Designing Education for Competence: An update from front-line


Last year, I went in search of serendipity. It was part recovery - my previous stab at entrepreneurship not having worked out - and part exploration - of living unexpectedly. So, I took on something quite contrary to my nature: I bottled my natural inclinations to experiment and took on a process-oriented role. I decided to live on the other side of the fence, right in the middle of employer-land.

As I gradually near the end of this year-long 'experiment', I am, perhaps quite naturally, in a reflective mood. The experience has been very rewarding in more than one way. 

The project I ran was successful, achieving its mandate in time and within budget, and I am sure I shall look back at this year with some satisfaction. My role was to introduce a completely new way of doing things within the bounds of a conservative organisation in a conservative and risk-averse sector. Therefore, the appreciation that the work received is really remarkable. It is truly gratifying to see that the ideas I helped introduce have been embraced by my colleagues and our customers, though these really were the ones I learnt through my work in education.

If I needed confidence back, there was nothing better than this. Not only doing something hands on was therapeutic, but also that employers and employer organisations readily appreciate online practice-based education is an important validation of the key ideas I endlessly talk about.

For example, I am now more convinced than ever that universities are not preparing the students for the world of work because most courses follow an implicit academic structure and academic expectations. And, while this may have 'input' from the employers and even odd internships, it is not the curriculum itself but the experience that needs to change. The attempts of the universities to fiddle with the curriculum, without changing the methods of delivery, assessment and engagement, are bound to fail. Rather, the whole university experience should be rejigged to resemble work, or at least an idealised version of work (for example, enabling safe spaces and communities, one thing Higher Ed does well).
I also have an insight into the Holy Grail of employer-centric learning - how far do you go with customisation? Usually, this is a big challenge for education providers, as employers would want the course of study to be quite specific, while the education providers must offer a broad curriculum. This was a challenge for me too, despite the narrow focus of my current work. The solution I designed - job analysis for the sector through recruiting manager interviews and coding the adverts - may not work in Higher Ed as that's too narrowly focused. But it's not that employers don't want broad education, they only want broad education contextualised to work. The general principle to take away here is really this: That it needs close and careful listening of employers' language, that skills are really locally constructed and when we, in higher education, talk about global employers, we really mean that we have no idea. In fact, this tells me that employer engagement, the way it is done in Higher Ed - as a hands-off, business development type of activity - is wide off the mark: This needs to be turned into a core activity, integrated into curriculum design and quality assurance. In fact, employer engagement should be part of the Dean's, or QA Head's, KPI, rather than that of the Business Development Managers.
One other thing: The learning technology has now come of age. I should perhaps do some explaining why that was worth stating separately. In our popular culture, we assume that technical stuff is just invented and then they are there. This view of technology misses out a lot. For a start, technology businesses are almost always talking ahead, creating hype and promising stuff they can't really do. Faking it till they can make it is Silicon Valley culture: Some pull it off, such as Steve Jobs, and some spectacularly doesn't and descend into scandals such as Theranos. But the technologies take time to be ready for the job. I have been onto e-learning since 1999 and only now, I think, the capabilities and infrastructure are really coming together. Besides, it's also learning too: A technology is only as good as what its users can do with it. And, technology-based learning is fundamentally different from the tutor-delivered learning not just in the sense of time and space, but also in content, style and approach. For effective online learning, the learners and the teachers have to be sufficiently conversant with the learning environments and tools, be willing and able to share knowledge online and be able to use the sources of knowledge available [and indeed, their managers have to understand and approve of that]. I think we have finally reached that point.

These and other things changed my ideas about education in one fundamental way. I have been speaking about blended learning ever since 2010, but my ideas were only a copy of the click-and-mortar ideas fashionable in retail. I conceived blended learning as a mix of online content consumption and classroom-based support. This project allowed me to see that the classroom-based support is really redundant, as this also focuses on content, which the users are quite capable of doing themselves. Instead, a far more profitable blend is learning and work, alongside human interactions with Tutors, Mentors and Peers online. This is the model I helped construct in my project, where 'blend' follows a 70:20:10 model (or thereabout, I followed the fad in labelling it), combining practical work, interactions and content consumption in that proportion.

For me, it's a strange thing preparing to leave. Not only I am passionate about what I do, I see my work as an extension of myself. That is indeed not an attitude that is well suited for contracting and the alienation - that the work I have no real long term stake in what I am doing - is quite unsettling. But I feel quite excited about leaving, perhaps for the first time in life, as my head is full of ideas and I am eager to get working on new educational models. This I always wanted to do, but I feel far more prepared this time around.

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