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Emerging EdTech Ecosystem for Competency-Driven Technology

I could hear them approaching, but the music was so faint that I thought it was being piped in over the speakers. As it got louder, eyes in the room started to find the entry doors to the conference room. At last, the doors opened, and simultaneously the music *swelled* to envelop the room. A marching band! Proudly, the band processed through the room, bringing the feel of a Friday night football game to the conference ballroom. The cheerleaders and color guard enthusiastically led the audience in a chant… “C - B - E! C - B - E!”

I had the pleasure of attending three powerful days at the CBExchange 2022 conference last week. The conference, focused on competency-based education, brings together institutions, agencies, consortia, vendor partners, and thought leaders to collaborate and learn from one another in the pursuit of increasing the adoption and scalability of CBE in higher education. And yes, there was, in fact, a marching band.

You don’t have to look very hard in the news around higher education to notice that there is a distinct and growing disconnect between K12, higher education, and the needs of the workforce. Employers struggle to fill jobs while graduates struggle to find satisfying employment. In addition to this needs disconnect, learners are demanding clearer ROI for their education dollars as paying consumers of educational goods and services. They are looking for education to meet them where they are and provide the flexibility and outcomes that can improve their lives. What that looks like is not the same as it did even 20 years ago. In this new educational landscape, concepts like credit for prior learning, skills and credit mobility, upskilling, learning anywhere, and self-paced learning denote a shift in the expectations learners have of their educational experiences.

This shift is being noticed. According to the 2020 NSPCBE survey, the most common factor that institutions reported as having an impact on their interest in CBE was "the perception of a long-term shift happening in the higher education landscape.” The same survey states “CBE adoption efforts span all institution types and are motivated by the potential of CBE to support workforce readiness and improve learning outcomes” (emphasis added).

Part of my job is to watch the education space for changes and ensure our company is prepared to tackle the problems our clients are facing. As we look at the technical challenges created by a shift to competency-driven curriculum and the movement of competency or skills-focused outcomes into workforce-readable currency, we first identify what is different about CBE. Where traditional programs are time-bound, competency-based programs are student-paced, which allows students to speed up or slow down without penalty when life happens. Traditional programs track learning on a credit basis, whereas competency-based programs track skills. Grades denote “proof” of learning in traditional programs and are stored on transcripts, whereas competency-based programs capture mastery evidence in a learner record.


What this all means for the technology ecosystem that supports a competency-based program is potentially a considerable paradigm shift for systems built with traditional programs in mind. With the large number of institutions exploring competency-based learning, but not yet implementing, building a conceptual model to demonstrate what a competency-driven technology ecosystem might look like has been an invaluable tool for rooting institutional IT and Administrators in the fundamental needs of CBE architecture. If we envision an ecosystem that handles the competency-based concepts shown above, we end up impacting (at least) four conceptual groupings of the technology ecosystem: Foundations, Teaching & Learning, Skills Evidence, and Workforce. Below is an emerging picture of a conceptual architecture for competency-based programs.

CBE Tech Ecosystem (2)


The components of the technical architecture that we consider foundational are those that build the basic administrative and management systems for the entire ecosystem. While the ERP, SIS, and LMS will always be critical, data infrastructure gets an elevated position here given the criticality of data in a competency-driven program. The data infrastructure surfaces not only the information that helps learners, faculty, and advisors understand how the student is progressing, but also data use in collecting, tracking, informing, and adapting the CBE program overall. CBE architecture requires a well-formed data strategy and a robust data infrastructure, and technology choices must align with the data infrastructure vision. In a poll facilitated at the CBExchange 2022 conference, participants ranked this success statement, which relies heavily on the data infrastructure, in the top three technology concerns for their implementation:

"Enable our program to continually evaluate and refine assessment strategy, equitable learner achievement, learner supports, and enable external validation of learning."

The other addition at this foundational level is the Competency Management System. A robust competency-driven ecosystem will include tooling that enables not only the definition and storage of competencies and their related frameworks and mappings, but also the efficient management, sharing, and improvement of those structures and definitions. Rated the number two concern by CBExchange 2022 participants in the poll cited above was this success statement: “Enable competency definition, management, and mapping.”

Teaching & Learning

As we move up a level, we meet the systems that support teaching and learning. You’ll notice here that we’ve denoted systems that need to be inspected for adaptation (to the left of the vertical dashed line) as well as systems that may need to be added into the ecosystem (to the right of the vertical dashed line). Personalized, and ideally adaptive curricula and courseware is a standout in this tier, as well as the systems that provide wraparound support for the learner. Many traditional systems in this area are time-based, which creates a construct against which academic risk can be predicted. When you remove the time structure, you have to create different supports and structures for student pacing and identification of at-risk students.

Skills Evidence

When grades were the proof of learning, transcripts listing courses and grades were sufficient. But this is a new world, and learning tracked at the skill level requires a new type of portfolio to capture verified evidence of skill mastery. In addition, learners desire (and deserve) agency over their skill mastery, which is enabled only when they own their skills and credential records and are able to use them to attract and communicate with the right employers. In a poll facilitated at the CBExchange 2022 conference, participants ranked this success statement as their top technology-focused concern: “Deliver a learner-facing, workforce-readable evidence/skills portfolio, and/or transcript, and/or learner record.”


The workforce grouping isn’t a component of system architecture that typically shows up on an institution’s diagram. However, the link to the workforce is a critical component of a CBE architecture. If workforce readiness and skills-based hiring are to come together, the ecosystem needs an agreed-upon currency for exchange. CBE asserts that skills are this currency, and thus CBE architectures need to ensure the skills evidence that learners achieve is understood and accepted in a workforce-readable exchange. HR systems, including resume screening and applicant tracking applications, need to be able to read and understand the skill descriptions being produced by the institution. Standards help us define a shared language for this exchange.

Consumer sentiment in Higher Education is changing. Learners demand learning on their terms, with the assurance that their investments will yield life-improving opportunities; they demand agency over their learning outcomes. Employers need hires who bring essential and specific skills, abilities, and behaviors to their jobs. Technology can help us connect these needs, and central to building out the right architecture is ensuring we consider all the relevant systems.

In “Students First: Equity, Access, and Opportunity in Higher Education,” Paul LeBlanc writes: “Healthy ecosystems are diverse, so a learning ecosystem would be designed to encourage and support the diversity and variety we celebrate in American higher education, perhaps our greatest strength. It would create a kind of operating system upon which providers - colleges and new types of education providers - would be like applications, or apps: widely varied, performing different functions in different ways, true to themselves, but all compliant with the underlying operating system.”

Using this emerging technology ecosystem view, we have a starting point for adapting, procuring, and integrating the products and facilitating the interoperability that will provide scale for the technical and human processes that deliver learner-centric competency-driven education.

Kate Valenti

Kate Valenti

Chief Operating Officer
Kate Valenti leads the senior executive team and all aspects of corporate operations at Unicon. Kate is responsible for the profitable execution of the firm's business strategy, balancing outstanding service to our clients, significant impact to learners, and enjoyable work experiences for our employees. Throughout her 20+ year career at Unicon, Kate has previously held key leadership roles including Chief Operating Officer and Senior Director of Integrations and Analytics. Previously, Kate worked at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young as a management consultant with a focus on enterprise application integration. Kate is passionate about the impact that well-designed and well-integrated technology can have on the learning experience. During her career in education, Kate has designed and developed integration strategies, programs, and technical services teams, and has delivered dozens of integrated solutions to the market. Kate has both participated in and facilitated industry panel conversations and holds the EDUCAUSE Review Author microcredential.