Leading the Way: Capitalizing on Disruption to Improve Online Education

160664859(1)By Patricia J. Campbell, Ph.D., Assistant Provost, Vice President at American Public University System

Renowned higher education expert Clayton Christensen has suggested that competency-based education (CBE) is one of today’s major disruptive innovations. Higher education needs to adapt in order to meet the increasingly challenging environment in which the Academy is situated (Weise and Christensen, 2014). While CBE has existed for many years, it is only now really gaining traction. Multiple factors are contributing to this, including:

  • employer concerns that students are ill-prepared for the workplace;
  • the rising costs of higher education resulting in decreased opportunities for lower- and middle- income students, as well as increased debt for college graduates;
  • an increasingly competitive global job market; and
  • an increasing number of older and working adults enrolling in colleges and universities.

CBE represents a paradigm shift in how we approach higher education. Rather than measuring student progress by how much time they spend in a seat, it “allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities.” (U.S. Department of Education, http://www.ed.gov/oii-news/competency-based-learning-or-personalized-learning).

The anytime, anywhere, at “your own pace” approach of CBE allows maximum flexibility with many CBE programs set up as an “all-you-can-eat buffet”; students pay a flat fee (e.g., $2,500/semester) and can then attempt to achieve mastery of as much coursework as their own schedules allow. So rather than a student being limited to 15 hours per semester, he or she can move as quickly or as slowly as they would like through a CBE program.

This approach is not without its challenges. Understanding these challenges and collaborating on strategies and best practices to address them was the primary focus of an American Public University System (APUS)-sponsored workshop I moderated at this year’s recent Online Learning Consortium International Conference. The session featured a distinguished panel of CBE experts who came together to share their expertise with participants. Dr. Anya Andrews from the University of Central Florida provided a historical overview of the development of CBE programs. Sean Spear from Western Governors University, one of the early CBE pioneers, focused on some of the accreditation hurdles inherent in launching such an innovative approach to higher education. Kim Pearce from Capella University discussed some of the advantages CBE presents in terms of flexibility and pricing advantages. She also discussed the need for robust assessments to measure student mastery. In addition, students require support structures designed to assist them with their programs of study. Collectively, Dr. Andrews and I completed the panel discussion with an overview of the step-by-step approach used by APUS to create a pilot CBE program.

Following the panel presentation, participants were encouraged to join the discussion and to solicit information from the panel of experts about best approaches to implementing CBE programs at their own institutions. The engaging and thoughtful discussion provided an excellent forum for participants to delve deeper into the challenges and opportunities presented by CBE.

While traditional higher education will likely continue in its current form for most institutions, CBE offers one way for the Academy to try to address the multiple concerns that have been raised about the future of higher education in the U.S. Or, as Christensen notes: “Online competency-based education has the potential to provide learning opportunities that drive down costs, accelerate degree completion, and produce a variety of convenient, customizable, and timely programs for the emergent needs of our labor market” (2014, 33).

Michelle R. Weise and Clayton M. Christensen, “Hire Education Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution,” Clayton Christensen Institution for Disruptive Innovation, 2014.

U.S. Department of Education, “Competency-Based Learning or Personalized Learning” Accessed November 20, 2014, http://www.ed.gov/oii-news/competency-based-learning-or-personalized-learning.


Dr. Patricia J. Campbell is currently the Vice President, Assistant Provost of Graduate Studies, Research, and Innovation at American Public University System. She began working at APUS in 2008 as a Program Director for International and Area Studies. Dr. Campbell received her Ph.D. from the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and her B.A. from Illinois State University. After receiving her Ph.D., she served as a professor of political science at the University of West Georgia, where she held a variety of positions, including Director of Global Studies and Interim Department Chair.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence