Skills Mastery: Competency-Based Learning (Part 1)
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Introduction To Skills Mastery

Talent is a critical source of competitive advantage, therefore securing and training the right talent is key to tomorrow’s success. Often, companies can’t find the right workers who have the right skills at the right time. Human resource (HR) departments face the difficult task of finding people who can help the organization reach its strategic goals.

For example, did you know that:

  • Today, more than 924 unique skillsets are required for most jobs, but back in 2009, just 178 skillsets were needed.
  • Generation Z will face greater skills gap challenges as 65% of the jobs they will fill do not yet exist.
  • The average tenure of today’s millennial workers is two years, meaning businesses today face high staff turnover.
  • The average cost per new hire for companies is $4,200.
  • 58% of organizations spend more than $1,000 per learner on retraining.
  • 84% of organizations will face workforce disruption in the next five years.
  • Companies that train their teams well can save $70,000 (on average) annually and reach productivity gains of 10%.

One key factor in determining an organization’s ability to successfully meet HR-related challenges is a greater investment in employee skills/development through training and education. Firms that do not invest in training programs lose top talent, which ultimately costs them productivity and money.

Learning and Development (L&D) leaders are facing their own challenges of shrinking budgets, a dispersed and mobile workforce, evolving business demands, and shifting employee expectations. This means L&D leaders are looking for high-impact training strategies that stick, as learning isn’t effective unless it sticks and changes behaviors. But:

  • Their employees are not learning real-world skills through typical eLearning.
  • eLearning is often impersonal—learners have dissimilar literacy levels, different knowledge backgrounds, and other associated abilities.
  • People learn at their own pace. The time spent on courses is often fixed, but the learning is variable, as some people master the material fast and some people don’t.
  • "Seat time" does not demonstrate skill mastery.
  • Assessments are used principally for summative purposes at predetermined points of time (i.e., at the end of a unit) and are administered to all learners at the same time on the same content.
  • eLearning often emphasizes memorization and comprehension of the content—not a demonstration of understanding.
  • Grades reflect a combination of completing modules, scores or tests plus other assignments, but not a person’s progress in learning and their demonstration of the desired learning outcomes.
  • Time is an extremely poor measure and an inadequate way to communicate your capabilities.

It is, therefore, important to deliver effective training that will have a direct impact on your organization because learning must help businesses achieve better outcomes. This is where competency-based learning plays its part. But, what is it exactly?

What Is Competency-Based Learning?

The world is moving toward skill mastery as technology adds a new "angle" to competency-based learning because it provides learners with access to content in order to develop their required skills and competencies at their own pace.

Competency-based learning is an approach to learning where learners move ahead primarily based on their demonstration of what they know and can do rather than simply based on the time spent on training. Competency-based mastery is when you can apply what you know—not just learn it, but apply it. Since competencies are observable, they can be measured and assessed to ensure their acquisition:

  • Leading to developmental pathways and competencies for success at the next levels, demonstrated learning through meaningful assessments, and accountability for each learner and all who support the learner.
  • Specify expectations in explicit, observable, measurable and transferable language.
  • Organize a curriculum and instructions around learning progressions.
  • Credential learning based on a demonstration against expectations.
  • Find ways to provide time and support to learners who do not demonstrate mastery.
  • Let learners who demonstrate mastery progress further.
  • Competency-based learning is an approach to the education that focuses on the learner’s demonstration of the desired learning outcomes as central to the learning process.
  • The competency-based learning approach to training places the focus on the learner’s ability to demonstrate proof that they possess the desired skills. It focuses primarily on the learner’s progress at their own pace through curriculum, depth of knowledge, etc. As they prove their competencies, learners progress further.
  • "Mastery" is a key characteristic of competency-based learning. Other learning pedagogies (models) expose learners to content and concepts over a set time period, and success is measured at the end of the course. The competency-based learning approach allows learners to keep learning until they feel that they can demonstrate skills mastery (i.e., prove the desired learning outcomes). The competency-based learning approach is, therefore, closely tied to mastery learning.

Competency-based learning comprises of 3 interrelated elements: a knowledge component (comprehension), behavioral components (behavioral attributes) and a value component (beliefs, values, and attitudes). With competency-based learning, the first step is to determine specific competencies or skills and then help learners develop mastery of these competencies at a pace they are comfortable with. Learners can choose the skills and competencies that they feel they need and then tackle learning them (often they receive some sort of recognition, such as a certificate or a badge). Sets of competencies can be "bundled" into a recognized qualification, such as a diploma, certificate or, more and more, a full degree.

How Is This Different From The Traditional Model?

To explain the difference between competency-based learning and traditional time-based models of teaching, we can look at the focus, structure, and content of the training. Traditional time-based models of teaching focus on knowledge acquisition for a set time, then perform tests at course completion as an assessment model. Competency-based learning differs in that the skills to be obtained are known by the learner who can perform an assessment to demonstrate skill mastery at any time, not at a predetermined test time. The time spent by the learner in order to develop and feel confident in demonstrating the sought skill differs from learner to learner. Some are fast. Some are slower. But there is no fixed time as there is in traditional time-based models.

As opposed to the design of traditional education systems where:

  • Instructional Design is driven by standards and textbooks.
  • Instructional planning is based on infrequent feedback loops.
  • Intervention and personalization are sporadic and generic.
  • People are assessed from disconnected assessments graded to create a normal distribution across cohorts.

The design of competency-based systems must have:

  • Instructional Design driven by learner needs
  • Instructional planning based on continuous feedback loops
  • Intervention and personalization are need-based, timely and differentiated
  • People are assessed through frequent, meaningful measurements of competency for each individual learner

Part 2 (Pros, Cons and Essential Elements) and part 3 (How Technology Supports Skills Mastery) are coming soon!

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