Change can be hard, but we’ll get there.

That’s the message of hope we heard at the 2017 Education Symposium this week with Army University, Lumina Foundation and the Competency-Based Education Network.

We organized the event to join forces, as it were, with the U.S. Army and its huge training mission and with academia, industry and the public sector to talk about strategies for developing competency-based approaches to growing talent.

Specifically, we brought together a unique set of stakeholders to learn about the key elements of competency-based learning, share examples of how these elements are being applied in various environments, explore strategies for using competencies to widen and illuminate learning pathways, and encourage new partnerships across sectors with an eye to continuing action.

The two-day symposium was held June 20-21 in Kansas City, Mo. Army University is located nearby at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Early on, Jason Tyszko, executive director of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, reminded us how important that action is. He and others have noted a “skills gap” in the American economy that leaves millions of jobs unfilled because qualified employees can’t be found.

“We’ve been talking about this for decades now. We’ve sometimes referred to it as a gathering storm on the horizon,” Tyszko said.

“Well, that storm has hit. It’s hurting our economic competitiveness, it’s hurting our ability to grow the economy, and it’s contributing to anemic growth.”

Tyszko appeared on a panel with Brig. Gen. Eugene LeBoeuf, vice provost for academic affairs at Army University, and Laurie Dodge, board president of the Competency-Based Education Network. Dodge is also the vice chancellor of institutional assessment and planning and vice provost at Brandman University in Irvine, California.

Tyszko noted another challenge—the need for continuous learning. Trade, automation and technology are all reshaping the economy and requiring workers to adapt.

“We are in a dynamic, changing labor market,” he said. “Changing skill requirements are pushing the existing workforce to up-skill and up-credential throughout the course of their lives.”

He said businesses such as Google and IBM have been changing their hiring practices to focus more on competencies than credentials—on what workers know and can do instead of what they have achieved in the past.

LeBoeuf highlighted how the armed services field professional, competent personnel.

“We begin our development of the individual by ensuring that they have the basic skill set that all of our uniformed personnel need to possess. And then it builds from there.”

The military’s “competency pyramid” emphasizes innovative, agile, globally aware leaders who have the emotional intelligence to work in very complex environments, he said. The challenge is in tracking and cataloging those abilities.

“We may have a first sergeant, and we know that person has a great capability of leading company-level units. But we have to break that down into those particular competencies that they must possess, and be able to articulate that to academia and the workforce.”

The military is working to translate the learning its members obtain in terms understandable to academia and the civilian sectors, he said. Working partnerships with both will help ensure veteran success throughout their lives.

Brandman’s Dodge said many employers are skeptical about the degrees new graduates possess. Job-seekers must be able to demonstrate skills in problem-solving, networking, and collaboration. Parents and students, meanwhile, are demanding to know the return on investment for their tuition money.

Dodge called that clash of expectations and uncertainty “the perfect storm.”

“But these are the pieces that make good things happen and emerge. I think it’s actually an exciting time to be in higher education and education in general,” she said.

“Because now we can make a difference.”

She said more than 600 institutions are building competency-based education programs, which include transparent evidence of student learning.

“When I was in school you took your courses and you got a transcript,” she said. “It’s an A or a B, but you don’t know the learning. You don’t know what the person has, even with a whole degree. You have a grade-point average—what does that mean? Are they going to be successful?”

Competency-based education, on the other hand, produces what she calls a “can-do” statement. “It really states what a student can do and whether they’ve mastered that skill.”

That kind of system is transparent to employers, to students and to institutions, she said.

“It’s not things that are happening behind the hidden door of the classroom. We’re showing evidence. And that’s a big piece of competency-based education: It’s about authentic assessment. You’re learning the packaging of skills that you’re going to use in the workplace.”

A system like that creates an immediate and transparent value and quality, Dodge said.

“Again, when I was in school, you could actually get a C in one class and an A in another, and then you were a B-average student. Well, what the heck does that mean?

“But in a competency-based system you have to master every piece of that learning. You can’t skate by.”

A system like that includes beginning, middle and end-points, she said. The beginning piece uses competency as a framework.

In the end, you see verifiable learning.

“You’re showing evidence, like lots of student portfolios,” she said. “Students are demonstrating what their knowledge is. It’s not just looking at that transcript with grades. It’s actually deeper and wider.”

There are challenges, the biggest of which may be establishing common language through communication. That means explaining exactly what we mean by competency-based learning to quality-assurance agencies, regional accreditors, the U.S. Department of Education and others.

“Institutions have been doing this for a long time. And some feel like, ‘We don’t need to change, we’re doing OK,’” Dodge said.

“We have to understand: The world is changing, and we have to be able to address that. And I do think it’s exciting to bridge this.”

“So, yes, change is hard,” she said. “But we’ll get there.”

Army University host Education Symposium in Kansas City | Army University | June 14, 2017

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