#ASTD2014 Presentation: Bridging the Workforce Skills Gap Through Competency-Based Higher Education

CompetenceThis was the last presentation I viewed at the 2014 ASTD-ICE. It was one that I was really looking forward to attending. It focused on competency-based learning in higher education. Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University was giving the presentation, and I was very much looking forward to visiting with him. I had been following his work at SNHU and was intrigued. I was not disappointed.

LeBlanc opened the presentation but was also accompanied by Martha Kanter, Former US Undersecretary of Education and Lisa Guertin, President & General Manager of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield New Hampshire.

LeBlanc opened his presentation with a work-preparation paradox. According to LeBlanc, 96% of colleges believe they are adequately preparing graduates for the workforce, whereas only 14% of Americans and 11% of business leaders believed that graduates had the skills and knowledge. Business do not believe in the quality of higher education, yet, higher ed believes our PhDs will yield smart graduates.

Three credit hour courses

Three credit hour courses are what holds higher ed together. Credit hour tells seat time but not what they learned. Credit hours are good for unitized learning. Credits show mileposts attained. They also shape course schedules and resource allocation. It takes time to build courses.

Credit hours

SNHU’s focus is to change education by making time a variable but learning absolute. They are primarily working with students who are non-traditional. They have arranged learning into 109 competencies arranged in 9 clusters. SNHU brought in workforce development experts to help identify competencies. I see this as no different to a mission essential task list or a career field education and training plan I used in the Air Force.

Competency clusters
Competency clusters

Students can begin anywhere they want. The instruction is online and self-paced. If you can demonstrate competency, you can move on as quick as you want. It costs $1,200 every 6 months for as much learning as you can pack in. SNHU tries to keep costs to $2,500 per year including books; they leverage open educational resources (OER). Students can go as fast as they want. Students are forced to demonstrate skills and knowledge. Learning is non-negotiable, time is variable.

Difference between traditional and competency
Difference between traditional and competency

Students must complete real work projects to show mastery of different competencies. For example, a project proposal would require an assessment, written report with tables, the preparation and delivery of a presentation, etc. Students resubmit areas where competency is weak. Instructors teach, give feedback, and do assessments.

SNHU also takes into account experience learned outside of higher ed. If a student can test out of a competency, they are then given credit.

According to Kanter, more higher ed systems are in the pipeline to develop competency-based degree programs. She noted that the status quo will get in the way of change. There is also a debate about quality and accreditation. There are still questions that must be resolved:

  • Do the competencies yield a competent graduate?
  • Will a faster graduate be the same quality?
  • Order of courses, does it matter?
  • There will be more competition on quality?
  • Can reduce student load debt?

Dept of Education and Labor are working together to try to answer some of these question, and time will tell on the others.

The competency-based model is something I am very comfortable with, you either met the standard or you did not. If you didn’t, you can resubmit. It is a model I used in the Air Force, with Civil Air Patrol, and now in the classes I teach. I believes it puts the responsibility squarely on the learner’s shoulders. The idea of competency mastery is not a new idea for me. Over two years ago, I wrote about how I would like to see a grad school run.