Much has been said about the quality of the educational system here in the United States. A majority of the conversation focuses on the many areas of improvement that have been identified. Anyone who has worked in the educational field is familiar with the common complaints. Curriculum is too test focused. There isn’t enough time/staff/resources to do a good job. Our evaluation methods are outdated and/or ineffective. I’m not going to go into any of these arguments here.
Last week I sat in on a webinar from the Association for Talent Development called Bridge the Skills Gap With Competency Based Training. This webinar was essentially a promotion for the College for America program and featured their relationship with Anthem to develop an Associate and Bachelors degree program for Anthem employees who needed training in order to advance in their fields. It talked about how the program at College for America got started, why it was needed (did you know the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 65% of all jobs in the US will require post-secondary training by the year 2020?) and Anthem’s experience of having employees enrolled in the program to obtain their degrees.
While the webinar itself wasn’t particularly interesting, it did get me thinking about the term competency-based training and its relationship to another hot topic sweeping the e-learning world right now, namely micro-learning. In a previous post I mentioned attending a webinar by Dr. Ray Jimenez of Vingettes Learning. Dr. Jimenez is a vocal proponent of the micro-learning method, and I have attended several of his webinars in the past. In this particular webinar, he mentioned that studies have shown that while micro-learning does have higher levels of knowledge retention than more traditional lecture-based methods, it does not raise to the 100% level. Basically, through micro-learning the students may not remember 100% of what you showed them, but they will remember enough to know what was covered and where they can go to get the rest of the information. Essentially…they will learn enough to be competent. This idea has been revolutionary in e-learning, although it has definitely ruffled the feathers of those who prefer the traditional learning methodologies.
I began thinking, what is wrong with thinking of education as being competency based? According to Julian Alssid from College for America, one of the major benefits of the competency based model is that advancement is based on mastery of the skills, knowledge and abilities identified as key for the learner on any particular subject. Essentially, it gets away from thinking about post-secondary education in the time-my-rear-spent-in-the-chair Credit Hour model. It’s not about how long you spend trying to master a subject…the emphasis is on mastering it before moving on to the next thing. Given today’s labor market, this would indeed be a vast improvement and would better meet the needs of the labor force than traditional education models, which can produce graduates who know how to fill out answers on a bubble sheet but don’t know how to apply what they were supposed to have learned.
I realize this idea can be controversial, especially in higher education where there is a distinct love of the idea that learning for learning’s sake is the highest form of perfection type of attitude. As a life long learner myself, I’m not saying that learning things should be strictly about efficiencies and the labor market. After all, my original degree is History, which it is very hard to argue makes one employable on its characteristics alone (although there are numerous intellectual advantages it offers). I do think that learning should be done for enjoyment, and that not all learning needs to be efficient or productive for the labor force in order to be good. But I also bow to the reality that our economic system is changing in dramatic ways, and that not everyone appreciates intellectual pursuits as much as I do. Those who do not shouldn’t be penalized economically for the rest of their lives for that reality, which is essentially what is happening in our current educational system. A compromise must be struck.
Many people have pointed to a German-style apprenticeship program as being a possible solution for this conundrum. Students split their time between more formal education and the more competency-based apprenticeship training at various companies like Seimens and Daimler. Students who focus on the more competency-based training method aren’t penalized for it, as some could argue happens in the US. This Dual-Training program is often identified as a major factor in the stability of the German economy, particularly the German Middle Class. Given the amazing shrinking influence and stability of the US Middle Class, I think programs like College for America and a switch towards a more competency-based training model in the US Education system cannot hurt.