Charlie Life & Leadership Academy and The Emergence of Competency-Based Leadership Training Through eLearning With Digital Badging: What We’ve Learned So Far
By Bruce H. Jackson
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Bruce H. Jackson works with universities, Fortune 500 companies, and non-profit institutions to develop and implement principles of performance, leadership, and change. Formerly with Korn Ferry/Hay Group Bruce consults through The Institute of Applied Human Excellence — a training, assessment, and coaching firm dedicated to helping individuals achieve peak performance. He also is the Executive Director of the C. Charles Jackson Foundation and Charlie Life & Leadership Academy — an emerging competency-based eLearning portal designed to develop personal and leadership potential in students. Bruce earned his doctorate in Human and Organizational Systems with Master’s degrees in Counseling Psychology, Business Administration, Organizational Development and Public Administration. For more, visit: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brucehjackson/ or email email@example.com.
Since 2003, the C. Charles Jackson Foundation (CCJF) has been focused on providing grants to support universities/colleges, schools, and non-profits to start, expand, and operate leadership centers and programs throughout the U.S. and internationally. In addition, CCJF has supported research on the efficacy of this work.
Because of ongoing funding requests to design programs, courses, workshops, and content already developed elsewhere, the foundation explored and approved funding to design and develop Charlie Life & Leadership Academy (CLLA) — an eLearning platform purposed to serve students and educators alike on a scale not yet seen in student leadership development.
CLLA is a newly formed 501c3 extending the work of the CCJF and honoring the life, values, and public service of C. Charles “Charlie” Jackson — and his dedication to developing a new generation of competent and purpose-driven young leaders.
In this article we explore CLLA’s purpose, design, build, initial data, and current feedback in order to understand what’s working, the challenges, and the opportunities for use by students and leadership educators.
The Need for Emerging Leaders
Current research by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) suggests that there is a significant gap between what students think they know vs. what they actually know when entering the workforce. Across 7 important measures (Working with others in teams; Locating, organizing, evaluating information; Critical thinking; Being inventive/crative; Analyzing/solving complex problems,: Awareness of complex culture) students ranked their preparedness 27-40% points higher than hiring managers did (Jaschik, 2016). Chegg and Harris Interactive (2013) also showcased similar gaps with such skills as: Completing a project as part of a team; Solving problems through experimentation; and and Communicating with authority figures & clients.
At first glance one might struggle to draw a clear connection between these skills and the development of leader potential. But as explored below, developing one’s capacity to influence and lead (more broadly defined using Attentional Leadership Theory), suggests these and other competencies may have a clear place in developing student leadership potential. This multi-dimensional yet personalized approach to developing student leadership potential focuses on the unique needs and goals of emerging student leaders.
Given these gaps, effective methods for developing leadership skills require not only new pedagogies for teaching and learning, but with greater scalability at a lower cost. Doing so suggests that we need to broaden our notion of who is a leader, so that more students are empowered to lead themselves and others in the future. (Zimmerman-Oster Ph.D & Burkhardt Ph.D, 2004).
Student and Professional Leadership Competencies
Since the emergence of leadership competencies for advancing organizational and leadership potential in the 1980s, Corey Seemiller and others have made competency-based leadership education more relevant to students — with 60 competencies defined as most relevant for college students (Seemiller, 2014).
Augmenting this research, I compiled competency models from multiple corporate leadership and talent consulting models (i.e., KornFerry/Hay Group, Center for Creative Leadership, Zenger/Folkman, MDA Leadership, and others) and identified several additional competencies relevant within various professional environments. As such, CLLA’s model includes 90 competencies.
At CLLA we recognize the value of academic, professional, and technical training — the “what” of a person’s education. We also recognize that “what” a person knows must be supported by “who” that person becomes. This “who” side of the equation is the purpose of CLLA as it seeks to extend the work of positive/performance psychology as relevant disciplines alongside other disciplines more focused on interpersonal, team, organization, and broader social science themes (Jackson and Neck, 2016). All are relevant disciplines in developing leaders who seek to influence micro and macro systems.
Using Attentional Leadership Theory as a binding and bounding framework I organized said competencies into a 3x5 (15 static dimensions) framework of interconnected dimensions: Internal: Physical, Emotional, Psychological, Philosophical, Spiritual; External: Personal, Interpersonal, Team, Organization, Community; Time: Long-Future, Short-Future, Present Moment, Short-Past, Long-Past. (Jackson, 2015).
Together, these intersecting dimensions offer a comprehensive (125 dynamic dimensions) framework to suggest a more holistic, systemic, and dynamic model for aggregating leadership models and competencies for students en route to becoming young professionals. This framework conceptually frames the content within CLLA. For details, please view the videos below.
CLLA summary video.
CLLA Theoretical Orientation Video.
Defining Competencies vs. Building Them
Recognizing that there is a significant difference between defining, framing, and mapping leadership competencies vs. developing content, CLLA has been engaged in the process of producing relevant and applicable content based on the ALT framework using eLearning as the primary delivery mechanism with accompanying digital badges.
Utilizing a similar philosophy as Twitter (content not to exceed 280 characters) and TedX talks (content not to exceed 18 minutes), CLLA courses are designed to teach the basics of a particular leadership competency (or related competencies) with an initial investment of 2-3 hours (Level 1: understanding), with additional badges offered for Level 2 (completion of all course exercises with 3rd party validation) and Level 3 (summary video or written narratives of five real-world uses of said competency with 3rd party validation).
Recognizing that some competencies are more content rich (i.e., critical thinking vs. goal setting), courses and badge levels are designed so that between learning (Level 1), practice (Level 2), and application (Level 3), the total invested time would not exceed eight hours.
CLLA is being designed as both a free and fee-based resource with more than a thousand free resource links via the website. The courses and affiliated badges are currently free during our beta phase. However, when fully launched our goal will be to sustain CLLA with fee-based courses for approximately one third of our students (estimated price: $35 per course and badge level), with another one third underwritten by corporate and public foundations, and one third offered free for students and programs in need.
Charlie Life & Leadership Academy is Born
In addition to offering free curated and educational resources via the website (www.charlieacademy.org), CLLA current offers an initial 14 courses (defined as Programs within the LMS). As additional funding is secured, CLLA will continue to build out its envisioned 90 competency library to help students cope, succeed, and thrive as individuals, in relationships, teams, organizations, and communities in a 21st century global economy.
Charlie Academy Website and Technologies
Charlie Academy works with five web-based technologies that seamlessly interface with each other for a streamlined user experience. These include: Our website (1), www.charlieacademy.org, where students can access linked video’s, articles, suggested books, and other resource lists. Students wanting to take courses and earn badges can set up an account through LMS Checkout (2) where they can enter a free code or pay using PayPal (3). Students then gain access into Bridge (4), which is the learning management system (LMS) or eLearning platform. Once a learner enters Bridge and completes a course, a badge is verified and awarded through Credly (5) to be exported and used within e-portfolio’s and/or social media platforms to showcase their leadership skills to admissions officers, hiring managers, and others.
Initial Content Development
To begin the process of building competency-based eLearning content, it was decided to design a Minimally Viable Product (MVP) of 14 courses (representing 39 competencies) and to gather feedback prior to building out a complete library of programs covering all 90 competencies. Based on the ALT framework we sought to focus on the Personal, Interpersonal, and Teaming dimensions first, our assumption being that these dimensions would represent the “core” leadership competencies relevant to all students prior to developing more focused content relevant to specific majors or professional arenas.
Each of the courses was designed to be approximately 2-3 hours of “seat time” based on the completion of all elements of the programs. These consisted of reading segments, subject matter expert videos, student insights and application videos, scenarios, stories, quotes, PDF-based exercises, quizzes, various interactive and gaming elements, and assessment
Initial CLLA Data
To begin the feedback process, we reached out to several CCJF university/college, non-profit partners as well as sending invitations to more than 1,700 programs throughout the U.S. and internationally. To date, more than 30 institutions are participating — from Ivy League schools and community colleges to non-profit programs across the globe. Since May 2018, 375 students and educators have signed up to access all CLLA content and badges in exchange for providing feedback on one or more assigned courses.
For each of the 14 courses, 25 questions were designed to gather feedback on targeted aspects of each program. For the purpose of this article responses to eight of those questions were analyzed. These focus broadly on themes such as program length, difficulty, applicability, usefulness, and probability of recommending the course to a friend or colleague as well as open ended questions that focus on gathering comments regarding what the participants liked most, suggestions for program improvement, and any endorsements they wanted to offer. Currently, 171 students and educators have provided feedback.
To review a brief summary of both quantitative and qualitative data use this link: https://bit.ly/2OIYxwG
In the many focus groups initially conducted, students were open about their increasing use of online and eLearning portals to augment classroom or personal learning. There also seems to be a greater understanding among students that grades and test scores alone may be “necessary” but “insufficient” for professional success. This has set the stage for “why” a platform such as CLLA can be a relevant resource — one offering competency-based training with digital badges to help students showcase their skills to admissions officers, hiring managers, and/or a broader academic or professional audience.
Moving Towards a Thumbs Up
While seeking to discover the elements of a successful program (i.e., right amount of content, right ratio of reading to subject matter expert and student videos, number of quiz questions, types of embedded media, etc.), we seem to be moving in the right direction given the feedback offered so far, but the “right” ratio of learning elements or “secret sauce” is emerging with every user feedback survey. To augment this understanding, multiple e-learning vendors have been commissioned to offer their ideas and suggestions as well. With constant refinements to courses as they are taken, and new feedback received, early indicators suggest that eLearning may be a valuable pedagogy for delivering leadership content — with the “secret sauce” emerging more each month through an iterative process.
Advantages of Building Leaders Through eLearning
Through our development journey thus far we’ve discovered several potential advantages of eLearning. Among them:
- For leadership programs with a primary theoretical focus, CLLA can both augment and fill in content gaps — using a competency-based approached to learning that also includes digital badging.
- Common principles, theories, or models can be delivered through eLearning — leaving more time in the classroom to focus on discussion, application, and practice.
- eLearning is easy to access. Students can learn at their own pace whenever or wherever they want. It’s interesting, interactive, and fun, offering students leadership principles, theories, tools, and practices within a gamified environment.
- eLearning is infinitely scalable, more accessible, less expensive (in the long-run), and potentially opens new opportunities for research. Platforms such as Qualtrics help capture pre, post and longitudinal data — moving us ever closer to answering the question: Does leadership education make a difference? If so, how, with whom, and when?
- eLearning platforms offer students not currently engaged in formal programs access to content, training, and recognition usually reserved for students in formal programs.
- Given the ever-growing strategy in the professional ranks of micro learning and digital badging — even credentialing, eLearning as part of the student experience can help bring professional best practices to the student population early in their educational process.
- eLearning courses and badging can significantly improve a student’s overall academic and professional portfolio — offering greater balance between academic and leadership competencies.
Current Challenges and Opportunities
CLLA has a grand vision that includes not only offering the world’s largest collection of free curated content and resources, but a complete library of competency-based leadership courses relevant to students everywhere seeking to cope, thrive, and lead with 21st century skills. With vision comes challenge and with challenge comes opportunity. Among the challenge/opportunity themes:
- The cost of eLearning. eLearning costs range from $12,000 - $50,000 per finished hour! While we have beaten even the lowest cost estimates, building a complete library will require a significant and continued investment with cost conscious funders.
- The paradox of funding. Contrary to popular belief, charitable funders often want extensive data prior to investing in new projects. With data emerging, however, we are moving towards a solid position for a broader base of additional funding.
- Broad relevance. Being relevant to a culturally diverse audience is not easy, yet we are experimenting with various strategies to ensure a more personalized approach within each course.
- Valuing leadership skills. Our goal is to help students as well as admissions officers and hiring agents see the value in leadership skills in relation to academic/technical skills. This is becoming ever more apparent, especially in technical and scientific environments.
- Badges vs. credentials. Formal credentialing is different from badging and needs to be better understood by students, parents, and professionals. Each has their place yet clarifying their unique value remains important.
While CLLA does not seek nor present itself as a credentialing body, its focus is to help students articulate and showcase their leadership development journey. While we see this as an extremely valuable element of a student’s application process, we will need to continue to emphasize the unique relationship between “academic” and “professional” training as students seek entrance into competitive academic programs, internships, and jobs.
With these and other challenges on the horizon, we are confident that CLLA is moving in the right direction. We will continue tackling the various winds of challenge and opportunity as we progress forward.
Insights and Recommendations for Use
In the pursuit of understanding how universities/colleges and schools view leadership education, I’m struck by two themes: 1) Many schools/programs often see leadership through a primary theoretical lens; and 2) Leadership education is often highly decentralized throughout a campus or school — usually with minimal communication or coordination between different yet complimentary resources. As such, a portal like CLLA exists to help users see leadership theory and practice more broadly while offering competency-based content and resources that can be used by very different types of leadership programs.
While originally designed for individual students, CLLA can be utilized by leadership educators and students within formal programs to:
- Access free curated leadership content. The CLLA website offers a growing number linked videos, articles, books, and other growing lists of leadership resources specified by topic.
- Assess current strengths and weaknesses. CLLA will continue to add free curated assessments to help users identify current strengths and opportunities for growth based on personal and professional aspirations.
- Grow specific leadership competencies. CLLA resources and courses offer a competency-based approach to any program model — helping educators and students focus learning objectives.
- Develop a digital portfolio. CLLA badges give students a more intentional, focused, and industry relevant approach to developing leadership skills that can be showcased on social media platforms and e-portfolios.
- Influence admissions and hiring officers. A strategic e-portfolio offers admissions and hiring officers a clearer understanding of a student’s current leadership skills in relation to their academics — differentiating between “what” a student has learned in school as well as “who” they are becoming as emerging professionals.
Whatever the case, CLLA can be used by students seeking to independently build their leadership skills and credentials or by leadership educators to augment/support academic courses, workshops, and seminars — even as the basis for mentoring or coaching — moving students from abstract ideas to real-world application.
CLLA has been designed as a competency-based library of leadership content (curated library, resources, programs/courses, and badges) that can be used within formal academic or non-academic programs, courses, workshops, etc. by educators. It can also be used by individual students looking to grow their leadership skills while earning digital badges to enhance professional credibility.
Recognizing that this is an emerging and growing resource, those interested in supporting the effort are invited to contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss content use, strategic improvements, future course development, and research.
Works Cited & Links
Chegg/Harris Interactive (2013). Bridge That Gap: Analyzing the Student Skill Index. Retrieved from Inside Higher Ed: https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/files/Bridge%20That%20Gap-v8.pdf.
Cooke, N. A. (2016). Counter-Storytelling in the LIS curriculum. In U. Gorham, N. Green Taylor, & P.T. Jaeger (Eds.), Perspectives on Libraries as Institutions of Human Rights and Social Justice (pp. 331-348). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Jackson, B.H. (2015). “The Theory of Attentional Leadership: Reflecting on the Structure and Future for Researching, Teaching, and Practicing Influential Leadership: An Introduction.” In Leadership 2050: Contextualizing Global Leadership Processes for the Future. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing.
Jackson, B. H., and Neck, C. P. (2016). “Attentional Leadership Theory and Philosophy of Engagement Construction: Understanding the Core Values of Emerging World Leaders.” Journal of Leadership and Management, 1 (7-8).
Jaschik, S. (2016). Well-Prepared in their Own Eyes. Retrieved from Inside Higher Ed: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/01/20/study-finds-big-gaps-between-student-and-employer-perceptions.
Seemiller, C. (2014). The Student Leadership Competencies Guidebook: Designing Intentional Leadership Learning and Development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.