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Linking Learning and Work Through Interoperable Digital Credentials and Shared Competency Frameworks

Beginning a multiphase project shortly before the start of a global pandemic might seem a case of suboptimal timing. In the case of the Wellspring Project, there may be some silver linings. Yes, it was challenged by the now-familiar realities of collaborating during pandemic precautions. But given the unprecedented upheaval to the employment landscape, its promising work around cultivating education-to-work ecosystems couldn’t have come at a better time. 

The first phase of the project, which is sponsored by IMS Global Learning Consortium and the 1EdTech Foundation, with funding from the Charles Koch Foundation and Walmart, began in September of last year. It concluded in August. Its outcomes include the creation of competency frameworks that unequivocally tie academic credentials with “real life” job duties.

Cocreating these competency frameworks required continuous collaboration among the project’s participating educators and employers. CAEL played a key role in convening them. Along with other project sponsors and leaders, CAEL volunteered its support to this important initiative, helping identify and onboard each cohort of education-employer partners and providing data support in preparation of Phase 1. 

CAEL also led a two-day, face-to-face workshop in February and supported subsequent virtual sessions that allowed participants to successfully complete the project’s initial phase.

The Wellspring Project envisions a mutualistic education-employment ecosystem based on digital credentials. Its overall mission is to realize this through partnerships among institutions and corporations. The focus of this collaboration is making credentials effective for learners, workers, educators, and employers alike. To attain this level of equitable efficacy, credentials must be de-siloed, interoperable, and universally verifiable. The project sees this as critical to “empowering individuals to find jobs and help transform the education system as it moves from valuing seat-time to skills.”

The project offers a promising model for forging a functional alignment between learning and work. Key to this are academic credentials that adhere to open standards for data interoperability. On the employer front, recruiters would source talent based on the above-mentioned verifiable digital credentials. On the individual level, learners would benefit from a new credential currency with transactional value evident and accessible throughout the work-learn continuum. 

The goals of the recently completed first phase centered on competency frameworks.  Just as a competency can be a mix of knowledge areas, skills, and abilities, success in an occupation depends on a particular mix of competencies. A competency framework establishes which competencies are needed for success in an academic program or job role. 

But a common denominator is needed to align academic curricula with workplace requirements. In Phase 1, educators and their employer partners developed complementary frameworks that captured learning outcomes and job-performance requirements. Leveraging the IMS Competencies and Academic Standards Exchange® (CASE®), they digitally mapped the frameworks to show that when credentials are expressed in machine-readable data, they can effectively connect employer talent needs with coursework. 

The key findings of Phase 1 offer encouraging confirmation that collaboration around competency frameworks can bolster strategic partnerships between employers and educators. This is good news, as a focus on meeting local needs was the primary motivating factor for institutions to participate in the project. Meanwhile, participating employers reported that a greater emphasis on competencies improves recruiting and hiring processes. 

At the same time, the project revealed that the work of creating aligned competency frameworks can be labor intensive. Executive support is critical. There also is broad recognition among stakeholders about the importance of technology in making effective talent pipeline management more efficient. 

Reported implications of Phase 1 include a need for more open standards to encourage further collaboration. In addition, although widespread efforts to define skills are needed, they should be flexible enough to accommodate local needs. 

Calling on industry to use open standards to clearly assert talent needs, the Phase 1 report predicts that greater use of open standards will build awareness of their ROI, thereby garnering critical support from senior leaders among all stakeholders. 

Noting the complexity of creating effective frameworks, the report forecasts robust demand for tools that can streamline education-employer engagement. It cites Comprehensive Learner Records and Open Badges as viable solutions for conveying and confirming recognized skills.

Phase 1 offered valuable findings, particularly through its robust examination of how to construct an effective framework. Work will now focus on the broader goal of “demonstrating the Comprehensive Learner Record standard, augmented by machine-readable competency and skills frameworks, to bridge lifelong learning and workforce” needs. We look forward to these continuing efforts in Phase 2, during which CAEL industry coalition partner the Energy Providers Coalition for Education (EPCE) will be building on this important work to better understand ways to communicate outcomes and tie them to industry skills. EPCE represents energy employers across the country working together to create, sponsor, and offer easily accessible online education and training pathways for the energy workforce.

More information about the Wellspring Project is available at https://www.imsglobal.org/about/wellspring.

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