Colleges Need to Work Together to Build Competencies of the Future

column | Digital Learning

Colleges Need to Work Together to Build Competencies of the Future

By Michelle R. Weise (Columnist)     Jul 31, 2017

Colleges Need to Work Together to Build Competencies of the Future

To address the disconnect between higher education and the workforce, several colleges are experimenting with microcredentials, certificates, clusters of competencies, and even blockchain to communicate easily their students’ mastery of knowledge, skills, and abilities to employers. Some may scorn this trend as unnecessarily catering to a skills-obsessed world. Teaching up-to-the-minute skills appears to run counter to the concept of teaching students how to learn for a lifetime. Say what you will: These schools are recognizing that learning and work are becoming inseparable and developing applied curricula for our rapidly-evolving knowledge economy.

Unfortunately, however, in pursuit of the holy grail of the “stackable” credential, colleges are plowing ahead, innovating in siloes. Although many are experimenting with these as competency-based programs, the approximately 600 colleges dabbling in the approach are neither collaborating nor building toward a common taxonomy. We are all quite possibly creating hundreds or thousands of competencies that all mean the same thing but will not have meaning across institutional, state, or employer boundaries.

Why? Because institutions of higher ed are notoriously bad at collaborating with one another and scaling the impact of what we do for all of our students. Even in formalized networks like consortia, we don’t work well as teams—often because we’re worried about revealing our competitive advantage.

In this particular case, we mistakenly view the creation of these discrete competencies as proprietary data. Although competency-based education, or CBE, is a different approach to teaching and learning, there is no secret sauce to breaking down learning into competencies. We should all be able to create clear and precise can-do statements like: this student can create a research-based argument; this student can use appropriate mathematical formulas to inform financial decisions; this student can speak effectively in order to persuade or motivate; this student can apply financial principles to solve business problems; this student can write memos by evaluating seemingly unrelated pieces of information; or this student can create and explain big data results using data mining skills and advanced modeling techniques.

This is not IP. We don’t need to cling to our own competencies. Rather, we should share them in a mode of what Bob Johansen and Karl Ronn call the “reciprocity advantage” or “smart giving.” The idea is similar to what Michael Porter has called “shared value”: giving something away for free in order to learn how to get more value back in return.

Think of FoldIt, an online protein-folding game that crowdsources advancements for science, or the XPRIZE, which issues challenges and gives big prizes to encourage investments in moonshots and engineering feats. The biggest challenge, as authors Johansen and Ronn explain in their book The Reciprocity Advantage, is to figure out how to “craft giveaways that inspire contributions to a commons (a shared asset) that builds your brands and that contributes to new markets.” In each of the XPRIZEs, the giving away of a few ten-million dollar prizes has channeled hundreds of millions in funding and hundreds of hours of research time into these moonshots for suborbital flight or a machine’s ability to diagnose 15 different diseases better than a human. The XPRIZE inhabits the space between philanthropy and the purely transactional. It’s stunning to witness how a good spark can catalyze rapid prototyping that is engaged directly with a better future.

So, how do we do more of that and less of the frenetic innovation in the tech sector bumping up against institutions clinging to the way things have always been done? Yes, a subset of universities are trying to be experimental, but the effect is not widespread. Even forward-looking institutions that are exploring and experimenting with competency-based education or microcredentials are missing the fact that all of this work is incremental. Worse yet, it’s actually focused on past trends: Jobs-posting data and unfilled positions data capture the state of the past—not what’s needed for the future.

Jobs and careers are already fading with the emergence of the gig economy. As human capital management expert Josh Bersin explains in a recent post: “[T]he jobs of today are shifting away from static ‘jobs’ to ‘roles,’ with much more of a hybrid nature.” We’re now witnessing the emergence of “new ‘hybrid jobs’ (i.e. IOT engineer, digital marketing experience manager, etc.)” that “do not lend themselves to static job descriptions and simple job titles. They are jobs that require technical, industry, managerial, and integrated thinking skills; they often require skills in communication, persuasion, and teamwork.”

Researchers at the Institute for the Future agree, arguing that in this new gig economy, we’ll no longer be training students for jobs. Instead, we’ll have to figure out how to help our students learn how to monetize their assets. For those who cringe at the notion of connecting learning and work, monetizing your assets can seem like blasphemy. But as we consider a future with easier and better access to internet, or abundant, free, and data-driven information and content, we have to begin forecasting the skills needed for that future.

Can we collaborate and figure out how we build that asset class together? Can we let go of the notion of proprietary competencies and give them away in order to build a shared commons?

Because the alternative seems a whole lot less appealing. In More Like Us, James Fallows writes, “When the radius of trust is small, the society is carved into tribes, castes, and clans. People are loyal to the handful of brothers inside the circle and may as well be at war with everyone else. The obligation to behave decently—and the expectation of decency in return—ends with family and friends.” This is a zero-sum world.

In a world of a reciprocity advantage, however, we can build a collective definition of future skills, and then be wildly inventive about how we combine competencies with content, assessments and simulations in unique content areas. There is an abundant future ahead of us if we move beyond the merely tribal work into that larger radius of trust.

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