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Why We Need Competency-based Education

The ever-changing employment landscape of the twenty-first century calls for corresponding changes in education.

An academic degree demonstrates an individual’s ability to study, learn, and prove their knowledge. It also reflects their interest in a particular field and might prepare them for a career. But with technology accelerating at breakneck rates and technical skills becoming more specialized, some university coursework might be out of date even before graduation day. Five or ten years out, it’s likely that graduates will need some reskilling and will continue to need it periodically throughout their careers.

As the half-life of skills shortens, learning experiences should become more flexible and individualized. Linking learning with job roles and competency models can provide pathways that help individuals develop the competencies they need to qualify for new jobs as they come on stream.

Skills and knowledge vs. time spent learning

Writing early this year in the Training Industry Blog, Dr. Lisa McIntyre-Hite and Dr. Charla Long noted that employers “want greater precision regarding what graduates actually know and can do.”

And many employers are shifting toward competency-based hiring. For example:

  • With more than two million workers, the US federal government has pivoted its hiring practices to put more emphasis on job skills than educational levels. This change will not negate degree requirements for some jobs, but skills assessments and other measurements will level the playing field for many roles.

  • Students enrolled in Walden University’s Tempo Learning® competency-based education program demonstrate knowledge, skills, and expertise through various types of assessments. They work toward degrees by mastering competencies deemed necessary for their desired careers.

  • When GE Digital needed highly skilled workers for a new IT center in Rhode Island four years ago, the company worked with TechHire Rhode Island to recruit software engineers, project analysts and other professionals. TechHire champions inclusive hiring practices that value skills over academic degrees. The organization uses a talent validation process for assessing technical aptitude, professionalism, and job readiness. The organization uses training partners to run credentialing programs such as intensive boot camps for people who want to become software developers.

  • Brandman University focuses competency-based education (CBE) on building a deep understanding of the competencies required for fields such as business and information technology, how to develop and measure them, and how to help learners articulate them to employers.

  • South Texas College has used competency-based education to meet local employers’ talent needs. Ten years ago, the college began offering bachelor’s degree programs that cost no more than $10,000. Competency-based education enabled the college to create a high-quality, affordable program that appealed to working adults. This competency-based approach, which provides learning that can happen anytime, anywhere, has increased opportunities for students who might lack the resources and time to pursue traditional degree programs. Also, if students have prior knowledge of a subject, they can prove their knowledge and move forward instead of spending time in class unnecessarily. Other schools in the state, including Tarleton State University, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and the University of Houston, have adopted competency-based degrees.

  • Although many programs like the one at Walden University and a growing number of Texas institutions build on competencies that lead to degrees, shorter certificate programs and courses also enable workers to upskill or reskill to take on the jobs they desire.

Customized learning

As educational institutions become more intricately connected with industry, they will increasingly alter their programming to serve industry’s growing need for competencies and micro-credentials.

To that end, they are customizing learning experiences to place individuals in those environments where they learn best and can focus more easily on content – taking into account even the time of day when an individual best absorbs information. Providers are also using new technology tools to monitor learning progress—rather than seat time—toward a credential. Data analysis, machine learning, and AI will enable learning systems to provide meaningful and insightful recommendations to help someone manage their education and career.

Identifying the competencies needed for specific job roles will help employers collaborate with educational institutions. For example, a hospital that needs to train staff members on using new equipment might approach the local community college to provide a three-week training module.

Tracking competencies

When learners complete courses or develop new skills through experience, their achievements can be recorded via interoperable learning records (ILRs) that they and their employers can access from then on.

ILRs will be instrumental in tracking a wide variety of learning experiences, on-the-job behaviors, and more. They will be able to document learning wherever it occurs—at work, through an educational program, or within military training. These records will be transferable and recognizable across academic, commercial, and military systems. Individuals seeking success in the new world of work will need this thorough reporting of their achievements.

People who own and manage their individual learning history, mini-credentials, and competencies throughout their lives will have complete records of the learning experiences that have prepared them for their next step up.

To qualify for new roles (many of which do not exist yet), workers at all educational levels will need to pursue competencies that align with their desired job and demonstrate that they have the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitudes to succeed in it. ILRs will help them do that.

A promising future

Many institutions value the idea of CBE but have yet to implement it. However, this approach is gaining traction and has a promising future. The Competency-Based Education Network, representing more than 30 colleges and universities, published Quality Principles & Standards for Competency-Based Education Programs in 2017. By developing principles and standards that could apply to all CBE programs, this organization has set the stage for expanding and popularizing this approach.