Mental Models, Change, and Time: Thoughts on CBE

Female Students at Computer

I recently took a trip back to the university where I got my first undergraduate degree. I had forgotten how beautiful the campus was – old red brick, ivy, and what seemed like endless pathways cutting their way through freshly cut green grass. I even walked through a few of the buildings and stood outside a small lecture hall listening in on a summer session lecture a young professor was giving. It was easy to recall those memories and visualize those times.

My sense is that if you stop for a moment and visualize your college / university experience it will be easy to recall similar memories (take a moment and try it before reading on). In fact, it is likely that a mental model has been formed around what going to college / university ‘should’ be like.

For over 45 million Americans, their visualization is likely much different than yours and mine. For one reason or another, they were forced to leave college without getting a degree. That is, they started, have earned some college credit but were unable to complete. For the majority of these individuals who are over the age of 24, the thought of going back to campus with younger students can be daunting – a barrier to completing their education.

There is a rapidly emerging model though, that will enable this demographic of learner along with others to have access to an affordable, flexible approach to learning that will enable them to achieve their educational objectives – Competency Based Education.

“A New Measure for College Learning, released today by the Chronicle of Higher Education and co-sponsored by Pearson, provides insights into what College and University Presidents think about the promise and pitfalls of Competency-Based Education (CBE). Education Chiefs are seeing CBE as a means to breaking down the time barriers of the traditional credit hour system.

A few interesting findings from the report:

  • The traditional Credit Hour, originally devised as an accounting tool to calculate faculty’s pension eligibility, is a strong measure of time but not of student learning outcomes
  • CBE is an effective way to measure what students know and can do vs how much time they spend in a seat
  • 2/3rds of College Presidents say they are likely to offer CBE programs at their institutions in the next five years
  • CBE is seen as a potential way to decrease costs for students but not in savings inherent in the modality. Instead, by allowing students to progress at their own pace and bring credit with them through alternative means including Credit for Prior Learning, Professional Work Experience, Military Training & Experience, and other forms of prior learning will allow students to, ostensibly, start with a bank of credit and focus on filling the gaps and expanding on prior learning – ultimately shortening their time to degree
  • An increased focus on developing strong assessment strategies are a prerequisite for CBE programs
  • College Presidents did not agree on a single form of how credit should be granted for CBE programs. Personally, I believe this is a very good thing – as it will allow for more experimentation and innovation while we work to perfect the model (or develop multiple models)
  • There is general agreement on the types of degrees that are best suited for CBE – Professional Degrees vs the Humanities
  • While the majority of College Presidents embraced CBE models (75%), 20% believed that CBE could dilute general education and there is a propensity for ‘unintended consequences’ (I find this interesting as for those who are serial innovators, they know that innovations most often come not from the initial idea but from those unintended consequences as they continually sharpen the sword)
  • College Presidents believe strongly that having the faculty involved in the design of these new models is critical for long-term success
  • CBE is an effective alternative approach to measuring the value of a college degree

In mid – late ’90’s a colleague of mine gave me a white paper titled ‘Prisoners of Time’. It was published by the National Commission on Time and Learning. The essence of the paper was around the amount of time (hours and days) that K-12 students spend in school – and the lack of correlation to student success. That is, time does not effectively measure learning outcomes. For me personally, this was one of the most profound documents that lead me down the career path of online learning. Today, I believe it is generally agreed that time does not measure effectiveness and for US Higher Education, CBE education has the great possibility of becoming the next big thing that provides a new pathway to degrees for millions of Americans. With the increased attention from College and University leadership, the need for a better prepared workforce by business and industry, and the desire for radically improved models for higher education by government and legislators, CBE is destined to become woven into the fabric of our educational system.

However, as many who have begun to explore these intricate learning models know, getting to a scaled implementation can be quite complex, challenging many traditional systems, processes, and practices across the institution. Successful CBE programs require a high degree of cross-functional collaboration and a willingness to embrace significant change and innovation. In an effort to help institutions better understand, grapple with, and overcome these challenges, we will be providing a content series on CBE over the coming months that will draw on expert opinions, thought leadership, and voices from the field. We hope you’ll join us in this important discussion. Please follow me @ToddAHitchcock and subscribe to our Teaching & Learning blog to follow the latest conversations.

Take a moment to download the newly released Presidential CBE report from the Chronicle of Higher Education, “A New Measure for Collegiate Learning”, as well as other CBE resources at


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About the Author

ToddHitchcockTodd Hitchcock is the Senior Vice President of Pearson Online Learning Services. In this role, he provides strategic and operational leadership for Pearson’s Online Program Management. Todd has been working in the educational technology field for over 20 years. He has held a number of leadership roles in the United States and Canada including Technology Officer for a large suburban school district, Director of Account Management at Pearson eCollege, and Vice President of Global Services at Florida Virtual School. Todd is an advocate for educational improvement through innovative technologies. He currently is on the Board of Directors of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA), and he has served two separate terms on the Board of Directors of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).