Competency-Based Education Programs versus Traditional Data Management

Key Takeaways

  • Competency-based education programs challenge traditional data management approaches across the academic institution because they defy conventional notions of time in relation to fixed-length terms, synchronous delivery, and student-faculty interactions.
  • Initial results from a study of colleges implementing CBE highlight short- and long-term solutions to timing challenges and emerging practices that can help ensure CBE program success.
  • Among the "not so bad" practices were to ensure that short-term fixes don't delay work on long-term solutions to CBE challenges and that key stakeholders be enlisted to support the required policy, practice, and system changes.

Leo Irakliotis is a Chicago-based consultant for academic strategy and analytics. Sally Johnstone is vice president for Academic Advancement, Western Governors University.

As competency-based education (CBE) programs continue to develop across the country, administrators and faculty members find their campuses' information systems too rigid for this new learning modality. To assist colleges in transforming traditional campus programs into competency-based ones — as well as to investigate the challenges entailed — Western Governors University (WGU) worked with 11 community colleges in five states to design and implement CBE academic projects, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the US Department of Labor's Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program.

Here, we discuss the project, focusing on the challenges faced in implementing CBE and various short- and long-term solutions.

CBE Overview

CBE is a significant departure from a classroom-based model and focuses on serving students in a more personalized fashion. The basic tenet behind CBE is flipping the time–mastery relationship. In a classroom-based model, all students start and end their learning experience at the same time. During a term of study, some students will master most of the materials and earn high grades; others will master less of the material and earn lower grades; and still others will master only about half the material and receive a failing grade. So, while these failing students know a considerable portion of the material, their only option is to take the entire class over again. This is discouraging to students, and some might well give up on the whole higher-education experience.

In CBE programs, students work toward mastery at their own pace, within the constraints of financial aid, institutional, and state policies. When students demonstrate mastery of the skills and knowledge designated by a course's faculty, they pass the course. Students can progress through courses either sequentially or take several at time, depending on their study habits and time constraints. The CBE model has two key elements:

  1. The time it takes an individual to reach full mastery is totally student-centric.
  2. All students must demonstrate mastery to complete the program of study.

Systems Impact

At WGU, students can enroll and commence a term at the first of any month. Tuition for most programs is a flat rate of approximately $3,000 for a six-month term. Students can take as many courses as they can manage. On any day, many students are starting and many are finishing courses. Activities within any six-month term are defined by students, not by institutional schedules related to grade deadlines or how many students are enrolled on a specific census day. This student-centric scheduling challenges the usual configuration of learning management systems (LMSs) and student information systems (SISs).

Most LMSs and SISs are configured to work on fixed-length terms that begin and end on specific dates. Enrollment is open for a short time during the beginning of terms, and terms are determined by institutional schedules. Grades are expected within a few days of the term's end. Even if students somehow complete a course early — such as in independent study courses — their final grade isn't official until the term ends.

CBE provides a framework for the student-centric timing of learning activities. To support CBE programs, LMSs and SISs must support transactions when the student requires them, not when the institutional schedule allows them. Although many existing LMSs and SISs can be customized to allow such transactions at any time, most are not configured to do so. Furthermore, once an LMS or SIS has been installed and accepted by the institution, modifications and customizations are usually costly and time-consuming.

The CBE Project: Real-World Experiences

Our partner colleges (see table 1) began enrolling students in CBE pilot programs starting in the fall (2013) and spring (2014) terms. The colleges have functional LMSs and SISs configured to accommodate students taking multiple classes on fixed-length terms. Some colleges use state or home-grown LMSs and SISs; others use commercial products, including Canvas, Blackboard, Angel, and Desire 2 Learn. After the colleges had a full term of trying to fit square pegs into their systems' rounds holes, we checked in with them to find out what worked well and what did not. To overcome the rigidity of their installed systems, our partner colleges devised a two-pronged approach. In the short-term, ad hoc solutions enabled the launch of the pilot projects. To find more long-term solutions, CBE champions at each college are engaging institutional leadership to develop policies and priorities that will formalize time-independent transactions.

Table 1. Partner Community Colleges



Austin Community College

Austin, Texas

Bellevue College

Bellevue, Washington

Broward College

Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Columbia Basin College

Pasco, Washington

Edmonds Community College

Lynnwood, Washington

Ivy Tech Community College

Fort Wayne, Indiana

Ivy Tech Community College

Lafayette, Indiana

Lone Star Community College

Houston, Texas

Sinclair Community College

Dayton, Ohio

Community College of Spokane

Spokane, Washington

Valencia College

Orlando, Florida

Short-Term Solutions

Short-term, ad hoc solutions are based initially on collegial understanding through gentlemen and ladies' agreements. Launching a CBE project requires administrative flexibility to handle exceptions and deviations from standard procedures. And, although they do not violate policy or compliance requirements, such exceptions require additional work and recourse to procedures that might be difficult for a lean operation to maintain. It is therefore important to

  • know who "owns" the authority to grant the required exceptions;
  • develop a working relationship with these owners; and
  • establish an understanding between owners and project leaders for the duration of the exception-handling period.

These exception authority owners are potential key partners in influencing long-term solutions.

Another ad hoc solution is to implement off-the-shelf tools and applications to meet short-term data management needs. Edmonds Community College uses Podio to capture and manage information for students enrolled in the CBE pilot project. Podio is a cloud-based project management system that can also function as a student relationship management application. Edmonds used Podio to get the CBE project off the ground, and its staff members are part of a statewide team influencing the upgrade of the SIS and LMS to handle future CBE students.

Other partner colleges use Access databases and scripted Excel spreadsheets to track students enrolled in their CBE pilot programs. All of these ad hoc solutions require manual data entry between stopgap applications and the institutional SIS.

Long-Term Possibilities

According to Van Davis of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, ad hoc solutions are great during the startup phase, but they carry long-term risks and might push institutions into complacency.1 Because exception handling and third-party applications can support a program in the beginning, Davis worries that administrators might feel less urgency about implementing new institutional policies and practices to bring the CBE programs into the mainstream. As the CBE program's enrollment grows, however, institutions will discover that exception handling and manual data interfaces are costly and inefficient.

Staff members at other partner colleges agree with Davis's characterization of these ad hoc approaches. Clearly, it's critical to develop long-term solutions focused on regularizing practices and systems and thereby formalizing CBE programs at each college. Nancy Thibeault, Dean of Distance Learning and Instructional Support at Sinclair College, indicates that manual workarounds "need to be automated in order to be scalable and sustainable." Thibeault emphasizes that "it's not just about the SIS and LMS. It's about process for intake, enrollment, learner support that is just as (if not more) critical" in system support for students in CBE programs.2

At Sinclair, rolling starts were implemented by scheduling 12 individual course sections, each with a different Monday start date. A single content shell was created in the LMS, through which all students in the course interact with the content, instructor, and classmates. The section and content shells are used to align enrollments with conventional academic terms, but allow students to start a new course when needed. Initially, a staff member manually moved students from the section shells to the content shells. However, after the initial term, the college's IT staff was able to automate the process.

The Sinclair project adopted the college's Student Success Plan tool to track and log all enrollment steps for students, create action plans, and record student interactions and journal entries. Weekly student progress reports are generated from the LMS database to monitor logins, assignment submission, test grades, course progress, and overall course grade. Students flagged for high-risk behaviors are prioritized for intervention.


CBE obviously imposes data management requirements across the entire academic operation. Central to these requirements is the time independence of transactions, such as those related to enrollment, student-faculty meetings, student-centric and -timed grade entries, financial aid disbursements, and on-demand availability of transcripts.

Long-term solutions must consider the complexity of required modifications. It might be easier to plan modifications on the LMS side rather than the SIS side. For example, Van Davis described to us an approach in which a small group of colleges reported that they used the Blackboard LMS to support competency-based modules that could be combined to map into a traditional course. From Blackboard's perspective, these modules were treated just like courses. The traditional course existed on the Banner SIS. As students completed the competency modules, they earned grades for each one they mastered. At the end, an average grade was computed for the corresponding course on the SIS side. For now, the school is entering these grades manually, but it is also developing an automated solution. In this case, it was easier to use the LMS because competency modules were treated just like course objects; creating modular courses on the school's SIS would have been difficult.

Key Practices

Implementing a CBE program is a daunting task for most colleges. Such programs defy conventional notions of fixed-length terms, synchronous delivery, and student-faculty interactions.

Based on the experiences of our partner colleges to date, we identified a few key steps that reflect appropriate (or "not so bad") practices:

  • Ad hoc solutions should not delay discussion of long-term solutions for a CBE program's delivery practices and formal systems.
  • Key stakeholders must be identified and enlisted to support the necessary policy, practice, and system changes; such support might be found in executive sponsorship from the college's president, chief information officer, student services leadership, or senior financial aid officials.
  • Establish gentlemen or ladies' agreements for the duration of short-term fixes and for the timetable to deliver long-term solutions.
  • Establish triggers and milestones expressed in numbers of students and time duration. Entering grades by hand for 10 students a month might seem easy, but when it is done repeatedly for six or 12 months, it can become burdensome. When the number of students rises to 25, 50, and 80 a month, manual data entry will definitely become problematic.
  • Communicate to LMS vendors the urgency of modularity and flexibility, as it is essential for supporting CBE programs. Some LMS vendors are already developing solutions for CBE support. This is the time for schools to influence the design and direction for CBE enhancements of traditional LMSs.
  • When implementing stop-gap solutions, always be mindful of data portability. The CIO must be aware of the stopgap application and of a plan to eventually transform and load the data into the institution's information system of record. In this context, application interoperability is an important priority, although we recognize that such conventions are still nascent in the field of academic services software.

Four of our partner colleges began enrolling students in fall 2013, and another six enrolled students in spring 2014. The lessons summarized here are just the beginning of what we are all learning as colleges transform more traditional approaches into competency-based programs. We hope that these early lessons can assist others as they start down this path.


This report is based on research funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the Gates Foundation's positions or policies.

  1. Private communication between Van Davis and author Leo Irakliotis.
  2. Private communication between Nancy Thibeault and author Leo Irakliotis.