Competency-Based Learning: Pros And Cons
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Pros, Cons, And Essential Elements

In Part 1: Introduction To Skills Mastery, I outlined the need for competency-based learning and described how it is different from traditional models of learning. In this article, we will discover the pros and cons of competency-based and personalized learning.

Did you know that:

  • Competency-based learning is taking off?
  • In the U.S.A. alone there has been a 1200% increase in competency-based learning institutions from 2015 to 2016?

Strengths (Pros) Of Competency-Based Learning

Competency-based learning gives you a better understanding of what an employee can do and puts the emphasis on learning in the learner’s hands. Learners learn what they need to know and focus on it instead of just cramming for a test. Learners can return to challenging competencies until they achieve mastery. Unlike traditional, time-based training methods, learners do not just move on with a big gap in their knowledge if they run out of time. Competency-based learning shifts the emphasis from how time is allotted to whether an employee can demonstrate skills mastery. Under competency-based learning instructions, there are only two choices: (1) mastered and (2) not yet mastered.

Learners have choice and agency on how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. For example, learners with work or family commitments can study at their own pace, and, for some learners, it speeds up their time to complete a qualification through the recognition of prior learning. Proponents have identified several strengths in competency-based learning including:

1. Affordable

The cost of competency-based learning programs changes depending on variables such as the technology employed, the length and delivery method (classroom, online, blended, etc.) of the training events, and the pace of your learners. If costs are associated with the learner time taken to complete the training, then quick completion relates to reducing training costs. For many companies then, competency-based learning seems very attractive due to possible significant cost-savings created by leveraging technology to lower operational costs and training fees.

2. Flexible

Competency-based learning offers flexible pedagogic structures that are needed in order to suit different learning styles, capabilities, speed, etc., of learners. The concept uses no set class time or training duration. Learners are not bound by ridged program structures, so they can complete learning tasks when they feel they can demonstrate skills mastery. This learning method also allows learners to receive credit for previous experiences, which helps them make progress on their individual learning journeys. Thus, each learner is free to enter a course at the level they feel capable, and they can complete it when they are ready, not when the class time is over, at the end of the semester, etc.

3. Self-Paced

The flexibility of competency-based learning focuses on skills mastery as an outcome, not on the learning journey per se. As learners are not adhering to set learning processes—classes, etc.—they control their own learning and at a pace they feel comfortable. As soon as a learner feels that they can demonstrate mastery of a skill, they can perform an assessment, receive credit, and move onto the next learning task they wish. Learners are in control of how fast or slow they progress, which is beneficial to people with busy working schedules who are working toward completing a certificate/course.

4. Engaging

With the introduction of multimedia technology, today’s technologically-savvy employees have been seen to embrace and be motivated by new training technologies. Incorporating the latest multimedia elements and interactive features into Learning and Development training activities creates better learning and teaching environments for both employees and trainers. We can now employ rich multimedia content that provides a more interactive and engaging learning experience.

Training methods, therefore, need to be rethought to get the best out of new technology. In order for competency-based learning to be engaging to the learner, it needs to offer authentic learning activities that incorporate graphical multimedia and interactive elements into fun learning environments. New digital multimedia provides learners with engaging interactive environments, which are scientifically proven to assist and improve learner retention of the content trained.

Technology can also be used to present employees with real-world situations so as to teach them theoretical knowledge in a fun and engaging manner. For example, case studies, where learners solve problems in a context they understand, embedded with multimedia help, as the learner engages in the content and puts emphasis on a deeper conceptual understanding, not just on superficial rote learning.

This is especially true when the training scenarios are dynamic in that the form of the scenario changes depending on what decisions the learner takes, what they investigate, and what actions they take. This approach fosters deeper learning through active involvement in corporate training materials rather than in superficial rote learning—as with the "click-by-click" approach to training that we have traditionally seen.

5. Skills-Based

The forte of competency-based learning is helping learners develop the ability to use their knowledge in solving real-world problems. Real-world skills can be developed through authentic—complex and contextualized—learning that is situated in a meaningful real-life context rather than being oversimplified and presented in isolation. Meaning, for the learner, their investigation of real-world scenarios fosters deep long-term learning.

Employees can learn through competency-based learning simulated training activities that reflect such real-world experiences. If we focus on this type of learner experience, we can train our employees to be analytic and creative, meet the 21st-century skills needed for business success, and be job-ready.

Weaknesses (Cons) Of Competency-Based Learning

Detractors have identified a number of weaknesses in the competency-based learning approach:

  • The learning approach is not suited for learning where the skills and competencies are difficult to identify and quantify. If the skills cannot be quantified, they cannot be measured. It is also not seen as suitable for situations where new skills and new knowledge need to be rapidly accommodated.
  • There is a focus on employer needs rather than on the longer-term outlook of learners, with less focus on preparing them for an uncertain future.
  • Social learning offers measurable learning benefits and can be an important component of training. The competency-based learning approach, however, does not take social learning into consideration.
  • Competency-based learning employs an objectivist approach to learning (i.e., both the goals and the objectives are to be set by the teacher or the designer of the class); whereas constructivists, who say that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences, would argue that people can possess a wide range of skills and that skills are either present or absent—pass or fail.

Elements Of Competency-Based Learning

The competency-based learning method is comprised of several recognizable and distinguishable elements. This is a brief introduction to them:

  • Advancing
    Learners advance when they can demonstrate skills mastery successfully. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies along with the development and mastery of important skills and dispositions. Skills and competencies are explicit, measurable, and have transferable learning objectives that empower learners to advance when ready.
  • Assessment
    It is a meaningful and positive learning experience for learners. There are no levels needed to pass or fail. Learners either receive acknowledgment of skills possession or not.
  • Learner support
    Learners receive timely, personalized support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Understanding and knowledge
    The competency-based learning method focuses on learning goals, the acquisition of a new skill for example. Good implementations use real-world situations that the learner can connect to/understand (e.g., their work life, profession) which is proven to increase their engagement in learning, plus it deepens their learning, and the retention of the material is increased.

Closing Thoughts

It’s no doubt that digitally training your staff allows for increased performance, better cost-efficiencies, and—ultimately—accelerated innovation. We must understand each employee as a learner and provide choices that make learning purposeful and relevant to them. As we wrestle ourselves out of the classroom to make a bigger impact at work, competency-based learning may just provide your employees with the shortest distance between "not knowing" and "doing."

Part 3: How Technology Supports Skills Mastery is coming soon!

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