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Competence, taxonomies and learning technologies

January 24th, 2007 by Graham Attwell

The educational techies are getting interested in competence. Why? I’m not sure – I suspect it might be a funding thing.

But last week I was at an EU IST programme funded Ten Competence project meeting in Manchester. It was a pretty good conference with some thought provoking contributions. But i was fairly horrified at the lack of understanding of what competence was. It ranged from “well we aren’t really interested but we had to say we were to get the money’ to the ‘we found this thing called Blooms taxonomy – thats what all educationalists use’.

Now i am not particularly worried that people have different conceptions of competence (more on that in a moment). But i am seriously concerned if educational technologists and particularly systems designers think competence can easily be reduced to a simple hierarchically defined taxonomy. It reminds me of all those developers who claimed that their applications were pedagogically neutral.

One of the problems is that many of the education technology developers, in Europe at least, come from Higher Education. One of them actually said in manchester that the idea of competence in new in education. Well, new it might be for universities. But in vocational education and training we have been working with concepts about competence for many years,

Anyway, I am in Luxembourg at the moment for a review meeting of the IST programme iCamp project (I.m one of the reviewers). Although I must admit I don’t follow exactly what the project is trying to develop, it is very impressive in that it does have a strong pedagogic underpinning. And in the first project deliverable, by Sebastian Fiedler and Barbara Kieslinger (2006) I found an excellent discussion around the nature and meaning of competence.

“It is important to note”, they say,

that the concept of competence is a theoretical construct that refers to a human potentiality for action or its underlying dispositions. Theoretical constructs of this kind can, and indeed are, used for a variety of descriptive and/or explanatory purposes. This variability is clearly reflected in the current literature on competencies and its apparent lack of coherence and precision.

Competencies acquisition and advancement | iCamp

They go on to say:

Like the more traditional concept of ability, competence conceptualizations are generally referring to an individual’s potentiality for action in a range of challenging situations. It is thus a concept that foremost indicates a precondition for future problem solving and coping (including the use of adequate tools) in a particular area of action…….This is where the old notion of qualification that is based on requirements analysis oriented in the past and on the acquisition and performance of standardized procedural skills and factual knowledge clearly shows its limits.

Competencies acquisition and advancement | iCamp

The problem in their formulation seems to be that they divide the potentiality to act from subject based learning. In part that is just because of the problematic nature of the traditional taxonomies of learning based on subject disciplines and their increasing irrelevance to how we apply and structure knowledge in the modern world. Nevertheless it provides a good starting point for considering how competence might be encapsulated in learning software. I would contend that it cannot be codified through a hierarchical taxonomy, but rather requires the provision of tools to enable learners to themselves scaffold their learning and reflexively discover and describe their own competence.

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