Yesterday in this blog I said that there’s an organization that is already using a sophisticated data system to deliver a fully competency-based education model and producing remarkable results.

That organization is Western Governors University (WGU), and its success offers a compelling template for K-12.

My view about the power that a data system like WGU’s has to deliver competency-based learning developed as I worked on “The engine behind WGU: Configuration of a competency-based information system,” a case study Innosight Institute published in February. WGU enrolled its first 30 students in 1999. Today it has over 30,000 students and an annual growth rate of roughly 30 percent for the past 5 years. Its model is unique; students learn completely online and graduate as soon as they have mastered the required competencies in their degree plans. No lecture halls, no attendance records, no homework—just a series of objective and performance assessments to verify specific competencies. Its model, although created for postsecondary students learning online, nonetheless shines a light on how to set up competency-based data architecture in K-12, regardless of whether or not the students are learning online.

Here’s a snapshot from the case study of WGU’s data system:

Each horizontal row relates to a specific functionality that WGU’s software provides the university. These are the highlights to me, row by row starting at the top:

Learning resourcesLuminis and Liferay provide the portal that connects students to their courses of study at WGU and to all their learning resources. The portal links them to any content they need to be ready to pass their assessments. Imagine if K-12 students likewise had a simple, navigable portal that linked them to the best learning resources in the world and they could choose their favorite path from a menu of possibilities.

Learning communitiesJive software provides the structure for WGU’s virtual learning communities, which include blogs, live chats with mentors, and links to Adobe Connect-hosted webinars. Humanity has massively improved its ability to connect with each other worldwide. K-12 students, with protections in place, also face an unprecedented opportunity to connect to learning teams, mentors, and experts in convenient, accessible virtual environments.  State data systems can provide those safe networks.

Assessments are what WGU does best. Its data system delivers two types. First, Kryterion facilitates over 10,000 objective assessments per month. Objective assessments measure knowledge of content and skill (the “knowing” tests). They are 40 to 90 questions long with matching, multiple choice, or similar exercises, and a computer scores them. Meanwhile, TaskStream manages performance assessments, which require students to show complex behavior competencies through demonstrations, activities, or projects (the “doing” tests). WGU faculty grade these assessments and provide detailed feedback. In K-12, what if instead of one massive state test in math and reading at the end of the year, students took a series of objective and performance assessments matched to specific competencies in each course for each subject as soon as they were ready and their results determined what they learned next?

Student services – WGU uses Sungard HE’s Banner solution to manage student records and financial aid. For K-12, imagine if states offered a clean, simple system to track each student’s choice of courses from a menu of options and each student’s use of other school services, and then used that data to direct the flow of funding down to the course and service level?

Relationship management – WGU is assiduous about tracking communication between its faculty and students using Talisma customer relationship management software.  It also uses Qualtrics to survey student satisfaction. These data sources feed into reports that WGU managers use to analyze how they can improve. What if states (and all schools and providers, for that matter) likewise viewed students as paying customers and produced detailed reports about the quality of faculty and administrative service to students? Bet that would help the dropout problem.

Alignment and reporting – WGU maintains large Oracle databases to map competencies to assessments and to map those to state standards. It uses SAS business analytics software to analyze results. Administrators in K-12 have long spoken of the need for more transparent data reporting, and the sector has come a long way. But states face a huge opportunity to use the power of data analytics, whether hosted like at WGU or next-generation cloud based, to keep track of Common Core and state standards and ensure they have assessments in place to measure all the competencies associated with those standards, one by one, for each student at any point in time.

How should states think about configuring K-12 data systems to support competency-based learning? ­ “The engine behind WGU: Configuration of a competency-based information system” spotlights one large organization that has already figured out part of the answer.


  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.