The growing need for open frameworks of learning outcomes

(A contribution to Open Education Week — see note at end.)

What is the need?

Imagine what could happen if we had a really good sets of usable open learning outcomes, across academic subjects, occupations and professions. It would be easy to express and then trace the relationships between any learning outcomes. To start with, it would be easy to find out which higher-level learning outcomes are composed, in a general consensus view, of which lower-level outcomes.

Some examples … In academic study, for example around a more complex topic from calculus, perhaps it would be made clear what other mathematics needs to be mastered first (see this recent example which lists, but does not structure). In management, it would be made clear, for instance, what needs to be mastered in order to be able to advise on intellectual property rights. In medicine, to pluck another example out of the air, it would be clarified what the necessary components of competent dementia care are. Imagine this is all done, and each learning outcome or competence definition, at each level, is given a clear and unambiguous identifier. Further, imagine all these identifiers are in HTTP IRI/URI/URL format, as is envisaged for Linked Data and the Semantic Web. Imagine that putting in the URL into your browser leads you straight to results giving information about that learning outcome. And in time it would become possible to trace not just what is composed of what, but other relationships between outcomes: equivalence, similarity, origin, etc.

It won’t surprise anyone who has read other pieces from me that I am putting forward one technical specification as part of an answer to what is needed: InLOC.

So what could then happen?

Every course, every training opportunity, however large or small, could be tagged with the learning outcomes that are intended to result from it. Every educational resource (as in “OER”) could be similarly tagged. Every person’s learning record, every person’s CV, people’s electronic portfolios, could have each individual point referred, unambiguously, to one or more learning outcomes. Every job advert or offer could specify precisely which are the learning outcomes that candidates need to have achieved, to have a chance of being selected.

All these things could be linked together, leading to a huge increase in clarity, a vast improvement in the efficiency of relevant web-based search services, and generally a much better experience for people in personal, occupational and professional training and development, and ultimately in finding jobs or recruiting people to fill vacancies, right down to finding the right person to do a small job for you.

So why doesn’t that happen already? To answer that, we need to look at what is actually out there, what it doesn’t offer, and what can be done about it.

What is out there?

Frameworks, that is, structures of learning outcomes, skills, competences, or similar things under other names, are surprisingly common in the UK. For many years now in the UK, Sector Skills Councils (SSCs), and other similar bodies, have been producing National Occupational Standards (NOSs), which provided the basis for all National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). In theory at least, this meant that the industry representatives in the SSCs made sure that the needs of industry were reflected in the assessment criteria for awarding NVQs, generally regarded as useful and prized qualifications at least in occupations that are not classed as “professional”.

NOSs have always been published openly, and they are still available to be searched and downloaded at the UKCES’s NOS site. The site provides a search page. As one of my current interests is corporate governance, I put that phrase in to the search box giving several results, including a NOS called CFABAI131 Support corporate decision-making (which is a PDF document). It’s a short document, with a few lines of overview, six performance criteria, each expressed as one sentence, and 15 items of knowledge and understanding, which is what is seen to be needed to underpin competent performance. It serves to let us all know what industry representatives think is important in that support function.

In professional training and development, practice has been more diverse. At one pole, the medical profession has been very keen to document all the skills and competences that doctors should have, and keen to ensure that these are reflected in medical education. The GMC publishes Tomorrow’s Doctors, introduced as follows:

The GMC sets the knowledge, skills and behaviours that medical students learn at UK medical schools: these are the outcomes that new UK graduates must be able to demonstrate.

Tomorrow’s Doctors covers the outline of the whole syllabus. It prepares the ground for doctors to move on to working in line with Good Medical Practice — in essence, the GMC’s list of requirements for someone to be recognised as a competent doctor.

The medical field is probably the best developed in this way. Some other professions, for example engineering and teaching, have some general frameworks in place. Yet others may only have paper documentation, if any at all.

Beyond the confines of such enclaves of good practice, yet more diverse structures of learning outcomes can be found, which may be incoherent and conflicting, particularly where there is no authority or effective body charged with bringing people to consensus. There are few restrictions on who can now offer a training course, and ask for it to be accredited. It doesn’t have to be consistent with a NOS, let alone have the richer technical infrastructure hinted at above. In Higher Education, people have started to think in terms of learning outcomes (see e.g. the excellent Writing and using good learning outcomes by David Baume), but, lacking sufficient motivation to do otherwise, intended learning outcomes tend to be oriented towards institutional assessment processes, rather than to the needs of employers, or learners themselves. In FE, the standardisation influence of NOSs has been weakened and diluted.

In schools in the UK there is little evidence of useful common learning outcomes being used, though (mainly) for the USA there exists the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), documenting a very wide range of school curricula and some other things. It has recently been taken over by private interests (Desire2Learn) because no central funding is available for this kind of service in the USA.

What do these not offer?

The ASN is a brilliant piece of work, considering its age. Also related to its age, it has been constructed mainly through processing paper-style documentation into the ASN web site, which includes allocating ASN URIs. It hasn’t been used much for authorities constructing their own learning outcome frameworks, with URIs belonging to their own domains, though it could in principle be.

Apart from ASN, practically none of the other frameworks that are openly available (and none that are not) have published URIs for every component. Without these URIs, it is much harder to identify, unambiguously, which learning outcome one is referring to, and virtually impossible to check that automatically. So the quality of any computer assisted searching or matching will inevitably be at best compromised, at worst non-existent.

As learning outcomes are not easily searchable (outside specific areas like NOSs), the tendency is to reinvent them each time they are written. Even similar outcomes, whatever the level, routinely seem to be be reinvented and rewritten without cross-reference to ones that already exist. Thus it becomes impossible in practice to see whether a learning opportunity or educational resource is roughly equivalent to another one in terms of its learning outcomes.

Thus, there is little effective transparency, no easy comparison, only the confusion of it being practically impossible to do the useful things that were envisaged above.

What is needed?

What is needed is, on the one hand, much richer support for bodies to construct useful frameworks, and on the other hand, good examples leading the way, as should be expected from public bodies.

And as a part of this support, we need standard ways of modelling, representing, encoding, and communicating learning outcomes and competences. It was just towards these ends that InLOC was commissioned. There’s a hint in the name: Integrating Learning Outcomes and Competences. InLOC is also known as ELM 2.0, where ELM stands for European Learner Mobility, within which InLOC represents part of a powerful proposed infrastructure. It has been developed under the auspices of the CEN Workshop, Learning Technologies, and funded by the DG Enterprise‘s ICT Standardization Work Programme.

InLOC, fully developed, would really be the icing on the cake. Even if people just did no more than publishing stable URIs to go with every component of every framework or structure of learning outcomes or competencies, that would be a great step forward. The existence and openness of InLOC provides some of the motivation and encouragement for everyone to get on with documenting their learning outcomes in a way that is not only open in terms of rights and licences, but open in terms of practice and effect.


Open Education Week 2014 logoThe third annual Open Education Week takes place from 10-15 March 2014. As described on the Open Education Week web site “its purpose is to raise awareness about the movement and its impact on teaching and learning worldwide“.

Cetis staff are supporting Open Education Week by publishing a series of blog posts about open education activities. Cetis have had long-standing involvement in open education and have published a range of papers which cover topics such as OERs (Open Educational Resources) and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

The Cetis blog provides access to the posts which describe Cetis activities concerned with a range of open education activities.

3 thoughts on “The growing need for open frameworks of learning outcomes

  1. In my many years of engagement with course design I have been frustrated often by the appearance of modules such as ‘maths for engineers’, ‘maths for social sciences’, ‘maths for computing’ etc And its even worse for ICT skills and communications skills.

    Yet examination of the curriculum for these modules reveals not only significant overlap but also different ways of expressing what are identical outcomes. In this context I find the proposition behind inLOC very appealing. Just think of the thousands (perhaps millions!) of man-hours that might be saved by course designers and curriculum ‘tweakers’ by adopting your suggested approach!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Walter. You’ve nailed it! If you happen to come across people who could benefit, yes, it is likely to be a long haul, but I offer every encouragement to keep pointing out what is not yet obvious to them, and I hope that one day soon they will try to integrate their learning outcomes.

    And if you know anyone who is interested in building tools (open source preferably) please let me know.

  3. Pingback: Reflections on the #openeducationwk Blog Posts « UK Web Focus

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