Higher Education

Competency Over Credit Hours: Bridging the Real Skills Gap

Exploring the shift from traditional metrics to competency-based learning, emphasizing skills to meet real-world demands for career readiness

Conventional methods of measuring academic success—hours spent in lectures, the number of assignments turned in, and credit hours accumulated—are increasingly inadequate for today’s dynamic job market. This keynote unpacks a radical shift in prioritizing what students can do over how long they’ve been taught. Join this insightful presentation into the transformative potential of competency-based learning, a movement that not only aligns educational outcomes with real-world demands but also ensures that students leave college with more than just a diploma—they leave ready to excel in their careers.



Amber fell in love with higher education the moment she left her small Texas town and stepped foot on campus at Texas Woman’s University. Her passion for supporting holistic approaches to learning were honed at this “campus with a heart” and led to a career working at institutions, nonprofits, and foundations to support the transformation of the U.S. higher education system to be more equitable and just.

Amber has led work in competency-based education, learning frameworks, assessment, credential recognition, digital learner records, and open data standards, as well as quality assurance. Before her role at C-BEN, Amber spent 8 years as a grant maker at Lumina Foundation and prior to that served as Director of Student Affairs Assessment and Research at the University of Oregon, and various student affairs roles at Florida State University, University of Michigan, Hope College and Texas A&M University.


Jenny Gordon:

So without further ado, I am thrilled to introduce our opening keynote presenter, Amber Garrison-Duncan. Amber is the Executive Vice President of C-BEN, the Competency-Based Education Network, which is the United States’ largest non-profit organization devoted to focusing education on what learners know and can do. These models allow institutions to advance a truly learner-centric model that creates new, more equitable opportunities for economic mobility. We’ve invited Amber to talk about the skills gap, how the workforce and higher education are actually very aligned on what skills are needed and what can happen when we start measuring competencies instead of effort. Please, if you have any questions, you can pop them in the Q&A. We might have some time at the end to answer those. We might also be able to answer them throughout the discussion as we go, as well. We’re going to see how that goes but do add any questions you might have into the chat. And now Amber, I’m delighted to hand over to you. Thank you very much.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Thank you so much, Jenny, and good morning, afternoon, or good day to everyone around the globe. It’s very exciting to be able to join you and to kick off this amazing event with a core partner for C-BEN is GoReact. So again, Jenny, thank you to you and your team for having us. We at C-BEN love working with GoReact. So delighted again to be here with you. What a moment in time to be working in education and learning. There are so many exciting initiatives happening to transform our system of learning. I think folks are finally figuring out that what we’ve been trying to do over the last 100 years essentially is no longer serving today’s students, it’s no longer serving today’s employers. And we need to bridge the skills gap by thinking a little bit differently so that’s what we’re going to talk about for the next hour and thinking about the role of assessment and bridging that gap.

And I know if you’re on here today, you are my people because you are focused on assessment and learning. And so we are a rare breed, I like to say, so welcome. And again, normally if we were in person, I would ask you to raise your hand and celebrate that moment. So pat yourself on the back. This is not easy work and we’re, again, just excited that everyone’s here to think differently about, again, the role of assessment in this. A little bit about me and who I am and my orientation into this conversation is I currently, as you heard in my introduction, serve as the executive vice president at C-BEN. And C-BEN is entering our, excuse me, 11th year as a nonprofit organization. And how we started was that seven institutions in the US that were building programs that allowed learners to progress based on what they mastered versus seat time or our time spent on a task.

Those seven institutions came together and said, “We need to see more of this happen.” We’re able to better serve learners who come to education from a lot of different spaces, whether they’re adult learners or they’re individuals who didn’t have a good experience in a traditional system and were looking for a way to come back or individuals who just are working full time and needed more flexibility in their programs. We’re really figuring out how do we move from seven institutions, how do we scale this competency-based model? And so that original seven institutions has now grown in the last, again, we’re in our 11th year, has grown to over 600 institutions in the US. There are over 1,000 CBE programs being run today across the US. Certainly you have big institutions like Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire, but we increasingly see the full array of post-secondary learning and K-12 learning entities pursuing this model.

We see every discipline engaged. So I love that we see individuals embracing a learning model here from theology to welding and folks from biology to thinking about early childcare. I get to talk with faculty and teaching staff and instructional staff from again, across the globe, and they really are embracing this from a lot of different sectors. So I like to share that to help you understand where the movement is and to help frame that up. Prior to my joining C-BEN, I worked in higher education in the US for 15 years facilitating co-curricular learning and assessing learning in the co-curricular. And then spent about eight years at Lumina Foundation funding a lot of the innovative models that we’re going to talk about today. So that’s again, my orientation and how I came to this was as an assessment professional who said, “There’s lots of learning happening everywhere. How do we maximize that and make sure everyone can use their skills to advance their lives?”

And so at C-BEN, this is what we spend our time doing is really advocating and building the capacity of the field to shift into this new way of doing learning, what happens when there is no credit hour, what happens in financial aid, how do you do assessments so that, again, the model is based on learners progress, based on their mastery, how do you do that? And then we connect the community. So we are the network hub really where anybody and everybody can come. Again, we talked about all those disciplines, all those practitioners come together, most notably is our annual conference, CBE exchange, and then we have specialized consulting services that we do. So those are the three big ways that we work, again, mainly to advance the field.

And so again, why is all this really important today and what are the narratives that are happening and the shifts that are underway that are impacting this global focus on skills? And I’m sure each of you probably has some kind of skills, it’s like the hot topic word of the year, something skills-related happening in your community. And I think, again, there’s a variety of things happening that are pushing us to think differently about how we facilitate, learn and work for people over time and at scale. One is just that, as you all know, and I think this is certainly hitting all of us right now with the introduction of new AI and generative AI models, is that technology is changing the way all of us do our jobs. There is no industry that has not been impacted by AI. And so we definitely see people quickly having to change the way that they work.

Their job tasks are changing. We hear sometimes weekly, we hear sometimes every three months or thinking about the role of how now technology is helping people to do their work differently in healthcare and nursing. So again, we see a lot of different change happening. And so that means we have to prepare people not just for the job task of today, but we really have to think about what are those skills that allow them to be durable over time? So maybe you’ve heard, certainly we’ve called them lots of different things, durable skills, 21st century skills, but really what are the skills? It’s not just about what do I know and what can I do, but how can I continue to adapt and change over time given that the dynamic nature of work and the labor market is shifting so quickly? You also see employers changing what they’re doing and how they’re responding to this and managing their talent.

So you see employers really trying to understand how do I bring talent in from wherever it may come from, recognizing that maybe their traditional talent pipeline of, oh, I need people who have this one degree and they go to school and they get this one degree and they do this. Employers are now saying “Degrees are still a part, but are there other ways for me to nuance that and pull people in from places I may not have looked for talent before?” And so that’s where you see the movement to use skills-based hiring and thinking about that. Again, how do I use skills regardless where those are learned? And again, it could be a degree program, it could also be on the job experience or it could have been through the military. They’re now saying, “I want to evaluate all those people based on their skills to find the right fit and talent for my roles.”

They’re also changing the way that they manage their employees over time and so they’re doing skills-based talent management. So they’re starting to say, “If these are my employees, I would like to retain them. And if I make sure I understand what they know and can do and then I help them upskill into new roles that may come about because of technology, it’s actually easier for me to retain them and upskill them than it is for me to have to move on from them.” So we see this redeployment based on skills from employers as well. You may have seen yesterday here in the US for instance, SHRM, our national organization of HR professionals announced their Skills First Center to really help employers shift to these practices. And I think you will continue to see that take hold and shape from your local employers. And several government entities across the globe are adopting those same practices as well.

Skills first, skills-based hiring, skills-based talent management. And then as we talked about, we have a lot of new learners who are adults who have skills but might need new ones, or we have people who have learned things from a lot of different places. And so we want to make sure that we can maximize the talent of our citizens and our colleagues and our peers and friends and make sure that they can use those skills to again, advance their lives. And so being able to think about lots of different pathways to serve lots of different types of learners and knowing that what we’ve traditionally done, again, was one pathway, one educational process. And pushing all of us to think differently about the way that we engage learners, we engage them over a lifetime and that the bulk of our workforce and our learners over time now are going to be adults.

There’s demographic shifts underway in particular in the US where there are, you probably heard the enrollment cliff and the demographic cliff, that there’s about to be fewer 18-year-olds than there have been in really over a decade. And so if there’s just not as many young people coming in, that means that the bulk of our workforce is going to be adults. And so thinking differently again about how do we serve all these individuals? So those are three major trends that we see that are impacting our education and workforce systems. And to really understand why skills are the answer is that we need to be much more responsive. We need to be able to personalize learning based on what people already know and can do and get them up to their next level of where they need to be and to have better information about what’s needed in work that the nature of work is changing so quickly.

So how do we better understand using the language of skills, what it is that people are going to be asked to do? So that’s where people are focusing on skills. And for a long time, we talked about the skills gap and you can just go Google ‘skills gap’, we’ve been having this conversation for almost 20 years and probably longer, honestly. But thinking about skills gap and our first approach is it just felt like a shell game and we’re just picking up the shell saying, “We think it’s this.” We think that our initial thought was, well, if people don’t have credentials a degree and/or industry certification or certificate, they must not have skills for work. Well, what we’ve learned from that is that it’s actually not true. We have lots of people in the world who have skills for work. We are only using a credential to find them.

And so that’s again, why you see employers saying credentials are important, but we also want to make sure we’re considering people who might have the skills but just didn’t have the opportunity to get that credential for a variety of reasons. And so we have shifted from that. Then we went to, okay, people with credentials, they must have all the wrong skills. Employers are saying, “I hired somebody with that credential. They don’t have skills that I need. They must not have skills.” And again, that wasn’t potentially true because we started to learn what was wrong was that the credentials didn’t contain the right skills. That work, again, was shifting quickly and maybe the program didn’t get updated or the program was just built with the wrong skills in it and competencies in it from the get-go. But what we assumed was because of the credential being wrong, that those people didn’t have skills.

And so again, we’ve shifted our view of that in saying, “Guess what? It’s not something wrong with the people necessarily, we do need to update programs.” But as we’ve continued to come to this realization, really what we’re finding now and having a big conversation that is about was we were labeling those skills as one thing, but we had an entirely wrong set of assessments to understand what people know and can do. And again, that we’re coming at this from a sense of using assessment to say, how do we understand what someone knows and can do rather than saying if people have skills or not or can have access to different things. So this is where this next iteration of I think learning will go as we figure out how to have our systems perform better for our citizens is how do we align on assessment? And in a world where we really want to focus on what people know and can do, that means we have to change the way we assess, especially that ‘can do’ part.

And that’s where again, we found a great partner in GoReact to help us figure out how do we start to move forward with performance-based assessments. And as you think about a lot of our assessing in education, has not been performance-based necessarily. We have been very good at understanding if people have grass knowledge or maybe those lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, right? We haven’t really asked them in their assessment work or in their work assignments to go and do something, go do something authentic in the world with that. And so certainly we’ve been trying to embrace work-based learning and project-based assessments, but we really are going to have to do much more of that. And get much more sophisticated with it and then figure out how to scale it with our technology partners. And so that’s where again, we’re seeing the conversation headed next in the skills gap piece.

And that’s why we would just really hold up CBE in this, again, as a learning model is that it’s everything shifting to skills-based hiring. Again, employers are finding workers, they’re retaining them when they’ve shifted to that skills-based hiring and they’re shifting to that skills-based talent management process and have an interest in it. But as you can imagine, the information they’re trying to use about candidates, what we send people out into the world with right now is still a resume that maybe doesn’t say anything about the skills they have, or maybe those people haven’t had those skills assessed in a performance-based way that would say to an employer, not just that I can respond to your job posting, but I have evidence to bring to you that shows you I can do that. I’ve already demonstrated that to someone and they’ve said I’ve mastered that. And that’s really where education can step into that gap and say, “We can do better job at assessing these competencies and skills and making sure that our system of learning is doing what is needed there to make sure people are prepared for work.”

Meaning they have the knowledge, the skills, the behaviors, and the ability to demonstrate their mastery of that skill over time. And so again, CBE as a pedagogy, as a model, represents probably the most impactful way for us as education providers to help learners demonstrate what they know and can do and signal that to the employers and other stakeholders they need to share that with, again, to advance their lives about economic mobility, about thinking about what they want to do in the world of work. We want to make sure that that’s very transparent to folks after they leave us. So again, really feeling like the time is happening in work and those employers shifting to skills-based hiring and on the education side coming in and saying the complement to that is moving and shifting to competency-based education and competency-based assessments. So I always like to go into, we’ve been throwing the word ‘skills’ and ‘competencies’ around and just want to be very clear when we say ‘competency’, that this is what we mean.

And also just share that when we talk with employers that it seems like the hook language is skills, but really what they mean is this full picture. I really want to know what does someone… Do they know? Do they have the foundational knowledge or maybe the deeper understanding of the theory behind what they’re doing? Do they have the skill to do particular, again, job, task, and work? Can they show up and do that work in a way that is… This is where you see a lot of dispositions in thinking about maybe things we might call emotional intelligence or communication or problem solving or thinking about responding in a customer service situation. There’s a certain way I need to show up and do that work. And then I need to be able to think about where can I take my knowledge, skills, and behaviors, and what are the contexts in which I might apply that over time?

So here’s an example that I like to use from nursing, for instance because everybody’s had their blood pressure checked, probably at some point had your blood pressure checked, right? So a nurse has to get trained to do that, and the knowledge set that they would need is thinking about the anatomy, right? They need to understand how blood moves through the body, where to place particular instruments that they might use, how those instruments are supposed to work and what they’re measuring. Then they need to be able to come in and actually use the blood pressure tool, the appropriate tool to take the blood pressure. It’s a very particular set of skills to come in and wrap the cuff around your arm. And then I need to think about is it the stethoscope I have to place on or is it a machine that’s running? I’ve got to make sure I know how to set the machine and move the machine forward, and then I need to record that, so that skill set.

And then thinking about the ways I have to show up and in nursing, an ethic of care is one of the core competencies within the nursing essentials, especially in the US in saying, how do I show up? How do I show care? How do I think about asking the person if it’s appropriate that I can touch them, that I can put the cuff on? How do I have good bedside side manner, right? We’ve all probably also been in a place where it’s like that nurse wasn’t very nice to me and that certainly has an impact on that person’s competency and how they’re perceived and demonstrated and evaluated at work. And then that nurse will have to take blood pressure in a variety of populations, in a variety of settings. So maybe thinking about if I’m taking blood pressure in the ER, that’s going to feel very different moving from the emergency room into pediatrics or into assisted living facility.

Those are very different contexts with populations of people that we need to be nuanced and be able to transfer our knowledge, skills and behaviors into and do over time. So this is why I like to give that as an example because it shows that when we talk about skills and abilities, what we really mean is this full set. And we hear this from employers all the time. It’s not okay to just say, “I’m going to teach somebody to show up and do something”, the same thing over and over. People aren’t widgets. We’re not widgets, I need people to be able to do critical thinking and problem solving around particular knowledge bases and at the intersection of knowledge, I need them to be able to apply that in a lot of different settings.

And so this is something again, we see across the board. So once those are defined, just to clarify, in a CBE program, we would take those program level competency sets and we would start to say, okay, how do I allow a learner to progress towards completion of that program based on their pace of mastery? And that it’s personalized to that individual so that everyone can move through as they need? And again, we’re measuring their mastery, not time spent on material or in a class. And so we’re really trying to get them to, again… But this just emphasizes the role of assessment in this is that if in order to progress I need to demonstrate mastery, then the role of assessment is really core in here. And the role of performance-based assessment in CBE is critical to our ability to function.

So six quick characteristics, if you’re newer to CBE and maybe you have CBE, and this is just a good refresher for you, but again, we talked about, they learn it’s very much focused on what the learner knows and can do, those competencies. Mastery or proficiency of every competency in the program is required for completion. So that’s quite different than what we do now. If you look at your grading policy where we say to employers, we can say, “Here’s our program level outcomes, this is what they should know”, but because of our grading policy, what we’re saying and assessing is “Maybe they get 70% of it, 80% of it, and we can’t tell you which 70 or 80% of those program level outcomes each learner has.” And so you can start to see why that might be confusing to the employer and to the learner who thinks they’re coming into a program to get all those competencies, and at the end of it, they didn’t get all those competencies and they didn’t get the ability to reach mastery for all those competencies.

So they are already entering the workforce at a disadvantage. And so that’s why the mastery or proficiency of every competency is important in a CBE program. This is also flipping education on its head a little bit. Education for the past century has been time-based with the credit hour and uses of time as a measure of learning. We say, “Well, you spent that much time, you must know it, or we put you through this program that was four years. You must know it.” And again, what we know is one, we’re not assessing all of that, but two, that’s not necessarily true. And so how do we make sure that the learning is what is fixed as the outcome, and we allow flexibility for time and place that allows a learner to move through that at their own, again, pace and time that works for them. So the flexibility that comes from a CBE program is because everything is pre-planned, we leverage all of the research and knowledge from educational psychology about backward design curricular journey.

That really emphasizes, again, once we have those program level outcomes, a lot of times in our programs, what we do now is we go, “What should be in this course?” We write some learning outcomes, we gather up some content, and then we think about some assessment and hope that all those courses add up to something. And a CBE program, because we do backward design, what we start with is start with the end in mind, which I know all of you know as assessment is important, but we’re doing that again at the program level. And then the next question we ask is if these are the competencies, what does it mean to demonstrate those competencies? We don’t even get to the curricular content and journey until we answer what are the performances of those competencies that would signal mastery at the end?

Then we’d design the curricular journey. So again, because of that, that allows us good flexibility as well. Now let’s talk into, again, all of our assessment plans. What we really emphasize is performance-based criterion-referenced authentic assessments, and we’re going to dive deeper into this one. But this is where we really have a lot of work to do to pull upon again, our foundational knowledge from psychology and ed-psych and other places about how do people actually learn and then how do we actually do performance-based assessment, which I’ve already alluded to, but that’s where we’re asking individuals to actually perform that competency, to demonstrate that they can do that for us. Criterion reference really gets to the place where anyone who’s evaluating that learner for that mastery uses the same criteria for performance to do that.

Right now, it is very much dependent upon what course you wind up in and what faculty member has determined as performance or mastery and/or knowledge to be learned and granted, so depending upon the section you wind up in or the course you wind up in or the faculty member you wind up in front of, you could get five or six different understandings of what good performance would be. And then we like to also make sure that if we’re asking them to do performance-based and we have those performance criteria, getting as most authentic situation as we can. So we realize this is difficult, right? Because it’s not always available to us, but here’s where we are seeing folks get really creative about embedding again, work-based learning and experiences so that folks get out into the environment to demonstrate their mastery in the most authentic setting that they might need to.

We also see folks playing around with the model here and having the employer come in at that summative assessment journey and saying, “You’re the ultimate person that has to hire them.” So the faculty and the employer assess mastery together using those same criteria to make sure that before we let this person move on and say they’re a graduate of our program, they’re ready for the job, that we’ve actually checked that with the faculty member and the employer that that learner has done that. So again, there’s lots of room for innovation here, and again, this is where a technology company like GoReact is so helpful as we think about lifting these new types of assessments that these are really novel in most learning opportunities and most learning programs to date. And so this is a challenge for all of us to start to solve, the other thing for a CBE program is we talked about that personalization is that everyone comes in, they start from where they’re at with their skill sets, they get a personalized approach to their learning.

And then they get a personalized approach to their wraparound supports, which is something that in particular I will share. I think we’re all learning a lot about what certainly learning is personal and learning can be a person’s ability to spend time on learning or a person’s ability to focus could be impacted because I’ve got children. So how do we think about transportation, child care, and taking care of as many of these things as possible. So the hardest thing for the person is their ability to do the learning that they need to do, not to get to the learning opportunity because they’ve got so much on their plate. So really thinking about those personalized and wraparound supports. So since our major topic here is assessment, let’s dive in on number five and be able to talk again about competency-based assessment and again, why this approach to performance-based, criterion referenced authentic is so important.

Again, in the context that we’re in is we want every program to be clear what are the competencies for credential programs and what does it mean to demonstrate those competencies to earn the credential? That needs to be transparent. The next question is how do we know that’s true for every learner and that every learner that’s been through the program has that set of competencies, and then how can we recognize all skills regardless where they were gained? And so if we are really thinking about that performance based assessments, it allows us to bring in an individual, and I’ll share an example that GoReact’s helping us with in Illinois where we have early child care workers who don’t have credentials currently, but they’re already working in early child care and they’re in classrooms. And so by asking them to do a performance based assessment, we’re able to recognize the skills and competencies they already have and give them a personalized pathway to that first credential and in some cases earning five to 12 credits for that degree, which as you can imagine is huge for these folks who again, are already working.

And so it gives them an instant on-ramp for their learning. And so that’s why again, this performance-based criterion reference authentic assessment, that we call CBE assessment, is so important for us today. I also like to give this example of thinking about mastery of every competency, and again, why this is so important. Many of you probably fly or have flown, but as we think about in our current way of assessing learning, we could have pilots who go through and do really well pre-flight, they master takeoff, they get departure, they’re en route, but then all of a sudden if we’re like, “Well, they got 70% there, they pass, they should go be a pilot”, but we never tested if they could have master descent, approach and landing, that makes me nervous. I’m guessing that makes most of you pretty nervous, that really we would hope our pilot has been through a program that allowed them to learn how to do and be a pilot, and then we actually assess that before they got into the cockpit and had to go do that work, right?

We hear this again with nursing. We hear this again in theology programs. We want to make sure that people are prepared to go be in those very sensitive moments of time, that a theologian often is. And so there’s a way to think about, again, all the competencies needing to be mastered, and then how do we make sure those assessments are making sure people are prepared for that and give people the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery. The other thing that we are learning is that over time when we work in a competency based way, we can better connect, compare and validate again, learning that comes from multiple contexts. So as we think about, again, people needing to change jobs more frequently, people being much more mobile about the world, as we think about needing to learn new tasks and skills, as work changes and maybe I know 60% of something already and I just need to get 30 more percent, now I need to upskill a little bit to be able to work at the next level.

We want to be able to again, go and keep those people moving towards mobility versus saying, you have to go back to the beginning and you have to retake everything, even the stuff you already know, and so we want to get them started again on that personalized path. And working in competencies and competency based education allows us to do that in a much more flexible and meaningful way for learners. So again, what’s the CBE core and Amber, how does all those six characteristics come to life? How is it that we’re allowing, again, mastery and proficiency? So I talked to you again about the first step is to determine with external partners, your employers, your social service entities, people providing wraparound supports, what are the competencies that we need to have in our program in order to prepare people for the work that they’re going to go do?

And so we start again at that program level, transparent set of competencies, and again, created in collaboration with people. You should not do this in a bubble, which is something that, again, having worked in higher ed for 15 years, I know we did. We would just say, “This is what we think should be in a program.” And so we weren’t clear if we were actually preparing people for what was next for them. So being able to do that, but don’t stop there with your external collaborators. The next piece to tackle is again, this assessment question and we want to say, okay, if that’s the set of competencies, then what does it mean again, to demonstrate that to you? What does good performance look like, employer? Thinking about your wraparound supports individuals, people who maybe see somebody again trying to do a customer service reaction, we want to be able to say that they have that.

So what does it mean to demonstrate that? And we create that collaboratively as well. And then we want to think about again, okay, how do I best prepare people to meet that performance level? And that’s when we craft the learning journey and making sure that it’s intentionally designed to deliver on and assess the mastery of every single set. So those are at the core three functions when we think what’s different about CBE from our traditional model of learning, these are the three things that we share regardless of context. So these are things that we see higher ed institutions embracing, K-12 organizations, we’re seeing employers who actually provide their own training on the job are doing it in a CBE way and model. So again, this core component here are applicable to we’re finding most any place that does learning that this is what it means to have a quality CBE program.

And then we’ll layer in lots of other things of, again, we talked about figuring out financial aid and other components that you can probably start to think about that aren’t used to accommodating this model, but these are the core components. And so again, how do we think about that competency set? And you’ve heard me say “set” probably a couple of times now, and this is where when we think about an actual learning piece is that I can’t teach someone a skill in isolation and expect them to be able to go perform. So truly we are thinking about what is the set or the collection of multiple competencies that are essential to performance in that industry, in that field, that job role or for what that person needs to advance? And in some cases that can mean it may be going to work, it may be continuing their education.

They’ve got to do both those things probably. So how do we think about that set of competencies? And that’s why again, we emphasize this is a collection of those competencies. It’s not a course, this is a program. And so thinking of it at that level, and then when I talked about those performance indicators, what we’re actually talking about is thinking about your levels of mastery. So when I ask what it means to demonstrate that competency, what I’m going to ask the employer and others is what does it mean to demonstrate that at a high level? What does it mean to demonstrate that at satisfactory level? And that’s where we start from. So you can see the rubrics start to emerge for all my assessment friends from this, but this is where you give what again, levels of mastery of I’ve reached mastery, above mastery. People call these different things.

So as you can imagine, you’ve built rubrics, some may say novice to experts, some may say, again, some of this could be based on Bloom’s if we’re talking about cognitive competencies. So you can see again, but the important piece is to understand what it means to demonstrate those at levels and having clear understanding of that with your external partners. So it’s not just the first piece of what do I need somebody to do, but again, what does it mean to demonstrate that at a level of mastery that I would hire? And then our job is to figure out, okay, now we’re going to assess that, right? And we want to make sure that we’re assessing that for the full program. So at C-BEN, we have our hallmarks of CB assessment tool, and I’ll put that QR code up next so you can download that when I put it up.

Now the hallmarks of this is again, making sure we have credential level assessments, so that level mastery is really important. Again, we’ve heard me say “authentic”, and this is where again, you can really lean on your external partner peers to say, how can I provide this in the most authentic way so that this learner is actually demonstrating that competency in the way that you would expect them to at work? That’s opened the door for a lot of our education partners who had a hard time getting access to providing work-based, again, learning or assessment opportunities. Employers opening their doors and realizing like, oh, it’s hard for you to assess this in the way I need you to because you don’t have access to the real work environment. So this is often a place again, where we start to see that gap be closed and the role of assessment in bringing the employer and education provider and the faculty much closer.

And then we get to, again, that performance based and the criterion reference that other hallmark… I do want to talk about that a little bit more while we’re here. This one I think is very hard or has been hard in the US and certainly in other countries, although in the UK you have graders, which is nice for some third-party assessment of learning. But oftentimes what will happen is people again are in our current model, often assessed without the same criteria. And so being able to agree that the faculty in the program agree what those criteria are, what does that rubric look like? And all of us are going to use those same criteria when we’re assessing learners for that competency. And so the intellectual freedom and property, this is all done by the faculty to determine again, what winds up being those criteria, what performance looks like, and if the learner met that performance level.

But again, we want to make sure that we’re all using the same criteria so that we don’t accidentally have unequal measuring going on or assessment going on. So that handbook there is there for you to download and use, but it starts to dive into those hallmarks that I just shared with you in that. So that is a quick rundown of assessment. And then I want to talk about what really has to change now that we are providing performance-based assessments, where does that data, evidence and information have to go? And in this new world of skills-based hiring, we are also seeing organizations are changing the way that they record this. So once the faculty member, what we do right now is the faculty member will assess that learning. They will put that into a system, whether that’s general learning management system, and we produce something like this for the student and the employer and they say, “History 489, what does that mean?”

What does that tell me about what the individual knows or can do? It tells me absolutely nothing about what that individual knows or what they might be able to do. And so what we’re seeing now is a shift from this. This really helps colleges share information, but how do we give this information in a different format so individuals can use a record of their learning, of their competencies and skills to access these new skills-based jobs? And so now again, we’re starting to see in the US what’s being called a learning and employment record. In Europe, you have a… I blank on the name, but you have a similar type initiative happening. We’re seeing this starting to come about again across the globe that these learning and employment records or these new types of records allow the individual to access, visualize and manage their competency attainment as they move through the program.

And over a lifetime, I can then see what competencies skills do I have? Are they still relevant? Do I need to update them? I can share those with my employer. And so they can actually use my skills and validated skills from my education provider in their hiring process that we talked about they’re wanting to do. And then again, I can see as a learner, again, what do I already know? What can I already do? And then I’m trying to figure out again, how do I keep going? What do I need to learn next? Where might I go learn that? And this gives that learner, again, much more agency in their own learning journey to be able to determine what to pursue next and to bring more transparent evidence to their next learning provider. Right now, what happens when somebody shows up is we say, again, hand us this problem, curriculum class, History 489, and I’m supposed to see what that matches to and give credit to somebody coming to my institution when we don’t have a History 489.

So these new records are really starting to provide a different level of information to say, let’s again, give you credit for what you already know and can do and help you move forward. And so this is just a model that we’ve been lucky to be a part of in Alabama, in the state of Alabama and the US, they’re the first state that’s issued this new type of record for every single one of their citizens can have one of these. Essentially, you can see it’s like having your credit card in your digital wallet. This is now your skills wallet and on the very back picture you can see all those skills listed. They all have a green check mark. They say who verified that, in this case of Sheridan, Lawson State Community College has said, “We assessed mastery of each of those skills.”

And then Sheridan gets to own those, she gets to see all of those and she gets to share those with employers in the ways in the formats that are here, all verified so that she can get right to moving forward. The other piece that you may see in the back image on the screen, in the recommended learning, it also allows us to say to Sheridan, “Hey, did you know that if you went and got this next piece of learning, you could have access to this pay increase or this different type of job?” So Sheridan gets a format in which she can say, “How do I have a skills-based approach to understanding what I know and can do and where I can go work next or where I might learn next?” So really putting again, all of this in the hands of the citizens to be able to navigate and do this based on skills.

And then if we were to click on that, provide nursing care for clients, experiencing select blah, blah, blah, we were to click on that in the digital wallet here, there is the evidence, the assessment that was performed. And Sheridan gets to say to the employer, “If you want to see what I actually did, it’s also in my wallet.” So this is the type of transformation again, that’s under way that is happening where CBE, if we’re doing CBE and doing these kinds of assessments, we get to empower Sheridan with her data to be able to have flexibility and live the life she’d like to have. So we do have time for questions, and I can see there are some Q&A in the chat and Jenny’s here to help me navigate the Q&A, I think. I’m also happy to…

Jenny Gordon:

Of course.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Take my screen down so we can get into that, have a discussion.

Jenny Gordon:

Yeah. Absolutely. Why you are doing that, Amber, just thank you so much. I’ve just been writing hundreds of notes as I listen to you and it’s great. A couple of questions then that have come in which are really, really interesting. I want to ask you Michelle’s question first, and that’s about whether or not your assessment tool can be applied to jobs in the workplace or is it really meant to be focused on education?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

That’s great. We are seeing this in both cases. So this is a interesting moment in time where I think education is certainly leaning in this direction, but again, we’re seeing corporate learning and development officers realize that this is really important because I go back to, if we all go back to our foundational knowledge basis as we’re all pulling from our research and what faculty have been doing to understand how do people learn? How do we facilitate that learning? And it happens in a lot of different contexts. So chief learning officers for corporations all the way to faculty are leaning into that, again, educational psychology model to say, this is how we do this. And so you really do see it being deployed in a lot of different learning contexts from employer, work-based learning, I’m learning on the job, or it’s something my employer’s facilitating to all of our education systems as well.

Jenny Gordon:

I think we see a lot of apprenticeship delivery here in the UK and throughout Europe, huge on apprenticeships. Funding’s very good for it. There’s just been a slight reform to it. Actually, somebody quoted to me recently that if we don’t upskill through apprenticeships, we won’t fill all of the future roles that we don’t know they exist yet. We don’t have time to send everybody through education processes that are traditional in some cases. So I think apprenticeships is a good bridge between that.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

It is. And we are actually in the US doing a lot of work with teacher apprenticeships, so for a long time… That’s a newer apprenticeship model for us here but the big shift for us is making that competency based because apprenticeships can still be time-based. And we may say to be a journeyman, you still need to do this for three years or five years or an electrician or those things. And what we would argue is that if it’s competency based, that person can move through that at the pace of their mastery. So if we’re thinking about someone who maybe has been working on as an electrician or fiddling around with electricity and things for a long time, or they actually taught themselves a lot of things, they could move through that faster. And so you get the performance base, but with the CBE model, you get to provide more flexibility and recognition of what they already know and can do to help them move faster into those roles.

Jenny Gordon:

Absolutely. And going on from that, another question that was asked, is there a reason to determine somebody is above mastery?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Yes. There are many different thoughts on this I’ll share, at C-BEN what we think is important because again, all of us want to make sure that what we’re doing is providing some kind of mobility for a person and we have to show a mastery piece, but we want to show what the reach is, especially with the employer. And a couple of places where this has been really important, in early childcare for instance, when we looked at that level of performance and said, “That’s really high, higher than the mastery that you’d expect here”, we’ve got to have a conversation about pay, right? Because what you’re asking for is very specialized, actually is higher level than this.

And so it allows us to have, again, what are we actually asking people to do? What is mastery and then what is the next level? Because we want to make sure we’re not overextending or underpaying people for their skillset, but also it helps us know what that person’s next step is. So if we know, again, people are going to have to keep learning in particular for some of those entry-level credentials that are a good job, but they’re not quite the family sustaining wage yet, we want to set that next piece. So we can get them to that next level of learning and mastery and making sure they stay on a mobility path.

Jenny Gordon:

Absolutely. Anne asks, how reliable have you found dispositional skills assessments to be?

Amber Garrison Duncan:

This is a good one, actually on a call later today to talk about dispositions. For me, this is where I think we have to be very, very conscious of bias and thinking about again, what does it mean to demonstrate that and what is actually needed? So we were in Singapore last month and we were having a conversation with some faculty about things like, does it matter how fast they perform something? At the end of the day, what is nice? So this is where getting into performance, what does it mean to demonstrate that?

I can say “Jenny is nice and has been so warm and welcoming”, but what I want to be able to do in a performance-based assessment is say, “Here’s what Jenny did to be nice. Jenny smiled when she got on, she made sure she greeted the person and looked them in the eye.” Those are things I can see and measure. And so we have a long way to go when we think about dispositional ways to do that. But I always go back to the faculty and say, this is where we really have to interrogate for bias and be very particular about how we’re describing the performance so we don’t have things entering our criteria that shouldn’t be there.

Jenny Gordon:

Absolutely. And I think the role of video supports that a lot in the sense that that subjective checkbox can be supported by that consistent video evidence. For example, I had a conversation with somebody in the security industry this week looking at training people and scaling that training and not relying on the same people to mark and assess using the video as evidence. I think that’s a strong movement using video alongside these assessment practices.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

Absolutely. Another example, so the early childcare example I gave, that’s actually how in the state of Illinois you all are helping us to do that is because one, it can be virtual so the person doesn’t have to do anything other than demonstrate what they would do at work. And being able to share that and explain what they’re doing, why, allows us to share that video with faculty who score that again according to common criteria. And say, “Yeah, they did show up and do that and they could share with me why they made sure they got at ground level to talk to the kid”, and thinking about all those really important things that our early childcare education providers do and being able to assess those dispositions that we just talked about. But again, because we have clear indicators of performance that we’ve defined is how we get that done.

Jenny Gordon:

Absolutely. We’re racing towards the top of the hour, so we’ll try and answer two more questions before we wrap up. Really quick question again from Michelle around, is there a library of competencies that one can use to build a profile for a job? And I think that’s what you’re saying, is that’s hopefully where we’re heading.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

This is a fascinating piece of we will have to negotiate over time together as humans. I think certainly abroad countries have qualifications for you, you all have qualifications frameworks that often have levels of mastery in them. So not by credential, but think about what the skills and competencies are that are listed in those levels. We do not have anything like that in the US because we don’t like top-down things. So what we are seeing emerge in a state like Alabama where I showed you that digital wallet, what is undergirding that is, is competency data that is collected from the institutions and the job descriptions.

And we’re having to use AI to match and understand what goes together because we’re never going to be able to go tell the employer they have to use this very specific competency language in their job description. And the education providers want to have their flavor of the way that they describe those competencies. But that’s where, again, when you’re talking with your external partners and developing those competency sets, start with things that already exist, those qualifications framework, if there’s an industry framework. But something we overwhelmingly see is that there are flavors that people like to add or maybe the context is a little bit different. And that’s where, again, having to use AI has been really helpful to call that out and make those matches.

Jenny Gordon:

Absolutely, and I think as we see the development of what you’re doing in Alabama, this talk around skills passports, and I think it’s leading towards that. But as you say, there are so many nuances because one of my questions, had we had time to ask it, was around what we think the biggest barriers are to universal adoption of competency-based assessment. But I think that we might have to leave that one for another day.

Amber Garrison Duncan:

That’s a big one. I think it’s a great place to end though, that we do still have a lot to figure out. We know what good practices around, again, asking for performance, setting good criteria, but how do we scale that, to your point, across lots of different contexts and points of interaction so that we get to a place where ultimately that assessment has value and recognition when someone moves from the US to the UK or understand when it’s just so different that it’s not going to have the same value, that’s okay too, but that transparency is what we have to start with so we can have those conversations.

Jenny Gordon:

Absolutely. Amber, thank you. We are at the top of the hour. There are questions we haven’t answered. We will do our best to provide some answers to those with the recordings and the packs that are sent out as a result of this. Amber, thank you so much. What a great opening keynote. Thank you very much for joining us and really kicking Reaction off to the best possible start.