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«Abstract. “Key competencies”, key skills and “key qualifications” are buzzwords so prominently featured in contemporary scientific treatises ...»

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Competencies and Skills:

Filling Old Skins with New Wine

Christina Dörge

University of Oldenburg, Computer Science Education,

26111 Oldenburg, Germany

Christina.Doerge@informatik.uni-oldenburg.de

Abstract. “Key competencies”, "key skills" and “key qualifications” are buzzwords so prominently featured in contemporary scientific treatises that discussions have been prompted about an inflationary use of the terms and what they

really should be taken to mean. A similar situation exists in the field of ICT and CS education: What meaning should we ascribe to terms such as “skill”, “competency” and “qualification” and what should be taught as “basic information technology”? These questions merit a closer look, especially since the idea of teaching competencies received a new updraft in Europe by the BolognaDeclaration, and the teaching of basic ICT and / or CS skills is still a difficult issue in the educational sciences. This paper wants to provide insight into the discussion on skills in Anglo-American and German scientific research and wants to act as a call for more clarity in definitions and concepts regarding IT skills.

Keywords: Key competencies, key skills, IT, ICT and CS education, BolognaDeclaration.

1 Introduction Today, computer technology can be found nearly everywhere. Most of us are in some way affected by developments in the field of Information Technology (IT), Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Computer Science (CS). In 1985, Klafki stated that a basic education in computer science-related fields is important to equip young people with the knowledge they need to play a valuable part in the future of society (see [18], p. 60). There are several reasons why ICT knowledge is important: Computers now touch nearly every aspect of our working lives, even in jobs not immediately associated with computer science. The Computer Science and Telecommunication Board (CSTB) stated that the broad category of knowledge-workers make use – in one sense or the other – of information technology. The library science community of the US has compiled a list of skills which are important for finding, evaluating and using data (see [7], p. vii). The information flood we face every day affects us not only in our professional lives. In addition, the increasing impact on the economy is another important reason to learn how to use information technology efficiently. Hence it can be argued that a basic education in information technology is important for everyone.

N. Reynolds and M. Turcsányi-Szabó (Eds.): KCKS 2010, IFIP AICT 324, pp. 78–89, 2010.

© IFIP International Federa

–  –  –

One of the biggest obstacles arising for those who develop basic IT education

courses or curricula is that IT / ICT / CS knowledge often has a rather short lifetime:

Jaeger cites Charlier et al. and Staebler1, who both give a half-life period of approximately 6 to 12 months for IT / ICT / CS knowledge (see [17], p. 148f; [6], p. 120;

[29], p.148ff).

This leads over to another issue, the Bologna-Declaration, which was signed in 1998 by the four secretaries of education of France, Italy, Great Britain and Germany.

One of the declaration's primary goals is to bring change to teaching styles at universities, a transition from the traditional idea of “content based”-learning towards “teaching key competencies”.

With this, the discussion about “life long learning” was rekindled. Teaching key competencies appears to provide an answer to an important problem: Pupils and students are not equipped with the skills currently required by the job market. Even if they were, their knowledge would not last due to the rapidly changing nature of computer technology. Thus the education process bypasses pupils and students by not teaching them persistent knowledge and skills. What they need are ideas and patterns to acquire skills for life long learning. The notions of “competencies” and “key skills” seem to offer a way out of this dilemma. However, the most often practiced approach in IT / ICT / CS courses is to teach “user knowledge” (as a superficial product training might do) instead of the underlying concepts. This is not a good way to enable people to use or access new technologies or interest them in IT- / ICT- or CS-related jobs.

The dissertations of Doerig, Orth, and Jaeger address the concept of competencies (in general) and their possible implementation strategies (see [11], [25], and [17]).

The more specific question what “key competencies” might mean in the field of computer technology has not been answered yet.

In the following chapters a brief chronological overview of the concepts of “key qualifications” and “key competencies” will be given – from the perspective of German (section 2) as well as from Anglo-American research (section 3). In addition, some insights in the development of ICT / CS standards will be presented in section 2.

2 The German Discussion on Competencies and Qualifications Before it is possible to work on questions such as “How can I include the teaching of skills in my courses?” or “How can I teach competencies?”, a few words are in order about what constitutes a competency and what makes a qualification. There are several problems: Some authors use the terms synonymously, others don't. With a closer look it also becomes obvious that not all authors talk about the same group of concepts. The reverse phenomenon, i.e. authors using different terms for what are essentially the same ideas and concepts, can also be found (see [17], p. 65ff).





However, there is evidence that a difference exists between “competency” and “qualification”, as the researchers of the work group “Hochschul-InformationsSystem (HIS)” wrote in [28], p.12: „The terms „competency“, „key competency“ and They speak about “EDV-Wissen” (EDV = electronical data processing, Wissen = knowledge), which describes more or less the usage of informatics systems and has its roots in the 50s, as established by IBM.

Translated from German by C. Dörge.

80 C. Dörge „key qualification“ pose a challenge. With changing theoretical background and usage the terms are defined differently. Their description is marked by vagueness and a deficiency in applicability.“

2.1 Mertens's Concept of Key Qualifications Mertens, coming from the field of "Vocational Education", is often mentioned as the first who raised the term "key qualification"3 in 1974. His aim was to initiate a discussion about the changing situation for people in the job market: He knew that some of the market's fundamentals had changed and that it was therefore necessary to adapt education to the new requirements. Mertens breaks "key qualification” (KQ) down

into four subjects (see [21], p. 36)2:

1. Basic qualifications (e.g. structured and logical thinking),

2. Horizontal qualifications (e.g. transfer of knowledge about one foreign language to another),

3. Ubiquitous elements (cross-educational requirements such as basic arithmetic), and

4. Vintage factors (e.g. expiration of applicability of knowledge acquired at educational institutions).

The term “key qualification” was very frequently used in scientific publications and discussions. More and more it was felt that an “uncontrolled growth” with regard to the variety of meanings of the term had taken place. Therefore, the "Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung (BIBB)" commissioned a survey: In 1999, Didi et al. discovered more than 600 KQ terms in use in the field of vocational education (see [8], Appendix part one pp. 1- 11 and appendix part two pp. 1-4, also cited in [17], p. 65 and [25], p. 2).

They compiled a list with the terms most often used in the literature. These are2:

1. Ability to communicate

2. Ability to cooperate

3. Flexibility

4. Creativity

5. Associative thinking

6. Autonomy

7. Capacity to solve problems

8. Transferability

9. Willingness to learn

10. Ability to assert oneself

2.2 Key Qualifications for the Acquisition of Competencies

In 1999, Helen Orth, coming from the field of “Didactics in Higher Education”, wrote her dissertation about several concepts used in the KQ discussion. Orth conducted a review of the field of KQ and gave a definition of “key qualifications” based on the In Germany, the idea was not new at that point: In the 19th century, the first steps in this direction had been taken by the discussion of “formale Bildung”, “materiale Bildung”, and competencies.

Competencies and Skills: Filling Old Skins with New Wine 81 term “competency” ([25], p. 107)4: “Key qualifications are acquirable common skills, attitudes, strategies and elements of knowledge which are useful in solving problems and in acquiring new competencies within as many scopes of content as possible. The goal is to gain an action ability which satisfies individual and societyrelated requirements.” This definition raises the question in which way key qualifications are related to competencies. It is important to note that what was generally termed KQ in 1999 is often called KC today.

2.3 The “Action-Enabling Competency” as a Conceptual Focus

Two years later, in 2001, Jaeger employed a different approach, giving definitions of the terms “qualification” and “competency” with an emphasis on their distinction (see [17], p. 70).

Jaeger, a pedagogue, gives a number of ideas on how competencies could be applied in schools. He rejects the term “key qualification” in favor of the idea of “key competencies” (KC), giving a detailed list of what competencies and qualifications are. As a resume, he offers a grouping concept for KCs: Four “specialized” competencies (professional, social, methodical and personal) are combined into one super-competency, the “action-enabling competency” (see [17], p. 78 for a detailed mind-map)4.

1. Professional competency: Competency in a profession, such as knowledge, skill, quality of work, working technique, endurance...

2. Social competency: Ability to work in a team, ability to accept criticism, openness...

3. Methodical competency: Structured thinking, to act creatively, to act in innovative ways, analytical investigation...

4. Personal competency: Creativity, self-confidence, flexibility, autonomy...

A concept of competencies in which the action-enabling competency is seen as a super-competency can now be found in many papers (see as examples: [27]; [2], p. 58).

A more general change has occurred as well: More and more scientific researchers have started to talk about “key competencies” instead of “key qualifications”.

2.4 The OCED-Report as World Wide Standard

With the OECD-report “The Definition and Selection of Key Competencies” of 2005, we received a “standard definition” telling us what key competencies are. The paper was translated into several languages (English, German, Spanish, French, Italian and Japanese) and was created in close cooperation with the UNESCO (see [24], p. 8). It characterizes “key competency” as follows: "Key competencies involve a mobilisation of cognitive and practical skills, creative abilities and other psychosocial resources such as attitudes, motivation and values."

In a more detailed approach, key competencies are described by the OECD-report

using “competency categories” (see [24], p. 10ff):

Translated from German by C. Dörge.82 C. Dörge

1) Using Tools Interactively (1A – The ability to use language, symbols and text interactively; 1B – The ability to use knowledge and information technology; 1C – The ability to use technology interactively)

2) Interacting in Heterogeneous Groups (2A – The ability to relate well to others;

2B – The ability to cooperate; 2C – The ability to manage and resolve conflicts)

3) Acting Autonomously (3A – The ability to act within the big picture; 3B – The ability to form and conduct life plans and personal projects; 3C – The ability to assert rights, interests, limits and needs) The OECD's concept is not entirely new: Group 1) can be seen as “methodical competency”, group 2) as “social competency” and group 3) as “personal competency” (compare with subsection 2.3). What may justifiably be described as “new” is the embedded aspect of IT (see category 1B and 1C). This aspect may be a starting point for further discussion: Its description is similar to the definitions found for “media competency”, where critical and reflective use of media is the main focus. Hence the question arises whether it can cover the demand for a general CS-related education, which is our focus.

The definition used in the OECD-report is based on the competency definition of F.E. Weinert (see [31], p. 27f), a psychologist, and with this the discussion takes a new turn: The main factor of this competency definition is “measurability”. The leading question for this approach might be: What is the value of an educational concept if we cannot evaluate its consequences? Here we must keep in mind that any measurement needs knowledge of the boundaries of the thing to be measured. If competencies “overlap across sections”, their boundaries are not clearly defined and serious unsolved problems may arise from this in the future.

2.5 From Input- to Output-Oriented Educational Standards

There is a worldwide agreement that the purpose of a general education should be to enable learners to use their knowledge throughout the whole of their lives – not just on the job. Today it is believed that to achieve this, special competencies are needed.



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