The answer may be obvious to some, but the right timing is actually often overlooked in practice.
The first time I was asked to be on a panel to talk about technology for CBE, one of my fellow panelists started the conversation by encouraging the audience to remember that CBE itself is actually a curriculum model, not a technology approach. While we were there to talk about how technology can support a CBE implementation, he called out there's nothing inherent in CBE that requires technology. He’s right, of course. However, when we talk about CBE in a digital environment, we can’t ignore the role that systems play in both shaping and enabling a CBE implementation.
I think of technology for CBE in the same way I think about learning management systems for instructors: the best ones support the instructor’s process (not the other way around) and offload tasks that don't need to be performed by a thinking human. Similarly, in CBE, technology and associated workflows should support the goals of the CBE program implementation and provide tooling and scaling for those academic processes. To ensure that the technology fills its intended purpose, IT representation is critical to the implementation strategy for any digital CBE program.
According to the 2022 National Survey of Postsecondary Competency-Based Education by the American Institutions for Research1, when asked about CBE adoption motivation and pathways, “Most responding institutions reported being at the course- or program-level adoption stage. The most common first steps that institutions took in adopting CBE were those that typically require less support outside of academic units, such as competency and assessment development.” I draw two critical insights from this research finding: first, that CBE adoptions tend to be small and incremental, which means they are likely to run alongside traditional programs (and, thus, run ON traditional program-focused systems); second, that institutions often try to implement CBE in a way that does not require anybody outside of the academic house to be involved. The fact that CBE is often deployed alongside traditional programs makes it even more necessary for IT to be at the table in the planning stages and not avoided as a partner, as the latter half of this research finding intimates.
Institutions exploring CBE program development typically begin the real work on the academic side - working through how their curriculum will need to change in order to align with quality standards of CBE. Our partners at Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) guide and coach clients through CBE program workshops, including competency definition, mastery identification, student supports, and the like. But before that real work starts, C-BEN leads clients in a visioning activity that helps the entire team coalesce around clear goals for the CBE program implementation. This design activity is a critical step in the program development process. I'll borrow from the concept of backward design here: it will be nearly impossible for IT to fully support a CBE program implementation if the team does not understand the ultimate goals and what success looks like.
And now, a tale of two CBE implementations. Institution A’s IT team was not included in early discussions about the goals of its CBE program. This team had no idea why CBE was being introduced alongside its traditional programs and had very little understanding of the technological impacts. It was clear that this team was not accustomed to being involved at the early stages and had learned to jump right into the tactics of an implementation, without an understanding of the strategy. This implementation did not go well, as this team could never pull itself far enough out of the weeds to really understand the why, the impact to the learner, and the needs of the faculty; its muddled technology implementation mirrored its lack of understanding of the end goal.
In contrast, at a recent visioning activity, Institution B had its IT leadership at the table. As participants in the visioning exercise, the IT team had the opportunity to identify potential gaps and issues it might encounter during the implementation. The team understood enough to identify “expert advice” as a mitigation strategy for its lack of experience and implementing CBE technology. This team could see the work ahead of them, but could also see strategies they could employ to play their role in enabling a successful CBE program. I credit their inclusion at this very early visioning activity not only for the broad awareness of what the program was trying to achieve but for the signal, to the entire implementation team, of the critical role IT would play in the institution’s CBE implementation.
When is the right time to involve IT in a CBE program implementation? You guessed it - right at the very beginning. When we engage technology leadership early, we acknowledge the critical role technology will play in enabling the CBE program. In addition, because technology can sometimes be an obstacle, early involvement gives the IT team time to consider options for implementation and to advocate for pathways that provide less resistance than others.
Unicon has been designing, building, and improving digital learner experiences for over 30 years. In the current higher education climate, the emerging skills economy paves the way for competency-based education and competency-focused IT architectures to serve learners in a new and personalized way. These learner-centric programs increase access to and opportunity for more equitable learning experiences. We believe in the power of technology to expand access to education, and in the power of education to create a better future for all.