Welcome to our first “Innovation in action” piece, where we ask leaders in the postsecondary and K–12 space to discuss what innovation looks like within their community, institution, or school; why they believe it has the potential to help students; and tips for successful implementation or scale. At the end of each piece, we ask one of our education researchers to weigh in on what Theories of Disruptive Innovation have to say about the innovation. Stay tuned! We aim to have one “Innovation in action” piece each month!

This piece is authored by Jess Stokes, Director, WGU Labs

Education has no shortage of challenges. The quality of education—however one defines it—varies widely and often fails to harness what is known about the science of learning, entry points to higher education unnecessarily limit access for individuals who don’t match the historic student profile, and the transition from learning to work is often opaque to students and employers. While myriad innovations exist in education, WGU Labs, Western Governors University’s research and development hub, is focused on examining, building, and enabling innovative solutions that address core challenges like these.

I’m privileged to lead the Labs Product Team—we offer other schools and programs everything from strategic learning consulting to program design, development, and implementation. One innovation that we’re especially excited to help other organizations implement, and that we’re seeing momentum build around, is competency-based education (CBE). CBE has the potential to address several of education’s core challenges, but its greatest potential is in bridging the training gap that students often face when transitioning from traditional courses to careers.

Why CBE?

In simple terms, CBE is a teaching methodology and strategy that meets students exactly where they are and takes them where they need to go. CBE comes in many flavors, but generally adheres to the following tenets: 1) students can progress as fast as they are able, with the recognition that all students have unique backgrounds of experience and reach mastery at different paces; 2) curriculum is built on competencies and real-world skills that students will need at the next stages of their development, whether it’s further education or employment; and 3) programs are inclusive of and interactive with employer and industry needs.

What makes CBE particularly beneficial, in my view, is that students understand the relevance of their coursework. While there’s undoubtedly value in providing students with the lifelong skills traditional programs are known for, what’s less clear to students is their immediate return on investment. With CBE, students understand how the competencies they master are preparing them for their next course and ultimately their next job. This transparency can be incredibly motivating.

In addition, programs that offer online CBE programs enable students to learn anytime, anywhere and progress through their program at their own pace, often at a lower cost than traditional programs. The opportunity for millions of Americans to benefit from high-quality, online CBE pathways is great, particularly for those from low-income, Black, Latinx, military-affiliated, and rural communities who are often underserved by traditional education systems. For adult learners, online CBE programs allow them to quickly complete workforce-relevant degrees without compromising family responsibilities or work, ultimately improving their careers and income earning potential.  

Done well, the results of CBE can be impressive. In The Modern Classrooms Project: A Review of Research-Based Best Practices from John Hopkins School of Education, the report notes that mastery-based approaches to instruction have been found to “improve students’ academic self-concept…engrain students with certain aspects of growth mindset…and substantially enhance students’ ability to retain their learning long-term.”

As an example, WGU has used online CBE at scale for a quarter-century, primarily catering to underserved communities (today, 69% of WGU’s students come from one or more of these populations). Because students can move through their courses as quickly as they master the material, the average WGU grad receives their bachelor’s degree in three years or less, enabling them to save time and money. And according to the 2020 Harris Poll of 300 employers, 98% said WGU graduates meet or exceed expectations. Granted, online CBE isn’t the only factor that distinguishes WGU from traditional programs, but it is a big one, if not the biggest.

Implementing CBE

Drawing on WGU’s decades of experience, as well as Labs’ learnings from partnering with other institutions as they transition toward CBE, we’ve discovered a lot about what it takes to deliver effective, competency-based education. To start, my recommendation to other leaders preparing to adopt CBE is two-fold: 

1. Think top-down Learning designers should engage employers and subject matter experts from industry and postsecondary education to understand market demands and translate key requirements into specific workforce-aligned competencies and learning objectives. Through interviews and surveys, designers can uncover:

  • How do hiring managers assess the capabilities of job candidates? Which artifacts or evidence do they consider? 
  • How are current program graduates performing on the job?  Where are they meeting or exceeding expectations, and where are they lacking? 
  • Which competencies are transferable between employers, and what are the high-priority and shared needs? Designers shouldn’t create programs that replace a specific company’s onboarding. 

2. Think bottoms-up It’s equally if not more important when designing a CBE program to engage students through user research, and user-centered design. Learning designers must understand where students are coming from, and what their biases are. Questions designers should answer include:

  • What prior knowledge and skills do learners bring with them, relative to competencies? This likely varies among learners, so designers will need to make decisions about how to personalize learning to meet students where they are. 
  • What problems do learners face, and what are their motivations?  What needs must be addressed?

When powered by user-centered design and coupled with sound learning science, CBE can be transformative. The onus is on schools to do the hard work of understanding which competencies will prepare students to excel in their careers, and where incoming learners are with regards to skills, knowledge, needs, biases, and motivation. 

CBE’s innovative potential (by Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education research at the Institute)

For many years, the Christensen Institute has been studying the disruptive potential of online, competency-based learning. Like our colleagues, Michelle Weise and Clay Christensen predicted in 2014, “online competency-based education is revolutionary because it marks the critical convergence of multiple vectors: the right learning model, the right technologies, the right customers, and the right business model.” In other words, our research has always contemplated online CBE not merely as a long-overdue innovation in classroom pedagogy, but also as an innovative approach to how courses are built and paid for along the way.

Having watched this space evolve (and occasionally face regulatory hurdles), I think Stokes is right to center CBE as a design challenge for leaders. Oftentimes, conversations about CBE reduce it to the notion of learners moving at their own pace. But ultimately the quality–and competitive advantage–of a competency-based approach hinges on a wholly new approach to assessment and design that challenges how students access learning and what skills and knowledge they’re gaining. To that end, as Stokes rightly points out, a high-quality CBE program isn’t just about reorganizing the status quo under a new name. Rather, CBE pathways need to be built and implemented in tight integration with both students’ and employers’ needs at the center. 

Interested in contributing to the “Innovation in action” series? Contact Meris Stansbury, director of communications, meris@christenseninstitute.org


  • Christensen Institute
    Christensen Institute