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Digging in The Competency Sandbox: Is Our Postsecondary System Ready to Play?

In previous blog posts, we have discussed why both employers and individual job seekers and workers could benefit from a competency-based system and the kinds of competency-based tools that could potentially transform our labor and learning marketplaces. A shift toward competencies could, in theory, result in: a greater understanding of occupational requirements and career pathways, credentials that are clear about what competencies a graduate has, and hiring processes that can focus on what a job candidate brings in terms of competencies rather than connections. It is, however, likely that these tools and strategies would need to be carefully constructed and monitored to ensure that all workers and learners benefit equitably. 

The postsecondary world is very much involved in the transformation to a competency-based system, such as through the development of competency-based programs (see the resources and models promoted by the Competency Based Education Network) or through pilot projects to test the concept of comprehensive learner records. Yet, we are a long way from all education providers — whether postsecondary institutions, proprietary providers, workforce training providers, or community-based training providers — being able to participate fully in a competency-based learning and earning marketplace.

A lot of work is required before competency, credential, and achievement data have the same level of institutional attention, support, and oversight that the credit hour enjoys today. At a minimum, greater attention is needed for: 

  • Finding a common competency language.
  • Developing valid, competency-based assessments of formal, informal, and experiential learning.
  • Creating a credential transparency strategy for managing data, tools, and staffing.

Finding a common competency language

In our current labor market and learning ecosystem, the different stakeholders don’t always speak the same language when it comes to competencies — in fact the word “competency” is itself a bit problematic, as educators are more accustomed to talking about “learning outcomes” while employers typically talk about “skills”. For competencies to become a truly useful currency, allowing us to link credentials more seamlessly to available jobs and occupational pathways, it will be critical to find a common competency language, or at least a mechanism that allows for an easier translation or crosswalk of terms. 

There are a wide range of efforts already focusing on this challenge: 

  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Job Data Exchange, designed to help employers break down a job description into machine-readable competency and hiring requirements. 
  • IMS Global’s Wellspring project, in which organizations like CAEL are operationalizing competency frameworks with employers to better connect credentials with occupations. The project draws on Credential Engine and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s map of common learning and employment data standards, as well as IMS Global’s Competencies and Academic Standards Exchange (CASE). 
  • Pioneering institutions developing competency-based education, which connect with each other through the Competency Based Education Network and the Open Skills Network to develop needed educational resources, advocate for supportive policies, and implement consistent data practices. 
  • Mainstream postsecondary programs, which have begun to better define learning outcomes and competencies and then align with various national frameworks like the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment’s (NILOA’s) Degree Qualifications Profile

There is an important connection to credit for prior learning (CPL) here. Having employers and education providers speak the same competency language will help in mapping postsecondary coursework to job requirements, but it will also help the recognition of competencies in the other direction — mapping the learning acquired in the workplace to postsecondary courses and programs. Currently, the recognition of workplace-based and other noncredit learning is managed through CPL assessments and evaluations. Common competency languages could make CPL crosswalks from noncredit to credit programs much more streamlined and straightforward. 

Developing valid, competency-based assessments of formal, informal, and experiential learning

A common competency language is only half the challenge. The other half is assessment. Once you have a competency defined, how do you know when an individual student or worker can demonstrate that competency? 

Many institutions already have been working to address this question through their program learning outcome assessment plans. These improvements in assessment practices have largely been driven by changing accreditation expectations, but they have demonstrated that significant changes in such practices are possible. To have competencies fully function as currency, the value of a specific competency demonstration needs to be derived from assessment design. A growing discipline of assessment specialists are working with instructional designers and faculty to design criterion-referenced assessments that simulate expected performance conditions and thereby produce more useful feedback for students. These assessment design approaches are more consistently and rigorously applied with certification assessments that are independent of any specific instructional program and refined using psychometric testing methods. All of these efforts are trying to strike the right balance among the pedagogical and the evidentiary purposes of assessment along with the feasibility and efficiency of the assessment for the individual to take. Educational assessment as a field will be critical for supporting greater adoption of competency-based approaches; it is a field that is already supported by multiple professional associations, standards, degree programs, research journals, textbooks, academic publications, and networks for practitioners. At the end of this blog, we provide a few relevant resources for competency assessment practices.

Again, a quick note on the intersection with CPL: The improvement in competency-based assessment practices within the curriculum will also bolster efforts to evaluate learning that is acquired outside of it. As noted earlier, a comprehensive learner record would include not just competencies from formal learning but also from informal and experiential learning. Currently, efforts to award credit for a student’s prior learning (PLA/CPL) depend on a range of assessment methods that focus on mapping a student’s extra-institutional learning to entire courses on offer at an institution. Better methods to assess competencies would allow PLA/CPL to have greater use within a curriculum, so that smaller units of learning can be recognized and valued — and count toward credentials; in addition, better competency-based assessments can allow for this learning to be more easily recognized for inclusion in CLRs. 

Creating a credential transparency strategy for managing data, tools, and staffing 

To be a full participant in a system of competency transparency, postsecondary institutions will also need to consider whether they currently have the data systems and staffing to manage student learning at the level of competencies, operate using that level of data, and transfer that data to other platforms and applications. Advancing toward this goal requires more than just additional resources and technology; institutions need a credential transparency strategy

The particulars will be contextualized to each institution, but a larger strategy should help guide various decisions and lead to supportive policies, processes, objectives, roles, technologies, and more. The initial focus of a credential transparency strategy should address broader questions such as:

  • How will prospective students learn about our credential offerings and understand the relevance of their unique properties for their success?
  • How will curricula, instructional strategies, and assessment strategies be designed in order to develop students’ competencies?
  • How will credential offerings connect with one another and with credentials from other institutions?
  • What learning outcomes will every graduate be prepared to demonstrate?
  • What achievement evidence will graduates possess in order to secure and advance their careers?
  • How can our institution connect with others — such as through professional associations, convenings, or peer networks — to share strategies, standards, and models?

These questions go beyond the scope of any one project. Yet, any project that involves credential data will invariably make decisions that affect the institution in other ways. Without an explicit credential transparency strategy, institutions risk finding themselves with siloed technical systems, fragile integrations, and expensive manual processes that limit their capacity to pivot and respond to future changes. 

Situating competency-based projects within a broad credential transparency strategy helps institutional leaders progressively support students’ full range of needs by intentionally developing supportive capabilities. Staffing of this strategy is particularly important, with responsibilities distributed across the institution. Examples of different staffing roles and responsibilities are outlined in a 2019 joint letter, Increasing Credential Transparency in Postsecondary Institutions.

The Sandbox Is Ready — Is It Time to Play?

The above discussion, along with the other blogs in this series, makes clear that there are many ways into the competency sandbox for institutions wanting to start preparing for a new way to operate: learning more about competency data standards, investing in criterion-based assessments of learning, adopting comprehensive learner records, developing an institutional strategy around credential transparency, and joining professional associations and networks for peer learning and support. Postsecondary institutions currently play a critical role in developing the skills and competencies of our labor force — and they can continue to do so by preparing for a competency-based future. 

 

This blog is part 4 in a CAEL-Credential Engine series exploring competency transparency in our learning and labor market systems, the potential role that postsecondary institutions can play, and the work needed to get there. The full series is:

Select List of Resources on Competency-Based Assessment

Organizations
Standards and Frameworks
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