Published on 2012/11/21

Why Companies Want Competency-Based Education

Given the critical importance of employee competence in today’s workforce, competency-based models are becoming increasing important for employers, as this approach to higher education ensures that employees both understand the concepts being taught and can apply them in the work world.

Five major threats to a business have been identified by Express Employment Professionals. Through information shared with them by Gallup, Ernst & Young, The Aberdeen Group and others, Express Employment Professionals lists the following as the most pernicious problems that will cause a business to fail:

  • The inability to innovate
  • Losing competitive advantage
  • The high costs of reckless hiring
  • Poor leadership and communication
  • Regulatory nightmares

Of the five threats all but regulatory nightmares can be linked directly to employee competence or the lack thereof. With so much at stake, it is no wonder that companies find competency-based educational models so attractive!

Competency-based educational models are constructed of clearly-defined learning outcomes. Articulating precisely what knowledge, skills, and abilities are to be mastered and to what degree they will be mastered are the hallmarks of credible competency-based programs. This transparency is very attractive to employers for several reasons.

Employers need capable and creative people who know how to solve problems and communicate effectively. Successful competency-based educational models inherently foster the development of higher order critical thinking, problem solving, organization, innovation, and communication skills. The nature of competency-based education requires that students demonstrate the ability to apply what they know and have learned. The more credible competency-based educational models such as Western Governors University and New Charter University utilize robust and multi-faceted projects, portfolios, and assessments. Skills demonstrated through these types of learning artifacts provide significant evidence that an employee or potential employee has the ability to contribute to corporate efforts to be successful through innovation and competitive advantage.

When hiring people who have been educated in competency-based programs such as WGU and NCU, employers can be more confident that the employees can actually do what they claim they can do. Most competency-based programs require students to demonstrate sufficient mastery of every competency in their educational programs. Students cannot pass a course unless they have met the established standards required for all components of that course. All courses must be passed in order to receive a degree. Having employees with substantially developed skills sets is a valuable commodity to an employer. The less time employers have to spend training and re-training employees the more time their business can reap the benefits from an employee’s expertise. This is very important to employers who want to avoid the costly consequences of hiring under-qualified individuals and other associated reckless hiring practices.

Another advantage of competency-based educational designs is that by the very nature of the competency curriculum development process, educational clutter is reduced or eliminated. Educational clutter includes information, activities, busy-work, and other extraneous elements that are not aligned to the objectives of a lesson, unit, or program. Traditional curriculum design practices where a topic is identified, broad goals are articulated, and lessons and units are built from that foundation tend to result in significant amounts of extraneous elements. As interesting and useful as these extraneous elements may be, they often waste precious time and resources.

Competency-based curriculum, on the other hand, is designed using what Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and others refer to as backwards design. Basically this means that specific competencies and how they will be assessed are identified first and then the rest of the curriculum is designed backwards from there. Backwards design provides a precise target to which all to align all instructional efforts and assessments. Well-aligned curriculum saves time, effort, and money for all involved. Money, effort, and time saving models are extremely attractive to employers who are allowing employees release time from their job responsibilities and are footing the bill for employee education.

Lastly, another huge benefit to employers is the asynchronous modes of instructional delivery frequently utilized in competency-based educational models. Some of the most notable competency-based educational institutions, such as Western Governors University and New Charter University, were explicitly designed to maximize the benefits of asynchronous education. Asynchronous education means students can work on their schooling any time and any place. Students are in control of their time, resources, and effort. When students have control of their time, resources, and effort, they are much more able to successfully balance work and school. Healthier balance means healthier, more productive employees. More productive employees mean more successful business and a better bottom line!

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Readers Comments

Cheryl Smith 2012/11/21 at 7:23 am

I find the language in this article troubling; it demonstrates everything I take issue with in competency-based learning. I agree that a shift to competency-based learning will probably happen in some degree, and will be a useful complement to other shifts (to more adult learners, to digital badges…).

I do not agree with competency-based learning as a means to a “better bottom line” for employers. The language Ms. Johnson uses in this article–”educational clutter”, “waste”, “productivity” , “time and money”–conjures up Fordist images of an “education factory” where productive employees are pumped out as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, and slotted in where their particular set of competencies is useful.

I understand that I am being extreme, but this is the danger of competency-based education as I see it, and this is not what I want the future of higher education to look like, regardless of how financially advantageous it may be for schools and employers.

Emily Cross 2012/11/21 at 12:32 pm

To eliminate “educational clutter” is to cut out many opportunities for the development of critical thinking and analytical skills that should be offered to students over the course of any learning experience; to work backward from targeted outcome to curriculum is to stagnate any creativity or innovation that might appear over the course of a learning experience; to treat education, and those who pursue it, as a means to an end is to rob them of dignity.

I really believe this to be true, and I think many college instructors would say the same. My worry: employers end up with “competent” employees who can do the tasks they have been trained to do, but have no capacity for creativity, problem-solving, or innovation– which I think is the lifeblood of any successful company.

WA Anderson 2012/11/22 at 11:58 am

Though I do understand the lament of the loss of higher education as this wonderful, broad learning experience, I think what Cheryl and Emily are lamenting doesn’t exist anymore; or it exists but only for a tiny, economically advantaged portion of the population.

The reality is this: state funding for schools is on the decline. The gap between the skills needed for the jobs available and the workers qualified to do these jobs is growing. Adults are going back to school in droves, and they are not looking for a 4-year liberal arts “enlightenment.” They are looking for practical, applicable skills that employers will recognize and that will empower them in the workplace. This is the power of competency-based education, not to mention the potential it holds for the recognition of prior non-formal learning.

    Guhan 2014/09/29 at 8:13 pm

    I fully agree with this: “Adults are going back to school in droves, and they are not looking for a 4-year liberal arts “enlightenment.” They are looking for practical, applicable skills that employers will recognize and that will empower them in the workplace.”

    Besides, I dont see why competency based education is not capable of fostering creative thinking and problem-solving, and why credit hour education is superior in this respect!

j. F. Vega Riveros 2015/08/06 at 3:49 pm

We are so submerged in traditional models of higher education that some people fail to see that curriculum contents is not in conflict with competences; in competency-based learning contents is put in context. It saves time and resources to all involved because it uses contents to develop the competences. It reduces the time and resources needed for courses that simply fill the curriculum with contents outside the necessary context. For instance, communications skills for a political science major are not identical to an engineering major. But we cannot think of competency-based education as a disciplinary approach. The model calls for convergence of disciplines as needed unlike traditional models where disciplines converge for administrative reasons: Math or science courses where students fill in the capacity of the classroom.

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