Development of a Competency-Linked Online Graduate Program

Concurrent Session 4
Streamed Session

Watch This Session

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

To increase enrollment, a program revision and course alignment were completed. Linking industry competencies to course activities provide students with increased job opportunities upon graduation. This presentation describes the integration of the competencies as well as the successes, challenges, and opportunities from developing a competency-linked online graduate program.


Jessica is a Lead Instructional Designer working with Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA) and the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences (FBNS). She provides instructional design and project management knowledge in order to provide solutions to instructional challenges. She works with faculty members and the new media team at DELTA to design, develop and evaluate innovative online and face-to-face courses. Before joining DELTA, Jessica taught at a private college for several years before working for a non-profit organization and as a government contractor. In her prior roles, she developed a multitude of courses, taught adults in a variety of business-related topics such as professional development and designed training programs. Jessica holds an Ed.S. in Instructional Design and Technology and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership.

Extended Abstract


The goal of integrating the competency-linked education model in the online graduate program was to link the curriculum and course activities with competencies from an accepted international organization in the field giving students increased labor market outcomes upon graduation. Ye, Van Os, Chapman & Jacobson (2017) proposed, “In today’s rapidly changing work environment, there is a growing demand for business educators to prepare graduates to adapt to the challenges of the marketplace. As the marketplace becomes more competitive, the expectation for newly hired employees to add value to the organization immediately and also demonstrate long-term career potential is only increasing.” This presentation discusses successes, challenges, and opportunities of integrating competencies education in an online graduate program.

Background of Online M.Ed. Training & Development Program

The online master’s in Training & Development program was the first fully online degree program created at NC State University.  A new program coordinator was assigned three years ago, and she developed strong ties to a local chapter of a large well-known organization in the field.  This led to substantial increases in enrollment and stronger ties with the Association for Talent Development (ATD).  As a result, there became a need (and overall programmatic goal) to align the 12 required program courses with the ATD Competency Model.  The online master’s degree has 10 core courses, 1 elective, and 1 capstone course for a total of 36 credit hours.  The program is fully online and geared toward working professionals in various disciplines.  While there are synchronous opportunities within courses, such as attending Zoom sessions, those sessions are recorded for those who need to attend asynchronously.  

Our Definition of Competency-Linked Education

Competency-linked education falls within the spectrum of competency-based education.  Book (2014) states there is not a definition of competency-based education and that several different models exist. Since there are so many different models, it is important to adequately describe our model for clarity.  Soares (2012) stated, “With a competency-based approach, you do not begin preparing a course syllabus by identifying content and readings.  Instead, you begin by identifying competencies and then select the content, readings, and assignments to support student attainment of those competencies” (p. 2).  

The U.S. Department of Education (n.d.) stated, “By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money.” Our competency-linked education course stays the same in terms of time to complete and cost to take the course.  While many colleges adopting competency-based education focus on a self-paced model, our program is still in semester format.  Students still take the required 12 courses to earn their master’s degree, and each course runs on a 16-week semester in Fall and Spring and a 5-week course in Summer I and Summer II semesters.  The goal of integrating competency-linked education in the online graduate program was to significantly improve the impact on labor market outcomes for students when they graduate and enter the workforce. Similar to the National Association of Manufacturers’ Manufacturing Skills Certification System discussed in Soares (2012), our program seeks to “bridge the worlds of workplace competencies and postsecondary education” (p. 10) so that students are best prepared with the skills needed to enter the workforce.  Rather than students saying, “I received a specific score or letter grade,” our students will be able to list competencies in which they are deemed proficient. Competencies are linked to all deliverables.

Krause, Dias & Schedler (2015) stated, “Because competency-based courses are often self-directed and self-paced, there are no requirements for introductions, class communications, and direct instruction.” This supports the reason why our competency-linked program deviates from the typical definition of competency-based education.  In our online program, we place a large emphasis on building community, keeping our students engaged with their peers, instructor, course materials, and online community through interactive and innovative technology and best practices.  We follow the “Model for Engaging the Online Learner” (Bartlett, 2017).

With a focus on course, peer, instructor, program, and community engagement, it is imperative that the faculty remain engaged throughout the course as more than just tech support.  Our program also focuses on the students’ technology efficacy, ability and self-perceived ability to use the technology needed to navigate through the courses.  The program is focused on building practitioners with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to enter the workforce, which can be seen in the model under applicability.  We believe students will thrive in the classroom when they are able to apply what they have learned outside of the classroom.   

Why Competency-Linked Education?

Corporations are increasingly spotlighting that students who graduate from higher education institutions are not entering the workforce with the skills needed to successfully complete their job.  Johnstone & Soares (2014) stated that competency-based education “builds a bridge between academics and employers, resulting in a better understanding of the knowledge and skills that students will need to succeed in work and in life” (p. 14). Competency-linked education, within the competency-based education spectrum, helps to ensure mindful course design, curriculum selection, and the creation of deliverables that will teach or increase skills needed by linking each activity to a specific competency. The competency-linked online graduate course format has the potential to ensure graduates are entering the workforce with skills they can demonstrate on their resume and through work actions that will make them high-quality hires. 

Challenges and Successes in Competency Alignment 

Competency Alignment Process.  Each program course was first aligned to an overarching specific industry competency as seen in the figure below.  Each overarching industry competency had anywhere from 5-15 competencies that had to be aligned to specific assignments within each course.  After we completed the course alignment, we then took the competencies from each section and aligned them to specific course activities and assignments.  In doing that, we had to look at each individual assignment, discussion forum, papers, group assignments, and final projects to see what needed to be added.  Some assignments had to be completely redesigned, and others were modified slightly to incorporate the competency-related changes and updates.  There were also foundational competencies that we mapped across the entire program curriculum.  

Challenges. Some of the challenges faced were:

  1. Developing competencies or finding existing competencies and then linking assignments to the competencies. 

  2. Training faculty in how to grade and give feedback using the competency-linked model. 

  3. Obtaining faculty buy-in with course updates. 

  4. Transitioning all course(s) to the new model, linking all activities to the competencies rather than only learning objectives in a specific amount of time.

Successes.  Despite the challenges we overcame, there were several successes: 

  1. Graduates finish the course with a list of mastered skills they obtained throughout the course.

  2. Courses close the gap between course content and skills needed on the job.

  3. Students are able to see and know how they are progressing as they move toward proficiency in the competencies of each course.

  4. Higher program enrollment during and after the competency alignment project.  

Relevance to T&L in HE

The session objectives have strong relevance to the teaching and learning in the higher education field. There is a lot of discussion surrounding defining and increasing student success through teaching and learning in higher education, however, there is not a consensus on the definition of student success.  The researchers propose that the aim for student success reaches beyond a student successfully completing a course, or graduating from a program, but obtaining a job that increases their labor market outcomes in ways that benefit themselves, their families, and communities, beyond what they had prior to obtaining the education.  With a focus on students taking the knowledge they learn in a course or degree program and applying it to increased labor market outcomes, competency-linked education is an effective way to prepare students with the skills needed to enter and successfully navigate the workplace beyond what they can learn from a textbook.  The session objectives have strong relevance to the teaching and learning in the higher education field. 

Session Learning Objectives

After completing this session, participants will be able to:

Objective 1: Determine(3) the importance of Competency-Linked Education.

Objective 2: Identify(4) pros and cons of implementing competency-linked education practices.

Objective 3: Develop(6)  their own strategies to align competencies in their own course or program.

*parenthetical # is the level of Bloom’s Taxonomy order of thinking

Audience Engagement Activities

We plan to open up the session by asking the participants to complete a “think-pair-share” (T-P-S) activity to think about the pros and cons of using or implementing competency-linked education practices.

We also plan to use dotstorming. We plan to ask the participants to share their definition of competency-linked education or how they can incorporate it.

One last way we plan to engage our audience is by having them complete an online poll question related to using competency-linked education at their respective institutions and challenges they may face in implementation.

Our proposal is based on the work of a two-year project. We are happy and excited to be able to share our work, lessons learned, and expertise.