New Age Skill Assessments

I have been working on skills and skill competencies for the past six years (published A Skills Based Approach to Developing a Career in 2013). My work with Skills Based Approach has gained a significant audience and following around the world. Recently, I have focused on a new innovative concept: Skills Label™ – one standardized display for learning in any task – online game, virtual reality, courses, videos, activities, etc.

knowledge31When I talk to professors about assessing skills in Competency Based Learning (CBL) programs, they tell me “there are institutions working on developing competencies but there are no clear standards already in place”. (I guess I am looking for something like Common Core in standard education.) Some professors seem perplexed and ask: “Where would you even start to create a standard for addressing skills?”. Some professors are not convinced in the necessity of teaching and tracking learning at such a discrete level.

The challenge is trying to develop a one-size fits all approach to assess skills. I argue, in our every experience, we apply skill. Skills work laterally across subject and disciplines. There are thousands of defined skills (I reviewed a LinkedIn database of 4,500 skills). The list only keeps growing with new technologies being defined every day. Addressing the breadth of skill assessments is a challenge.

Skills work vertically across education, higher education and career stages. For many of the foundational thinking and soft skills, we use them throughout much of our life. Critical thinking is considered a pinnacle skill, one we start learning in high school and is the benchmark of higher education. To learn a skill for our “own needs”, it takes twenty hours. To become a master, it takes ten thousand hours (according to one commonly referenced yardstick). Creating a measurement that works across what could be an eight to ten-year stretch is difficult. Addressing the depth of skill assessments is a challenge.

Skills Label is an early iteration to represent lifelong learning expectations with skill competencies. There are five elements:

·        Focus Value. For an experience, this value represents the intensity in learning a skill. (Represented as a percentage of total focus values multiplied by the time to complete the experience.)

·        Level of Difficulty. A one in five value representing how difficult the application of the skills. (A scale based on middle school, high school, college, graduate and professional stages.)

·        Standards. A way to anchor Level of Difficulty to actual standards, either universally accepted ones (like Common Core) or dynamic ones (created by a group of practitioners). For example, Common Core standards are linked to a grade level.

·        Underlying Methods and Application. Measure the intensity and frequency the underlying methods of a skill are applied. This is thinking one level deeper than skills.

·        Skill Points. An algorithm calculates this measurement of learning based on the other elements and time spent.

Perhaps the most difficult element to quantify is: Level of Difficulty. Applying standards helps to anchor a level of difficulty to an education or career stage. But, I think the most compelling process to assess skills is to work with their methods and applications. Count the number of times the method is applied, measure the difficulty in applying it.

For example, there are perhaps 20 to 50 methods behind applying the skill of Critical Thinking. It is easier to evaluate Critical Thinking by working with these methods as a framework.

Ideally, (I believe) accurate, new age assessments based purely on the application of skill (as opposed to being rooted in grades, age, demographics) become a gold standard in learning.

Learn more about this exciting new concept on the website:

Skills Label Uses

When you develop a new, innovative service/product, you must convince an audience why they should use it on top of the other products they are already using (especially with technology applications). (I typically hear: “Why? I am already doing this…”) Skills Label™ is a fundamentally different concept than anything else. The objective is to create one standardized display for all learning tasks (analogous to how a food label represents nutritional value).

Skill Label In Colors
Skill Label In Colors

The time it takes to create a label is not an issue. Using the label wizard, it is possible to create a label in less than three minutes. Using the upload, it is possible to upload hundreds of labels in less than a minute.

It is possible to assign credentials earned after a learner consumes the resource, including: badges, certifications, awards, etc. Here is who should consider creating labels:

Game creators create Skills Label™ for their games (an argument could be made that learning takes place in any game). It becomes a clear signal (especially to the naysayers of games in education) precisely your learning expectations and desired outcomes.

Online course designers (MOOCs or paid services) use a Skills Label™ for the course and a series of labels to represent all the tasks in the course. (Also, consider using the companion service Skills Syllabi to represent the course.)

Instructional designers use a label to clearly define learning expectations and outcomes of a resource they are creating. It might be first step, before they start designing their resource.

Teacher or professors use Skills Label in your classroom for project, activities, and experiences. You create a label for an activity you created on your own. You reference or create a label for resource you want to use in your classroom. (A benefit is you can create a collection of Skills Labels and give your students some choice in which ones they want to participate in).

Education Institutions create labels for their entire curriculum with one simple upload.

Here is what to do with a Skills Label:

  • Put a label on a website marketing the resource (game, course, video, etc.).
  • Send students to the public URL for the label (provided by Skills Label).
  • Email the label and a link to it online.
  • Print the label on any brochures or packaging of your product.

Here is what is included with the service:

  • Skill Label shown as a graphic in various file formats.
  • Access to database of skills, competencies, standards, and requirements.
  • Public URL and landing page.
  • Option to have label indexed in public search engine.

(And more functionality on the way.)

Of course, the biggest benefactor of Skills Labels are the high school and college students. For students, they access, collect, and use the Skills Label platform as a free service; all learner accounts are free. Skills Label is an ideal way to represent learning of discrete tasks and as students consume the resources represented by the labels, they store and catalogue them as a record of their learning. (There is already cross functionality with Skills Based Approach where a student can one-click add a label to their list of current tasks.) Students store Skills Labels in a collection for later consumption.

As the movement gains traction, students will have access to a search engine to find learning resources based on content collected from the Skills Label. This creates awareness the resources exist. Perhaps the biggest value in Skills Label is a platform to make comparisons among potential learning resources. A student has all the information needed to decide on spending time and/or money on a resource, including: ROI, personal learning preferences, accessibility, cost, credential earned, and the experience itself.

Competency Based Learning

Competency Based Learning (“CBL”) has been talked about in education and higher education as an efficient, effective way of learning for many years now.  CBL is efficient by letting student move on when they can prove a desired competency; learning evaluations are less dependent on how much time is spent in a classroom and the established credit hour system. CBL is effective by helping every type of student: 1) underperforming students get added resources or support to help them reach a competency; 2) average students control how much time they spend learning and may compete with students with more ability if they choose to; 3) high performing students get to keep moving forward when they prove a competency.

Personal Growth
Personal Growth

Our traditional education system has moved towards CBL with the adoption of Common Core standards. The standards are largely based on advancing basic skills in English, Math, Social Studies, and Science. The learning expectations are explicit and accessible. When the resources tied to the standards catch up (particularly assessments), students learn at their own pace. In the future, we see less learning expectations based on grade, age, and demographics.

In higher education, between 2015 and 2016, the number of CBL programs grew from 50 to 500 CBL programs (according to Tech Crunch) and this number will continue to grow. Higher education institutions have been trying to reduce expenses for decades with little success; students owe over 1 trillion dollars in debt. CBL is one answer. Rather than focusing solely on cost cutting and expense side of the equation, institutions adopt CBL with the potential of reducing the path to attainment of a degree or credential. Student pay one to three years of tuition rather than four.

I am not suggesting replacing any of the learning that takes place in a four-year degree, just the time it takes. According to one study (National Survey of Student Engagement), students spend an average of 17 hours a week studying. (In my opinion) the amount of weekly coursework should be at least 40 hours (a typical work week) and could easily reach 80 hours a week. (Something I remember experiencing while working towards an MBA, much of it was social and relationship building.) I also think traditional higher education institutions are going to join the progressive ones in adopting these CBL programs.

Incoming students should take assessments and complete projects when they start a program. Find out where they are, then give them the right learning program. For example, if a student is versed in programming, there is no sense in spending three semesters taking the introductory courses.

I propose a suite of applications, what I call a “Learning Scaffold for Skills”, as a platform for CBL programs. At the lowest level, there is Skills Label™ where learning expectations are defined for discrete tasks. On the display, users are directed to a resource or project and have all the information needed to complete the task. The learning is based on skills, competencies, and focus values. It is possible to incorporate learning standards into the labels too. Finally, a teacher or professor easily modifies a series of labels for each student to personalize the learning experience.

I see a series of labels as an ideal way to represent what is required in a CBL program. Students go through each of the labels, comprised of projects and / or assessments and upon verifiable completion demonstrate a required competency. Students work on the projects at their own pace.

To represent a collection of these labels at a course level, there is the app Skill Syllabi℠. A teacher or professor creates a syllabus which has all the sections of a standard syllabus plus sections for skills and competencies, skill labels, and tasks.

At the program level (and a platform for lifelong learning) is Skills-Based Approach℠.  Students import all the tasking in the labels and syllabi directly into their Skills Based Approach accounts. Then, they can move through the four stages of Skills Based Approach (an established methodology) to acquire the skills.

This suite of apps become a platform for Competency Based Learning programs (both in education and higher education).

Use Skills-Based Approach For Your Lifelong Learning

Earlier this week I heard about a special report on Lifelong Learning in the TheEconomist, so I scrambled around looking for a copy in the book and convenience stores in the area – without any luck. It was Martin Luther King Day so I had the day off. So, to get the six articles, I went through the laborious effort of going to three different browsers to print them out (because I do not have a digital subscription). Why the adventure?

I have had subscriptions of TheEconomist in the past. (I was as an economist once in my life.) The magazine always produces thought provoking articles with a good story-line. And more importantly, lifelong learning is one of the themes of Skills-Based Approach – a methodology and application I have been working on for years.

I see skills in all forms – technical, transferable, thinking, soft, and behaviors – and related skill competencies as a way to bridge learning expectations. Skills work laterally across subjects and disciplines, and vertically across education and career stages. I have suggested thinking in skills with lifelong learning near the conception of Skills-Based Approach. The methodology suggests constantly cycling through four stages with an evolving skill set throughout an education and career.

Skills Based Approach and Current Learning Trends
Skills Based Approach and Current Learning Trends

I would like to discuss each of the articles in the special edition:

Lifelong Learning is Becoming an Economic Imperative is the opening article of the series. It makes the case for lifelong learning with a few conclusions:

  • There is pressure on jobs from automation – forty-seven percent of jobs are susceptible to AI.
  • New technologies and applications are changing rapidly which reduces the shelf life of current technical skills.
  • Professionals must add breadth to their skill set (uses the example of having a marketing professional being asked to create an algorithm).

Skills-Based Approach addresses each of the conclusions: 1) Professionals target soft and analytical skills that are not easily automated; 2) Professionals anticipate and respond to future demand from skills. For example, a database designer may see the adoption of a particular database application rising in the next couple years, so he starts to learn the application; 3) Professionals add any skill to their skill set and move through Skills Based Approach to acquire a competency.

One article was about the credibility of MOOCs – free online courses, usually from top universities. There is a lot of upside with MOOCs. The obvious and immediate thought is taking a MOOC allows students to explore personal and professional interests. There is little stake in trying them; the courses are free and you can stop taking them at any time. But, as the article points out (and something I have harped on), a MOOC or a series of MOOCs (called a specialization in Coursera) is a credible way of learning and should be compared to courses taken in the traditional way.

I remember reading about how top performers in a MOOC targeting high demand skills get recommendations from the professor and might even get a job offer. From my own experience, I can attest to the quality of the teaching and learning, benefit in having a national (often international) audience, and the flexibility of interacting at any time. I took Content Strategy for Professionals 1: Engaging Audiences for Your Organization from a cadre of professors and guests at Northwestern; the first MOOC in a series. After taking the series, a person who performs well could step in to a marketing role at a company regardless of his or her previous education – in my opinion.

In the article Pathway Dependency Turning Qualifications into Jobs, the author talks about learning paths where education is combined with vocational training – something he defines as boot camps, nanodegrees, and apprenticeships. This is something I usually refer to as micro-credentialism, where you learn precisely what you need by targeting specific skills. You work with future employers to determine the technical skills you need. The best way to target the high cost of education is to develop these learning pathways that shorten the time and often expense for students. As higher education institutions adopt competency based learning (“CBL”) and micro-credentialism, it will become less of a one or the other decision.

I find it interesting that America “lacks a tradition of vocational education” as compared to counterpart European and Asian countries. Clearly, there is an agenda for change in America. There is a significant rise in CBL, apprenticeship grants, coding boot camps, and employer sponsored learning programs.

In What Employers Can do to Encourage their Workers to Retrain, the author makes many conclusions related to thinking in skills as a way to move forward:

  • Build Foundational Skills. The article talks about ‘design thinking’ with an example of how a company deliberately practices the methods of this skill. This is something I have talked about with Skills-Based Approach; there is a need to work with the underlying methods and application of these types of skills.
  • Focus on Social Skills. AI and applied technology is supplanting job requirements at all levels. Social skills are not easily replicated, so will remain highly sought after.
  • Have a Growth Mindset. Continue Learning. I promote a Skills Culture , which basically says “you can learn a skill if you put in the time to learn it properly” – the sentiment was captured in a survey I conducted, where the majority of respondents agreed with the statement.

Skills-Based Approach is the methodology and platform to address the needs of a lifelong learner. It puts students and professionals in the ‘driver seat’ of their learning and lets them proactively manage their growth.