to the competencies? Are the learning activities engaging and relevant? Is there anything extraneous that can be suggestions for further exploration?

Because the modality is still relatively young, the number of courses and programs designed for licensing is still limited. We have exceptionally high-quality degree programs ready for you to brand and deploy. University and college clients can confirm that you can be on a proven pathway to CBE go-live in six (4) months or less.  Options include two year AA/AS degree programs, a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) program with four concentrations, a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology (BSIT), and certificate programs in areas like Leadership.  These programs were developed in conjunction with SME’s from leading universities experienced in delivering CBE programs.

If you do license existing content, you will still need a team of subject matter experts and instructional designers to review this content for quality and accuracy and identify ways to make the learning experience more engaging and unique to your institution. Some questions to think about:

  • What type of learning experience are we trying to create for our learners? Can students explore at their own pace or is there an intentional sequence that learners should move through?
  • What opportunities for peer-to-peer or student-instructor interaction can we incorporate? What expectations should be set around these interactions?
  • What is the relationship between the content resources and assessments? Is the alignment clear and relevant?
  • In what ways can the instructor voice be infused throughout the content to personalize the learning experience?

Consider using a blend of content resources: Licensed content, open educational resources (OER), original SME developed content, library and/or web resources.  We have worked with clients who developed their own content with their subject matter experts, supplemented by OER.  Other clients have repurposed content from tried and tested textbooks from third party providers that they have relied on for years (with proper permissions and business terms).  We’ve also worked with clients that blend third party content with OER to create a dynamic, unique and personalized learning experience.  There’s no “right way”, but depending on your approach, it’s paramount to keep content current, aligned to assessments and outcomes and most of all engaging!  For example, you might use some licensed content to form the basis of your content, but also direct students to an open access textbook that supplements this content; you might also embed a few TedTalks or other accessible videos or podcasts to vary the media, link to additional resources and research from your school’s library as well as a few other web articles, and also have your subject matter experts develop their own assessment questions and rubrics to evaluate students.


Understand your technology ecosystem and interoperability

Every program requires reporting and transactional interaction between business and learning platforms. The fundamental values of learning personalization and time flexibility mean that CBE will have unique demands and specific interoperability challenges. It is well known that any selected system generally does not communicate out-of-the-box with your ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and SIS (Student Information Systems) to meet your specific requirements. Organizations such as IMS Global Learning Consortium strive to address this “interoperability gap” and improve system-to-system communication by working with higher education software vendors. An important question to ask vendors is if they are a member of IMS Global. This organization works to eliminate interoperability challenges.

Regardless, challenges remain that require the special attention of functional and IT teams to ensure project success isn’t undermined by technology limitations. As the industry leader in supporting CBE programs, we have created an SIS/LMS Plugin, designed to minimize the involvement of your technical team. A solution that rapidly (under an hour) connects the Learning Platform with your enterprise systems is ideal. This approach requires a leading-edge cloud platform and ensures that your implementation has the technology required to effectively support and sustain student success.

Analytics – Tracking student activity, pace & progress

How does your institution track student activity, pace, and progress currently? Do you have a plan for how you will do this for your CBE programs? Traditional course management systems for campus based and standard online courses may not provide the data you will find you need. Self-paced programs present unique student success and individual learner management challenges. Traditional online classes start and end at a fixed point in time and are driven by calendar due dates that apply to all students in the course.  In CBE, students work at their paces; they begin work, or even enroll in courses on any day.  Your institution may offer a subscription model where students complete as many courses within a given amount of time as practical, e.g., six months. How will your faculty support this model? What technology and data tools will you need to support your faculty?  A learning platform designed to ensure program administrators and faculty have the data and analytics critical to student success, from learner support, student performance, course and program evaluation, to compliance and accreditation.

Part 2: Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan (Curriculum Design and Development)

Curriculum design and development is inherently challenging; design, authoring, and alignment in a competency and self-paced environment has unique challenges. In Part 1, we discussed the questions to ask when starting a competency based program, identified resources to use in establishing a successful go-live strategy and suggested integral activities you should include in any plan.  Part 2 will focus more on the questions and issues that typically arise in program creation. Based on experience working with colleges and universities, we can suggest best practices and offer future facing insights to ensure you are starting off the right way and ultimately provide the best possible experience for your students.

Opportunity Zone:
Self-pace and CBE experience is key to the fastest most cost effective program go-live path. Qualified consultants offer expertise to successfully accelerate your initiative.

When developing a CBE program, having a competency blueprint, or framework, allows faculty and institutional stakeholders to reference a single resource to ensure alignment across competencies, assessments, and intended learning outcomes.

This blueprint can be used to capture additional information about a program including credit hour equivalence for articulation/transfer purposes, alignment to institutional, program, and course learning outcomes, sequencing, and other considerations for design and development.

Questions to Consider:
  • Are you working with employers to ensure you are teaching currently valued skills?
  • Is your curriculum current with these skills?
  • What are the core accreditation and compliance requirements to keep in mind?
  • How will your program be organized? (into courses, or competencies?)
  • How will competencies and learning outcomes be integrated into the curriculum?
  • What is the relationship between courses, competencies, outcomes and assessments?
  • How are courses connected to one another? Are there prerequisites or recommended sequences?
  • How will institutional and program learning outcomes be represented and connected to course learning outcomes?
  • What are the competency assessments that will be used for each course or competency?
  • How does the experience from one course to another differ?

Navigating the cross section of Institutional Strength and Real-World Skills

The starting point

Backwards design (or any design strategy) should start with the question – what is the value to my potential students? Your students’ career advancement goals should be first and foremost in mind as you develop your program and curriculum. If you anticipate most of your learners will seek local employment, it is best practice to actively consult with the local employers you serve. What are the skill gaps they see in their industry today? Are there gaps they see five or ten years out? We have seen how local employers have shed light in real practical skill necessities in the here and now that may not be as forthcoming in national data.

Align your compass

But you may be considering a program because you bring a level of specialization and expertise that allows you to recruit on a wider basis. You may have the ability to garner national attention. Or you may want to ensure you align local needs with national trends. You should research more about the needs of the learners your curriculum is speaking to, as well as the needs of employers. We can recommend Open source tools such as the LinkedIn Economic Graph (national and local skills insights). Or you might be in the position to invest in something like Burning Glass’ paid program analysis tool that can provide much needed, first-level, insight into skills gap importance.

Validate to ensure you hit the mark

However, even when seeking national skill gap-bridging, it is critical to work directly with employers- both local and national - that can speak to the real-world application of the knowledge and skills to provide validation of your findings. While skills data provides enormous value, we have learned from successful programs that one of the more valuable steps an institution can make for their learners is working with employers to validate the skill gaps they seek to bridge.  This effectively plants your program and curriculum into real world application, while providing opportunity for continual employer input as your curriculum evolves. It will also provide opportunities for marketing messaging to your potential students.

Student Performance and Staying Compliant

Plan to meet requirements

The 2017 OIG Report on Western Governor’s University--rightly or wrongly- brought one compliance issue to national attention in recent months. You need a plan to integrate substantive and regular check-ins between your students and approved instructors who serve as subject matter experts.  As currently defined, it is not enough for students to have sporadic communication with unapproved Subject Matter Experts when administering Competency Based Learning. The Department of Education has made it clear: Students learn best in a self-paced environment when they have regular and substantive interactions with qualified faculty.  People learn effectively when they are properly and regularly supported by experts. You can design instruction to meet dual goals; effective instruction and compliance with standards and requirements.

Here's an example of a faculty initiated discussion that enables the faculty to assess the substantive component of each student interaction.

Anatomy of a Interactive Discussion Question (IDQ)

Faculty Assesses if Response is Substantive

Make it about learner support and performance

Curriculum that is inherently self-paced should be built from the ground up to ensure substantive interactions with appropriate Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) occur, contextually, at intervals that make the most sense for the learner.  You have a variety of options, many that you have used in traditional campus courses, guided assignments, specific questions, directed instructions to engage. The right tools to help you create and manage these interactions.

As you begin thinking about substantive and regular interaction you might ask:
  • How do you define substantive and regular interaction?
  • Do you have an academically diverse and active faculty population invested to help guide students through the curriculum from start to finish? What is the ratio of instructor to student? How can I help them manage this teaching?
  • How often will students be assessed? What is the plan to provide students with direct feedback on assessments or assignments at strategic intervals?
  • What opportunities do students have to engage with their instructor?
  • Is there a process for student's academic questions?
  • What is the responsibility of faculty in initiating contact with students?
  • What is the responsibility of students in initiating interactions with faculty? How is this enforced?
  • How do you define substantive and regular interaction?
  • What type of model do you seek at scale, when you are supporting hundreds or even thousands of students?

Successful programs will have subject matter experts serving as faculty, working with students in individual courses or competencies.  Your faculty should be expected to reach out to students at strategic points within the course or at regular intervals during the term however defined. (i.e. twice a week). The right tools can make this possible, without adding to their time needed to support students.  In fact the right solution should save your faculty time while allowing them to be even more effective.

Beyond the curriculum

A hallmark of CBE is a deep consideration of the mentoring role that some faculty members have always played.  Think back to some of your best learning experiences—did you have an instructor who also served as coach, helping you to persist, manage time, and relish in your success? In self-paced/self-directed learning programs like CBE, a coaching role is critical. To ensure students have the best chance of success, you must think of student progress and persistence as much or more than performance in any individual assignment or course. Performance success will not sustain without support for progress and persistence. Satisfactory progress is another key metric you must demonstrate for accreditors and to maintain compliance, within courses and throughout a program.

Opportunity Zone:
Have you determined how you will structure your faculty support for your students?

Your institution will have access to personnel resources differently than others. But every institution can think this through and design proper support.  When a student decides to enroll in your program, she is not thinking of individual courses, she is believing she will finish the credential.  Behaviors and performance are more similar across courses then not. Each course builds on the next, progress in one course impacts another. You need to consider how to support this holistically.  A coach role can be implemented in a variety of ways, but one thing is constant. This role will impact across all courses, it has a demonstrable impact on eventual completion rates of your program.  

Questions to Consider
  • Do you have staff that can serve specifically as coaches?
  • Should you integrate the coach role into the faculty/subject matter expert role?
  • Is there training for coaches or faculty as coaches to support students?
  • If separate,  how does the coach communicate with the faculty/subject matter experts?
  • Do coaches also need to have subject matter expertise in the area they are coaching?
  • How do coaches interact with students and how often?

Revisionist History and Evaluation

Future proofing in real time

Not one of our partners embarked on a new program, credential, or micro-credential with only the short term in sight. Before you begin you might ask yourself questions like:

  • How will we get the data to ensure the rigor, impact, and relevance of formative and summative assessments?
  • Can we detect which assignments, case studies, simulations or other learning activities may be irrelevant or unengaging?

Importance of data

We didn’t coin the phrase but its relevant: strategy without tactics is the slowest route, tactics without strategy is noise. Data is a key ingredient to both strategy and tactics.  To ensure long term success (as fast as possible), data accessibility and transparency for Administrators, Instructional Designers, and Faculty members alike needs to be a priority. Make sure that you have the ability and the techniques to bridge curriculum revision, student outcomes, and process analysis in one place.  You will ask a lot of questions. In a year, how will I reduce failures on the first attempt of a formative from 50% to 25%? Which portions of content are ineffective for students, in other words, wasting their time? Are faculty and coaches regularly monitoring and/or interacting with students in the platform? How does this impact student performance? Revisit your initial goals and collect data that you can use to drive future decisions.

Opportunity Zone:
You will need the appropriate data strategy and tools.  Data collection, reporting and analytics are integrated within an advanced data-driven Learning Platform. Data strategy was part of the original design of the technology, there is no separate data tool and additional license.

Data will help you identify the questions that should be asked, it is rarely black and white.  If you observe that students are struggling on a particular assessment, this could be the impetus to ask questions like:

  • Is the assessment relevant and aligned to the competency?
  • Are students struggling on other similar assessments?
  • Are there enough resources and guidance around this competency area to prepare students for the assessment?

This type of data may not seem pertinent when you first begin, but we guarantee it will become more critical for success as your programs grow.  We can all agree that when revising, or even when creating new, understanding what has worked in the past provides enormous value looking forward. You need a strategy, and you need specific tactics; the right data tools and the right data experience are invaluable to creating the best initiative.

Part 3:  Technology: The Right Tools for the Job

Adult learners are self-directed, they don’t need to be bound by traditional course centric thinking and traditional technology. According to Malcolm Knowles’ principles of andragogy, adult learners need to know the reason behind what they are learning, their learning should be experiential, learning should be problem and not content-focused, and the learning should be of immediate value.

Adult learners require different tools and technology to facilitate them on their personalized learning journeys. These learners should have greater autonomy and influence on their learning path. Faculty, mentors and administrators who guide and manage these students need tools that will enable them to observe student progress and performance and provide necessary support. Traditional course management systems (LMS) were designed to manage courses, not support individual learners.  Most of our clients will still use a traditional LMS to support course based learning for traditional students while choosing our purpose built platform for CBE and other programs focused on the working adult student.  You may find that trying to fit a new car into that old garage doesn’t work well. Spending time and money on customizations and workarounds can be avoided with the appropriate solution.

Opportunity Zone:
Relationship and engagement are key to program success and growth. Technology enables the efficient development of key relationships over time and also that human and automated engagement campaigns are systematic and can scale efficiently.

You may also decide to experiment with different technologies and products for different programs. An openness to experimentation will give you the opportunity to see what is working, and force you to reevaluate your priorities and goals for new and existing programs.

Questions to consider in approaching redesign of programs in a new platform:
  • How will you account for the wide variety in adult familiarity and comfort with new technology? What types of orientation and technical support will you provide new students?
  • How does the design and organization of the content in an online learning experience encourage learners to explore on their own, build upon prior knowledge, and apply what they learn immediately?
  • Where are there opportunities to center learning around problem-solving, critical thinking, and transfer of knowledge to new contexts?
  • How can you structure the learning experience so that learners receive immediate feedback, and can easily connect with faculty and mentors for support?
  • In what ways can you help learners build a community of peer and industry connections?

Throughout this piece we have alluded to both opportunities and challenges with CBE.  We can all agree that a careful consideration and application of the most appropriate tools for a job allows you to reach goals more quickly, provides opportunities to reevaluate the effectiveness of existing teaching and learning models, and realize return on investment in every area of an initiative.

Ecosystems and integrations

Purpose built

Any new technology you select should seamlessly fit into your technology ecosystem.  Because traditional LMSs are not built to support endless and open enrollment, setting up the LMS to support your CBE program(s) with the required integrations will be fitting a round peg in a square hole.  

A Learning Platform built for self-paced learning recognizes how core technologies tracking and managing students and their performance play out differently in CBE than they do in a traditional course-based structure.  

Seamless and cost sensitive

Your technology stack supports a variety of intertwined needs and activities focused on your students, enrollment, support, tracking, grades, financial aid, data, institutional research and more. You will experience better integration success, eliminate workarounds, and minimize productivity loss with a purpose-built solution. A solution like Strut Learning's complete Self-Paced/CBE ecosystem has been carefully planned through gained experience. You need a solution with already developed and proven LTI and API strategies. You also want to keep costs and effort as low as you can.  As described earlier, we can bring this to you with things like the Strut Learning turnkey integration plug in; it is SIS/ERP agnostic and can be implemented within days.

Retention, persistence and completion

Focus on your mission

Self-directed learning poses new challenges for colleges and universities; challenges that were not part of the equation when traditional LMSs were created, nor things you thought about when you selected that technology. Your goals for every student in every program are the same—retention, persistence, completion.  Now that you are planning CBE, and potentially pursuing other alternative learning models that appeal to working adult students and that meet how employees who learn can attend school, consider how you will meet these same goals.  

Online learning allowed more flexible learning, students can work at any location. Inside Higher Education recently reported on a study from Eduventures showing that fully online education has broadened access, but everyone has work to do on improving outcomes.  We must ask the question, have we found the right solutions, technology and partner, for our fully online courses and programs?  

Opportunity Zone:
When did you last consider in depth the technology platform to support fully online learning.

CBE takes flexibility a step further by making time variable while holding learning constant.  To do this, you need technology that can track learner progress in real-time and provide transparency to all stakeholders on student activity, progress, performance, and the interaction between students and faculty, coaches, and graders. Facilitating students in a time independent environment has the unfortunate possibility of being more time consuming to faculty, each student can now  be on a different path at a different time within a single Course or Module.  The technology you choose needs to ensure a student’s support system is robust and efficient enough to do everything possible to support successful outcomes. For example, you must ensure your faculty and staff have a sophisticated risk alert system that ensures no student falls through the cracks without forcing faculty members to spend hours scouring reports, or your technology division to build cumbersome workarounds.   The technology should also support a data strategy to consistently ensure your assessments are rigorous, your curriculum is aligned, and your faculty who support the student learning process have exactly what they need to feel empowered to aid the pursuit of successful outcomes.  

A different look at data strategy

There are many areas where data needs are different between CBE and traditional course- based learning, we would be pleased to share our experience and our partners’ experience.

For example, our partners realized that retention metrics that are evaluated at the end of the term--or worse, at the end of the year--may already be too late to take meaningful action that engenders persistence in any kind of learning program, especially programs that allow for the most personalized learning paths. Our partners still monitor retention successes or failures with term-over-term data, but they now use real-time behavioral analytics to determine when intervention is appropriate or necessary for individual students.

Personalized learning programs like CBE do allow students to progress and complete on their own timelines, rather than structuring learning around due dates and class meeting times.  You will need a data solution that allows you to overlay timelines onto the course while still providing students the flexibility they need. This is not an easy challenge to solve, but many of our partners choose to set benchmarks for the typical learner within a course or competency, and use alerts and reports to easily monitor individual student progress in comparison to the benchmarks set.  A well designed system can help you manage ten students or hundreds of students.

We recommend identifying a data strategy at the outset to help with evaluation of the impact of the courses, individual learning activities, and assessments. What information can be collected that would be helpful in evaluating design across program?  What are the questions you are trying to answer (e.g., are we adequately assessing the holistic skills we determined are a necessary component of this program)?   Take time to investigate data tools and strategies that will help you make these evaluations.

Consideration of your overall data strategy and effective implementation at the outset will help you meet the retention and success goals you have set.  You are already considering how to revise and improve your data strategy, without increasing burden on existing staff.  Planning ahead, selecting the most appropriate tools, and drawing on others’ experience is essential to properly support students and faculty in this new initiative.

Rethink mentoring, empower faculty

Provide more intentional and personalized support

Traditional advisor and faculty models do not meet the needs of the self paced learner, and they arguably may not even meet the needs of any learner.  Advisors traditionally meet a student once or twice in a term. They don’t typically have transparency into student learning progress within a course and rely on information that students self report. Traditional faculty interact with a student in the confines of a course only. Because they are pulled in several different directions outside of their core responsibilities and expertise, it is challenge to provide a personalized learning path for every student.  CBE and self-paced learning recognizes the key to success is continual coaching and mentoring in the context of the courses and program, and allowing an instructor to help a student learn, and to engage with a student to provide direction and ongoing feedback.  CBE programs utilize unbundled instructor, coach and grader roles that allow individuals to focus on student success in specific and material ways. While instructors focus on academic matters with students, coaches focus on motivation, persistence and retention metrics, and graders offer evaluation expertise that is consistent, reliable and germaine to a student’s demonstration of mastery. For flexible learners, you need flexible student success teams and, perhaps just as important, systems that can support these models. Defined roles allows institutions to rethink the roles they need to support students, and allows for a more diverse team of subject matter experts, coaches, and evaluators to collaborate on best approaches in teaching and learning. At Strut Learning, we help partners define and implement those roles more effectively with the appropriate technology, data strategy, and learner considerations.

More effective, more efficient

Technology has reinvented the dynamic between students and the systems and processes institutions need to support and facilitate their learning. We all agree that technology, while at times distressing, has been an incredible tool to help us all do our jobs, reach goals, and meet missions.

While it’s universally agreed that the ultimate goal is student success--however you choose to define it--who is actually responsible for what and when may be murky or fall to only one individual.  Through specialized role segmentation you will feel more comfortable that the needs of students to ensure performance and persistence are more visible.  Faculty, broadly defined, can have access to dashboards, reports and performance data that is specifically tailored to the objectives of their role. This will make the goal of achieving student success more simple and streamlined.


Compliance is often something you don’t want to talk or to think about it. But you have to, and it’s always on your mind whether you act or not.  Regulatory environments are necessary, bad actors spoil it for all of us, especially the students they misuse. The current environment can make it challenging to stay compliant. Especially in areas we addressed earlier; substantive and regular interaction with qualified instructors and standards of satisfactory academic progress.

The current regulatory environment may pose challenges in compliance, but it also allows institutions the opportunity to reevaluate and reimagine models for competency-based learning. As you consider the issue of compliance and steps your institution can take to ensure compliance, consider the following:

  • What is subject matter expertise? What qualifications do you require for your faculty and why?
  • What kinds of interactions between students and faculty and coaches do you want to see in your programs?
  • What stories do you hear from students, faculty, and coaches around interaction and support? Is regular interaction a requirement for student success? How does it enrich the learning experience?
  • Do you have the tools to collect data that can help reinforce the best teaching and learning practices you have implemented as an institution?
  • If you were in charge of evaluating other institutions’ CBE programs, what indicators would you look for?
  • In what ways can you compare traditional to competency-based programs? Is it a valid and fair comparison?

We can competently discuss these issues, we have the tools that maintain the flexibility your self-directed learners seek, while ensuring compliance needed. More importantly, our focus on the individual instead of the course means that as these models expand, as requirements change, we will be working with you to ensure that we all do the right thing for these students who want to succeed. Our technology continues to evolve to support best practices at the intersection of pedagogy, content and accessibility, and models for flexible learning.

Part 4 Conclusion:

Have you identified the strengths you bring to the table? We mean specifically identified. You have so much to offer and so many students are seeking new opportunities to learn, new opportunities that fit their lives.  They need flexible options, they want great faculty, they want support, but they can’t be constrained by a course schedule, stick to the same pace as every other student, and they bring their individual strengths and knowledge to the table; take advantage of it.

Our partner, the University of Maine, Presque Isle knew that there were many potential students who wished to pursue completing a degree but needed more flexibility and demonstrated relevance to their jobs. Some of these students would sign up with colleges who advertise their program….

Have you identified the ways in which your institution will differentiate itself in the CBE market—your unique goals, methodology, and program considerations? The new adult learner is seeking new opportunities to grow and fit their different ways of living. These learners need flexible options, knowledgeable and supportive faculty, and options that will allow them to customize their pace and learning style and use their existing strengths and prior knowledge to build new skills on.

The new student is the employee who learns, this student does want to learn from the same colleges and universities they know by name, reputation, or previous attendance - your institution. You have already decided, we need to do new, the next step is how.  

CBE is a proven and effective model for students who otherwise cannot attend post-secondary programs, or don’t see the value in traditional programs. It’s a great entry point for creation of self-paced and self-directed learning programs.  This will not replace traditional courses, but many people believe that a sizeable percentage of future enrollments will fall in these models. The Strut Learning experience, combined with your passion, knowledge, resources, and brand means success.

We are so proud that we have helped clients launch faster than they ever thought possible, grew enrollments at paces beyond projections, helped many students move through programs at accelerated paces, and have delighted local employers with students who immediately apply knowledge and skills to their jobs and careers.

Because competency-based education is still in experimental stages, you have the unique opportunity to be part of shaping a new model of teaching and learning. What story can you tell about CBE today? What story will you be able to tell in 10 years?

See how Strut's course solution can help you.
See how Strut's course solution can help you.

Leverage our complete white label degree program and course catalog to get online fast.Strut’s customizable course catalog provides a rapid (30 days) pathway to online courses with zero capital expenditures.Schedule a call now.

Leverage our complete white label degree program and course catalog to get online fast.Strut’s customizable course catalog provides a rapid (30 days) pathway to online courses with zero capital expenditures.Schedule a call now.

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About Strut Learning: 

Founded in 2014 Strut offers proven, award-winning services and products that enable clients to innovate, transform and grow enrollments. Flexible, complete, high-quality GE, AA, BBA, MAOL accredited degree programs and a next-generation technology ecosystem radically reduce cost, complexity and time to market. Strut is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) learning company focused on enrollment growth. Our work redefines student support, retention and success required to attract techno-savvy millennial and generation-X students and grow. What’s a Strut? In short, we combine out of the box best in class LMS technology with an internal OPM model that empowers colleges and universities to efficiently deploy popular, high-quality online and hybrid programs in under 100 days; proven to grow enrollments. Strut invested $110M in a world-class technology platform designed to provide institutions with the power to rapidly (under 100 days) deploy a disruptive technology ecosystem and complete quality degree self-paced programs (GE, AA, BBA, BSIT, MAOL). Strut’s award-winning technology ecosystem is already in use at leading public and private institutions. Unlike others, who leverage third-party vendors to assemble a viable ecosystem - Strut delivers a proven and complete platform - able to effectively and efficiently provide instruction at scale. To help our partners modernize and optimize online offerings, we offer expert instructional planning and design services. Learn more about Strut Learning’s award-winning technologies and services by visiting our website.

See how Strut's course solution can help you.

Leverage our complete white label degree program and course catalog to get online fast.Strut’s customizable course catalog provides a rapid (30 days) pathway to online courses with zero capital expenditures.Schedule a call now.

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Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
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