10 Actions Higher Education Institutions Should Take To Catalyze Competency-Based Education

AI in Education Leaderboard Post Page
Ai In Education Square Post Page

--- Advertisement ---

Disponible en Español

Disclaimer: Skillways and Ease Learning are partners of Open LMS, publisher of eLearn.

The skills gap debate continues to rage on. In our bountiful tech era, it’s never been easier to build competencies. And yet, the numbers paint an unfortunate picture. According to a 2024’s worldwide report by the International Labor Organization:

  • 77% of employers report difficulties hiring candidates with the required skill sets. This is up from 35% a decade ago.
  • Increase in “working poverty” with 432 million people worldwide in 2023. The term refers to people who despite having a formal job, still live below the poverty line. A similar situation is faced by the so-called ALICE households.
  • Despite low levels of unemployment and higher labor market participation, real wages have stalled. Labor productivity growth is hitting the brakes.

Following the pandemic, the dynamics of the workforce entered uncharted territory. Many sectors braced for some of their most critical times in history. Others enjoyed an unexpected boon, which often turned out to be short-lived. Today the world’s supply and demand of skills is in disarray.

Many see Competency Based Education and CBE-related technologies —some have started to name the space “SkillTech”— a revolution always 15 minutes away. Are they finally ready to enter the stage and help address the critical times we’re living in? For John Cornell II, the answer should be a resounding yes. In the light of dwindling rates of Higher Education enrollments, the CEO of Skillways has a series of clear, productive pathways for universities, colleges and institutions concerned with productivity and employment-seeking learners.

№1. Skill issues and skill ways

[Colleges and Universities] need to understand that the reason everyone goes to college now is because of their role as a jobs program.

Skillways is a spin-off of Ease Learning, where John, a self-taught coder since he was 7, and serial entrepreneur including a political micro-targeting venture out of New York, was a full-stack web developer before making the jump into SkillTech, earlier this year. It is clear solutions are needed and technology should be a part of it. There are questions whose answers point to the need of a higher understanding, the way a competency collects the knowledge and abilities that make it up: What are the human abilities needed now and in the future, and who can provide them? How will AI affect both demand (vocation) and supply (development) of skills? How should the global misallocation of competencies be addressed? And how do we find a common ground between present work needs and a future where a critical-thinking society decides what competencies will be most valuable?

I initially mistook John for an economist, as we quickly found common ground about the lack of quality data that would help us pave a more robust way to find these answers. Ways that can actually shape institutional decision-making, and guide policy. Access to better information could help Higher Ed improve their offerings and stave off the low enrollments, a credible existential threat. John sees parallels with a previous experience as a research software developer for the International Council of Shopping Centers, gathering and analyzing international market trends data for the consumption of malls around the world.

John envisions Skillways as a comprehensive toolset that empowers educational leaders to make better decisions, and answer to a student population anxious about the job market that awaits them. Economic forces, as well as political ones whenever public funding is involved, are already demanding it. Survival of colleges and universities depends on how they turn their data and strengths into better, marketable solutions.

№2. Higher Ed students see education as an investment. Colleges and universities could do a better job managing their own investments

In the 1930s, only if you were from a wealthy family could you go to the university to become a lawyer or an accountant. To afford being sent somewhere to learn for years. After World War II, with the GI Bill a lot more people started enjoying the opportunity to gain knowledge, for knowledge’s sake.

Much is said about the inability of centuries-old institutions to embrace change, let alone match the pace of our information-driven economy. Actually, universities are significant generators of technology transfer. They remain as top IP and patent creators worldwide, and they account for millions of high-skilled job opportunities. For the most part, they succeeded in adapting quickly to unexpected circumstances during the pandemic.

That would be the glass half full. In Higher Ed, scientific discovery, jobs and infrastructure are heavily concentrated in a relative handful of countries and Ivy League institutions. But what could be seen as structural inequality is an opportunity for up-and-comers looking to stand out. For John, they are the ideal subjects to invest in CBE. In addition to SkillTech’s mapping and intelligence features, getting talent capable of diving deep into the mapping and matching makes for a sound investment proposition.

[The Higher Ed experience] enriches you as a person. Over the course of the century, the outcomes of a university education became more standardized and predictable. More ways to finance a multi-year degree became available, but so did the pressure to get a return on it. In the U.S. as the economy became less focused on manufacturing and more into services, Higher Ed became primarily a jobs engine.

№3. There is a great opportunity, and fewer excuses not to provide better, granular links between educational content, assessment and target competency

With all these changes, universities became the place where you gained some basic skill set that would allow you to find a job quickly. Then, people started to see Higher Ed as the place where you could continue building up your skills and enhance your job prospects. And you would still be able to get knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

The public’s view of academic reputation as tied to the quality of competencies delivered has only deepened, according to John. The quality of a professional is a strong signal for the quality of the experience at the college or university they graduated from. Provided with the right investments and focus, John is excited about helping Higher Ed institutions perfect their own CBE processes, while maintaining —if not elevating— their unique core value. Invariably, it will take lots of iteration.

If you do well in an exam, it means you’re strong in those skills. If you get something wrong, you’re weak in those skills. There’s many ways to do it, more or less granularly, depending on the institution’s capabilities… The ideal is a fully adaptable learning plan based on data. So learners aren’t wasting their time being exposed to material for things they are already good at.

№4. Making competencies a core part of strategic curriculum development can drive innovation and differentiation in the marketplace

Universities need to get real about what their role is. A clear example is skill authentication. This means being able to define what a skill is, and being able to verify that a skill was provided. They currently do it for specific occupations, even though there are third party accreditation mechanisms, like professional boards that enforce licensing requirements. In a way, Higher Ed has not considered skill authentication as their responsibility, instead focusing on general knowledge.

Adaptive learning is widely seen as a desirable feature in any kind of program, going as far being deemed fundamental for survival of the species (Journal of Universal Computer Science, 2023). In the Higher Ed context, maximizing its benefits calls for a CBE imperative at the onset of the program and curriculum design process. In a more agile and adaptive scenario, making a third-party responsible for skill authentication becomes impractical, if not altogether unfeasible. And let’s not get into the whole issue of occupational regulatory capture.

№5. Embracing new technologies, including AI and SkillTech, will allow Higher Ed leadership gain a better view of their CBE and become more adaptable

The matching of competencies to lessons and activities is done by the learning designers that are building the course. They work with subject matter experts to define which skills go with which question, although that’s something that we’re looking at AI to help with. That’s a really good use of AI because AI is very good at classification tasks.

The research on the Journal of Universal Computer Science appears to agree. It explores the potential of AI in the delivery of adaptive learning experiences. With achieved, demonstrable competencies as the target, we have a direct use case for AI in CBE, that strengthens institutional offerings and addresses the skill authentication problem.

”Say you’re going to be an electrical engineer. So you have a set of skills given by a third party who analyzed job postings and figured out what is most important. That skill set is constantly in flux. Just compare an electrical engineering curriculum today with one from then years ago.

”The Skillways platform generates statistics about your competencies based on how you perform, down to individual questions within assessments. That’s the whole power. So there is a use that’s adaptive in nature, exposes gaps and weaknesses, and points towards actions to bridge them until skills are successfully authenticated. With the help of AI, learning plans can suggest challenging areas to focus, and parts that’s best to skip over.”

№6. Corporate partnerships can help Higher Ed align to the current job market—and possibly secure enrollments for customized programs

At Google they used to practice the so-called ‘80/20’ rule, where they could use 20% of their time to work on whatever side project they wanted. Many of those side projects turned into some of the company’s most successful assets. Arguably, it would have needed people capable of self-determination to get those good results.

A seldom seen CBE competitor catering companies’ demand for skills is, well, companies themselves. At every scale, they have realized the benefits of taking on at least some part of the CBE process. Notably, there are proven effects on employee retention by investments in training, according to a 2020 study.

It is a significant investment. And it’s not always under your control. Most companies find out too late down the road if their employees possess the skills you need or not… Now let’s get past the point where you have existing talent. And you’re looking at a new initiative within the company, so you’re going to relocate some of your talent. How do you make sure the relocation is worth it? Can you correctly identify the gaps, and determine how expensive fulfilling your initiative will be?

In reality, the ability to run your own internal skilling endeavor is reserved for a few corporations with the scale and resources required. And even for those who can, there are limitations.

Universities are still in a privileged position to offer the liberal arts education that would foster creativity, autonomy, self determination. A lot of students enroll at 16 years old or so, wondering what they want to do. It’s often an unquestioned progression. ‘I’m going to college because everybody is going to college. I’m going to this university because my parents went there.’

On principle this means good news for universities and colleges, if it wasn’t for the growing competition by providers of alternative upskilling pathways. It was an opportunity for Higher Ed to lose, but it can be regained. As paradoxical as it may sound, the 2020 study suggests that providing employees with external training has a higher effect on retention when it is accredited by a reputable institution.

№7. Likewise, government relations can help with resource allocation, uncover longer-term trends and anticipate skilling needs

The system is backwards. Students are the consumers, but they don’t have the information. It’s the employers and the government who know what skills are needed, the gaps, and how new professionals should be trained. And those are the answers that determine how marketable the professional is going to be.

Today’s level of competition and CBE alternatives is due in part to market liberalization reforms that have been commonplace across countries since at least the 1980s. Even in the cases where Higher Ed was involved in the policy reform process, institutions were only partially capable of anticipating the many coming changes, particularly in enrollments. Liberalization efforts are for the most part welcome, as long as they don’t compromise the coverage of social services —a space Higher Ed tends to fall into— and information maintains quality and widespread availability.

When an institution is established, they target students, and offer programs they’re interested in. Government bodies often grant accreditation to these programs without regard for their effects on job markets. I think it is short-term thinking. It compromises the ability to guarantee jobs.

Whoever in the government is in charge of Higher Ed policy should be someone you know and get in touch with. These are people assigned to solve big problems, so it makes sense that they have a relationship with institutions and employers. They could identify hiring bottlenecks and coordinate solutions. We have the technology to bridge all that.

№8. Third-party data sources can round up the outlook on skills and help alleviate the global skills mismatch

The concept of a third party that provides updates on skill sets based on job postings is not theoretical. Skillways leverages Lightcast, a provider of labor market data and talent intelligence solutions, with a comprehensive library of always-current skills, honed by in-house experts.

On the global scale, the mismatch or misallocation of skills adds another layer of interesting, foreboding complexity. The recently released Global Cities Index by Oxford Economics devotes a chapter to its Human Capital score. It ranks the availability of skills among the population, providing data to the unsurprising fact that top skills are concentrated: London, Tokyo, Seoul, Paris, 3 U.S. cities and 2 Arab ones take up the top spots in a survey of 1,000 cities.

According to a 2023 Global Talent Shortage report by Manpower (PDF), the global mismatch of skills poses at least a couple nuances. Some locations attract both the most talent, and generate the highest demand for them, Silicon Valley being the classic example. In the developing world, infrastructure still lacks the capacity to spark competitive talent demand. Policies have yet to succeed in promoting skills in higher demand, often promoting oversupply of certain degrees.

Deficient or lacking data can turn well-meaning investments into costly, intergenerational mistakes. When an oblivious low-income country stimulates higher income degrees, the student is likely to take advantage of the opportunity, then migrate to a global hub. But if there is no discrimination in the type of skills subsidized, the country ends up with an oversupply of degrees without jobs.

№9. Nevertheless, a broader debate is warranted on the ethos of Higher Ed institutions, related to job skills and beyond

The coordination problems and the apparent conflicts are solvable. Each player has someone in charge, someone who’s ostensibly interested and willing to listen. There are organizations, like Federations or Chambers of Commerce, with understanding of the issue, available data and even some lobbying power. They’re launching initiatives all the time trying to bridge academia and industry. Relationships are essential, they can get a conversation going.

We’ve focused on competencies, and Higher Ed’s ability to provide skills in demand and degrees with favorable job and income prospects. For a moment, we expanded the scope of what ongoing, open-ended relationships can make possible. In particular, we tried not to neglect the many additional benefits of Higher Ed: From R&D and technology transfer, to allowing for open debate about institutions, governance, democracy and beyond.

Maybe we help start some of these conversations, gathering people interested in this connection between Higher Ed, the workforce and the role of government. And maybe we inspire someone to be interested in actually solving these problems.

№10. TO SUM UP: Whether Higher Ed is ready to turn towards CBE depends on all the aforementioned factors (and more), but it is possible

The long-standing nature of universities and colleges should not be taken for granted. In the same vein, challenges should be welcome. The economic and labor market realities are unavoidable. But while job skills do not need to be Higher Ed’s unique role in society, CBE can help address the apparent conflict between an education in the liberal arts, and one seen as an individual’s investment on a better job and income.

As for Skillways, John is optimistic, focused on improving the product, expanding to newer markets and languages, and piquing investor interest. In true “competitive” fashion, this means, among other things, making sure there is an iterative process in place for his small team to have the skills needed to succeed.

Disclaimer: Skillways and Ease Learning are partners of Open LMS, publisher of eLearn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

The Latest

The eLearn Podcast

--- Advertisement ---

Subscribe to our newsletter

Education technology has the power to change lives. 

To get the latest news, information and resources about online learning from around the world by clicking on the button below.