Future of Learning

Competency-Based Training vs. Traditional Higher Education


As work qualifications go, diplomas leave a lot to be desired. Most graduates leave their learning institutions with a piece of paper that says precisely one statement about their education: that it was completed. Aside from specifying a college major, perhaps, there is little in these certifications that attest to the graduate having a particular set of skills, let alone the digital skills that are going to help get them hired.

Higher education versus skills training


The half-life of digital skills today is 2.5 years and shortening. That means that a digitally knowledgeable college freshmen, absent any continuing digital skills training, will see half of her digital knowledge obviate by the end of junior year. Most college educations are not currently set up to provide the continuing skills training that prevents this obsolescence — nor are most adults, years or decades removed from their own college graduations, used to the idea of needing to maintain continuing skills training. This is how the economy ends up siphoning $1.3 trillion annually due to a deficiency of digital skills.

To the recent graduate, macro-level concerns about the skills gap submit to concerns about getting a job, the most practical application of any education. To that end, the most important quality to prove to potential employers is a facility with digital skills, and to achieve that, competency-based training trumps traditional education.

Why competency-based training teaches digital skills better than traditional education


  1. Succinct. By prioritizing demonstrable skills, the training regimen in competency-based training is naturally shorter to learn than traditional education. A traditional university education is supposed to encourage free intellectualism by introducing the learner to studies they wouldn’t normally think to encounter. The opposite is true of skills training in a competency model: you have a proficiency goal to meet.

  2. Just-in-time. The direct, simple route that a learner takes to learn a competency means that they can acquire a skill right when they need it. This is referred to as “just-in-time training.” Traditional education is like window shopping in a mall; just-in-time training is like darting out to grab a necessary tool from the hardware store, which includes a to-the-point, actionable how-to manual.

  3. Cheaper. Paying for credit hours is probably the least efficient way one could imagine to cost-account an education. It is a system that charges according to inputs (time) rather than outputs (results). Competency-based training, conversely, ensures that money is spent on the acquisition of useful, specific skills. And in light of the previous two points, the time cost is less as well.

  4. Tells employers more. Diplomas tell hirers very little other than that the candidate met the minimum requirements to graduation. As Michelle Weise at the Harvard Business Review put it, diplomas are a “black box” for employers. The only venue generally used to convey skills is the section devoted to them on a resume, which still forces hirers to guess candidates’ true capacities. Competency-based training solves this information-starved system by showing that applicants’ accreditation was earned by being provably competent in the skills they claim.

  5. Built by hirers to meet the demands of the skill. When the standards required to graduate are purely academic, the ones who determine the graduate’s competence are academics. When a competency-based model requires learners to meet a basic proficiency with a digital skill, that becomes its own organic criteria. The ones who develop the standards for what constitutes skills competency will be ones interacting directly with the skills, far from any ivory tower. The standards of a trade school, for example, are determined by what is practical in the skills’ application.

  6. Evens the playing field. Digital proficiency is the great equalizer of the job skills universe. Few skills in history have been as democratically available, as essential, and as lucrative as digital skills are now. A competency-based model flattens the game out even more: your name, the name of your school, and your personal history all dwarf in comparison to the fact of your demonstrated competency. The traditional model is ideal for the members of the right dining club at Princeton, but the competency model is better for everyone else’s prospects.

  7. Education never stops. When you base your education around the idea of competency instead of completion, it follows naturally that the skill in question is evolving, and requires constant training to stay atop of. The distinction between the concepts of a foundational education and “continuing education” or “professional development” will disappear, and competency-based training is the route by which they will do so. If the goal of your training is to stay current with digital skills, then you innately understand that your accreditation is valid only as long as your proficiency is.

Diplomas are not occupational certifications. They attest to the completion of a type of education that is generally regarded more as a period of a learner’s life than as a site where particular skills are taught. This is great for a young person setting up the framework of the rest of their lives, but it is not so complete an education that it provides the type of digital proficiency required of today’s workforce. No single period of education, no matter how expensive and monumental, is sufficient to achieve an ongoing competency in digital skills. Competency-based training encourages a conception of education that is fluid, ongoing, and a lifelong practice, rather than something completed and commemorated with a certificate.

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