Higher education’s use of competency-based learning (CBL) delivery approaches may be the key to mitigating the skills gap. But its full value can’t be realized on college campuses or in the workplace until all parties involved in the talent pipeline come together, said Deborah Everhart, vice president of design and innovation at Learning Objects, a segment of Cengage Learning that designs and builds learning programs and experiences using a CBL approach.
“The value lies in strong, collaborative ecosystems that meet the needs of all stakeholders: learners, educators, employers and endorsers,” Everhart said.
Learners want to know their pricey investment in a college education will land them the jobs they want. Employers want to be sure the talent they recruit has at a minimum basic, cross-cutting competencies such as communications, teamwork and problem solving. But while these skills may be developed at colleges and universities across the country, Everhart said they aren’t showing up at work, to employers’ chagrin. That reality only deepens the disconnect between academia and business that she said contributes to the skills gap employers are facing.
According to ManpowerGroup’s 2015 Talent Shortage Survey, globally, roughly 38 percent of employers are having difficulty filling jobs. The inability to fill jobs due to a lack of appropriate skills can be attributed to a variety of things but Everhart said higher education’s role in those numbers could change if academic programming is delivered with a competency-based approach.
In a traditional academic setting, learning is time-bound and standards focused. Everhart said this approach often starts with a concept around courses, helping instructors be more efficient administering processes, and is driven by learning activities.
A competency-based learning approach, on the other hand, is more flexible. Everhart said it handles the finite structure of the actual courses as an afterthought. In this approach, designers and educators first define the competency set the learners will work toward before identifying how they will be assessed as they move toward mastery of the skills and what evidence will best demonstrate that mastery.
Everhart said in this setup students earn credentials attesting to skills they’ve developed and refined — a more tangible testimonial to their work readiness than a letter grade on a transcript. Consider the student who sits through a 16-week course and completes it with a C grade. “Most employers don’t look at the transcript, but if they did, what would they see?”
A competency-based learning approach directly targets what people want to accomplish, whether that’s better education programs or developing more motivated and empowered individual learners who are work ready. Adopting this approach can’t happen in a vacuum, however, nor can it be expected to produce positive results — favorable for students, schools and employers — without a key partnership between higher education and business, united around an objective to prepare people for the workforce.
Neither sector can be successful in unlocking the value of competencies without the other, Everhart said.
When it comes to reaping the benefits of competency-based learning, both business and academia have to be at the table to discuss how they define competencies, what constitutes their valid assessment, how the eventual credentials communicate competencies achieved and who will endorse the credentials, Everhart said. “Exploring these questions together is key to valuable results.”
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.