Monday, January 19, 2015

Global Workforce Crisis - Open Competency Frameworks and Learning Commons

The hottest discussion in education is the development of Open Competency Frameworks. Gone are those days when a list of courses is the language educators would throw at rest of us. The conversation is now very much around what the education does, because that is what everyone involved in education, government, employers, community and students, want to know. Yes, indeed, there are far too many prospectuses around with endless lists of courses, but we are getting to a point when they need to be rewritten.

However, while there is some kind of consensus emerging around the idea of competencies, there is no such agreement on what they should be. Many educators feel that competency is a corporate word, and education should not subject to employer interests alone. This is indeed a justifiable stance, given that employers are often focused on immediate opportunities and not on building capacity and future options, but the educators must offer a better alternative than a list of courses instead. Competency is a sort of middle ground between the job description and the list of courses we usually get. The idea of putting competencies on the masthead is to create a platform that both educators and employers could use, in slightly different forms if need be, but avoid this complete failure of translation that we are having to live with right now.

But, despite all the talk of competencies, there is a clear problem. Even when we use them, we use them in a narrow, closed, format, defined too narrowly to align itself with the interests of an educator or an employer. A competency is often defined with the perspective of a given role, or a given discipline. This is the essential tension that underlie the competency discussion. To make it practical and tangible, such narrow definitions are needed. But this makes us miss the point all too often, that competencies are dynamic and need to be open, if they are to be used as a platform for bridging the e2e gap.

So, anyone concerned with the future shape of education should be thinking about the nature and shape of competencies, and see how we can develop more open standards which can be used by diverse groups. While this much is understood, what is less clear, however, is that we are often going the opposite way as far as learning and education is concerned. While businesses are often talking about open standards (however reluctantly), there is a some sort of enclosure at the heart of education. Education, which was traditionally an open, commons based activity, where open sharing and connecting were the norm, is increasingly treated as a private activity to be undertaken for private benefit. The invasion of private capital, the abdication of responsibility by the state, the expansion of For-Profit universities particularly in the developing countries, the predominantly debt-based funding mechanism for education and increasing bureaucratisation of the universities, all point to an enclosure of, at least encroachment in, the learning commons, where private knowledge for private benefits emerge as the norm. The whole conversation about education-to-employment (e2e) gap is dominated by For-profit players and investors, who are after clear pay-offs and therefore, tangible outcomes and competencies. This system, by definition, focuses on Closed, narrowly held Standards rather than Open ones.

In conclusion, while Open Competency Frameworks are the buzzword, we are actually going the other direction. I shall argue that this, rather than any innate inability of the educators to understand the challenges of the outside world, is the root cause of e2e gap, and that the resolution lies in developing and encouraging learning commons. One can say that this may be inimical to employer engagement even further, because employers have businesses to run and would only engage in education when it closely corresponds to their own immediate needs. However, this view is based on a misunderstanding of the employer side of the equation, and defined by a very tactical view of the business. The employers often recognise, at least at a strategic level, the dynamic nature of the market and their businesses, and are engaged in their own search for open competencies. Right now, the enclosure in education is being driven by an investment philosophy that sees education as the latest public-to-private opportunity that create some arbitrage, rather than a long term play to create value in a sustainable manner. In that way, the private intervention in education is making the gap between employers and educators wider, or at least, not solving any of the problems that business-like education leaders created in the last couple of decades by championing a closed view of the world. 

Slavoj Zizek says, most of our problems today are problems of commons. The Education-to-Employment problem firmly belongs to that category.


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