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.

InLOC and OpenBadges: a reprise

InLOC is well designed to provide the conceptual “glue” or “thread” for holding together structures and planned pathways of achievement, which can be represented by Mozilla OpenBadges.

Since my last post — the last of the previous academic year, also about OpenBadges and InLOC — I have been invited to talk at OBSEG – the Open Badges in Scottish Education Group. This is a great opportunity, because it involves engaging with a community with real aspirations for using Open Badges. One of the things that interests people in OBSEG is setting up combinations of lesser badges, or pathways for several lesser badges to build up to greater badges. I imagine that if badges are set up in this way, the lesser badges are likely to become the stepping stones along the pathway, while it is the greater badge that is likely to be of direct interest to, e.g., employers.

All this is right in the main stream of what InLOC addresses. Remember that, using InLOC, one can set out and publish a structure or framework of learning outcomes, competenc(i)es, etc., (called “LOC definitions”) each one with its own URL (or IRI, to be technically correct), with all the relationships between them set out clearly (as part of the “LOC structure”).

The way in which these Scottish colleagues have been thinking of their badges brings home another key point to put the use of InLOC into perspective. As with so many certificates, awards, qualifications etc., part of the achievement is completion in compliance with the constraints or conditions set out. These are likely not to be learning outcomes or competences in their own right.

The simplest of these non-learning-outcome criteria could be attendance. Attendance, you might say, stands in for some kind of competence; but the kind of basic timekeeping and personal organisation ability that is evidenced by attendance is very common in many activities, so is unlikely to be significant in the context of a Badge awarded for something else. Other such criteria could be grouped together under “ability to follow instructions” or something similar. A different kind of criterion could be the kinds of character “traits” that are not expected to be learned. A person could be expected to be cheerful; respectful; tall; good-looking; or a host of other things not directly under their control, and either difficult or impossible to learn. These non learning outcome aspects of criteria are not what InLOC is principally designed for.

Also, over the summer, Mozilla’s Web Literacy Standard (“WebLitStd”) has been progressing towards version 1.0, to be featured in the upcoming MozFest in London. I have been tracking this with the help of Doug Belshaw, who after great success as an Open Badges evangelist has been focusing on the WebLitStd as its main protagonist. I’m hoping soon (hopefully by MozFest time) to have a version of the WebLitStd in InLOC, and this brings to the fore another very pragmatic question about using InLOC as a representation.

Many posts ago, I was drawing out the distinction between LOC (that is, Learning Outcome or Competence) definitions that are, on the one hand, “binary”, and on the other hand, “rankable”. This is written up in the InLOC documentation. “Binary” ones are the ones for which you can say, without further ado, that someone has achieved this learning outcome, or not yet achieved it. “Rankable” ones are ones where you can put people in order of their ability or competence, but there is no single set of criteria distinguishing two categories that one could call “achieved” and “not yet achieved”.

In the WebLitStd, it is probably fair to say that none of the “competencies” are binary in these terms. One could perhaps characterise them as rankable, though perhaps not fully, in that there may be two people with different configurations of that competency, as a result perhaps of different experiences, each of whom were better in some ways than the other, and each conversely less good in other ways. It may well be similar in some of the Scottish work, or indeed in many other Badge criteria. So what to do for InLOC?

If we recognise a situation where the idea is to issue a badge for an achievement that is clearly not a binary learning outcome, we can outline a few stages of development of their frameworks, which would result in a progressively tighter matching to an InLOC structure or InLOC definitions. I’ll take the WebLitStd as illustrative material here.

First, someone may develop a badge for something that is not yet well-defined anywhere — it could have been conceived without reference to any existing standards. To illustrate this case, an example of a title could be “using Web sites”. There is no one component of the WebLitStd that covers “using the web”, and yet “using” it doesn’t really cover Web literacy as a whole. In this case, the Badge criteria would need to be detailed by the Badge awarder, specifically for that badge. What can still be done within OpenBadges is that there could be alignment information; however it is not always entirely clear what the relationship is meant to be between a badge and a standard it is “aligned” to. The simplest possibility is that the alignment is to some kind of educational level. Beyond this it gets trickier.

A second possibility for a single badge would be to refer to an existing “rankable” definition. For example, consider the WebLitStd skill, “co-creating web resources”, which is part of the “sharing & collaborating” competency of the “Connecting” strand. To think in detail about how this kind of thing could be badged, we need to understand what would count (in the eye of the badge issuer) as “co-creating web resources”. There are very many possible examples that readily come to mind, from talking about what a web page could have on it, to playing a vital part in a team building a sophisticated web service. One may well ask, “what experiences do you have of co-creating web resources?” and, depending on the answer, one could roughly rank people in some kind of order of amount and depth of experience in this area. To create a meaningful badge, a more clearly cut line needs to be drawn. Just talking about what could be on a web page is probably not going to be very significant for anyone, as it is an extremely common experience. So what counts as significant? It depends on the badge issuer, of course, and to make a meaningful badge, the badge issuer will need to define what the criteria are for the badges to be issued.

A third and final stage, ideal for InLOC, would be if a badge is awarded with clearly binary criteria. In this case there is nothing standing in the way of having the criteria property of the Badge holding a URL for a concept directly represented as a binary InLOC LOCdefinition. There are some WebLitStd skills that could fairly easily be seen as binary. Take “distinguishing between open and closed licensing” as an example. You show people some licenses; either they correctly identify the open ones or they don’t. That’s (reasonably) clear cut. Or take “understanding and labeling the Web stack”. Given a clear definition of what the “Web stack” is, this appears to be a fairly clear-cut matter of understanding and memory.

Working back again, we can see that in the third stage, a Badge can have criteria (not just alignments) which refer directly to InLOC information. At the second and first stage, badge criteria need something more than is clearly set out in InLOC information already published elsewhere. So the options appear to be:

  1. describing what the criteria are in plain text, with reference to InLOC information only through alignment; and
  2. defining an InLOC structure specifically for the badge, detailing the criteria.

The first of these options has its own challenges. It will be vital to coherence to ensure that the alignments are consistent with each other. This will be possible, for example, if the aspects of competence covered are separate (independent; orthogonal even). So, if one alignment is to a level, and the second to a topic area, that might work. But it is much less promising if more specific definitions are referred to.

(I’d like to write an example at this point, but can’t decide on a topic area — I need someone to give me their example and we can discuss it and maybe put it here.)

From the point of view of InLOC, the second option is much more attractive. In principle, any badge criteria could be analysed in sufficient detail to draw out the components which can realistically be thought of as learning outcomes — properties of the learners — that may be knowledge, skill, competence, etc. No matter how unusual or complex these are, they can in principle be expressed in InLOC form, and that will clarify what is really “aligned” with what.

I’ll say again, I would really like to have some well-worked-out examples here. So please, if you’re interested, get in touch and let’s talk through some of interest to you. I hope to be starting that in Glasgow this week.

The pragmatics of InLOC competence logic

(21st in my logic of competence series.)

Putting together a good interoperability specification is hard, and especially so for competence. I’ve tried to work into InLOC as many of the considerations in this Logic of Competence series as I could, but these are all limited by the scope of a pragmatically plausible goal. My hypothesis is that it’s not possible to have a spec that is at the same time both technically simple and flexible, and intuitively understandable to domain practitioners.

Here I’ll write now about why I believe that, and later follow on to finalise on the pragmatics of the logic of competence as represented by InLOC.

Doing a specification like InLOC gives one an opportunity to attract all kinds of criticism from people, much of it constructive. No attempts to do such a spec in the past have been great successes, and one wonders why that is. Some of the criticism I have heard has helped me to formulate the hypothesis above, and I’ll try to explain my reasoning here.

Turn the hypothesis on its head. What would make it possible to have a spec that is technically simple, and at the same time intuitively understandable to domain practitioners? Fairly obviously, there would have to be a close correspondence between the objects of the domain of expertise, and the constructs of the specification.

For each reader, there may appear to be a simple solution. Skills, competences, learning outcomes, etc., have this structure — don’t they? — and so one just has to reproduce that structure in the information model to get a workable interoperability spec that is intuitively understandable to people — well, like me. Well, “not”, as people now say as a one-word sentence.

Actually, there is great diversity in the ways people conceive of and structure learning outcomes, competences and the like. Some structures have different levels of the same competence, others do not. Some competences are defined in a binary fashion, that allows one to say “yes” or “no” to whether people have that competence; other competences are defined in a way that allows people to be ranked in order of that competence. Some competence structures are quite vague, with what look like a few labels that give an indication of the kinds of quality that someone is looking for, without defining what exactly those labels mean. Some structures — particularly level frameworks like the EQF — are deliberately defined in generic terms that can apply across a wide range of areas of knowledge and skill. And so on.

This should really be no surprise, because it is clear from many people’s work (e.g. my PhD thesis) that different people simplify complex structures in their own different ways, to suit their own purposes, and in line with their own backgrounds and assumptions. There is, simply, no way in which all these different approaches to defining and structuring competence can be represented in a way that will make intuitive sense to everyone.

What one can do is to provide a relatively simple abstract representation that can cover all kinds of existing structures. This is just what InLOC is aiming to do, but up to now we haven’t been quite clear enough about that. To get to something that is intuitive for domain practitioners, one needs to rely on tools being built that reflect, in the user interface, the language and assumptions of that particular group of practitioners. The focus for the “direct” use of the spec then clearly shifts onto developers. What, I suggest, developers need is a specification adapted to their needs — to build those interfaces for domain practitioners. The main requirements of this seem to me to be that the spec:

  1. gives enough structure so that developers can map any competence structure into that format;
  2. does not have any unnecessary complexity;
  3. gives a readily readable format, debuggable by developers (not domain practitioners).

So when you look at the draft InLOC CWAs, or even better if you come to the InLOC dissemination event in Brussels on 16th April, you know what to expect, and you know the aims against which to evaluate InLOC. InLOC offers no magic wand to bring together incompatible views of diverse learning outcome and competence structures. But it does offer a relatively simple technical solution, that allows developers who have little understanding of competence domains to develop tools that really do match the intuitions of various domain practitioners.

Three InLOC drafts for CEN Workshop Agreements are currently out for public comment — links from the InLOC home page — please do comment if you possibly can, and please consider coming to our dissemination event in Brussels, April 16th.

What is my work?

Is there a good term for my specialist area of work for CETIS? I’ve been trying out “technology for learner support”, but that doesn’t fully seem to fit the bill. If I try to explain, reflecting on 10 years (as of this month) involvement with CETIS, might readers be able to help me?

Back in 2002, CETIS (through the CRA) had a small team working with “LIPSIG”, the CETIS special interest group involved with Learner Information (the “LI” of “LIPSIG”). Except that “learner information” wasn’t a particularly good title. It was also about the technology (soon to be labelled “e-portfolio”) that gathered and managed certain kinds of information related to learners, including their learning, their skills – abilities – competence, their development, and their plans. It was therefore also about PDP — Personal Development Planning — and PDP was known even then by its published definition “a structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development”.

There’s that root word, support (appearing as “supported”), and PDP is clearly about an “individual” in the learner role. Portfolio tools were, and still are, thought of as supporting people: in their learning; with the knowledge and skills they may attain, and evidence of these through their performance; their development as people, including their learning and work roles.

If you search the web now for “learner support”, you may get many results about funding — OK, that is financial support. Narrowing the search down to “technology for learner support”, the JISC RSC site mentions enabling “learners to be supported with their own particular learning issues”, and this doesn’t obviously imply support for everyone, but rather for those people with “issues”.

As web search is not much help, let’s take a step back, and try to see this area in a wider perspective. Over my 10 years involvement with CETIS, I have gradually come to see CETIS work as being in three overlapping areas. I see educational (or learning) technology, and related interoperability standards, as being aimed at:

  • institutions, to help them manage teaching, learning, and other processes;
  • providers of learning resources, to help those resources be stored, indexed, and found when appropriate;
  • individual learners;
  • perhaps there should be a branch aimed at employers, but that doesn’t seem to have been salient in CETIS work up to now.

Relatively speaking, there have always seemed to be plenty of resources to back up CETIS work in the first two areas, perhaps because we are dealing with powerful organisations and large amounts of money. But, rather than get involved in those two areas, I have always been drawn to the third — to the learner — and I don’t think it’s difficult to understand why. When I was a teacher for a short while, I was interested not in educational adminstration or writing textbooks, but in helping individuals learn, grow and develop. Similar themes pervade my long term interests in psychology, psychotherapy, counselling; my PhD was about cognitive science; my university teaching was about human-computer interaction — all to do with understanding and supporting individuals, and much of it involving the use of technology.

The question is, what does CETIS do — what can anyone do — for individual learners, either with the technology, or with the interoperability standards that allow ICT systems to work together?

The CETIS starting point may have been about “learner information”, but who benefits from this information? Instead of focusing on learners’ needs, it is all too easy for institutions to understand “learner information” as information than enables institutions to manage and control the learners. Happily though, the group of e-portfolio systems developers frequenting what became the “Portfolio” SIG (including Pebble, CIEPD and others) were keen to emphasise control by learners, and when they came together over the initiative that became Leap2A, nearly six years ago, the focus on supporting learners and learning was clear.

So at least then CETIS had a clear line of work in the area of e-portfolio tools and related interoperability standards. That technology is aimed at supporting personal, and increasingly professional, development. Partly, this can be by supporting learners taking responsibility for tracking the outcomes of their own learning. Several generic skills or competences support their development as people, as well as their roles as professionals or learners. But also, the fact that learners enter information about their own learning and development on the portfolio (or whatever) system means that the information can easily be made available to mentors, peers, or whoever else may want to support them. This means that support from people is easier to arrange, and better informed, thus likely to be more effective. Thus, the technology supports learners and learning indirectly, as well as directly.

That’s one thing that the phrase “technology for learner support” may miss — support for the processes of other people supporting the learner.

Picking up my personal path … building on my involvement in PDP and portfolio technology, it became clear that current representations of information about skills and competence were not as effective as they could be in supporting, for instance, the transition from education to work. So it was, that I found myself involved in the area that is currently the main focus of my work, both for CETIS, and also on my own account, through the InLOC project. This relates to learners rather indirectly: InLOC is enabling the communication and reuse of definitions and descriptions of learning outcomes and competence information, and particularly structures of sets of such definitions — which have up to now escaped an effective and well-adopted standard representation. Providing this will mean that it will be much easier for educators and employers to refer to the same definitions; and that should make a big positive difference to learners being able to prepare themselves effectively for the demands of their chosen work; or perhaps enable them to choose courses that will lead to the kind of work they want. Easier, clearer and more accurate descriptions of abilities surely must support all processes relating to people acquiring and evidencing abilities, and making use of related evidence towards their jobs, their well-being, and maybe the well-being of others.

My most recent interests are evidenced in my last two blog posts — Critical friendship pointer and Follower guidance: concept and rationale — where I have been starting to grapple with yet more complex issues. People benefit from appropriate guidance, but it is unlikely there will ever be the resources to provide this guidance from “experts” to everyone — if that is even what we really wanted.

I see these issues also as part of the broad concern with helping people learn, grow and develop. To provide full support without information technology only looks possible in a society that is stable — where roles are fixed and everyone knows their place, and the place of others they relate to. In such a traditionalist society, anyone and everyone can play their part maintaining the “social order” — but, sadly, such a fixed social order does not allow people to strike out in their own new ways. In any case, that is not our modern (and “modernist”) society.

I’ve just been reading Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East” — a short, allegorical work. (It has been reproduced online.) Interestingly, it describes symbolically the kind of processes that people might have to go through in the course of their journey to personal enlightenment. The description is in no way realistic. Any “League” such as Hesse described, dedicated to supporting people on their journey, or quest, would practically be able to support only very few at most. Hesse had no personal information technology.

Robert K. Greenleaf was inspired by Hesse’s book to develop his ideas on “Servant Leadership“. His book of that name was put together in 1977, still before the widespread use of personal information techology, and the recognition of its potential. This idea of servant leadership is also very clearly about supporting people on their journey; supporting their development, personally and professionally. What information would be relevant to this?

Providing technology to support peer-to-peer human processes seems a very promising approach to allowing everyone to find their own, unique and personal way. What I wrote about follower guidance is related to this end: to describe ways by which we can offer each other helpful mutual support to guide our personal journeys, in work as well as learning and potentially other areas of life. Is there a short name for this? How can technology support it?

My involvement with Unlike Minds reminds me that there is a more important, wider concept than personal learning, which needs supporting. We should be aspiring even more to support personal well-being. And one way of doing this is through supporting individuals with information relevant to the decisions they make that affect their personal well-being. This can easily be seen to include: what options there are; ideas on how to make decisions; what the consequences of those decision may be. It is an area which has been more than touched on under the heading “Information, Advice and Guidance”.

I mentioned the developmental models of William G Perry and Robert Kegan back in my post earlier this year on academic humility. An understanding of these aspects of personal development is an essential part of what I have come to see as needed. How can we support people’s movement through Perry’s “positions”, or Kegan’s “orders of consciousness”? Recognising where people are in this, developmental, dimension is vital to informing effective support in so many ways.

My professional interest, where I have a very particular contribution, is around the representation of the information connected with all these areas. That’s what we try to deal with for interoperability and standardisation. So what do we have here? A quick attempt at a round-up…

  • Information about people (learners).
  • Information about what they have learned (learning outcomes, knowledge, skill, competence).
  • Information that learners find useful for their learning and development.
  • Information about many subtler aspects of personal development.
  • Information relevant to people’s well-being, including
    • information about possible choices and their likely outcomes
    • information about individual decision-making styles and capabilities
    • and, as this is highly context-dependent, information about contexts as well.
  • Information about other people who could help them
    • information supporting how to find and relate to those people
    • information supporting those relationships and the support processes
    • and in particular, the kind of information that would promote a trusting and trusted relationship — to do with personal values.

I have the strong sense that this all should be related. But the field as a whole doesn’t seem have a name. I am clear that it is not just the same as the other two areas (in my mind at least) of CETIS work:

  • information of direct relevance to institutions
  • information of direct relevance to content providers.

Of course my own area of interest is also relevant to those other players. Personal well-being is vital to the “student experience”, and thus to student retention, as well as to success in learning. That is of great interest to institutions. Knowing about individuals is of great value to those wanting to sell all kinds of services to to them, but particularly services to do with learning and resources supporting learning.

But now I ask people to think: where there is an overlap between information that the learner has an interest in, and information about learners of interest to institutions and content providers, surely the information should be under the control of the individual, not of those organisations?

What is the sum of this information?

Can we name that information and reclaim it?

Again, can people help me name this field, so my area of work can be better understood and recognised?

If you can, you earn 10 years worth of thanks…

Follower guidance: concept and rationale

The idea that I am calling “follower guidance” is about how to relate with chosen others to promote good work, well being, personal growth and development, in an essentially peer-to-peer manner — it’s an alternative to “mentoring”.

Detailing this vision will prepare the ground for thinking about technology to support the relationships and the learning that results from them, which will fill the space left when traditional control hierarchies no longer work well.

The motivation for the idea

Where do people get their direction from? What or who guides someone, and how? How do people find their way, in life, in education, in a work career, etc.? How do people find a way to live a good and worthwhile life, with satisfying, fulfilling work and relationships? All big questions, addressed, as circumstances allow, by others involved in those people’s education, in their personal and professional development, in advice and guidance, coaching and mentoring; as well as by their family and friends.

In my previous post I set out some related challenges. Since then, I was reminded of these kinds of question by a blog post I saw via Venessa Miemis.

To put possible answers in context: in traditionalist societies I would expect people’s life paths to have relatively few options, and the task of orientation and navigation therefore to be relatively straightforward. People know their allotted place in society, and if they are happy with that, fine. But the appropriate place for this attitude is progressively shrinking back into the childhood years, as the world has ever more variety — and ever less certainty — available to adults. Experts often have more options to hand than their own internal decision making can easily process. Perhaps I can illustrate this from my own situation.

Take CETIS, where I currently have a 0.6 FTE contract. It’s a brilliant place to work, within the University of Bolton’s IEC, with so many people who seem somehow to combine expertise and generosity with passion for their own interesting areas or work. It has never felt like a hierarchical workplace, and staff there are expected to be largely self-determining as well as self-motivated. While some CETIS people work closely together, I do so less, because other staff at Bolton are not so interested in the learner-centred side of learning technology and interoperability. Working largely by myself, it is not so easy to decide on priorities for my own effort, and it would be hard for anyone else to give an informed opinion on where I would best devote my time. Happily, the norm is for things to work out, with what I sense as priorities being accepted by others as worthwhile. But what if … ? It’s not the norm in CETIS culture for anyone to be told that they must stop doing what they think is most worthwhile and instead do something less appealing.

Or take Unlike Minds (“UM”), with whom I am currently investigating collaboration, both for myself and for CETIS. UM is a “capability network” — essentially a non-hierarchical grouping of people with fascinatingly rich and diverse backgrounds and approaches, but similarities of situation and motivation. Here, the starting point is that everyone is assumed to be independent and professional (though some, like me, have some employment). It is a challenge to arrange for very busy independent associates to spend significant amounts of their own time “following” the work of other UMs. But if they did so, they might well be able to contribute to filling any orientation deficit of others, as they would in turn be helped if they wanted. I would expect that the more colleagues know about each other’s work, the more they can help focus motivation; the richer will be the collective UM culture; and the more effective UM will become as a capability network.

I mention just these two, because I have personal knowledge, but surely this must apply to so many new-style organisations and networks that shun being governed ultimately by the necessity to maximise profit. Often no one is in a position to direct work from “the top”, either because the management simply don’t have the deep specialist knowledge to work out what people should be doing, or because there is no governance that provides a “top” at all. The risk in all of these cases is of a lack of coordination and coherence. There is also a risk that individuals perform below their potential, because they are not getting enough informed and trusted feedback on their current activities. How many independent workers these days, no matter how supposedly expert, really have the knowledge to ensure even their own optimum decisions? Very few indeed, I guess, if for no other reason that there is too much relevant available knowledge to be on top of it all.

Then there is the danger of over-independent experts falling into the trap of false guru-hood. Without proper feedback, where followers gather largely in admiration, a talented person may have the illusion of being more correct than he or she really is. Conversely, without dedicated and trusted feedback, the highly talented who lack confidence can easily undervalue what they have to offer. The starting point of my previous post was the observation that people are not reliable judges of their own abilities or personality, and the mistakes can be made in either direction.

That is my broad-brush picture of the motivation, the rationale, or the requirement. So how can we address these needs?

The essence of follower guidance

I will refer to the person who is followed, and who receives the guidance, as the “mover”; the other person I will call the “follower guide”. Here are some suggestions about how such a system could work, and they all seem to me to fit together.

  • Follower guidance is not hierarchical. The norm is for everyone to play both roles: mover and guide. Otherwise the numbers don’t add up.
  • Each mover has more than one follower guide. In my own experience, it is much more persuasive to have two or three people tell you something than one alone. The optimal number for a balance between effort and quality (in each situation and for each person) may vary, but I think three might be about right in many cases. The follower guidance idea differs from co-counselling.
  • The mentor role is different. There is a role for someone like a mentor, but in a follower guidance culture they would not be delivering the guidance, but rather trying to arrange the best matching of movers with follower guides.
  • Arrangements are by mutual agreement. It is essential that the mover and follower guide both want to play their roles with each other. Reluctant participants are unlikely to work. Good matches may be helped through mentoring.
  • Follower guides start by following. Central to the idea is that follower guides know the movers well, at least in the area which they are following. Guidance suggestions will then be well-informed and more likely to be well received, growing trust.
  • Follower guides may select areas to follow. The mover needs to spell out the areas of work or life that may be followed; but follower guides cannot be expected to be interested in all of someone’s life and work — nor can a mover be expected to trust people equally in different areas.
  • Follower guides offer questions, suggestions and feedback naturally. Dialogue may be invited through questions or personal suggestions, whenever it seems best. Movers may or may not accept suggestions or address questions; but they are more likely to respond to ideas that come from more than one follower guide.
  • The medium of dialogue needs to be chosen. Positive reinforcement is naturally given openly, e.g. as a comment on a blog post, or a tweet. The media for questions and critical feedback needs to be judged more carefully, to maintain trust. This is one way in which follower guidance may differ from simple following.
  • Follower guides are committed. Movers should be able to rely on their follower guides for feedback and opinion when they need it. That means the follower guides have to stay up to date with the mover’s actions or outputs. This is only likely if they have a genuine interest in the area of the mover’s work they are following. This also will help build trust.
  • Time spent should not be burdensome. If following comes from genuine interest, the time spent should be a natural part of the follower guide’s work. In any case, one can follow quite a lot in, say, half an hour a week. If guidance is natural, spontaneous and gentle, it may be delivered very briefly.
  • Follower guides should not all be older or wiser. This may be appropriate for mentors, but there is value in ideas from all quarters, as recognised in the idea of 360° feedback. Anyway the numbers would not work out.
  • Values fit needs care. Trust will be more easily established the better the values fit. The more secure and confident a mover is, the more they may be able to benefit from feedback from follower guides outside their value set.
  • Trust needs to be built up over time and maintained. Mentoring may help people to trust and to be trustworthy. If trust is nevertheless lost, it is unlikely that a follower guidance relationship would continue.
  • The follower guidance practices should be followed and guided. How could this best be done? Perhaps a question for the cyberneticians?

What do you think about the importance of each one of these points? I’d like to know. And could you imagine practising either side of this kind of relationship? Who with? What would come easily, what would you enjoy, and what would be challenging?

Where does this take us?

This concept is too large to be easily digested at one sitting. I hope I have given enough motivation and outline of the general idea that readers get the sense of what I am trying to get at. I’ve outlined above the way I could see it working, but there is so much more detail to work out. Depending on the response to this post, I will take the ideas forward here or elsewhere.

I do think that this kind of envisioning plays a useful part in the life of CETIS and the IEC. Colleagues are most welcome to criticise the ideas, and link them up to other research. If there already is related practice somewhere, that would be good to know. If people see what I am getting at, they can offer alternative solutions to the challenges addressed. Then, we might think about the kinds of (learning or educational) technology that might support such practices, and the information that might be managed and communicated. We might be able to see links with existing technologies and practices.

In the terms of Robert Kegan, I’m pointing towards a challenge of “modern” life, not, as Kegan focuses more on, in the transition between traditionalist and modern, but rather a challenge inherent in the individualistic nature of current modernism. As Brian said (in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”) “You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves.” “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!” This advice can help people grow to a maturity of individualism, but can also hold people back from further growth, through what Kegan calls “deconstructive postmodernism” towards
“reconstructive postmodernism”.

Most significant to me would be the attempt to implement a system such as this that I could participate in myself. This would include my trusted follower guides coming back to me with comments on this post, of course … At the time of writing, thanks to Neil and Alan for commenting on the preceding post, and I very much appreciate those kinds of comment.

Developing a new approach to competence representation

InLOC is a European project organised to come up with a good way of communicating structures or frameworks of competence, learning outcomes etc. We’ve now produced our interim reports for consultation: the Information Model and the Guidelines. We welcome feedback from everyone, to ensure this becomes genuinely useful and not just another academic exercise.

The reason I’ve not written any blog posts for a few weeks is that so much of my energy has been going into InLOC, and for good reason. It has been a really exciting time working with the team to develop a better approach to representing these things. Many of us have been pushing in this direction for years, without ever quite getting there. Several projects have been nearby, including, last year, InteropAbility (JISC page; project wiki) and eCOTOOL (project web site; my Competence Model page) — I’ve blogged about these before, and we have built on ideas from both of them, as well as from several other sources: you may be surprised at the range and variety of “stakeholders” in this area that we have assembled within InLOC. Doing the thinking for the Logic of Competence series was of course useful background, but nor did it quite get there.

What I want to announce now is that we are looking for the widest possible feedback as further input to the project. It’s all too easy for people like us, familiar with interoperability specifications, simply to cook up a new one. It is far more of a challenge, as well as hugely more worthwhile and satisfying, to create something genuinely useful, which people will actually use. We have been looking at other groups’ work for several months now, and discussing the rich, varied, and sometimes confusing ideas going around the community. Now we have made our own initial synthesis, and handed in the “interim” draft agreements, it is an excellent time to carry forward the wide and deep consultation process. We want to discuss with people whether our InLOC format will work for them; whether they can adopt, use or recommend it (or whatever their role is to do with specifications; or, what improvements need to be made so that they are most likely to take it on for real.

By the end of November we are planning to have completed this intense consultation, and we hope to end up with the desired genuinely useful results.

There are several features of this model which may be innovative (or seem so until someone points out somewhere they have been done before!)

  1. Relationships aren’t just direct as in RDF — there is a separate class to contain the relationship information. This allows extra information, including a number, vital for defining levels.
  2. We distinguish the normal simple properties, with literal objects, which are treated as integral parts of whatever it is (including: identifier, title, description, dates, etc.) from what could be called “compound properties”. Compound properties, that have more than one part to their range, are a little like relationships, and we give them a special property class, allowing labels, and a number (like in relationships).
  3. We have arranged for the logical structure, including the relationships and compound properties, to be largely independent of the representation structure. This allows several variant approaches to structuring, including tree structures, flat structures, or Atom-like structures.

The outcome is something that is slightly reminiscent both of Atom itself, and of Topic Maps. Both are not so like RDF, which uses the simplest possible building blocks, but resulting in the need for harder-to-grasp constructs like blank nodes. The fact of being hard to grasp leads to people trying different ways of doing things, and possibly losing interoperability on the way. Both Atom and Topic Maps, in contrast, add a little more general purpose structure, which does make quite a lot of intuitive sense in both cases, and they have been used widely, apparently with little troublesome divergence.

Are we therefore, in InLOC, trying to feel our way towards a general-purpose way of representing substantial hierarchical structures of independently existing units, in a way that makes more intuitive sense that elementary approaches to representing hierarchies? General taxonomies are simply trying to represent the relationships between concepts, whereas in InLOC we are dealing with a field where, for many years, people have recognised that the structure is an important entity in its own right — so much so that it has seemed hard to treat the components of existing structures (or “frameworks”) as independent and reusable.

So, see what you think, and please tell me, or one of the team, what you do honestly think. And let’s discuss it. The relevant links are also available straight from the InLOC wiki home page. And if you are responsible for creating or maintaining structures of intended learning outcomes, skills, competences, competencies, etc., then you are more than welcome to try out our new approach, that we hope combines ease of understanding with the power to express just what you want to express in your “framework”, and that you will be persuaded to use it “for real”, perhaps when we have made the improvements that you need.

We envisage a future when many ICT tools can use the same structures of learning outcomes and competences, saving effort, opening up interoperability, and greatly increasing the possibilities for services to build on top of each other. But you probably don’t need reminding of the value of those goals. We’re just trying to help along the way.

The logic of tourism as an analogy for competence

(20th in my logic of competence series.)

Modelling competence is too far removed from common experience to be intuitive. So I’ve been thinking of what analogy might help. How about the analogy of tourism? This may help particularly with understanding the duality between competence frameworks (like tourist itineraries) and competence concept definitions (like tourist destinations).

The analogy is helped by the fact that last week I was in Lisbon for the first time, at work (the CEN WS-LT and TC 353), but also more relevantly as a tourist. (If you don’t know Lisbon, think of examples to suit your own chosen place to visit, that you know better.) I’ll start with the aspects of the analogy that seem to be most straightforward, and go on to more subtle features.

First things first, then: a tourist itinerary includes a list of destinations. This can be formalised as a guided tour, or left informal as a “things you should see” list given by a friend who has been there. A destination can be in any number of itineraries, or none. An itinerary has to include some destinations, but in principle it doesn’t have any upper limits: it could be a very detailed itinerary that takes a year to properly acquaint a newcomer with the ins and outs of the city. Different itineraries for the same place may have more, or fewer, destinations within that place. They may or may not agree on the destinations included. If there were destinations included by the large majority of guides, another guide could select these as the “essential” Lisbon or wherever. In this case, perhaps that would include visiting the Belem tower; the Castle of St George; Sintra; experiencing Fado; sampling the local food, particularly fish dishes; and a ride on one of the funicular trams that climb the steep hills. Or maybe not, in each case. There again, you could debate whether Sintra should be included in a guide to Lisbon, or just mentioned as a day trip.

A small itinerary could be made for a single destination, if desired. Some guides may just point you to a museum or destination as a whole; others may give detailed suggestions for what you should see within that destination. A cursory guide might say that you should visit Sintra; a detailed one might say that you really must visit the Castle of the Moors in Sintra, as well as other particular places in Sintra. A very detailed guide might direct you to particular things to see in the Castle of the Moors itself.

It should be clear from the above discussion that a place to visit should not be confused with an itinerary for that place. Any real place has an unlimited number of possible itineraries for it. An itinerary for a city may include a museum; an itinerary for a museum may include a painting; there may sometimes even be guides to a painting that direct the viewer to particular features of that painting. The guide to the painting is not the painting; the guide to the museum is not the museum; the guide to the city is not the city.

There might also be guides that do not propose particular itineraries, but list many places you might go, and you select yourself. In these cases, some kind of categorisation might be used to help you select the places of interest to you. What period of history do they come from? Are they busy or quiet? What do they cost? How long do they take to visit? Or a guide with itineraries may also categorise attractions, and make them explicitly optional. Optionality might be particularly helpful in guided tours, so that people can leave out things of less interest.

If a set of guides covered several whole places, not just one, it may make comparisons across the different places. If you liked the Cathar castles in the South of France, you may like the Castle of the Moors in Sintra. Those who like stately homes, on the other hand, may be given other suggestions.

A guide to a destination may also contain more than an itinerary of included destinations within it. A guidebook may give historical or cultural background information, which goes beyond the description of the destinations. Guides may also propose a visit sequence, which is not inherent in the destinations.

The features I have described above are reasonably replicated in discussion of competence. A guide or itinerary corresponds to a competence framework; a destination corresponds to a competence concept. This is largely intended to throw further light on what I discussed in number 12 in this series, Representing the interplay between competence definitions and structures.

Differences

One difference is that tourist destinations have independent existence in the physical world, whereas competence concepts do not. It may therefore be easier to understand what is being referred to in a guide book, from a short description, than in a competence framework. Both guide book and competence framework may rely on context. When a guide book says “the entrance”, you know it means the entrance to the location you are reading about, or may be visiting.

Physical embodiment brings clarity and constraints. Smaller places may be located within larger places, and this is relatively clear. But it is less clear whether lesser competence concepts are part of greater competence concepts. What one can say (and this carries through from the tourism analogy) is that concepts are included in frameworks (or not), and that any concept may be detailed by (any number of) frameworks.

Competence frameworks and concepts are more dependent on the words used in description, and because a description necessarily chooses particular words, it is easy to confuse the concept with the framework if they use the same words. It is easy to use the words of a descriptive framework to describe a concept. It is not so common, though perfectly possible, to use the description of an itinerary as a description of a place. It is because of this greater dependence on words (compared with tourist guides) that it may be more necessary to clarify the context of a competence concept definition, in order to understand what it actually means.

Where the analogy with competence breaks down more seriously is that high stakes decisions rarely depend on exactly where someone has visited. But at a stretch of the imagination, they could: recruitment for a relief tour guide could depend on having visited all of a given set of destinations, and being able to answer questions about them. What high stakes promotes is the sense that a particular structure (as defined or adopted by the body controlling the high-stakes decisions) defines a particular competence concept. Despite that, I assert that the competence structure and the separate competence concept remain strictly separate kinds of thing.

Understanding the logic of competence through this analogy

The features of competence models that are illustrated here are these.

  • Competence frameworks or structures may include relevant competence concepts, as well as other material. (See № 12.)
  • Competence concept definitions may be detailed by a framework structure for that competence concept. Nevertheless the structure does not fully define the concept. (See № 12 and № 13.)
  • Competence frameworks may include optional competences (as well as necessary or mandatory ones). (See № 15 and № 7.)
  • Both frameworks and concepts may be categorised. (See also № 5.)
  • Frameworks may contain sub-frameworks (just as itineraries may contain sub-itineraries).
  • But frameworks don’t contain concepts in the same way: they just include them (or not).
  • A framework may be simply an unstructured list of defined concepts.

I hope that helps anyone to understand more of the logic of competence, and I hope that also helps InLOC colleagues come to consensus on the related matters.

More and less specificity in competence definitions

(19th in my logic of competence series.)

Descriptions of personal ability can serve either as claims, like “This is what I am good at …”, or as answers to questions like “What are you good at?” or “can you … ?” In conversations — whether informally, or formally as in a job interview — the claims, questions, and answers may be more or less specific. That is a necessary and natural feature of communication. It is the implications of this that I want to explore here, as they bear on my current work, in particular including the InLOC project.

This is a new theme in my logic of competence series. Since the previous post in that series, I had to focus on completing the eCOTOOL competence model and managing the initial phases of InLOC, which left little time for following up earlier thinking. But there were ideas clearly evident in my last post in this series (representing level relationships) and now is the time for followup and development. The terms introduced previously there can be linked to this new idea of specificity. Simply: binarily assessable concepts are ones that are defined specifically enough for a yes/no judgement about a person’s ability; rankably assessable concepts have an intermediate degree of specificity, and are complemented by level definitions; while unorderly assessable concepts are ones that are less specifically defined, requiring more specificity to be properly assessable. (See that previous post for explanation of those terms.) The least specific competence-related concepts are not properly assessable at all, but serve as tags or headings.

As well as giving weight and depth to this idea of specificity in competence definitions, in this post I want to explore the connection between competence definitions and answering questions, because I think this will help to explain the ideas, because it is relatively straightforward to understand that questions and answers can be more or less specific.

Since the previous post in the series, my terminology has shifted slightly. The goals of InLOC — Integrating Learning Outcomes and Competences — have made it plain that we need to deal equally with learning outcomes and with competence or ability concepts. So I include “learning outcomes” more liberally, always meaning intended learning outcomes.

Job interviews

Imagine you are interviewing someone for a job. To make it more interesting, let’s make it an informal one: perhaps a mutual business contact has introduced you to a promising person at a business event. Add a little pressure by imagining that you have just a few minutes to make up your mind whether you want to ask this person to go through a longer, formal process. How would you structure the interview, and what questions would you ask?

As I envisage the process, one would probably start off with quite general, less specific questions, and then go into more detail where appropriate, where it mattered. So, for instance, one might ask “are you a programmer?”, and if the answer was yes, go into more detail about languages, development environments, length of experience, type of experience, etc. etc. The useful detail in this case would depend entirely on the circumstances of the job. For a graduate to be recruited into a large company, what matters might be aptitude, as it would be likely that full training would be supplied (which you could perhaps see as a kind of technical “enculturation”). On the other hand, for a specialist to join a short-term high-stakes project, even small details might matter a lot, as learning time would probably be minimal.

In reality, most job interviews start, not from a blank sheet, but from the basis of a job advert, and an application form, or CV and covering letter. A job advert may specify requirements; an application form may contain specific questions for which answers are expected, but in the absence of an appliation form, a CV and covering letter needs to try to answer, concisely, some of the key questions that would be asked first in an informal, unprepared job interview. This naturally explains the universal advice that CVs should be designed specifically for each job application. What you say about yourself unprompted not only reveals that information itself, but also says much about what you expect the other person to reckon as significant or interesting.

So, in the job interview, we notice the natural importance of varying specificity in descriptions and questions about abilities and experience.

Recruitment

This then carries over to the wider recruitment process. Potential employers often formulate a list of what is required of prospective employees, in terms of which abilities and experience are essential or desirable, but the detail and specificity of each item will naturally vary. The evidence for a less specific requirement may be assessed at interview with some quick general questions, but a more exacting requirement may want harder evidence such as a qualification, certificate or testimonial from an expert witness.

For example, in a regulated world such as pesticides that I wrote about recently, an employer might well want a prospective employee to have obtained a relevant certificate or qualification, so that they can legally do their job. Even when a certificate is not a legal requirement, some are widely asked for. A prospective sales employee with a driving licence or an office employee with an ECDL might be preferred over one without, and it would be perfectly reasonable for an employer to insist that non-native speakers had obtained a given certified level of proficiency in the principle workplace language. In each case, because the certificate is awarded only to people who have passed a carefully controlled test, the test result serves to answer many quite specific questions about the holder’s abilities, as well as the potential legal fact of their being allowed to perform certain actions in regulated occupations.

Vocational qualifications often detail quite specifically what holders are able to do. This is clearly the intention of the Europass Certificate Supplement (ECS), and has been in the UK, through the system of National Vocational Qualifications, relying on National Occupational Standards. So we could expect that employers with specific learning outcome or competence requirements may specify that candidates should have particular vocational qualifications; but what about less specific requirements? My guess is that those employers who have little regard for vocational qualifications are just those whose requirements are less specific. Time was when many employers looked only for a “good degree”, which in the UK often meant a “2:1″, an upper second class. This was supposed to answer generic questions, as typically the specific subject of the degree was not specified. Now there is a growing emphasis on the detail of the degree transcript or Europass Diploma Supplement (EDS), from which a prospective employer can read at least assessment results, if not yet explicit details of learning outcomes or competences. There is also a increasing trend towards making explicit the intended learning outcomes of courses at all levels, so the course information might be more informative than the transcript of EDS.

Interestingly, the CVs of many technical workers contain highly unspecific lists of programming languages that the individual implicitly claims, stating nothing about the detailed abilities and experience. These lists answer only the most general questions, and serve effectively only to open a conversation about what the person’s actual experience and achievements have been in those programming languages. At least for human languages there is the increasingly used CEFR; there does not appear to be any such widely recognised framework for programming languages. Perhaps, in the case of programming languages, it would be clumsy and ineffective to give answers to more detailed questions, because the individual does not know what those detailed questions would be.

Specificity in frameworks

Frameworks seem to gravitate towards specificity. Given that some people want to know the answers to specific questions, this is quite reasonable; but where does that leave the expression of the less specific requirements? For examples of curriculum frameworks, there is probably nowhere better than the American Achievement Standards Network (ASN). Here, as in many other places, learning outcomes are defined only in one or two levels. The ASN transcribes documents faithfully, then among many other things marks the “indexing status” of the various components. For an arbitrary example, see Earth and Space Science, which is a topic heading and not “indexable”. The heading below just states what the topic is about, and is not “indexable”. It is below this that the content becomes “indexable”, with first some less specific statements about what should be achieved by the end of fourth grade, broken down into the smallest components such as Identify characteristics of soils, minerals, rocks, water, and the atmosphere. It looks like it is just the “indexable” resources that are intended to represent intended learning outcome definitions.

At fourth grade, this is clearly nothing to do with employment, but even so, identifying characteristics of soils etc. is something that students may or may not be able to do, and this is part of the less specifically defined (but still “indexable”) “understanding of the characteristics of earth materials”. It strikes me that the item about identifying characteristics would fit reasonably (in my scheme of the previous post) as a “rankably assessible” concept, and its parent item about understanding might be classified (in my scheme) as unorderly assessable.

How to represent varying specificity

Having pointed out some of the practical examples of varying specificity in definitions of learning outcome or competence, the important issue for work such as InLOC is to provide some way of representing, not only different levels of specificity, but also how they relate to one another.

An approach through considering questions and answers

Any concept that is related to learning outcomes or competence can provide the basis for questions of an individual. Some of these questions have yes/no answers; some invite answers on a scale; some invite a longer, less straightforward reply, or a short reply that invites further questions. A stated concept can be both the answer to a question, and the ground for further questions. So, to go back to some of the above examples, a CV might somewhere state “French” or “Java”. These might be answers to the questions “what languages have you studied?” or “what languages do you use?” They also invite further questions, such as “how well do you know …?”, or “how much have you used …, and in what contexts?”, or “how good are you at …?” – which, if there is an appropriate scale, could be reformulated as “what level is your ability in …?”

Questions could be found corresponding to the ASN examples as well. “Identify characteristics of soils, minerals, rocks, water, and the atmosphere” has the same format that allows “can you …?” or “I can …”. The less specific statement — “By the end of fourth grade, students will develop an understanding of the characteristics of earth materials,” — looks like it corresponds with questions more like “what do you understand about earth materials?”.

As well as “summative” questions, there are related questions that are used in other ways than assessment. “How confident are you of your ability in …?” and “is your ability in … adequate in your current situation?” both come to mind (stimulated by considerations in LUSID).

What I am suggesting here is that we can adapt some of the natural properties of questions and answers to fit definitions of competence and ability. So what properties do I have in mind? Here is a provisional and tentative list.

  • Questions can be classified as inviting one of four kinds of answer:
    1. yes or no;
    2. a value on a (predefined) scale;
    3. examples;
    4. an explanation that is more complex than a simple value.
  • These types of answer probably need little explanation – many examples can readily be imagined.
  • The same form of answer can relate to more than one question, but usually the answer will mean different things. To be fully and clearly understood, an answer should relate to just one question. Using the above example, “French” as the answer to “what languages have you studied?” means something substantially different from “French” as the answer to “what languages are you fluent in?”
  • A more specific question may imply answers to less specific questions. For example, “what programming languages have you used in software development?” implies answers such as “software development” to the question “what competences do you have in ICT?” Many such implied questions and answers can be formulated. What matters in a particular framework is the other answers in that particular framework that can be inferred.
  • An answer to a less specific question may invite further more specific questions.
    1. Conversely to the example just above, if the question “what competences do you have in ICT?” includes the answer “software development”, a good follow-up question might be “what programming languages have you used in software development?” Similar patterns could be seen for any technical specialty. Often, answers like this may be taken from a known list of options. There are only so many languages, both human and computer.
    2. Where an answer is a rankable concept, questions about the level of that ability are invited. For instance, the question “what foreign languages can you speak?”, answered with “French” and “Italian”, invites questions such as “what is your European Language Passport level of ability in spoken interaction in French?”
    3. Where an answer has been analysed into its component parts, questions about each component part make sense. For example, if the answer to “are you able to clear sites for tree planting?”, following the LANTRA Treework NOS (2009) was “yes”, that invites the narrower implied questions set out in that NOS, like “can you select appropriate clearance methods …?” or “do you understand the potential impacts of your work on the environment …?”
    4. Unless the question is fully specific, admitting only the answers yes and no, and even in that case many times, it is nearly always possible to ask further questions, and give further answers. But everyone’s interest in detail stops sooner or later. The place to stop asking more specific questions is when the answer does not significantly affect the outcome you are looking for. And that varies between different interested parties.
  • Questions may be equivalent to other questions in other frameworks. This will come out from the answers given. If the answers given by the same person in the same context are always the same for two questions, they are effectively equivalent. It is genuinely helpful to know this, as it means that one can save time not repeating questions.
  • Answers to some questions may imply answers to other questions in different frameworks, without being equivalent. The answers may contain, or be contained by, their counterparts. This is another way of linking together questions from different frameworks, and saving asking unnecessary extra questions.

That covers a view of how to represent varying specificity in questions and answers, but not yet frameworks as they are at present.

Back to frameworks as they are at present

At present, it is not common practice to set out frameworks of competence or ability in terms of questions and answers, but only in terms of the concepts themselves. But, to me, it helps understanding enormously to imagine the frameworks as frameworks of questions, and the learning outcome or competence concepts as potential answers. In practice, all you see in the frameworks is the answers to the implied questions.

Perhaps this has come about through a natural process of doing away with unnecessary detail. The overall question in occupational competence frameworks is, “are you competent to do this job?”, so it can go unstated, with the title of the job standing in for the question. The rest of the questions in the framework are just the detailed questions about the component parts of that competence (see Carroll and Boutall’s ideas of Functional Analysis in their Guide to Developing National Occupational Standards). The formulation with action verbs helps greatly in this approach. To take NOS examples from way back in the 3rd post in this series, the units themselves and the individual performance criteria share a similar structure. Less specifically, “set out and establish crops” relates both to the question “are you able to set out and establish crops” and the competence claim “I am able to set out and establish crops”. More specifically, “place equipment and materials in the correct location ready for use” can be prefixed with “are you able to …” for a question, or “I am able to …” as a claim. Where all the questions take a form that invites answers yes or no, one really does not need to represent the questions at all.

With a less uniform structure, one would need mentally to remove all the questions to get a recognisable framework; or conversely, to understand a framework in terms of questions, one needs to add in those implied questions. This is not as easy, and perhaps that is why I have been drawn to elaborating all those structuring relationships between concepts.

We are left in a place that is very close to where we were before in the previous post. At simplest, we have the individual learning outcome or competence definitions (which are the answers) and the frameworks, which show how the answers connect up, without explicitly mentioning the questions themselves. The relations between the concepts can be factored out, and presented either together in the framework, or separately together with the concepts that are related by those relations.

If the relationships are simply “broader” and “narrower”, things are pretty straightforward. But if we admit less specific concepts and questions, because the questions are not explicitly represented, the structure needs a more elaborate set of relationships. In particular, we have to make particular provision for rankable concepts and levels. I’ll leave detailing the structures we are left with for later.

Before that, I’d like to help towards better grasp of the ideas through the analogy with tourism.