Competency-Based Education Is All About Personalization | NobleStream Competency-Based Education Is All About Personalization – NobleStream


Competency-Based Education Is All About Personalization

by Tom Caswell on June 30, 2015

Category: Competency-Based Education, Innovation

Competency-Based Education, Innovation, Ed Tech, Higher Education, CBE, Courseware, LMS, Adaptive Learning, Outcomes, Personalized Learning, assessment, educational content, competencies, learning environment, student-centric, course outcomes, Webtexts, learning management systemsKate Kazin, CAO of Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, has said, “If you are measuring seat time rather than competency then you are measuring the wrong end of the student.”1 Competency-based education (CBE) has received a lot of attention as a disruptive innovation that promises to raise course quality and student completion while lowering costs. Even as the cost of higher education continued to climb in 2014, College for America unveiled plans for the first nationally available $10,000 bachelor’s degree.2 Later the same month, Western Governors University announced they would not be raising tuition—for the 7th year in a row.3 College for America, Western Governors University, and others are among a growing number of institutions providing competency-based education to tens of thousands of adult learners. This article explores personalization, a key CBE ingredient that can also benefit on ground and online courses.

Principles of Competency-Based Education

EDUCAUSE defines competency-based education as a model that “awards academic credit based on mastery of clearly defined competencies.” While there is no “one size fits all” approach to competency-based education, Johnstone and Soares have identified four principles drawn from efforts to initiate CBE programs at eleven community colleges in the United States.4

  1. The degree reflects robust and valid competencies.
  2. Students are able to learn at a variable pace and are supported in their learning.
  3. Effective learning resources are available any time and are reusable.
  4. Assessments are secure and reliable.

It is no surprise that CBE works well in a variable-paced learning environment. The flexible, student-centric approach allows students to leverage prior knowledge and move to the next competency or course as soon as they have demonstrated mastery.

The Golden Triangle

The relationship between outcomes, instructional content, and assessment is sometimes referred to as the “Golden Triangle.” Competencies are carefully defined using instructional designers, subject matter experts, and relevant association or industry standards. They are then mapped to instructional content as well as assessments. This three-way mapping provides valuable feedback to students, faculty, and instructional designers. It can help individual students know which topics they have mastered and where they should study further. The same feedback loops can be viewed at a course level to expose instructional gaps or deficiencies that should be addressed. Course changes are validated as more data is gathered. This outcomes mapping creates a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement that is also useful for accreditors. In one presentation of CBE outcomes maps a registrar asked, “Why isn’t this being done with all courses?”

Partner Spotlight

eLumen is one platform that uniquely enables collection, management, and reporting of per student, per course outcomes assessment data. eLumen enables academic institutions to gain enriched insights from outcomes. eLumen allows for robust interconnection of outcomes, rubrics, student activities, evaluations and data. With eLumen, all of these aspects of academic practice derive from the same efficient process. By changing how attention is paid to student achievement—with a focus on expected and actual student learning outcomes—eLumen greatly improves the usefulness of outcomes assessment.

Textbooks vs. WebTexts

Competency-based education is contributing to the growing demand for instructionally designed webtexts. Webtexts differs from textbooks and/or e-books for that matter because they are designed around specific objectives rather than topics or chapters. Webtexts also includes videos, readings, activities, and formative assessments with feedback. Content providers focused on webtexts include MindEdge, Words & Numbers, and Soomo. These providers have experience with creating courseware for CBE institutions.

Partner Spotlight

MindEdge is a content and technology platform that can integrate with all major LMS providers. Students can master content with MindEdge webtexts featuring narrative learning case studies and simulations. MindEdge works with your organization, company, or institution of higher learning to assemble an online learning solution. Drawing upon their existing library of online content and development new learning materials where needed, they create learning that addresses your key training or educational challenges. MindEdge webtexts feature narrative learning case studies and simulations, as well as adaptive learning technology to maximize learner mastery of the content. MindEdge adaptive learning targets content pain points, teaching those difficult topics using multiple approaches to address all learning styles.

Words & Numbers designs, creates, and produces technology programs to fit institutional needs. They manage everything from discrete tasks to full-service development, and regularly integrate into different workflows and methods.

Soomo develops webtexts that give instructors the tools they need to help students track their progress and succeed in their courses. Starting with rigorous learning outcomes, they write and design automatically graded multiple-choice questions for every page of content. The high number of engagements enables a map to develop showing what each student and each class are learning.

Personalized and Adaptive Learning

It is difficult for faculty to support a classroom of self-paced students without the help of technology. Fortunately, computers can assist faculty by tracking every detail of every student’s progress. The goal of personalized learning tools and resources is to “accelerate student learning by tailoring the instructional environment—what, when, how, and where students learn—to address the individual needs, skills, and interests of each student.”5 Adaptive learning is an even more sophisticated form of personalization where the system dynamically modifies the instructional experience to better meet the needs of the individual learner. This can happen based on a pretest, formative knowledge check questions, etc. Adaptive courseware is expensive to build, in part because it contains a lot of “extra” instructional content. This additional content is hidden until it is needed. Each student literally experiences a different course, based on his or her individual learner profile.

Next Gen Courseware

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently funded several personalized and adaptive content platforms as part of the $20 Million Next Gen Courseware Challenge. These include OpenStax, Smart Sparrow, and Cerego. The new adaptive learning resources will help students identify knowledge gaps and know when they have reached mastery of a topic. Personalized courseware can contribute to student success. Different providers have different approaches for delivering personalized learning.

Partner Spotlight

OpenStax offers students textbooks comprised of Open Educational Resources (OER) that meet scope and sequence requirements for most foundational courses. They are peer-reviewed textbooks written by professional content developers. OpenStax is now developing personalized learning features to enhance their textbooks as part of the Next Gen Courseware Challenge.

Smart Sparrow is a visually adaptive teaching platform with all the tools needed to create, deploy, analyze, and share intelligent courseware through rich and interactive experiences. With the “adaptivity author,” teachers set the rules for how their content will adapt to each student.

Cerego uses memory technology for adaptive learning. They combine proven learning principles from the fields of neuroscience and cognitive science with web technology to improve the way people learn. This system helps people learn more quickly and remember longer.



New technologies are giving students more opportunities for personalized learning. When navigating the many new choices in personalized learning it is important to work with a trusted partner who has experience with a variety of courseware providers. For academic institutions facing the myriad of mission critical challenges today, NobleStream provides tailored technology-based solutions through cultivated relationships, empowers administrators and faculty with a suite of the most powerful educational tools as they emerge, enabling institutions to drive down the cost of instruction, increasing persistence toward degree completion and improve learning outcomes through analytics.

1 “Kate Kazin on the New America Foundation’s Panel.” College for America Website, May 15, 2014.

2 “First national available $10,000 Bachelor’s Degree To Be Launched By College For America.” College for America Website, May 5, 2014.

3 “No Tuition Increase at Western Governors University for 7th Straight Year.” Western Governors University Website, May 19, 2014.

4 “Principles for Developing Competency-Based Education Programs.” Sally M. Johnstone and Louis Soares, April 2014.

5 “A Working Definition of Personalized Learning.”EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI).

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About Tom Caswell

Tom Caswell, Director of eLearning Success at EDMC, has over 15 years of experience in instructional technology and large-scale curriculum development.

Tom has worked with numerous higher education institutions to boost student outcomes and employability through improved curriculum design and delivery. As Director of Instructional Design at Western Governors University, he developed over 120 courses and shared competency-based models with numerous community colleges. In 2010 Tom led the Open Course Library in building 81 open courses for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC).

You can connect with Tom on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+.

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