«Dr. Peter A. Zervakis Head Bologna Centre, German Rectors’ Conference, Germany Source: IMHE General Conference 2008: Outcomes of higher education: ...»
The dilemma of proposing common standards
for implementing learning outcomes
in decentralized curricular development
Dr. Peter A. Zervakis
Head Bologna Centre, German Rectors’ Conference, Germany
Source: IMHE General Conference 2008: Outcomes of higher education: Quality, relevance and impact,
Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education, OECD, September 2008, Paris.
- Mit deutscher Übersetzung HRK German Rectors´ Conference www.hrk-bologna.de The Voice of the Universities The dilemma of proposing common standards for implementing learning outcomes in decentralized curricular development Dr. Peter A. Zervakis Head Bologna Centre German Rectors’Conference Bonn/Berlin Germany Contribution to the
General Conference 2008:
Outcomes of higher education: Quality relevance and impact
- IMHE Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education OECD, Paris 8 - 10 September 2008 HRK German Rectors´ Conference The Voice of the Universities Abstract Assessing Learning and Employment Outcomes – the OECD Initiative and National Experiences The dilemma of proposing common standards for implementing learning outcomes in decentralized curricular development Courses of academic study can best be compared based on learning outcomes and the skills they provide. Yet, there is a substantial challenge for comparative analysis given the frameworks, models and trends specific to academia. The paper seeks to analyse this context from a German and European perspective and to determine the methodological demands a “Higher Education Pisa” would have to meet. Accordingly, a unique project conducted by the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK) has systematically assessed teaching and curricular development in selected universities, providing a robust empirical basis for valuable insights along with positive and negative lessons learned.
Generally, study programmes tend to be de-centrally regulated. In European tradition, universities represent autonomous educational institutions that develop study programmes independently with scientific-academic integrity. Such independence has been viewed in academia as beneficial to the quality of research and teaching. In the Bologna Process the agreements have emphasised precisely this arrangement.
Universities pursue broad educational goals. These include preparing students for their careers, for which scientific knowledge and skills or artistic ability can be useful, even necessary.
Consequently, both specialised and general – and thus more comparable – skills are essential.
While different institutions focus on different areas, international comparative projects and international standards could be helpful for establishing common references.
The experience of the HRK-Excellence Project, the qualification framework for the European Higher Education Area and the subject-specific results of the TUNING networks provide basic sources for determining comprehensive models, demands and common standards for implementing learning outcomes in decentralised curricular development.
Dr. Peter Zervakis Head Bologna Centre German Rectors' Conference Ahrstrasse 39 D-53175 Bonn Tel. : +49 (0) 228 / 887-190 Fax. : +49 (0) 228 / 887-194 email@example.com HRK German Rectors´ Conference The Voice of the Universities
1. The dilemma of proposing common standards for implementing learning outcomes in decentralized curricular development How does the idea of developing comprehensive international standards for learning outcomes (LO) match with the highly decentralized structure of curricular development in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA)? An institution’s autonomy and ability to act on its own are essential characteristics of higher education (HE). In Germany, as in many other European countries, academic freedom, i.e. freedom of research and teaching, is a firm constitutional principle. Traditionally, the faculties and departments have been responsible for the basic organization of the degree programmes, albeit in cooperation with their own university bodies and in many cases also with the responsible state authorities at the regional or national levels – and in Germany, with both levels due to the federal division of power in education policy. Decentralized curricular development has led to a diversity and differentiation of programme profiles, which by nature tend to be resistant to standardization attempts, not to mention that such diversity is being explicitly promoted by education policy.
In addition to the functional differentiation, a cultural diversity is evident in the international context, within and between the national HE systems in Europe. Precisely this diversity is often viewed in the current HE debate as both a strength and weakness of the unregulated common EHEA (CHEPS 2006: 10; Crosier 2006: 20-21).
The demands for establishing LO and gearing the organization of degree programmes toward them is part of the current academic reform. However, this reform by no means questions the decentralized and differentiated structure of the HE system, but rather aims to focus more on the learners (students) and their learning success. At present, all higher education institutions (HEI) in Germany, their faculties and departments are working on this outcome-orientation which is both an important and a difficult challenge in the current HE reform. The German Rectors’ Conference (HRK) has provided some support in this process and can refer to the results of its two-year pilot project at 22 German HEI (Gaehtgens and Zervakis 2007; Bologna Centre 2008).
Common standards are important for quality assurance (QA) that is oriented to LO, for the recognition of qualifications, and for the mobility of learners or graduates. They are being implemented in a multistage process that is tuned to the decentralized responsibilities for QA in the HEI, their faculties and departments. While the OECD’s Assessment of HE Outcomes cites many good examples proving generic and specific LO, it seems, however, that centralized and measurable standards as basic elements of comparing evaluations at the international level are of only limited use for QA and quality development in the German HEI. Universities and their departments are responsible for developing their own assessment tools by taking into account their own profiles, the needs of their students, the institution at large, their employers and policy makers. It seems difficult to imagine a methodology that provides satisfactory results, and respects diversity without being superficial.
HRK German Rectors´ Conference The Voice of the Universities
How to best approach this dilemma will be discussed below in three steps. The first part deals with the question of how LO – which represent a paradigms shift in education policy within the Bologna Process – can be institutionalized in the development of degree programmes at the HEI and how they can be measured in terms of study and labour market success. The second part concerns the initial practical experience with implementing this student-centred, competence- and qualification-oriented teaching reform at the German HEI; here the HRK’s sample of HEI serves as a good example. The third part explores whether qualifications frameworks (QF) can help in developing inter-disciplinary LO standards applicable to all HEI.
1.1 Imparting learning outcomes and skills HEI impart upon students’ LO and, especially in the German context, necessary competences and skills. Moreover, the German interpretation of Bologna sees “employability” as particularly significant, which is why LO and professionally demonstrated skills (‘Handlungskompetenzen’) are deemed so important. While the German HEI agreed to this general statement in the scope of the Bologna Process, they have not, however, found a common definition of the two terms applicable to all HEI and all German federal states – unsurprising are thus the large differences in practice.
(Crosier 2006: 20 to 21) The orientation to LO and skills applies to both degree programmes as a whole and the subordinate module levels. The module and degree programme descriptions clearly show that there is no common cross-disciplinary understanding among HEI with regard to how learning goals, LO, qualification goals, competences, knowledge and skills etc. can be generally described and adequately measured.
There is consensus at least for the minimalist definition: that is, that LO include knowledge, competences and skills which learners know and understand or are able to do after finishing a learning process.
Skills on the other hand imply the command of a learning outcome and the ability to apply it in a certain field of activity. They are the result of learning processes that entail the interaction of LO with the personal, social and methodical abilities of students in certain learning and working situations. Skills stand for the ability to act in a certain field of activity and to integrate formal and informal learning performances (Schermutzki 2008: 4; Kennedy et al. 2007).
For the purpose of categorizing, LO should to be distinguished in vertical and horizontal dimensions. The vertical dimension is characterized by the two new structural qualification levels of the HE reform, i. e. Bachelor and Master degrees. The horizontal dimension usually incorporates subject-specific and generic, cross-disciplinary competences and skills.
Indeed, the manner in which German HEI are developing their profiles is creating additional diversity, which seems desirable. This diversity is salient, first of all, in various study and learning programmes. These have increased enormously since the structural implementation of Bachelor and Master degrees. In the current summer term, German HEI are offering more than 7,606 Bachelor and Master programmes (German Rectors´ Conference 2008: 5). This immense variety is also visible, not only in the newer study programmes that are more specialized and topic oriented, but also in the fact that HEI are using the occasion of study-programme reform as an opportunity to set specific areas of concentration. This can include, for example, an applied approach with job relevance, in contrast to being oriented toward academic theoretical research.
HRK German Rectors´ Conference The Voice of the Universities
In order to determine the necessary common general evaluation standards for LO and skills, the
following basic issues remain to be addressed:
To create a skills scale, does this only refer to cross-disciplinary skills, since such scale can be produced independent of the individual subjects/degree programmes? Though, one must consider in this context that a defining feature and strength of German degree programmes lie in the subject-specific structure which emphasizes the acquirement of subject-specific academic LO.
How high is the significance of more general, society-related skills like civic participation, gender sensitivity, sustainability, continuing education or health awareness?
In addition to the LO of students or graduates, should evaluations of HEI include a review of the institutions’ performance in fulfilling (central) tasks and functions (i. e. studies, teaching, further education, civic participation etc.), or should only progress in implementing the Bologna Process be evaluated?
Above all, any model for imparting LO will most likely encounter difficulties when applied practically and it will be equally, if not more difficult to measure this – that is to say, if we are not satisfied with empty phrases, but instead are really interested in displaying actual learning
experiences and LO. And this brings up a number of questions and problems:
LO depend largely on the students’ personal input. Thus, they also depend on the individual input and not only on the HEI or the respective degree programme.
The individual degree programmes differ widely as to the quantity of LO/skills taught in the respective programmes. Some degree programmes mainly deliver subject specific knowledge while others mainly teach inter-disciplinary competences. How can these differences be adequately considered?
Is this difference specific to degree programmes or to subject areas (natural sciences, engineering sciences or liberal arts)?
Under the subject-specific aspect, only those subjects can be compared throughout Europe that are offered in the same or a similar way Europe-wide (the subject Social Work, for example, does not exist in all member states of the Bologna Process).
How precise must the description be, if it is to be meaningful and how open, if it is to guarantee developing capacity and flexibility of the degree programmes? And thus how can we make LO comparable?
1.2 Assessment of learning outcomes and skills What is particularly important for the orientation toward LO is the consistency of the degree programmes and modules. Developing them includes finding certain teaching/learning forms, selection of certificates and exams, as well as skills and knowledge targeted. In the environment of HEI, skills for the most part can only be demonstrated indirectly. LO can be tested as indicators of skills, which in turn makes skills-oriented exams, term papers, etc. important for the quality of the graduates. Study programme assessments should also provide feedback on whether LO have been achieved or where improvement is needed.
Important approaches for imparting skills and reaching qualification goals in degree programme
curricula represent at the same time questions of evaluation:
Which LO can be used as indicators for the skills the students are expected to demonstrate?
Which teaching forms are most conducive to helping students acquire these LO?
Which criteria coincide with the selected teaching/learning form and the learning outcome or proven skill?
HRK German Rectors´ Conference The Voice of the Universities When should students provide feedback, so both students and teachers can adjust the learning process where necessary?
What kinds of feedback are meaningful?
Which examination form or which certificate fulfils best the feedback function?