Competency-based learning

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What colleges can learn from the military about competency-based learning outcomes (essay)

In a word-association game on “education,” “the United States Army” would probably not be the first response given. But for those who work closely with the Army and understand the depth of the Army’s interest, involvement and expertise in educating Americans, the Army’s lack of recognition in the education field is puzzling.

It is hard to imagine any other institution that invests more time and resources to ensure its personnel are learning -- or one that has more at stake in the outcome of its educational efforts -- than the U.S. Army. American soldiers are serving and representing our nation in more than 130 countries, many in the crucible of ground combat or engaged in other high-risk activities. As both the producer and employer of those it educates, the Army is dependent on the graduates of its many schools and training courses to overcome the multitude of challenges it routinely faces in those countries. The Army has a vested interest in the learning outcomes achieved by its students and, as a result, works extremely hard to optimize those outcomes.

Indeed, the long and distinguished track record of the graduates of the Army’s training and education system stands as proof of the Army’s success in accomplishing its educational goals. In the 241 years of its existence, the Army has produced highly adaptive, agile and innovative soldiers and leaders who have been able to apply critical and creative thinking skills to conquer the myriad challenges thrown their way -- and under some of the most extreme conditions imaginable.

Undervalued Learning Outcomes

That the Army is not widely recognized for its expertise in education is no doubt largely because education is not its core mission -- it exists to fight and win the nation’s wars. To do that, however, the Army requires educated soldiers. Training, educating and developing soldiers is, thus, an integral means of achieving its ultimate end.

Many people also hold the view that the Army’s training and education system is primarily just vocational, skills-based training that doesn’t require the type of cognitive engagement that America’s colleges and universities purport to develop within their graduates. But producing technicians is only part of the Army’s training and education mission requirement. The larger, and by far the most important, part is its obligation to develop young men and women who can solve what are frequently complex problems while simultaneously completing highly technical tasks.

Thus, as much as any academic institutions (and arguably more so), the Army is in search of the holy grail of education: developing learners who can transfer and apply their learning in different environments to achieve optimal results no matter what the conditions.

Perhaps the largest reason for the failure of many to recognize the Army as a premier learning organization, however, is that the Army doesn’t record its learning outcomes in the ubiquitous Carnegie unit (credit hour) format. In fact, the absence of a registrar-validated transcript with learning recorded in credit hours is possibly the single biggest reason for soldiers receiving inadequate credit for the learning that occurs during their Army training, education and experiences.

Without that acceptably certified record of learning, soldiers leave the Army with a vast amount of assessed and validated knowledge, skills, attributes and competencies for which they more often than not receive little credit. Their educational outcomes are imperfectly communicated and poorly understood by employers and educators alike. And while many higher education institutions and businesses would surely like to give soldiers the benefit of the doubt and award them credit for their Army learning outcomes, they face risks from their own accrediting and licensing bodies and are limited in their ability to do so. The end result is that soldiers are often left with little to show for their extensive, taxpayer-funded training and education.

Assessing the Problem

For the Army, the issue is not as much a matter of receiving recognition for its educational outcomes as it is an issue of readiness. Critical readiness funds are being diverted from operations to pay for unemployment compensation for soldiers who aren’t being hired, in part because of their lack of certified trade credentials. Meanwhile other funds are siphoned off for educational benefits to pay for learning that soldiers already received in the Army but are forced to repeat because it wasn’t recorded in a manner acceptable to colleges and accrediting and licensing bodies.

Thus, garnering publicly recognized academic credit for the Army and its soldiers was one of the first tasks leaders took on upon the establishment of Army University in August 2015. After reviewing the problem, Army University leaders concluded that devising a means of recording Army learning in terms of credit hours, seeking academic accreditation for its numerous schools and granting soldiers academic degrees was fraught with numerous drawbacks -- and ultimately provided only a partial solution to the problem.

Expenses involved in paying for accreditation, hiring degreed or credentialed faculty, establishing a registrar and hiring additional personnel to perform the many other tasks required by accrediting bodies would rapidly mount and eventually become prohibitive. Meanwhile, the vast majority of learning in the Army is difficult to measure in credit hours. Instead, it must be measured by a soldier’s demonstrated ability to apply the knowledge, skills and attributes learned in a classroom or training area, or as a result of one’s experiences, to accomplish a task. In short, the Army primarily uses competency-based education and experiential learning methods to achieve its developmental goals.

Effectively Measuring Learning Outcomes

Army University leaders came to recognize that what was needed to solve this problem was an acceptable method of capturing and recording the learning outcomes of its predominantly competency-based training and education system. They also soon realized that they were not alone in their search and unintentionally found themselves immersed in the contentious American education debate over measuring student outcomes.

The Army was, in essence, struggling with the same challenge that plagues many American colleges and industry today -- its learning outcomes are not being recorded in a way that is truly meaningful for employers or educators in providing them adequate information on students’ or employees’ distinct knowledge, skills and attributes. The resulting inability of employers to understand a potential employee’s competencies leads to wasteful redundancies and inefficiencies as time and resources are spent re-educating and retraining students and employees to develop abilities they may already possess.

Army University leaders quickly came to understand that several organizations had already done much work to try to measure and improve student outcomes, such as the U.S. Department of Education in its Experimental Sites Initiative. Among ex-sites many experiments that are of immediate interest to the Army are those dealing with CBE, prior learning assessments and direct assessments -- all of which offer the possibility of developing an acceptable method of measuring and recording the learning outcomes of nontraditional education practices like those used by the Army. The Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships, or EQUIP, program further enhances the prospect of developing a solution to this problem.

Equally encouraging to Army University leaders were the efforts of the many academic institutions and educational foundations that are also seeking solutions to this problem, such as programs funded and supported by the Lumina Foundation, like the Competency-Based Education Network and Degree Qualifications Profile/Tuning program.

Even more specific to the Army’s purposes is the Lumina-funded Multi-State Collaborative on Military Credit initiative. That program’s stated goal of advancing “best practices designed to ease the transition of veterans and their families from military life to college campuses, with special reference to translating competencies acquired through military training and experiences into milestones toward completing a college degree or earning a certificate or license,” is perfectly aligned with Army University’s efforts to increase the recognition soldiers receive for their Army training and education.

Informed by these and the many other similar ongoing efforts in academe, Army University is establishing partnerships with such groups and working on its own tailored solutions. In 2017, the Army began prototype testing of MIL-CRED (Military Credentials), a microcredentialing ecosystem that offers the capability of capturing soldiers’ learning outcomes at the granular level in a way that is meaningful to Army leaders, talent managers and soldiers themselves -- both while they serve and as they transition out of the Army. The system records soldiers’ learning outcomes as microcredentials (badges, credentials and certificates that contain the specific learning outcomes of a training event, school course or experience) and populates them onto a soldier’s learner profile, or portfolio. That profile can then serve as a comprehensive digital résumé of the soldier’s assessed and validated knowledge, skills, abilities, competencies and other learning outcomes, which colleges and universities could then use to award soldiers credit and properly place them in their academic programs.

Unlike academic transcripts, which have limited value outside of academe, the learner profile has the added benefit of being able to serve as a living document to which academic, military and industry learning achievements from training, education and experience alike can be added continuously throughout the learner’s lifetime. In this, it is similar to the work being done by the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, which, in conjunction with Salesforce, is working to establish a record of a “learner’s academic and professional accomplishments across multiple institutions and experiences, building a portfolio that includes credits, competencies, microcertificates, degrees and other records of achievement.”

In an era of limited resources, we will increasingly have no other option but to become more efficient in how we achieve our nation’s desired learning outcomes. While somewhat late to this problem, the Army’s demonstrated success in tackling big challenges and educating adults offers the potential for it to be a leading partner with academic, government and industry leaders when it comes to student outcomes. The fairly recent establishment of Army University has already led to the development of several meaningful relationships and collaborative efforts that have greatly aided the Army’s efforts in this area. For its part, the Army is able to bring value to these partnerships by sharing with its partners the Army’s vast experience and proven success in educating nontraditional learners. Recent shifts in college student demographics -- away from the traditional recent high school graduates and toward diverse and nontraditional adult learners -- mirrors what has long been the bulk of the Army’s own demographic. Colleges and universities without much experience dealing with the distinct needs and qualities of these learners would do well to study the Army’s approach to training and education that has led to so many successful results with them.

Although it is rarely recognized for its role as an educational organization, the Army has a long and distinguished track record in training and educating adults who have proven their ability to fight and think their way through all types of challenges. As such, the Army, along with academe and industry, has the undeniable ability to play a major contributing role in developing a method of measuring -- and, most important, improving -- learning outcomes that could prove to be of great value to our nation.

Steven Delvaux is vice provost for academic affairs at Army University in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

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Competency-based education remains a niche market for software vendors

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Despite the buzz, competency-based education remains a challenging market for software vendors.

Three important questions to ask about credentialing (essay)

Few topics in higher education are getting more attention than credential innovation: making credentials digital, introducing new credential types and communicating more information about learning outcomes.

Credential innovation moves transcripts, certificates and diplomas beyond accounting and verification records for transfer and graduate admissions, or mechanisms for validating completion of a university’s degree program. For many institutions, a clear driver of innovating the form and function of their credentials is a belief that today’s transcripts do not communicate what employers care about.

There are two ways to think about this issue. It’s possible that credentials don’t communicate what employers care about because colleges don’t actually provide what the labor market wants. And plenty of people say that. But I (very emphatically) believe that’s generally not true. In fact, credential innovation is so important because colleges do provide much of what employers are looking for. The problem instead is that they just don’t assess, document and communicate those outcomes. So the information is lost, and students are left to their own devices to effectively represent their collegiate experience. And the impact of colleges and universities is left implicit, not explicit.

If higher education institutions do equip students with much of what employers want, and credentials are the mechanism for communicating those outcomes per student to an employer, then the foundational question animating credential innovation projects should be: What do employers want to know? A vice provost of academic affairs recently asked me this question, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

In fact, I heard the same question, frequently, at a recent Lumina Foundation gathering where community colleges, universities and third-party vendors shared how they are experimenting with a comprehensive student record. It’s a national question for higher education as a whole, but even more so a geographically local and industry-specific question that every institution needs to consider distinctly. Let’s face it, there is no such thing as the unitary actor “employer” any more than there is such a thing as the unitary actor “higher education.”

Surprisingly, too many credential innovation projects lack grounding in clear answers to this simple question. Like the proverbial drunk looking for car keys where the light is brightest, they start with a clear conception of what the college or university can say beyond courses and credits, not a clear conception of what their employer market has asked to understand about their graduates. That makes sense insofar as colleges and universities (should) each have a distinct educational mission and program, and it is the outcome of that program or mission that credentials should communicate. But if the goal is better communication and alignment, leaving the question of employer interest unasked makes it much less likely that the underlying goal of credential innovation will be achieved.

In 2014, Hart Research Associates conducted an online survey among 400 employers on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The majority of employers said that possessing both field-specific knowledge and a broad range of knowledge and skills is important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success. In fact, 80 percent of employers said it would be very or fairly useful to see an electronic portfolio that summarizes and demonstrates a candidate’s accomplishments in key skill and knowledge areas, including effective communication, knowledge in their field, applied skills, evidence-based reasoning and ethical decision making. It is important to note that, along with course work, those are the very types of capabilities that institutions help students build through activities like co-curricular leadership, study abroad and faculty research collaborations.

Today, community colleges and regional four-year schools often work closely with a particular employer or set of employers that define their local economy. The Kentucky Community and Technical College system, the North Carolina Community College system and many other institutions and systems align programs and assess outcomes in a way that’s highly aligned with what those employers are looking for.

What appears less common is a national dialogue between institutions and employers, particularly regarding white-collar jobs -- the kind of jobs where writing well, speaking well, thinking analytically and being comfortable with numbers are important skills to have. (Those are the types of skills that I describe as desired outcomes for my students as an assistant research professor of sociology at Arizona State University.)

Of course to ground credential innovation in an understanding of what employers want, institutions must begin the credential innovation journey by determining which employers matter to them and their students -- in particular those who actually consume their credentials today -- so they can ask how they use credential documents and what they think about them.

Digital credential platforms like Parchment, where I work, enable registrars to see where their credentials are going, which can then be the pathway for opening up this discussion. For example, we observe in Parchment’s data that Ernst & Young collects academic credentials, as does the Department of Homeland Security. Other national employers that receive transcripts from applicants via Parchment include Boeing, Deloitte, Hewlett-Packard, NASA, the U.S. Army, the U.S. State Department and Wells Fargo, to name a few.

Asking what employers want to know inevitably sparks a second question: Given what employers are looking for, does our educational environment develop that in students? While I think it does (and far more than we’re given credit for), the experiences are not necessarily tracked or assessed and can span multiple information systems. They may not have the rigor and integrity that the recording of course work involves, and by choosing to organize course work into a priori majors and minors, clusters of courses that reflect particular skills or ways of thinking can be lost. While program innovation is no doubt needed to meet employers’ needs, introducing a better and more formal assessment of what we’re already doing becomes low-hanging fruit we can harvest without redesigning programs or creating new ones to meet employers’ needs.

This brings me to a third and final question: How do we document and communicate this information? The answer is providing a credential in a certified and succinct way, in an operationally efficient way, and in a way that has reflective/scaffolding value to the learner so they can maximize their time in college to prepare themselves for the labor market.

For example, Elon University has provided a co-curricular, or experiential, credential for many years as part of its educational experience, which includes undergraduate research, global engagement, leadership, service and internship. Although the experiences were not documented originally with employers in mind (they reflect Elon’s distinctive educational philosophy), the university recently began surveying employers who received their new experiential transcript about what was useful and what was not. They found that 75 percent of employers agreed that the experiential transcript provided useful information for the hiring process, while 44 percent agreed that the experiential transcript increased the chances that an applicant would get an interview.

Communicating credential information effectively means supporting the development of data standards, as today’s national employers increasingly rely on applicant tracking systems with algorithms that use a wide variety of data sources to evaluate prospective employees. According to a 2016 report from Gartner, an information technology research and advisory firm, those algorithms will replace both manual processing of CVs (résumés) by recruiters and automated CV ranking based on word matching. The beauty of data is that you can convey a superset of information and package it into different types of credentials for different audiences (transfer transcript, employer college experiences report), and align with the data-processing practices of employers.

If you are a higher education leader beginning the credential innovation conversation, consider these three questions. What do our employers want to know about our learners? What do we need to do programmatically to accurately and reliably communicate those outcomes? And, recognizing the various audiences and purposes that credentials serve, what form of credential can best communicate it?

I encourage you to look at your credentials with fresh eyes as a currency for opportunity and the key to reaffirming a transformative value of a postsecondary education, especially in a knowledge economy. By taking a new approach to academic credentials, higher education can give employers what they are looking for and help students turn those credentials into opportunities.

Matthew Pittinsky is an assistant research professor at Arizona State University and CEO of Parchment Inc., a digital transcript company in K-12 and higher education.

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Building higher education's version of the minimum viable product (essay)

One of the most important developments out of Silicon Valley in the past decade is not a technology but a concept. A minimum viable product -- or MVP -- is the simplest, smallest product that provides enough value for consumers to adopt and actually pay for it. It also is the minimal product that allows producers to receive valuable feedback, iterate and improve. A minimum viable product is one of the core tenets of the so-called lean start-up and explains why many technology entrepreneurs are able to launch businesses with practically no investment at all.

For example, the Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn famously launched his business not by investing millions in an e-commerce backend, but by simply taking photos of desirable shoes at shoe stores and posting them online. When customers clicked buy, Swinmurn went to the store, bought the shoes, shipped them -- repeating hundreds of times before getting the necessary feedback to validate further investment in Zappos.

College as we know it is the polar opposite of a minimum viable product. A bachelor’s degree is neither simple nor small. It wasn’t constructed to encourage colleges and universities to iterate and improve. And it’s certainly not minimizing anyone’s investment. Which is why the most important development in higher education in the next decade will be a College MVP.

***

Some of the lean start-ups proliferating in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are boot camps, providing “last-mile” training to unemployed, underemployed and unhappily employed young people and -- critically -- placing them in good jobs in growing sectors of the economy, like technology and health care. This largely technical training is increasingly referred to as last mile not only because it leads directly to employment, but reflecting the last mile in telecom, where the final telephonic or cable connection from trunk to home is the most difficult and costly to install, and also the most valuable.

Boot camps like Galvanize, Revature and AlwaysHired are busy installing these last-mile connections. Making and maintaining connections to employers is complicated and costly -- exponentially more so than developing new academic programs in isolation.

As these connections are made and reinforced, last-mile providers will be tempted. While today they’re serving a population that is roughly 90 percent college graduates, some are already spying a larger opportunity than simply serving as a top-up program for bachelor’s degree completers. Some will be inspired by the Silicon Valley ethos to ask this question: How do we move from “top-up” to “alternative”?

The answer, of course, is by adding a program ahead of the last-mile technical training to form the first stage of a comprehensive pathway to a good first job.

Such a program would equip students with cognitive and noncognitive skills -- not necessarily at the level one would expect of a college graduate, but at the (presumably lower) level employers require for entry-level positions. It would also be much shorter and less expensive than what we know and love as college.

The very concept of a College MVP raises a threshold question: Would any employer hire a candidate with this level of preparation rather than a college degree? Sure, most employers will continue to prefer whole bachelor’s degrees. And many will continue to insist on it. But what if employers could start MVP candidates off at lower salaries? Why? Because MVP graduates won’t have forgone four years of full-time employment and won’t have incurred tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

Another reason to believe employers might take an interest in MVP candidates is that no one -- least of all employers -- knows what cognitive and noncognitive skills are expected of college graduates. Because no one -- least of all colleges -- is measuring anything. Meanwhile, you can bet that last-mile providers who add an innovative College MVP will be asking questions of employers, assessing constantly, measuring and communicating back to employers -- and almost certainly doing a better job of selling their candidates to employers than colleges and universities do.

Finally, employers with any sense of the broader socioeconomic context will - when presented with a potentially viable alternative -- recognize that requiring a whole bachelor’s degree excludes virtually half the work force, many of whom might be great fits.

***

Be disrupted or disrupt thyself? Many colleges and universities will face this choice in a few years. While last-mile providers will be first to market with College MVPs, some colleges and universities will see the writing on the wall and attempt to do the same. Here are the challenges they’re likely to face in doing so.

1) Associate Degree Paradigm. Most colleges and universities probably think they have a College MVP. It’s called an associate degree. The problem is that the associate degree is a flawed credential, failing in many cases to prepare students with the requisite cognitive and noncognitive skills required by employers, and giving rise to studies showing half of associate degree holders are underemployed.

The associate degree is a credential that’s derived from and beholden to the bachelor’s degree. In contrast, a College MVP won’t be organized around credit hours or precepts of general education, but will attempt to maximize development of critical thinking, problem solving, communication and teamwork skills in a minimal period of time.

It will also attempt to provide students with cognitive frameworks that facilitate future learning -- on the job and in continuing formal education and training. And while my guess is that College MVPs may look different depending on the industry or even the type of entry-level job, it seems likely that they’ll emerge from a paradigm shift from how we currently think about college -- much more than simply cost and length.

TRADITIONAL COLLEGE

COLLEGE MVP

Faculty-centric

Employer-centric

Learning outcomes

Competencies/skills

Curriculum

Assessments

Assignments

Work product

Liberal arts

Critical thinking

Electives

Prescribed pathway

Colleges and universities that aspire to develop a College MVP will need to disabuse themselves of the illusion that the associate degree provides a viable model.

2) Building the Last Mile to Employers. Building a College MVP only makes sense if institutions are able to build the last mile to employers, which requires a lot more contact with employers than most colleges and universities are used to having.

The vast majority of colleges and universities continue to believe they’re not in the business of preparing students for their first job, which runs counter to the top reasons matriculating students cite for pursuing postsecondary education, namely to improve employment opportunities (91 percent), to make more money (90 percent) and to get a good job (89 percent). Meanwhile, at most colleges, career services remains the Las Vegas of the university. Northeastern’s co-op program gets so much attention because it’s so rare. It’s also not replicable overnight. Building a network of thousands of employers has taken Northeastern decades.

3) Isomorphism. Perhaps the most significant impediment is cultural. The concept of a minimum viable product is anathema to the culture of higher education. Why would respectable institutions offer less than a bachelor’s degree when their models -- our most elite colleges and universities -- aren’t likely to consider doing so for a very long time? Moreover, higher education reveres tradition, which is too often taken for granted as a signifier of quality -- to the point that U.S. News might as well rank colleges each year based on age. As a result, it’s hard to imagine MVPs popping up at more than a handful of colleges and universities. Which is sad, because tens of millions of Americans could use them right now; college MVPs have the potential to be higher education’s most valuable player.

***

Even if colleges and universities are likely to lag in the emergence of college MVPs, they’re already leading the way in the development of master’s MVPs. When universities like MIT are comfortable rolling out MicroMasters credentials, thousands of institutions are sure to follow.

This is critical, as college MVPs won’t be the end of the postsecondary road for most students. After following a College MVP to last-mile training to placement pathway to a good first job in a growing sector of the economy, subsequent pathways will emerge to equip new employees with the higher-order thinking capabilities required for more complex and managerial positions. Higher education will go from a one- or two-time purchase for most students to a product employees consume as needed throughout their professional lives. And none of the aforementioned barriers to the College MVP are likely to stop colleges and universities from growing significant enrollment in thousands of master’s MVPs.

Ryan Craig is managing director of University Ventures, a fund focused on innovation from within higher education.

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Podcast interview with new president of Western Governors University

University projects growth as competency-based education attracts interest.

Group releases draft quality standards for competency-based education

Group of colleges releases voluntarily standards for competency-based education, which Education Department official says could help prevent the rise of bad actors.

Competency-based education's business model offers promise, report finds

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Competency-based education can save money for colleges and students, a new report finds, but the efficiency gains won't come easily or without worries about the impact on academic quality.

IT think tank's call for alternative forms of credentialing and measuring competency

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