Representing the interplay between competence definitions and structures

(12th in my logic of competence series, heavily edited 2011-06-17)

One of the keys to a fuller understanding the logic of competence is the interplay between, on the one hand, the individual definition of an ability or competence concept, and on the other hand, a framework or structure containing several related definitions. Implementing a logically sound representation of competence concepts depends on this fuller understanding, and this was one of the requirements presented in the previous post.

A framework by its very nature “includes” (in some sense to be better understood later) several concept definitions. Equally, when one analyses any competence concept, it is necessarily in terms of other concepts at least related to competence. There would seem to be little difference in principle between these more and less extensive structures.

When we consider a small structure it is easier to see that the small structures usually double as a concepts in their own right. To illustrate this, let’s consider UK National Occupational Standards (NOSs) again. Back in post number 3 we met some LANTRA standards, where an example of a unit, within the general topic of “Production Horticulture”, is the one with the name “Set out and establish crops”. In this unit, there is a general description — which is a description or definition of the competence concept, not a definition of its components — and then lists of “what you must be able to do” and “what you must know and understand”. The ability items are probably not the kinds of things you would want to claim separately (there are too many of them), but nevertheless they could easily be used as in checklists both for learning, and for assessment. My guess is that a claim of competence would be much more likely to reference the unit title in this case.

From this it does appear that a NOS unit simultaneously defines a competence concept definition, and also gives structure to that concept.

It is when you consider the use of these competence-related structures that this point reveals its real significance. Perhaps the most important use of these structures by individuals is in their learning, education and training, and in the assessment of what they have learned. In learning a skill or competence, or learning what is required to fulfill an occupational role, the learner has many reasons to have some kind of checklist with which to monitor and measure progress. What exactly appears on that checklist, and how granular it is, makes a lot of difference to a learner. There can easily be too much or too little. Too few items on the list would mean that each item covers a lot of ground, and it may not be clear how they should assess their own ability in that area. To take the LANTRA example above, it is not clear to a learner what “Set out and establish crops” involves, and learners may have different ideas. The evidence a learner brings up may not satisfy an employer. At the other extreme, I really wouldn’t want a system to expect me to produce separate evidence for whether I can start a tractor engine, find the gears, and steer the machine. That would be onerous and practically useless.

Structures for practical use in ICT tools need, therefore, to be clear about the what is included as a separate competence-related definition within the structure, and what is not included, or included only as part of the description of a wider definition.

The “Set out and establish crops” LANTRA unit does have a clear structure, and the smallest parts of that structure are the individual ability and knowledge items — what someone is expected to be “able to do”, and to “know and understand”. And let us suppose that we formalise that unit in that way, so that an ICT learning or assessment support tool allowed learners to check off or provide evidence for the separate items — e.g. that they could “ensure the growing medium is in a suitable condition for planting” and that they knew and understood the “methods of preparing growing media for planting relevant to the enterprise”.

Then, suppose we wanted to include this unit in another structure or framework. Would we want, perhaps, just one “box” to be ticked only for the unit title, “Set out and establish crops”; or would we want two boxes corresponding to the elements of the unit, “Set out crops in growing medium” and “Establish crops in growing medium”; or would we rather have all the ability and knowledge items as separate boxes? None of these options are inherently implausible.

To put this in a different way: when we want to include one competence-related structure within another one, how do we say whether we just want it as a single item, or whether we are including all the structure that comes with it? The very fact that this is a meaningful question relies on the dual nature of a definition, as either a “stand-alone” concept, or structure.

The solution I propose here is that we have two identifiers, one for the concept definition itself, and one for the structure definition that includes the concept. I understand these as closely related. But the description of the structure would perhaps more naturally talk about what it is used for, and wouldn’t be the kind of thing that you can claim, while the description of the concept would indeed describe something that one could claim or require. The structure is structured, whereas the definition of the concept by itself is not, and the structure relies on definitions of subsidiary concepts, that are the parts of the whole original concept.

I illustrated a change of wording in the eighth post, raising, but not answering the question of whether the concept remained unchanged across the changed wording of the definition.

Let’s look at this from another angle. If you author a framework or structure, in doing that you are at the same time authoring at least one competence-related concept definition, and there may be one main concept for that structure or framework. You will often be authoring other subsidiary definitions, which are parts of your structure. You may also include, in your structure or framework, definitions authored by others, or at another time. Indeed, it is possible that all the other components come from elsewhere, in which case you will be authoring only the minimal one concept definition.

One more question that I hope will clarify things still further. What is the title of a structure? The LANTRA examples illustrate that there may be no separate title of a structure, from the title of the main concept definition contained in it. But really, and properly, the title of the structure should be something like “the structure for <this competence concept>”.

Contrast this with the subsidiary concept definitions given in the structure. Their titles and descriptions clearly must be different. They may be defined at the same time as the structure, or they may have been defined previously, and be being reused by the structure.

Exactly how all this is represented is a matter for the “binding” technology adopted. Representing in terms of an XML schema will look quite different from RDF triples, or XHTML with RDFa. I’ll deal with those matters in a later post. But, however implemented, I do think we have the beginnings of a list of information model features that are necessary (or at least highly desirable) for representing this interplay between competence definitions and structures. (I will here assume that identifiers are URIs.)

  1. The structure (or framework) has its own URI.
  2. The structure often has a “main” concept that represents the structure taken as a separate concept.
  3. The structure cannot be represented without referring to the concept definitions that are structured by it.
  4. Each concept definition, including the main concept and subsidiary concepts, has its own URI.

I’ve tried to represent this in a small diagram. See what you think…
(note that the colours bear no relation to colours in my other concept maps)

2011-05-16_interplay_v2

Of course, as well as the URIs, titles and descriptions, there is much more from structures or frameworks to represent, particularly about the relations between the concepts. So it is to the practical implementation of this that I turn next.

4 thoughts on “Representing the interplay between competence definitions and structures

  1. Looking at this in relation to the InteropAbility work (http://www.alanpaull.co.uk/InteropAbility/CompetenceClassDiagram1.0.jpg), we have a slightly different approach.

    Bearing in mind what Simon has said:
    “One does not author a structure independently of authoring the concept definition itself.”
    “The structure cannot be represented without the main concept definition.”

    Our view is that ‘the structure’ is part and parcel of the competence definition itself. In fact a ‘competence’ without a structure is simply a competence that hasn’t yet been de-composed, or doesn’t need further decomposition. Therefore, in information management terms, we have an ‘ability’ that is usually related to one or more other abilities via defined relationships (which may use SKOS relationships). In many cases these will be of the narrowerThan / broaderThan type, though other types are readily envisaged.

    In this approach, defining a competence includes defining a structure, if there are relationships to sub-competences or siblings. Whether or not to define a structure becomes a matter for the author and is related to the usage to which the competence will be put. If the competence is part of an NOS, for example, then a rigorous approach to structure will be needed. If the competence is a broad-brush skill for a ‘once off’ application in an ePortfolio, for example, then it may be unstructured.

    In our approach the competence therefore has a single identifier (and we naturally hope / expect that to be a URI leading to human-readable and computer-consumable material of defined types).

    We then get a structure like this:

    Ability
    . Relationship
    . . TypeOfRelationship
    . . Ability
    . . . Relationship
    . . . . TypeOfRelationship
    . . . . Ability
    . . . Relationship
    . . . . TypeOfRelationship
    . . . . Ability
    . . . Relationship
    . . . . TypeOfRelationship
    . . . . Ability
    . Relationship
    . . TypeOfRelationship
    . . Ability
    . Relationship
    . . TypeOfRelationship
    . . Ability

    Or of course:

     Ability

  2. Thanks Alan (I have taken the liberty of folding your correction into the original comment)

    The issue seems clear to me. The consequence of the approach you describe here is that if an ability appears more than once in a framework (and they often do) it will either be duplicated or some extra mechanism will have to be brought in (as I think Karim was mentioning) to cross-refer between the separate instances of the same subsidiary ability.

    The approach I recommend is, rather: that all the constituent abilities are listed, flat; and that all the relationships are listed. I would have thought that this approach is actually easier, not more difficult, to translate into a relational database, as it is structured in a similar way.

  3. I’m going to change some of this post, as it no longer reflects where I have got to. It is clear to me (thanks in large measure to Tim Willett) that there are several structures that do not directly correspond to unitary competence concept definitions, but rather contain several even at the top level.

    Fortunately, no one’s comments here affect this, so I think I’ll just go ahead and do it. If you want to know what I used to think, please ask!

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