We’re going to be cutting tremendous amounts of money and waste and fraud and abuse. But, no, I’m not cutting services, but I am cutting spending. But I may cut Department of Education—Common Core is a very bad thing. I think that it should be local education. If you look at a Jeb Bush and some of these others, they want children to be educated by Washington, D.C. bureaucrats.” – Donald Trump

Now that we have that forward thinking plan out of the way…

I hear a lot of pushback regarding competency-based education. Liberal Arts colleges say they can’t do it without their school turning into…gasp!…a trade school. Others say CBE is just job training (even if this was the case, which it is not, isn’t that why we all go to school in the first place?).

The reality is that educators speak of helping students to become lifelong learners, but what are the majority of educators doing to enable that? CBE offers a feasible solution. In fact, it can be argued that even the liberal arts have a bright future in competency-based learning.

But instead of eagerly adopting competency-based education, many are putting up roadblocks.

Employers complain they aren’t getting qualified applicants, but the seven-second resume review is perpetuating the problem. IMS Global and dozens of others are working on the next generation transcript that will allow learners to showcase earned competencies…but will it matter? As we all know, many employers are just looking for that checkbox to be marked: 4 year degree—YES! Congratulations, applicant! The HR software* has allowed you to pass through for that seven-second viewing.

Answer “No,” and even if you’ve proven the key skills required to do the job, you will get an automated email saying, “Sorry, you aren’t qualified.”

*Disclaimer—I spent 15 years of my career building HR systems to do just that. It is what the market wanted.

Not only is it time to change our models of education and how we communicate out about our skills, but it’s also time for employers to start spending a little more time reviewing those skills in earnest.

So the question becomes, how do we transform universities—and the workforce—to become partners in lifelong learning and retraining?

There is no one solution because everyone is an individual, but I do have some ideas:

1. Flip the four-year degree

There will always be a certain population eager to get to work after high school. There are all sorts of 10-week coding schools popping up to train these students, and I can assure you this will grow into other fields. Are colleges ready to adapt to compete with this trend? Probably not. It’s been predicted that the number of schools that permanently close each year will triple by 2017.  

Instead of expecting that what they did yesterday will work tomorrow, what if colleges flipped the traditional four-year degree and moved what is typically taught in years 3 and 4 to years 1 and 2? After these two years, students would move into an apprenticeship (a successful practice in Germany), during which the student would take contextualized courses on a subscription-based model—on campus or online. Throughout their tenure, students would be assigned a career/learning advisor to help them on their journey.

This approach would benefit the students by allowing them to highly personalize their learning based on their interests and goals. It would also better prepare them for and give them experience in the workforce. It would benefit schools by attracting and retaining more students—maybe even some of those that would have otherwise jumped right into the workforce or complete only a two-year degree. It would benefit companies by providing them with learners that have come equipped with the right skills and experience to do the job.

2. Make the joint effort to establish Competency Continuum Records.

Both schools and employers are responsible for making this happen—together. It would benefit all parties to make competencies additive and maintain an accurate record of the learner’s competencies, across education and work experience. For example, Motivis Institute of Technology (MIT) states that I am competent in “Persuasive Communication. When I start working at Motivis Learning as a copywriter, I am evaluated on my blog posts during my performance reviews, and it is added to my competency continuum record. As we move forward, every employee would eventually have these competency records.

The first challenge with this is that the majority of companies out there are really bad at writing job descriptions and identifying core competencies tied to a position. They need to get their act together on this front. Once that can be done, we can start to make the competencies additive.

The second challenge is maintaining the records, and it should be the responsibility of the originating school. We need to move away from transcript clearing houses and start to think peer-to-peer, not peer-to-Pearson when dealing with this data. It is 2015, and colleges are still mailing and faxing transcript requests. The school should be able to allow access to retrieve transcript data (with authorization, of course) and keep records up to date. The data should be available to the learner at all times, and they can act as the gatekeeper to employers.

The originating school would benefit from this effort by not only the knowledge that they’re magnanimously improving education and student success, but also by the fact that knowing a learner’s current job and the competencies it requires enables them to make recommendations for additional course work at the school. The employer and school can look at the learner’s career path and determine the delta between the current role and the next role in the path. Has the student/worker picked up more competencies on the job? They are added to the record. The worker wants to be a project manager next? Well, let’s get her PMP certified. The student/worker moves more efficiently along her desired trajectory, and the employer benefits from a worker that has been educated specifically in what she needs to know for that particular role. No guesswork in the hiring or promotion process.

3. Contextualization and Individualization

Cross-curricular student teams.
Cross-curricular student teams.

We talk a lot about information silos on college campuses. What we don’t talk about is student silos. The four-year campus for the 18-22-year-old is the coming-of-age experience. They make new friends, find their independence, play ultimate frisbee and hopefully get to meet people who aren’t like them.  Then during their third year, they start to really focus on their major and start to silo up based on a discipline. This goes against the spirit of the on-campus experience.

This is where contextualization comes in…

Imagine the majority of course offerings are contextualized around a variety of interests or themes. A student can follow that theme or slide into other themes. This would allow for deeper exploration of potential career paths. For example, let us take an “Intro to Programming” course. If you have 30 students in a section that have majors from business, education, nursing, etc., why not contextualize that course 5 different ways? I know the initial response will be, “Well that will be a lot of work for educators!” It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. Multiple faculty members can work on different assignments and share them. Students can present options to the faculty to have approved as long as they meet the competencies to be mastered. This is already happening at schools like Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS).

The students would all be working towards the same competencies, but they would be on a more individualized journey that excites them and has relevance. The variety of assignments could encourage conversations that enable students to share their passion and inspire their peers. Contextualized content allows for greater diversification as it individualizes content to reflect what motivates students intrinsically—inspiring students through autonomy, mastery and purpose, as highlighted in the work of Daniel Pink.  

Seniors should also need to work across disciplines. Many colleges have a wealth of talent—why not use cross-curricular student teams to solve real problems? Take the school of education, the computer science department and school of business and assign a year-long capstone course that has them working collaboratively to solve a particular challenge like creating an education learning game.  That is how most careers function, working with cross functional teams. I suspect there may be pockets of this, but it is a rarity if it happens at all.

This is all food for thought, and I hope it sparks new ideas. Feel free to use this for inspiration, Donald. It might also help with a Trump University come back…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *