Monday, 30 July 2012

Competency, Communication and Information Literacy

Is 'competency' the way forward for safeguarding fair access to employment? Despite the deepest reservations I have about the concept, it has such a firm hold in national professional development programmes in Europe (but not so much in the UK), and dominates many of the agendas of the EU TEL and other programmes, that I wonder if my skepticism about it is well-placed. Some degree of this seriousness can be seen here:  and

I believe there are many problems... but what's the alternative? University education, whilst increasingly a pre-requisite to getting a job anywhere, is a poor indicator of the abilities of individuals - particularly in a world where everyone has a degree. Of course, initiatives like HEAR (Higher Education Achievement Report) might produce a more fine-grained list of skills gained and marks awarded, although it puts a lot of emphasis on institutional judgement of individual skill - a recipe for unwelcome institutional say in the capacity of individuals to succeed in life away from academic institutions. Academic institutions have traditionally only been good at passing judgement on the academic ability of individuals (and not always good then!), judging individuals (for example) on their capacity for further study. Despite all the best intentions of University and the vocational education lobby, the profession of academia is what universities prepare people for.

The attraction of competency frameworks is that they may be self-certified, or at least self-curated (to be validated at a later point). The disadvantage is that they require pro-active engagement by individuals with complex technologies - and often this is not forthcoming. But there have been many projects to try and make this happen: the EU TenCompetence project (, for example, was a major intervention in this space. It produced a range of tools to assist in the directing and certifying of competencies for a wide range of career paths. But few people actually used the tools. I'm currently involved in the TRAILER project ( which is taking a slightly different angle, by allowing users to tag current activities against competencies. But I wouldn't be surprised if we face similar problems in engagement here.

The important thing to say is that it isn't the tool's fault. There's a deeper problem in encouraging individuals to take a pro-active competency-focused approach to using technology. They can't see what's in it for them.

Will they ever see what's in it for them? Is there really something there? (is the competency thing mistaken?) And (perhaps most worryingly) if we say there is something important in competency, are we making something important in competency simply by asserting it? Is that a good thing to be doing? Or are we paving our way to hell with good intentions (wouldn't be the first time in e-learning!!)

But there is a problem in safeguarding fair access to employment. All across Europe, we are seeing a huge decline in social mobility. Despite sending more people to University than ever before, this does not seem to be getting better. Indeed, the rise in numbers of people with a degree must logically lead to some deflation in the perceived value of a degree. There are many drivers for the massification of Higher Education, and raising social mobility is one: but on that count, it is hard to see how it could succeed. What it will do, however, is create a new industry in education.

Family matters more than ever in the success of individuals. It's not whether there was a parent with experience of university, but whether there was love, care, support and encouragement for educational success in the home. And love, care and support do not exist in a vacuum: what matters beneath are the degrees of community cohesion that individual families grow up in. This, I believe, is the real reason for the decline in social mobility: with the decline of large-scale industry in the 1980s, the factory, which was the centre of the community and (most importantly) a place of learning, was destroyed. It left individuals devasted, communities abandoned - not just through lack of employment and income, but through the destruction of the convivial enclave.

We're not likely to see the return of heavy industry. What we are likely to see is the rise of an education industry. But the education industry - itself a large-scale employer - cannot do what the factory did. The education industry has to pursue its own rather rules and regulations to assess individual merit. So much of the way it works is based on the individual's achievement, not collective effort. "Don't copy! Do your own work! Reflect on your experiences!": these are the mantras of the education industry.

I'd love to change this; I'd love to find a way where education is about communities rather than individuals: but the pathology of assessment and certification always drags us back to the madness of the individual-cult. And the individual-cult favours those from loving families, whose love and care depends on the cohesion of their communities. So we are in a vicious circle, and because of it, education cannot safeguard fair access to employment.

Can competency help us out of this? Before I think about that, I want to think about what really needs to be done. Paulo Freire got it right: deal with the emotion, deal with the oppression, deal with the family, the community, etc. Ultimately, deal with the psyche. The blockages can only be unblocked with new forms of togetherness. If education is a togetherness which always drives people apart through assessment and certification, then we need new forms of togetherness which bring people together: performances, sport, art - all of these have supreme value for a community (it fascinated me how many people stood in the rain to watch the olympic torch procession recently: it's that kind of thing which I think is important)

If the blockages can be unblocked, then there is one simple message: "be strategic with technology". But there is something else which relates to the way we think about competency generally. Competencies which are mere tick-box lists of 'skills' (which are probably not real) are are route to a mechanised, alienating and inauthentic world. However, the organisation of strategic communications relating to skills can reveal more than the tick-list: it reveals an ecology of communications. That's more interesting, for when competency claims are analysed holistically, or they are analysed over time, they can, I think, reveal something more authentic about the individual. But even with a more holistic approach to the interpretation of competency, there remains a need for individuals to be strategic and pro-active with technology.

Those who can be strategic will succeed - and whilst degrees will be an important element in that strategic way of life, they will not be enough on their own. Being strategic means becoming more aware of risk, effectively becoming more 'literate' about technology (but technology/information literacy programmes as they are promoted by Universities are likely to have the opposite effect!).

All the signs are that strategic use of technology is the determiner of success. Not least in academia, but also for many tradespeople, online engagement, reviews, presentation, etc are becoming fundamental. It is not to stretch the imagination too far to see this as a pre-requisite for the individual. Competencies provide a framework for this kind of strategic engagement: an evolving code within which individuals can navigate their careers. If everyone did it, it might be fairer - or at least more sensible - than the reliance on university qualifications alone. But the core question is whether the world changes so that everyone does this.

In a sense, this is an appeal for 'information literacy'. But 'information literacy' as it is currently presented is not the answer: indeed, it is likely to do more harm than good. The challenge is not to preach; it is to be authentic and to accept the realities of the state we are in.

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