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ADL Initiative Update on Competency Based Learning

July 16, 2020

For the last five years, the ADL Initiative has worked toward the vision of a “learning ecosystem”—an interconnected continuum of lifelong learning enabled by interoperable education and training technologies. Our Total Learning Architecture (TLA) project focuses on building that IT and data backbone, and competencies are a keystone within the TLA data strategy.

Roughly, competencies are relational frameworks of knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics required to successfully complete a job or task. These requirements are typically defined at multiple levels of proficiency (e.g., novice, beginner, competent, proficient, expert). Although people may debate the exact definition of a “competency,” this description is close enough, and our TLA work can accommodate different philosophical approaches to competencies.

Competency-based learning can be used in any learning and development context. It is an approach that aligns learning objectives and assessment methods for each competency with their requisite levels of demonstrated proficiency. Competency-based learning is often used with “mastery learning,” where the desired performance outcomes are held static and the length and methods of instruction vary. This combination has been shown to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of learning, motivate learners, and better enable equitable outcomes (meritocracy). (Check out Chapter 13 in our Modernizing Learning book for more details.)

To support competency-based learning within the future learning ecosystem, the ADL Initiative helped sponsor development of the Competency and Skills System (CaSS), in collaboration with contracted performer, Eduworks.

Competency and Skills System

CaSS is an open-source, standards-based brokerage service for managing digital competencies throughout their lifecycle. CaSS can be used as a standalone system, or its microservices can be integrated into other systems.

CaSS enables competency framework authoring and management. Its authoring tools can ingest competency frameworks in all commonly available formats, including commercial standards, such as IEEE 1484.20.1 “Reusable Competency Definition” and the Credential Transparency Description Language. CaSS authoring tools offer a variety of ways to import competencies from other tools (e.g., spreadsheets, SALT, or Department of Labor’s O*NET), including several standards-based Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). CaSS also supports bespoke competency development, and it can used linked data so that standardized competencies injected from a different system can be personalized for local use.

CaSS includes a competency registry that can translate competencies between systems, harmonizing data created by different organizations. It can also make assertions of competence based upon evidence. For example, CaSS ingests learning performance data (e.g., in the xAPI format) or earned certificates (e.g., in the Credential Transparency Description Language format). Then, using artificial intelligence, it can estimate the associated competence a person or team possesses.

CaSS is already used across industry, academia, and government to support competency-based learning and credential management. In autumn 2020, the ADL Initiative expects to release a “hardened” version of CaSS, which the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command helped us evaluate for cybersecurity accreditation. This will be available to DoD organizations at the Risk Management Framework (RMF) “Assess Only” level.

This cyber-hardened version comes just in time, as the Army Future Command’s Learning in Intelligent Tutoring Environment (LITE) Laboratory recently kicked off a project to integrate competency-based learning and CaSS into team-based training simulations, under the Synthetic Training Environment (STE) program. This work leverages numerous TLA standards, tools, and technologies to support testing and evaluation at the scope and scale required by the Army.

Competency-Based Learning Research at the ADL Initiative

The concept of competency-based learning may seem straightforward, but in practice it involves significant complexity. In addition to the CaSS technology, the ADL Initiative has been conducting research on how to best define, manage, and employ competencies in a learning context. This line of research began with a broad analysis of the field. In 2016, the Institute for Defense Analyses compared different applications of competency-based management from across industry, academia, and government. The researchers published their findings in a report titled “Review and Assessment of Personnel Competencies and Job Description Models and Methods.”

In 2019, the ADL Initiative published an early look at how competency-based learning, and CaSS specifically, fits into the larger TLA context. The “Competency-Based Learning” report is a primer on competencies, competency frameworks, their relationship with credentials, and how competencies can serve as a common currency for data within a learning ecosystem. Most recently, the ADL Initiative released a report titled “Competency Framework Development Process,” published in March 2020. It describes the step-by-step process of developing competency frameworks, including how to use the CaSS authoring tools. This report also includes examples from multiple DoD organizations.

Next Steps

There is growing interest in competency-based learning across DoD, and embracing it helps move the Department closer to an interoperable learning services ecosystem. Looking toward the horizon, the ADL Initiative is continuing to advance competency-based learning within the TLA. Our researchers are also working with the IEEE’s Competency Data Standards Work Group (CDSWG20 P1484.20.1) to refresh the Reusable Competency Definition standard, and we are examining how competencies fit into the implementation of a DoD-wide enterprise learning record repository.

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