New KU research center to map clearer pathways from learning outcomes to employment success

Learning map overlays a photo of students in a hands-on learning environment at the University of Kansas

LAWRENCE — In a rapidly evolving economy with ever-shifting workforce demands, how can universities, businesses and students better meet each other’s needs? There’s a map for that.

Or there will be soon, thanks to experts at the University of Kansas Achievement & Assessment Institute who this week launched the Center for Certification & Competency-Based Education, or C3BE, for short.

The center will develop a framework to gather information about the knowledge, skills and dispositions that employers desire from workers in particular fields; to assess the competencies that learners gain through university coursework and other experiences; and to validate that learners have mastered certain competencies so businesses can be confident that employees will be successful in their jobs. The center will build upon the institute’s previous work using learning maps as an organizational structure that charts a course toward a desired outcome.

“Learning maps are a communication tool. Employers can use them to articulate the skills a job requires, allowing current and future employees to efficiently prepare themselves for their next career steps. They can help learners visualize various pathways to the careers of their choice,” said Neal Kingston, AAI director and University Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology. “Ultimately, our approach will give learners more control over their economic futures and provide businesses with knowledge and confidence to guide their investment in human capital.”

The center’s research will help perfect a systematic approach for educational advancement and career positioning: the stackable microcredential. These mini-degrees or certifications that demonstrate competence in specific skills or topic areas have gained popularity in recent years, and enrollment in microcredentialing programs nationwide has surged during the pandemic-related employment crisis.

“We are designing more authentic assessments for these credentials — moving beyond the typical multiple choice tests used by most programs and instead asking learners to work through simulations or real-world problems that they might encounter on the job,” Kingston said. “We will also evaluate portfolios, giving students credit for life experience. We’re not looking to replace traditional coursework or the research and residential campus experience; we’re looking to supplement them. What matters is what you have learned, not how and where you learned it.”

Diane DeBacker, whose former roles include Kansas commissioner of education and executive director of business and education innovation at the Kansas Department of Commerce, has returned to her home state to lead the new center.

“I’m honored to be selected as the founding director of C3BE,” she said. “I look forward to leading this innovative center and am especially excited about our plans to certify knowledge and skills that learners have already acquired. The ability to earn stackable microcredentials will help learners advance their careers while saving time and money. And our research, development and implementation will not only help Kansans but also serve as a model for other universities.”

DeBacker most recently served as chief academic officer for Seattle Public Schools. She received her bachelor’s degree from Emporia State University, master’s degree from Washburn University and doctorate from Kansas State University.

“This center will be an important asset for students who need to have the competencies — the skills and knowledge — they’ve gained through noncredit education, work and life experience evaluated to earn credit toward stackable credentials that can help them advance in their careers and in their lives,” said Barbara Bichelmeyer, KU provost and executive vice chancellor. “This groundbreaking center will be helpful to students, responsive to business and workforce needs, good for the state of Kansas, and further position KU as a leading innovator in the redesign of higher education for the 21st century.”

Top photo illustration: A learning map overlays on an image of students in a hands-on classroom environment at the University of Kansas.

Bottom: Diane DeBacker, founding director of the Center for Certification & Competency-Based Education in KU’s Achievement & Assessment Institute.

Thu, 01/14/2021


Mindie Paget

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Mindie Paget

Office of Research