Myk Garn is a long-time friend of WCET. He currently champions “new learning models” for the University System of Georgia. Myk also serves on the Board of Directors for the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN). After recent discussions about attacks on the CBE model (see last week’s Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General’s criticism on the accrediting agency WASC’s handling of CBE), WCET invited Myk to share this opinion. You will be hearing more from WCET about the attacks on CBE in the coming weeks and months. Thank you, Myk.
Russ Poulin

In competency-based education (CBE) ‘the time it takes to demonstrate competencies varies and the expectations about learning are held constant,’ (CBEN, 2016).  This paradigmatic shift predicates momentous opportunity for accelerated learners who can progress through programs more rapidly ¾ AND ¾ for learners who need extended time to achieve mastery.

BUT — (and this is my kvetch) — there is a problem with a key phrase used to describe the time — and control over it — it takes CBE learners to work through their studies and demonstrate competence. Having recently read two excellent reports on CBE I was struck by the almost universal use of the term ‘self-paced’ to describe the rate of learner progress in CBE instructional models.

I’m sorry but (IMHO) — use of the ‘self-paced’ term seems wrong for two reasons.

photo of different sizes of people all jogging down a track.
“Self-paced” works for some activities.

“Self-paced” Equates with Correspondence, “Learn-on-your-own” Studies

First, and most importantly, the term ‘self-paced’ is specifically used in the Code of Federal Regulations to describe (enable classification of a course as) a correspondence course (“Correspondence courses are typically self-paced,” Sec. 484(l); 34 CFR 600.2).  For many degree-seeking learners this is bad because correspondence courses and programs are ineligible for Title IV financial aid.  Yes, there is the caveat ‘typically’ but — as I watched one college take three months to debate and resolve this nuance with an accreditor — it is like waving a red flag at a bull and then putting it back in your pocket — it doesn’t un-ring the bell (apologies for the mixed metaphor).

Deb Bushway, a CBE consultant with Lumina Foundation,  noted these concerns in a recent paper where she explained:

“When these regulations were developed, describing something as a “self-paced course” was a proxy for “left to learn on his/her own,” because the technology and knowledge was not yet available to track and personalize the educational experience. In the intervening years, advances in technology, predictive analytics, cognitive science, and instructional design have a spawned the creation of the new generation of academic innovators. In these programs, personalized pacing might leverage recent advances to support student learning and progression at a level that has not been achieved by even most traditional programs. In short, a “self-paced course” in 2016 does not necessarily leave a student to “learn on his/her own.”

CBE Isn’t All that Self-Paced

My second kvetch with ‘self-paced’ is that it is operationally inaccurate.  For students enrolled in CBE courses and programs that are credit bearing and eligible for financial aid — CBE is NOT a ‘self-paced’ option or experience.

While almost every CBE model is designed to give the student significant latitude and agency over their pace — the control is not unilaterally at the discretion of the learner.  It is a negotiated flexibility, with milestones, deadlines and absolute limits, arbitrated between course designers, faculty, learners — and regulators — to ensure there is ‘satisfactory academic progress’ to maintain financial aid eligibility.

In short, the variability of pace in CBE is not without boundaries.  And the limits are not, ultimately, set by the learners themselves.  Even without the regulatory requirement to ensure the student’s pace is sufficiently productive — experience tells us, that when learners are left to their own initiative to engage with and progress through a course of study, most tend to lapse, languish and leave.  Most recently the completion rates of MOOCs have provided a stark demonstration of this syndrome.

Let’s Get it Right

It is important that we get this concept — and term — right.

Recent findings (Editor’s Note: this was written prior to last week’s WASC criticism by the OIG) by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) have had, and could have a greater, chilling effect on CBE development.  With a report already issued criticizing the oversight of CBE programs by the Higher Learning Commission – and a review of Western Governors University nearing conclusion – we are learning how the OIG’s focus on terms and nuance (in WGU’s case “regular and substantive interaction’) could engender large, negative consequences for the well-intentioned efforts of the CBE movement.

Emphasize the Positive

Flexible pace is a big selling point of CBE.  Take more time where you need it, move ahead faster where you’re already skilled.  Every CBE program has had to confront and devise its own plan wherein learners can adjust and optimize their time spend learning and progressing balanced against other commitments and emergencies.  The six month term model provides sufficient ‘slack’ time that students can accommodate breaks, vacations, work, life and still find time to stay on — or exceed — the progress students made in a traditional 15-week learning window.

As I’ve pointed out, allowing learners to devise and manage their learning schedules alone is contraindicated.

A track coach is leans down next to a young runner who, apparently just completed a race. The coach has his arm around the runner and appears to be consoling him.
CBE students often receive coaching from their “Academic Friend Forever”

Many CBE programs address this challenge with a ‘success coach.’   This tactic, what I like to think of as a learner’s “Academic Friend Forever” — or AFF, establishes a person-to-person relationship that ensures on-going engagement and adjustments for on-track progress for the entire program. The coach maintains regular contact with the learner.  Usually by phone weekly at the beginning of a program, generally less (bi-weekly) as the student progresses and establishes and demonstrates strong time management skills.  From the start, and throughout the duration of study, the coach and learner negotiate the pace and progress that is anticipated, will be attempted and has been achieved.

Also emergent in exemplar CBE models is the use of instructional technologies, including the adaptation of customer relationship management (CRM) software to develop, maintain and grow a progressive, persistent student profile that can be accessed and utilized by an entire team of instructional and learning support professionals.

These tactics and tools enable increasingly informed, accurate and effective management of pace and progress by individual learners.  The result is a learning model where the pace is negotiated and customized to the individual’s personal abilities and circumstances within a reasonable (and regulatory) set of boundaries.

It’s Time to Stop Using “Self-Paced”

To recap:  The primary reason to stop using the term ‘self-paced’ is to avoid unintended confusion and/or classification of a program as ‘correspondence’ when it is intended to be for-credit and financial aid eligible.  AND — the pace of progress through CBE instruction is not determined unilaterally by her/himself — the pace is a bounded, negotiated, customized pace for each individual learner.

What makes this benefit unique is that, on any given day, for any given learner, the pace and progress will always be different.  And it is this individuality that provides a better term (or set of terms) to use.

THEREFORE and FORTHWITH EVERMORE: In describing the pace of learner advancement through competence-based instruction we now have a rich set of more accurate and descriptive terms that can be used.  These include: personalized-, individualized-, customized-, and flexible-pace and other variants to fuel your creativity.  I myself am beginning to favor the term ‘multi-paced.’  I’ll let you know how that works out.  But please, can we be resolved to eradicate the self-paced moniker from our minds — and our for-credit, financial aid eligible CBE courses, programs and models?Myk wearing glasses and smiling over his white beard and snazzy black shirt.

Myk Garn
Assistant Vice Chancellor for New Learning Models
Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia


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Running photo credit: Morgue File
Coach photo credit: Morgue File

16 replies on “Why We Need to Stop Using ‘Self-Paced’ in CBE Descriptions”

There are several issues here, among them:

1. Bureaucratic (government aid/institutional) vs. scholarly (often quantitative) definitions. Time and timing are often ill-defined within.
2. Similarly, “student-centered” is usually well thought of, but somehow “self-paced” sends up red flags to some. In class, do instructors ask for an honest account of how long students studied or wrote? [Probably rare] Do some get Incompletes? [Yes] Why harp on this in electronic settings unless to marginalize a type of learning?
3. “Coach” can have bad connotations in athletic scandals, yet it is a positive term in Life Coach, etc. WGU mentors allegedly helped too much–ethics, not necessarily timing issues.
4. Yes, finances rule many classifications, but it is often the fact that students start a long-range course when prompted or self-motivated, not because of any instructor welcome. Synchronous and asynchronous, while not perfect, at least dealt with time and the possibility of similar progress by students to allow for chats.
5. School is not just for job success. Nor is education necessarily the same as training.
6. “Multi-paced” may simply confuse all this.

Evan – I won’t claim multi-paced is the answer either (it seems that ‘personalized-pace’ may be in the lead – with a big push from the K-12 community). Indeed, I’ve heard from some (shout out to the great folks at University of Wyoming) that are working to show ‘self-paced’ shouldn’t be relegated to the correspondence corner – which is great! But, when a term raises red flags with accreditors, the pragmatist in me questions whether the term is really conveying our intent (I don’t think it really is) or worth fighting our way up one more mountain — when we have so many, much more important ones, to conquer. Again – IMHO – I have never been universally right on anything!

Thanks Myk for this thoughtful argument. For lots of other reasons, I’ve been trying to find other ways of describing our “self-paced” faculty training courses. Self-pacing has often meant “not completing.” I like the idea of setting different types of time boundaries and renaming it “flexible paced” or something like that.


For most of my working life I have objected to the term and concept of “self-paced” whether CBE or not. Very few learners, when left alone, will set a pace that leads to success. At a minimum we should call it “individual-paced” where the pace is set by an instructor/mentor/coach/advisor informed by pre-assessment and learner needs. When the term “self-paced” comes up in discussion I always guide the conversation toward “individual-paced.” In the old days, such as when I was in high school in the 60s and mid 90s when I ran a bridge school for kids in trouble, the individual approach was common but there was always a discussion and even a contract for each learner that set their pace and identified specific milestones. It is about time we return to some of that thinking.


Don Carter
NAU e-Learning Center, Director

You go Don! While I’m a total fan of ‘learner-driven’ models (in theory) – the evidence is showing us that learners don’t drive very far without a co-pilot…

Diane – thanks for the nice comment. I’m liking also the term “precision learning” which some are proposing ( — a term that comes from medicine. It seems to capture the transition from anecdotally-driven improvements to data-driven innovations.

Fair enough. I just wish DE could be accepted as a field with (perhaps) standardized terminology so that we do not have to qualify everything when we are challenged by any agency. 🙂

Evan – I am your co-commiserant on terminology. Our folks working on High Demand Career programs have the same challenge translating from academic to employer speak…

Thanks for this thoughtful and provocative piece, Myk! I always enjoy the opportunity to get inside that head of yours — THEREFORE and FORTHWITH EVERMORE.

But you are on target on this Myk. The focus on “pace” should be placed on the assessment path, where have you demonstrated proficiency along the “x” number of competencies defined. That is where we need to examine how CBE can add value with deeper, and more, assessments for learners to build success and move forward. – bill

I read the WCET site self-paced. I have not completed reading your article but will comment when I am done.

[…] In short, the variability of pace in CBE is not without boundaries.  And the limits are not, ultimately, set by the learners themselves.  Even without the regulatory requirement to ensure the student’s pace is sufficiently productive — experience tells us, that when learners are left to their own initiative to engage with and progress through a course of study, most tend to lapse, languish and leave.  Most recently the completion rates of MOOCs have provided a stark demonstration of this syndrome. (Source) […]

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