Using CBL models to support a shifting workforce and economy | D2L
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Minding the gaps: Using competency-based learning models to support a shifting workforce and economy

  • 3 Min Read

As higher education institutions look to address the many gaps in achievement, opportunity, and skills needed to support a diverse and always-shifting economy, a competency-based educational model could be the ticket to providing a means to support learners in a timely and affordable way.

Competency-based education (CBE) is not to be confused with an educational fad. It has been a part of the education landscape for several decades.[1] Yet its prominence as an educational model has been overshadowed by several factors that point to the challenges of introducing innovative ideas into a system that has difficulty adjusting to the needs of the population it’s intended to serve.

CBE is not a one-size-fits-all model of instruction, and successful CBE models vary in how they’re designed and supported. Research by the Lumina Foundation (2017) suggests that most competency-based models share the following elements:

  • Learning is the constant, while time and place are the flexible and supporting elements.
  • Instructors drive instructional design and delivery, engage with external stakeholders (such as employers), support program fidelity, and make sure programs align to real-world needs.
  • Teaching, learning, and assessment focus on competencies that are essential for particular fields of work or study.
  • The program is learner-centered, offering flexible scheduling, customization, coaching, and navigational support.
  • Learners move ahead when they are ready, which often leads to accelerated program completion.[2]

What CBE programs seek to offer is a clear pathway for learners in a flexible and individualized format. Learning activities are built to support appropriate and measurable competencies and assessments. In the best cases, these competencies are co-created with industry representatives so that program outcomes clearly align with employers’ needs. Designing programs with this in mind has the potential to “help close equity gaps while raising college completion rates and improving graduates’ lifetime outcomes and earnings.”[3]

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Preparing the workforce

For employers, CBE presents several advantages worth mentioning:

Supports easy identification of qualified candidates
For one, having CBE programs that are clearly aligned to specific industry standards means that an employer can recruit candidates who have demonstrated the skills, knowledge, and behaviors that are specifically required for their jobs.

Is tailored to workforce needs
If CBE programs are co-designed with industry partners, graduates are better prepared to meet workforce requirements. In addition, as workforce needs change, ongoing collaboration between institutions and industry partners can adapt more quickly.

Provides opportunity for continuous upskilling
In many cases, CBE can be done faster and cheaper, and be more responsive than conventional education and training models by keeping employees readily equipped with current knowledge and skills. The flexibility of a competency-based model can permit employees to stay productive in their jobs while simultaneously upgrading their skills.

The flexibility of CBE models and clearly defined pathways to both skills and credentials has the capacity to serve millions of working adults around the globe. It can also do this at a lower cost than many conventional educational models by providing a way for learners to test out of or skip past knowledge and skills that they’ve already acquired and mastered.

Workforce development and competency-based learning are not new phenomena. Yet online competency-based learning models are remarkable in terms of offering flexible learning paths that fit the needs of today’s learners. Online CBE can be the innovation many high schools, corporations, and higher education institutions have been looking for that can “release learning from the constraints of the academy.”[4]

Eager to learn more? Keep reading to learn about 14 ways an LMS can support CBE programs, or the differences between CBE and OBE (outcomes-based education). Or check out one of our on-demand webinars to hear about why competency-based education matters, or lessons learned from institutions who have already implemented CBE models.


[1]Nodine, T. R. (2016). How did we get here? A brief history of competency‐based higher education in the United States. The Journal of Competency-based Education, 1(1), 5-11.

[2]Krauss, S.M. (2017). How competency-based education may help reduce our nation’s toughest inequities. Lumina Issue Paper.


[4]Weise, M. R. & Christensen, C.M. (2014). Hire education: Mastery, modularization, and the workforce revolution. Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.

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