Competency-based education: Balance soft and hard skills

Technology-focused universities in Africa have been urged to adopt competency-based teaching and learning practices that integrate theoretical discipline-specific knowledge, practical technical skills and positive workplace attitudes that would improve students’ employability in the current and future job market and stimulate continuous learning.

The call was made by Dr Jiri Vilppola, a senior lecturer of educational psychology at Tampere University of Applied Sciences in Finland, when he addressed an international workshop held from 21-24 March by the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA).

This article is published in partnership with the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA) to focus on the Higher Education Reform Experts South Africa (HERESA), a European-Union-funded project including THENSA members. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

THENSA is a consortium of institutions which include the Central, Cape Peninsula, Durban, Mangosuthu, Tshwane and Vaal universities of technology and the universities of Mpumalanga, Zululand and Venda. The Namibia University of Science and Technology is also a member.

Urgency to change

In his keynote address, delivered virtually, Vilppola said competency-based education has become a global movement with an agenda that goes beyond the traditional teaching of practical skills but also prepare students for the world of work and stimulate continuous learning.

“The issue is that work in society is changing rapidly and there is urgency for higher education in Africa and elsewhere to remain on edge to reframe students’ competencies,” said Vilppola.

For Vilppola, competencies should neither be tied to time nor to a predetermined learning process. On this matter, he called on technical experts in higher education to embrace other stakeholders while developing competency-based curricula, especially in vocational training.

In addition to learning practical skills, Vilppola said that, for students to enhance their employability opportunities, they should be supported to acquire skills in communication, customer service, management, problem-solving and complex thinking. He stressed that students should also develop attributes in interpersonal skills and ethics.

Highlighting the expansion of competency-based teaching and learning in higher education, Vilppola said many countries in Europe and beyond in the past 40 years had been witnessing a shift from education based on knowledge transfer towards education learning outcomes.

But in this regard, there appears to be no agreement on what competence entails, as most definitions are usually tied to understanding, interpretation and the historical perception of the concept in different professional fields and in national educational systems.

What should competency-based education look like?

According to Dr Renate Wesselink, a researcher in learning sciences at Wageningen University & Research, The Netherlands, whereas competency-based education is a popular development, it remains unclear as to what exactly the term means and what this form of education should look like in practice.

In her doctoral thesis ‘Comprehensive competence-based vocational education: The development and use of a curriculum analysis and improvement model’, Wesselink argues there is no consensus about what exactly is meant by it, neither in theory nor in practice.

But, despite the confusion, Wesselink stated that there is hope that competency-based learning and teaching will prepare students for the current and future labour market much better by making education more attractive, to the extent that fewer students will quit before graduating.

Commenting on the issue, Vilppola advised universities to maintain a balance between hard skills and soft skills. He argued that, while students required cutting-edge practical skills at their workplace, they also needed generic competencies such as leadership, digital and language skills, as well as collaborative, innovative competencies and good attitudes to work.

Dr Mari Leppavuori, a lecturer of learning and teaching at Tampere University of Applied Sciences, noted that universities and their stakeholders, including students, teaching staff, parents and employers, should understand competencies holistically as products, processes and change.

The debate about competency-based learning and teaching is that technical and vocational education should not be interpreted in terms of practical skills only.

Amid efforts to develop a wider definition of competence for African technical universities, Vilppola urged curricula developers to borrow the Finnish comprehensive model that attributes knowledge information, practical skills, attitudes and behaviour as components of competence.

But even if African universities were to adopt such a broad-spectrum model, curriculum developers would have to rethink about what kind competencies would fit with specific institutions, professions and even subject areas.

“Various sectors are very different when it comes to defining, constructing or implementing competency-based teaching and learning systems,” said Vilppola.

A resource-rich learning environment

Although competency-based learning and teaching systems are becoming popular, Vilppola warned that leapfrogging from traditional curricula to competence frameworks is not easy, as the system is resource-rich in terms of required expert teachers, coaches, tools and assessment processes that are conducted at every stage of training.

In this context, Vilppora said critics point out that in competency-based learning systems, learning outcomes and assessment criteria are overplayed and goals tend to focus too much on detached actions and generic skills without concentrating on discipline knowledge.

Currently, there are also concerns that the decision of teaching of knowledge and skills is slipping away from the hands of academics to the control of powerful employers and politicians.

But what is clear is that, for competency-based teaching and learning to succeed properly in African higher education systems, now and in the future, it will be an expensive affair that will require political will as well as effort and changes at all levels of learning.

An Erasmus+ Capacity Building for Higher Education, or CBHE, project was awarded to the THENSA and OBREAL Global in 2020. OBREAL Global is an association that works towards strengthening South-South-North cooperation within and between regions. The HERESA project is aimed at developing a network of Higher Education Reform Experts in South Africa, inspired by the important practice of the Higher Education Reform Experts, or HERE, in the European Union neighbourhood region (funded by the European Commission), which have been influencing policy change in their respective countries for approximately a decade. Specifically, HERESA aims to establish a network to support governance, strategic planning in higher education institutions in South Africa and to reinvigorate teaching and learning strategies in priority areas.