Proficiency Based Curriculum Model: Part 6


This is the sixth post in the series on Academic Strategic Enrollment Management.

One of the most profound developments in Academic SEM is the emergence of a Proficiency-Based Curriculum Architecture Model (PBCAM). Its development and continued evolution are the results of a synthesis by a number of scholars, communities of practice and higher education associations. The Proficiency-Based Curriculum Architecture Model is driven by and feeds the continued evolution of the global learning ecosystem. It is built upon a digital learning framework and serves to restructure the basic architecture of higher education’s curriculum. An institution’s curriculum architecture defines the essential components of its curricular system; maps the interrelationships between the components and the environment, and specifies the system’s intended learning and award outcomes. Put simply, the curriculum architecture synthesizes the many institution-specific design and delivery decisions inherent in curriculum management.

An Evolving Proficiency-Based Curriculum Architecture

The scope of the emerging Proficiency-Based Curriculum Architecture Model embraces learning leading to an accredited formal educational credential and extends to include the universe of practice based educational experiences. Practiced based curriculum has historically been considered not for credit in a collegiate program of study. The lines have become blurred as new learning experiences are built and experienced and woven into the for credit curriculum. An example of the implications of the Proficiency-Based Curriculum Architecture Model considers the Kahn Academy’s inventory of learning objects and their integration by the learner into their collegiate experience. Until now there was not a structure within a collegiate curriculums architecture to accommodate the experience.

Curriculum architecture is defined by four underlying domains:

  1. Programs of Study
    The taxonomy of degrees, certificates, sequences, courses, modules, and learning objects within a school’s curriculum inventory defines the primary design feature of the school. This domain anchors the architecture, shifts attention to outcomes and program-based design elements, and, thereby, facilitates the alignment of the academic master planning process with other institutional processes.
  2. Authentications
    This domain details accrediting, licensing, and assessment oversight organizations, the units warranted, and related specifications. In doing so, the architecture incorporates the School’s accreditation and outcomes assessment planning processes.
  3. Delivery and Learner Access Strategies
    This domain tracks program term parameters (calendar), schedule model parameters, delivery modes, facilities implications and other delivery specifications.
  4. Business Model Variables
    This domain specifies the human resource specifications, instructional and non-instructional funding, and other resource specifications required to deliver the curriculum.
    Of these domains, the basic structural elements of the programs of study define the learner’s curricular experiences and provide for the primary value assessment of a credential. The POS and the courses that build the cumulative knowledge and skills are essential to positioning an academic offering in the 21st century global learning marketplace. The system that is now in place is structurally two tiers that link the program of study to required course experiences.

The Two Tier Program Architecture

The managed components of curricula consist of the top tier referred to as the Program of Study or POS. The program tier consists of a prescribed number of roughly sequential course experiences designed to culminate in a credential. A typical baccalaureate program of study is five courses per term over 8 consecutive terms summing to 40 courses earning a minimum of 120 credits.

The Program of Study

Figure 1: The Program of Study

The second tier is the Course. Courses are defined in terms of seat time equivalency and calibrated to credits. A three credit course is typical. Courses in this example are delivered over a 15 week term requiring 3 hours of faculty contact per week for a total of 45 contact hours. In addition, students would be expected to spend 6 hours per week reading, preparing, and problem solving, or studying the material for an additional 90 hours of learning the experience. Combined these two basic course elements sum to 135 hours of learning engagement and earn three credit hours. Learning is assessed primarily through summative course assessments in the form of midterm and final exams with further evidence supplied by a term paper, quizzes or a project. A new model has evolved since 1995.

The Seven Tier Curriculum Architecture

The new model begins with the understanding of the emergence of learning objects and their role in constructing curriculum architectures. Learning objects are the smallest component of the curriculum. They form the foundation of a structured curriculum, are integral to learning and are used to build pathways to higher level cognitive awareness and understanding. The content within learning objects has always been integral to the teaching and learning processes. The shift to digital learning environments enables discrete digital lessons that can be created, stored, used and reused, labeled (tagged), mapped in sequence, coupled with specific formative assessments, and integrated into larger cohesive curricular structures.

IMS Global Learning Consortium (IMS GLC)

In 1995, IMS Global Learning Consortium (IMS GLC) came into existence as a project within the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative of EDUCAUSE. While IMS got its start with a focus on higher education, the specifications published to date as well as ongoing projects address requirements in a wide range of learning contexts, including of course K-12 schools and corporate and government training. The primary focus of the initiative and the work of the consortium involve the establishment of standards for the emerging digital learning environment especially with respect to the formal curriculum.

Learning Objects

On June 25 1999 Cisco System published version 3.0 of their Cisco Systems Reusable Information Object Strategy: Definition, Creation Overview, and Guidelines marking a key milestone in the evolution and development of the use of objects.

The RIO Strategy is built upon the Reusable Information Object (RIO). An RIO is granular, reusable chunk of information that is media independent. An RIO can be developed once and delivered in multiple delivery mediums. Each RIO can stand alone as a collection of content items, practice items and assessment items that are combined based on a single learning objective. Individual RIOs are then combined to form a larger structure called a Reusable Learning Object (RLO).

Objects are then combined to build modules, and modules are combined to build courses.

The Proficiency-Based Curriculum Architecture Model

Figure 2: The Proficiency-Based Curriculum Architecture Model


The first distinguishing factor in the use of the term ‘Learning Object’ is that it is an element of the Digital Learning Environment. There are a number of learning object models that have emerged. Early on the learning object was defined as “a collection of content items, practice items, and assessment items that are combined based on a single learning objective.” “The term Learning Object, first popularized by Wayne Hodgins in 1994 when he named the CedMA working group ‘Learning Architectures, APIs and Learning Objects’

The second distinguishing factor is determined by the three basic characteristics of an object:

  • Accessibility
    An object must be able to be stored, retrieved, indexed, referenced and used directly by the learner. To achieve this means that it must be labeled with ‘metadata’ or tagged with keywords in order to facilitate the function within a digital archival system.
  • Reusability
    An object once cataloged and warranted for credibility should serve the learner in different instructional and learning contexts.
  • Interoperability
    The object should function independently from the learning management system, curriculum or content management systems, student record and registration system.

Course Curriculum Flow Model

The Course Curriculum Flow Model diagrams a course design into a sequence of related experiences and maps them in a time framework. The model provides a structured means of defining, combining, and developing learning experiences built upon a fine granularity assessable learning engagements building toward proficiency.

The Course Curriculum Flow Model

Figure 3: The Course Curriculum Flow Model

The course then plugs directly into the existing Program of Study diagramed in Figure 1: The Program of Study.

Disciplines and Communities of Practice: The guiding forces of formal curricula

Academic degrees and credentials are much more than just a random assemblage of learning experiences. Two fundamental drivers guide them. See Figure 2: The Proficiency-Based Curriculum Architecture Model.

The first driver is the structure, focus, and rigor of academic disciplines. Disciplines historically drive credential development and anchor the credential on a bedrock of scholarship, reason and accumulated research.

The second driver involves the structure, focus, and rigor emanating from trans-disciplinary Communities of Practice (often referred to as CoP) as the framing construct for the overarching scope of the curriculum. Communities of practice are formed by those who engage in collective learning within a shared domain of interest and through that interaction develop shared practice over time (Wenger, 2011). A community of practice curriculum is an emergent learning pathway for practitioners and scholars who share a common interest in or focus upon an area of research or scholarship that crosses disciplinary boundaries.

The Proficiency-Based Curriculum Architecture Model recognizes the multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary nature of communities of practice and bridges between Collegiate/Scholarly offerings (arrayed down the right side) and Professional Practice offerings (arrayed down the left side). The feature, thereby, anchors the curriculum in both the scholarly and practitioner realms, forming the foundation for a Scholar/Practitioner curriculum. The discipline layer in the Proficiency-Based Curriculum Architecture Modelrecognizes that community of practice learning needs are translated and organized by discipline or field of study experts into programs of study. In turn the formal curricular structure provides a sequential term/course view of the learning opportunities designed to meet the needs of those wishing to enter or continue learning within a community of practice.

In Closing

I hope this brief sketch provides an evolutionary view of how the foundations of curricular innovation are driving the future of Academic Strategic Enrollment Management. The emerging  Proficiency-Based Curriculum Architecture Model permits dramatic expansion and integration of collegiate curriculum into the continuing education and learning requirements of the new millennium.

Stay connected and engage with your colleagues join the ASEM Group in Linked In, and join us in Claremont on December 8th for the Institute for Academic Strategic Enrollment Management and Sustainability where we will discuss the Proficiency-Based Curriculum Architecture Model.

Achieving Strategic Position in the
Global Learning Marketplace: Part 7

Programs of Study: Part 5

4 thoughts on “Proficiency Based Curriculum Model: Part 6

  1. Could you comment on the relationship between the 7 tiered curricular architecture and the currently and sometimes loosely used notion of a “competency-based curricula”?


    • In short, the Proficiency Based Curriculum Architecture Model (PBCAM) provides a structured design framework to enable, encourage, and accommodate Competency-Based Curricula. The Report of the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative Working Group on Competency-Based Initiatives in Postsecondary Education titled Defining and Assessing Learning: Exploring Competency-Based Initiatives (September 2002) concluded that “Future work should continue to examine issues of transportability of learning experiences across academic programs and institutions by focusing on how reliability and validity are addressed.” ( The PBCAM provides the framework for competency based approaches to structurally relate to either or both practice and collegiate oriented curricula and vertically integrate to support community of practice focused curricula.


  2. Reblogged this on mkmclaughlin2014 and commented:
    This model helps one to form a bridge from what faculty have traditionally understood about the structure of the curriculum and the current interest in competency based education. The following blog by Julia Freeland is a helpful discussion of the competency topic. I find it helpful to go back and forth between the presented curriculum architecture and competency based education as I struggle with the question – what will be the new business models for our institutions?


  3. This model helps one to form a bridge from what faculty have traditionally understood about the structure of the curriculum and the current interest in competency based education. The following blog by Julia Freeland is a helpful discussion of the competency topic. I find it helpful to go back and forth between the presented curriculum architecture and competency based education as I struggle with the question – what will be the new business models for our institutions?


Post a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s