Category Archives: Competency-based Education (CBE)

Competency-based Education (CBE) is an emerging distance learning format that offers learners the opportunity to demonstrate previously acquired competencies in a self-paced program format. Learners accelerate through their curriculum with the support of individualized coaching and authentic assessment techniques.

Using Transactional Distance Theory to inform instructional design

For the past several years, online learning in higher education has focused on delivering a highly structured learning environment. Courses are typically designed to deliver content sequentially (week one, week two, etc.) with required reading assignments, discussion forums, quizzes, etc. This approach to online learning has served to help new-to-online learners navigate the online course, learn to use the most common learning management system (LMS) tools, and interact with their classmates in ways that have modeled the traditional classroom. However, with emerging deliver models such as Competency-based Educational (CBE) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) gaining traction in higher education, it may make sense to consider student autonomy in the design of online learning.

Billiards Table - CC-BY by Oliver Clark on Flickr

CC-BY by Oliver Clark on Flickr

Transactional distance doesn’t refer to the distance between the instructor and student in regards to space or time but rather the distance in regard to transactions or interactions between the learner, instructor, and content. According to Transactional Distance Theory the “degree of structure and dialogue [required] in a course depends on the students’ ability to learn autonomously”.  Students who lack the necessary skills to self-regulate their learning may require a more structured learning environment, whereas autonomous learners are better positioned to succeed in a less structured environment (Koslow & Piña, 2015).

The inverse relationship between learner autonomy and course structure is important to keep in mind as we design for emerging distance learning models. In the CBE environment students enter a program of study at different times and progress at different rates. In order to support the flexibility required by CBE we may need to abandon the more traditional lock-step approach used over the past several years for designing online learning environments in higher ed.

Kozlow et al (2015) suggests that in order for autonomous learners to be successful they must possess self-regulated learning (SRL) strategies. The self-regulated learner has the ability to plan their own approach to learning as well as to review and evaluate their own understanding.

Online courses designed with SRL in mind might begin by offering pre-assessment opportunities for students to discover what they do or do not know on a given subject. Assessment feedback could include contextual links to additional resources / material for students to review. The use of practice quizzes along with digital badging systems and other formative assessment tools can assist students in measuring their own progress, as well as providing motivational support. Journals, blogs, and e-portfolios could replace the discussion forum commonly used in the “traditional” online course – providing an autonomous learning tool to assist with learner reflection.

As more colleges explore delivery models offering less structure and providing fewer opportunities for dialog, we need to consider instructional design approaches that can support student success in environments with greater learner autonomy.


A. Kozlow & A. Pina (2015) Using Transactional Distance Theory to inform online instructional design. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning. Vol. 12. No. 10,87,688

M. Weimer (2010). What it means to be a Self-regulated Learner. Faculty Focus, Magna Publications.

Airman learning online

Two Competency-based Education (CBE) models

Last Friday, I and three faculty members from our campus attended a one-day conference at Columbus State Community College on the topic of Competency-based Education for Ohio.

Dr. Sally Johnstone, V.P. of Academic Advancement described the CBE model used at Western Governors University. WGU is an online non-profit university where students can enroll at any time of the year progress at their own pace. The role of the faculty at WGU are somewhat different than for traditional instructional models. Student Mentors are faculty who work closely with students individually to engage them in their program of study. Student mentors must have a minimum of a Masters degree in the content area. Course Mentors have a minimum of a PhD or terminal degree in the subject area and are responsible for the curriculum and course design. In addition to student and course mentors, Graders or Evaluators oversee student assessment. Students are assessed both using objective proctored exams and performance assessment.

Dr. Johnstone emphasized the importance of secure and reliable assessment – “The integrity of the institution rests on the credibility of the assessments.”

Although students move at their own pace through the course, they still have the opportunity to interact with their peers through the campus portal social media technology.

Course content is provided through KSVs (Kahn Style Videos) much of which is sourced through Carnegie Mellon’s Acrobatiq – Open Learning Initiative.

Dr. Nancy Thibeault, Dean of eLearning at Sinclair Community College, shared about Sinclair’s CBE model and some of the challenges of rolling out CBE at a public two-year institution.

Community colleges in Ohio operate on a semester schedule. Although the semesters are typically sixteen weeks in length, Sinclair permits students to enroll in their CBE courses at any time up until the last four weeks of the semester. Before students are accepted into the CBE program they must meet certain guidelines including a minimum GPA of 3.0 and demonstrated computer literacy skills.

Students may work at their own pace but are expected to keep up with course milestones. An academic coach may work with as many as eighty students individually. Each course unit includes a pre-assessment to determine whether students possess the competencies in a given unit of study – if so, they may skip to the next unit and thereby accelerate their course of study. Coaches assume the role of case-manager, guiding students from point of registration through graduation.

As with WGU, Sinclair awards course credit on a pass / fail basis. Students must successfully pass with an eighty percent or higher in order to continue in the CBE program. Each course includes a comprehensive final exam covering all course competencies.