Dr Robert John Coelen, Professor of Internationalisation of Higher Education, Stenden University of Applied Sciences
Several global changes will enhance the urgency with which we must address issues in the delivery of education. These changes include global changes because of man’s impact on the planetary environment, increased globalisation, the shift of the global economic centre point of gravity, and the polarisation of jobs. Governments around the world are urging institutes of higher learning to differentiate and to increasingly focus on student-centred learning. To be able to answer to these pressures, institutes of higher learning need to re-organise their educational delivery from class or program specific delivery to student-centred delivery. This will be significantly enabled by enhanced clarity of the outcomes of individual units of learning so that students and their learning coaches may select the most appropriately matched track of learning for individuals to maximise their potential after graduation. Thus, the introduction of learning outcomes, apart from providing enhanced clarity, also entails making the approach to the teaching and learning process truly student-centred.
Broadly defined national or professional competence profiles to which programmes at individual institutes adhere, provide little clarity on what is on offer, much less clarity on what differentiation is available at the various institutes. Indeed, competences are something of an individual and they arise not purely the result of a programme of learning, but are also significantly influenced by other factors not under control of the educational programme. This was aptly shown by an analysis of CLA+ test data in the US, where the socio-economic background of students clearly impacted their initial and ultimate CLA+ test scores.
A more extensive and specific set of learning outcomes will assist creating clarity as to what students can achieve by following a programme. It assists academics in developing assessment that proves that learning outcomes were achieved. Most importantly, it avoids students having to reverse translate a set of broadly defined competences into their own unique profile based on their talents and the programme they undertook. If this larger set of programme learning outcomes has been prioritised by the various sectors of employment, and if students, through their continual appraisal of the learning outcomes they have achieved, are better able to present what they are capable of, their chances to gain employment specifically matching their talents is much improved.
This approach also goes some way towards a more specialised approach to students and the programme they follow. This is a direction that is encouraged by the government of the Netherlands at present. It is also a logical in view of the enhanced differentiation that a graduate requires in a world of work where increasingly the emphasis is more focused on transversal skills and where job polarisation is reducing the apparent diversity of employment.
The huge increases in our knowledge base also affect the delivery of information in education. It has been conservatively predicted that by 2030 50% of the information required for education will be delivered on-line or be available form on-line sources. The rich tapestry of information will provide ample opportunities to develop a higher level of specialisation than heretofore possible.
In view of the job polarisation and the global economic changes this move will be hard to resist if the future of our children is foremost in our minds. This is to maximise their opportunity in a society where high-level jobs require the utmost in cognitive functioning. Where innovation and development, interpretation and action are the mainstay of effective participation in the work force, we owe it to our children to give them the education that focuses on their unique talents.
A logical consequence of this thinking is that we must deliver graduates that excel based on the development of their talents not just at the higher education level, but also recognise that in the 14 years before that they have searched, recognised, and developed these talents already to a level beyond our current starting point. Of course, they may also have some areas that are below the current average starting point of newly admitted students. We can then no longer afford to hold back these talents for the sake of delivering education that treats all students equally.
One could think of a system whereby the action of delivery of information is not bound by time and place, but happens on a continuous basis aided by technology. Students avail themselves of such information when it suits them, through channels that they find stimulating and rewarding. The time spent at universities will be to hone their social and innovation (co-creation) skills, rather than to pick up some information. The growing trend in working at home and virtual collaboration is another example of changing work practices that make the place of work more important for interaction than for tasks that are individual.
Learning Outcomes instead of Competence Profiles
This trend of higher levels of individual attention in education flies directly in the face of summarised outcomes of learning in which one graduate is difficult to distinguish from the next. The national competency profiles of many disciplines are aligned with professional competency profiles that are mandated by law and set certain minimum standards, but allow little in the way of distinguishing features of programmes, let alone their graduates.
The same mental leaps that are required to convert summarised competency profiles into curriculum must be made by students to translate their diploma supplement into statements that adequately address employment criteria and give them a chance to obtain employment that matches their talents. Whilst just may be graduates have a chance of doing this, employers certainly find this near impossible and only have a general idea as to what a graduate is capable of.
I believe to date, we have not been equipping our graduates with the precise know-how about what they know and are capable of in order for them to create their own unique selling proposition of their skills and talents and in doing so approach the job market to extract the most beneficial situation. In part, I believe that the rather summarised statements that constitute a competence profile are partly to blame for this. The current education system is of course also at fault as the extent to which individual students can excel in their own unique talents has been constrained by a classroom-, institute-, or even sector-centred process of education.
Indeed, some of the statements we make about what our education will deliver are demonstrably not possible. By way of example, the current competence profile of many business programs says that in terms of generic competences a graduate will have in one way or another leadership qualities. There is direct evidence that the pre-frontal cortex of an individual does not complete its development until the age of about 25-27. This part of the brain houses the functions that relate to long-term planning, assessing risk and reward, prioritising, problem-solving, thinking ahead, self-evaluation, and regulation of emotion. It seems to me that these are indispensable qualities for a leader. There is no doubt that we can assist students in developing several skills related to leadership. However, promising that the program will transform them into leaders seems oversell.
Another argument in favour of using learning outcomes rather than competences relates to the definitions of competences that abound the literature. The scholars who are concerned with this, and educational practitioners who use it, cannot come to a single definition, making their use complicated. Defining the outcome of a programme of learning in terms of competences is therefore problematic.
It is time for action
How can we help our graduates? How can we assist those entering higher education? The agenda is big, so we need to make several steps to realise our goals of individualised learning and a higher level of transparency as to what our learning will deliver to students. There are two steps that we can make in this early stage, before, as one model sees it, all units of academic learning will be available to all students depending on their individual wishes and where certain combinations will lead to recognised specialist degrees and others to generalist degrees. These two steps will fit in the current system, but also pave the way for future developments in the direction of truly student-centred learning, flexibility, and maximisation of student talents.
The first step is to define the learning outcomes of our programmes not in terms of terminal competences, but in terms of terminal learning outcomes. As clearly defined measurable outcomes of periods of learning in which the level of mastery, the subject, the type of learning, the scope and context, as well as the nature of what a successful candidate can do after achieving this learning outcome. The process of defining terminal learning outcomes is not complete until the pathway by which a student can achieve these, is fully described in a set of non-terminal learning outcomes culminating in the terminal one (learning line). By clearly stating at the outset of a unit of learning which learning outcomes are at stake and why these are important, how they contribute to the terminal learning outcome and what the relevance of this learning outcome is to the holder, we can develop a transparency that will benefit the construction of assessment, course content, and focus of all stakeholders.
The second step is to realise that some terminal learning outcomes will take four years to develop, others may only take a single academic module. This gives individual modules an opportunity to clarify their contribution to the development of the terminal competences. Such an exercise represents significant challenges for academics involved and reveals itself clearly in the assessment domain. A more detailed description of the many learning outcomes of individual academic units and their contribution to a larger set of terminal learning outcomes will provide greater clarity what can be achieved and which steps must be taken to achieve them. Indeed, the difficulties in developing better assessment for the learning outcomes to prove that students have achieved them will be reduced.
There are more advantages of this approach. A more detailed description of the learning outcomes will allow a process of prioritisation by stakeholders including employers. It will position institutes in being able to better advise students as to which learning outcomes are desired by what type of employers. Indeed, students may opt, particularly in the elective education space (whilst we still have rigorously defined programmes!), for certain learning outcomes that better match their employment wishes.
In terms of marketing the program to potential students, the marketing department of an institution may avail itself of some of the learning outcomes that pay in to the specialisation of the programme or institution compared to others. The effect of this would be a better match between expectation and delivery.
The greater level of focus that students will get from knowing what they are about to learn and why should impact on their motivation. This is particularly so if during primary and secondary education they have already felt the effects of student-centred learning and have discovered their own talents. They’ll come to us better informed about themselves and we should be ready to assist them in taking further advantage of their unique talents.