Tuesday 24 July 2012

Synchronic and Diachronic aspects on Competency

I've been attending a meeting of the TRAILER project, which is currently building a set of tools for the organising and tagging of informal learning episodes, resources, etc against competency criteria. There are many challenges with regard to changing practice in this attempt, but there is a refreshingly open and deep consideration of the problems to be faced which makes me think some very interesting outcomes will result.

I think at the heart of arguments around informal learning and the use of technology is the need for everyone to become more strategic, deliberate and purposeful in their use of technology. For it will be (I think) those who are most strategic, deliberate and purposeful in using technology to reveal their learning, thinking, being, etc who will succeed most in the world of the 21st century. I wonder whether strategic and purposeful use of technology will become at least as important as the gaining of degree for success in employment. There are, I think, already signs that this is beginning to be the case.

The first signs of this are in education itself. Many people in Universities worldwide are losing their jobs. My experience is that those who are at the greatest risk of unemployment are those who are the least communicative. It is no longer enough to just teach students and mark their work. Academics are having to promote themselves through social media, blogs, as well as writing papers. The actions of those academics who survive is indeed strategic (this of course applies to this blog too). On the one hand, this is quite selfish. But on the other, it is a reflection of where communications technology has taken us: in a world of increased intensity of network communications generally, maybe individuals simply have to get 'noisier' than they used to be in order to still be recognised. The taciturn academic is of a bygone age.

But the same communicative and strategic forces are being felt in all sorts of professions. Online review sites have had a major impact for guest-houses, plumbers, electricians, restauranteurs and other trades people. A bad review can seriously damage business. A strategic 'social network strategy' is already an important part of many businesses: it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect that it becomes a necessary part of the behaviour of individuals and they too have to manage reputations and employability.

But the strategic use of technology goes deeper than simply engaging in social networks. For individuals it may require careful collection and presentation of capabilities and evidence of competencies. TRAILER is geared around competencies (something which I have long been skeptical about). Yet, seen from the perspective of a changing world, where use of technology may have to become more strategic, competencies (for all their deficiencies) at least provide some sort of "organising principle" for the recording of personal skills and experiences. What matters (as with all information) is how meaning is created around a set of competencies.

Most people are aware of the tick-box mentality when approaching competencies, and the gaming of the system that this kind of thing can encourage. However, this mentality is the product of a deficient approach to the interpretation of the meaningfulness of a set of claims of competence. There are, I believe, essentially two ways of looking at such a set.

  1. take each competency at 'face value', marking each one off against criteria for a job, or entrance criteria for a course;
  2. examine the competency profile holistically, both synchronically (the vertical list of competence claims at any time point) and diachronically (the emergence of the list of competencies over time).
Whilst 1 is typical, I think 2 makes much more sense, and what we should be focusing our efforts on. It relates to my discussion about what a subject is and the forms of knowledge from my last post. Instead of seeing individual competencies, we should see a set of relationships between competencies. For (synchronically) within a set of relationships there can be shown the range of communicative flexibility and adaptability, which may be a better predictor of employability and the sustainability of the individual. At the same time, diachronically, the emergence of synchronic competency structures over time can reveal processes by which greater communicative flexibility is achieved. Once again, this can indicate the capacity to learn and change within new environments.

This is making me think that we may need new analytical techniques for measuring the relationships between competency claims, and assessing the emergence of different learning patterns. There's probably a whole project in that alone, although TRAILER looks like it might provide a platform for some initial thinking which takes competency forwards from being a reified (and somewhat fascist) ideology, to becoming something practical which might help in the campaign to safeguard fair access to employment. In the meantime, we have to convince people that they have problems that they didn't realise they had!

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