Competency-based Education as a Disruptive Innovator

Summary of presentation to the Association for Continuing Higher Education (ACHE) annual conference. October 28, 2014. Las Vegas, NV

Competency-based education is a current “buzz” topic in higher education due, in part, to large funders such as the Gates and Lumina Foundations supporting research and new models of education. Competency-based education places an emphasis on the assessment of learning outcomes. Learning is broken into individual competencies that students must demonstrate they have mastered. In some models, prior learning is converted from competencies to credit.

The theory of disruptive innovation developed by Harvard University professor Clayton Christensen, “describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors” (Christensen, 2014). Disruptive innovation revolutionizes an expensive, inconvenient and complicated industry to one that is more affordable, convenient and simple (Christensen & Horn, 2013). Is higher education expensive, inconvenient and complicated? Competency-based education can help make the industry more affordable, convenient and simple, if done right. Continuing education units, in particular, have the opportunity to drive the conversation due to the nature of working with non-traditional populations and entrepreneurial systems.

Competency-based education is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970’s, the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) put forth grant support for innovators in prior learning assessment (PLA). Initiatives such as student portfolios for credit, College Level Examination Program (CLEP), American Council on Education (ACE) credit equivalents and the Military Assessment of Training for Civilian Hiring (MATCH) programs have been providing competency–based credit at institutions for a long time. Some of the newer models go further by thinking outside the credit box. For example, Western Governors University is exclusively competency-based where students advance based on demonstrating mastery of content rather than credits. Therefore, the student has the ability to progress quickly depending on their prior learning. Southern New Hampshire University also evaluates direct assessment of learning not tied to the credit hour. The University of St. Francis in Joliet converts prior learning to credits using a portfolio process to measure competencies and also provides block credit for credentials such as military training.

There are numerous other examples and best practices in competency-based education. Continuing education managers are encouraged to view the topic through the lens of disruptive innovation and to think differently about how to apply the concept within their unit. For example, is there a technology enabler that can speed up a portfolio process? Is there a business model for prior learning assessment that can revolutionize the institution? Can prior learning assessment be moved from the advising office to the admissions office? How can students quickly advance through the process of education without losing the value and integrity of programs?

Competency-based education has the potential to add value to the adult education field. It is outcomes focused, provides benefits to the adult learner’s emotional and cognitive connection to learning, and has the potential to lower the cost and time to attainment of a degree. Competency-based models also have the potential to disrupt our industry. However, as units of continuing education, we have the opportunity to participate in the disruption by promoting new models on our campuses.


Christensen, C. M. (2014). Disruptive Innovation. Retrieved from:

Christensen, C. M., & Horn, M. B. (2013). How disruption can help colleges thrive.

Chronicle of Higher Education, 60(5), B30-B31.

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