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LearnLaunch 2016: What is “competency”? Why should we care?

I attended my first LearnLaunch conference last week and I had a blast. LearnLaunch represents a sweet spot for me: the intersection of education, technology, and people.

Add in a heavy dash of discussions on “competence” and that made my inner geek beam with happiness.

When I was in grad school, some of my favorite discussions were focused on “how do we define and measure performance?” As students who were being trained in how to use science to make workplaces better, these discussions got to the core of how we do that.

What “yardsticks” should we use to measure success?

This same question kept popping up at LearnLaunch but it was wearing slightly different clothing: Are competencies the best yardsticks for measuring student success?

At the “Trends in Continuing Ed: Adult Learning” session, Adam Newman, Matt Sigelman, Pam Eddinger, and Dawn Gerrain discussed the unique needs of adult learners and the importance of flexibility in not only HOW learning happens (e.g., offering online courses), but also in WHAT is learned. The importance of “soft skills” (e.g., critical thinking, communication, collaboration) was also emphasized. They only referred briefly to CBE (competency-based education), but the subtext was clear: Adult learners need a mode and style of learning that fits their busy lifestyles and this needs to be taken into account as we design ways to measure their success.

During the “Bootcamps, Certifications, and the Future of Higher Education” session, accelerated learning programs that are intensive, cohort-based, mentoring-based, and highly experiential took center stage. Seth Reynolds, Nick Ducoff, Scott Kirkpatrick, and Neil Allison discussed, and often respectfully disagreed about, using “getting a job” vs. measuring competencies as suitable outcomes for these programs. Make no mistake, lots of bootcamp-style training programs have impressive job placement rates —at the session, Scott Kirkpatrick reported that 99% of General Assembly students who are enrolled in their “all-in 9-to-5” programs find a job within 180 days. But, what about competencies? All of the panelists acknowledged the challenges in measuring them and the need to measure them in order to fully gauge the success of these programs.

CBE took center stage during “The Software to Support Competency-Based Learning” where Mark Miller, Brian Peddle, Conall Ryan and Tom Caswell participated. The panel talked about ways that CBE is changing the assessment landscape and tools that can help us link outcomes, measures, and the learning experience. Tom shared a great quote sometimes attributed to Bill Gates: “If you’re focusing on seat time [and not outcomes], you’re focusing on the wrong end of the student.” I love this quote because it reminds all of us education professionals what is truly important.

Last but not least, the closing keynote,“Higher Education 2.0: Readying for a Changing Landscape” featured Scott Kirsner of the Boston Globe interviewing Paul LeBlanc, the President of Southern New Hampshire University. The conversation was full of wonderful insights from Paul:

  • “2 questions: What are you claiming? How do you know?” That’s how we measure success. (Colleges tend to think “if you get enough Ph.D.’s and a bunch of books in the library” success is inevitable, right? No.)
  • CBE represents a good opportunity for high schools in the college admission process to be able to show “this student can write.”
  • Competencies get trickier when you are trying to transfer them from one college to another
  • Vocational skills are important but “I want to stack up grads with soft skills.”
  • We need to be “talking the same language as employers.” “A in Sociology” is not helpful.
  • How will we know when CBE is truly working? When employers say it is. But that’s going to take a while.
  • “Competencies are really about what a student can do. To do things, you gotta know stuff.”
  • After showing this YouTube video of Indy 500 pit stops in 1950 vs. 2013: “Higher Ed. is closer to 1950.” We need to change that.

In sum, I’ll answer the questions I posed in the title of this article:

  1. What is “competency”? I like Paul LeBlanc’s definition: A competency represents what we “can do.”
  2. Why should we care? Because if we can’t measure what we “can do,” then we’ll never know if we succeeded.

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