Clearing the Ground

The Vanuatu National Training Council (VNTC) recently presented their vision of an industry-driven training regime here in Vanuatu. The approach is based on what they call Competency Based Training. In simple terms, this approach is aimed to help people learn relevant and useful skills, and importantly, to be able to earn formal recognition for skills they already have. By measuring these skills using well-understood benchmarks, people would be assured that their skills are recognised by employers throughout the Pacific and even beyond.

Competency Based Training represents a departure from traditional, academically oriented approaches, which tended to emphasise knowledge over actual ability. For more than two years now, VNTC has been working to reduce the weight of curriculum development in the training design process, focusing instead on the people receiving the training.

The VNTC went back to first principles and took a look at what all this training is for. Employer and worker alike want to know that training courses in Vanuatu are relevant to the tasks at hand, that it’s focused and useful, and that certificates and diplomas awarded in a given discipline have real merit when judging someone’s abilities.

To that end, members of certain industries have been asked to assist with the identification of the core skills required in their discipline. These skills will be prioritised, grouped and ranked by Industry Advisory Committees, in consultation with relevant professional bodies.

This change in approach has been underway within the VNTC for about two years now. They’ve already worked extensively with individuals and groups in some industries, but just recently they extended their programme to include members of the IT industry. The Vanuatu IT Users Society has committed itself to supporting this work.

I attended the first briefing for the IT Industry Advisory Group, and was impressed by the potential benefits that might accrue from this ground-breaking endeavour. I won’t say that I have no reservations about the framework, but I can say with confidence that, whatever liabilities this programme might create, we would be far worse off staying with the old way of doing things.

The process works like this: Members of the Industry Advisory Group consult with the community at large and identify as best they can the most needed skills, knowledge and abilities. In addition to this, we need to clearly define our own existing strengths and weaknesses, to spot the gaps for employers and employees alike. The goal, after all, is to raise expectations for everyone in this sector, and to make those expectations achievable.

Once the Industry Advisory Group has outlined its challenges, needs and desires, they work with the VNTC to express these in finite terms. They transform this overall picture into a list of finite skills. These skills are then packaged by the Industry Group and the VNTC, grouped and ranked in such a way that training providers can tailor their courses to the industry’s needs.

But there’s more to this than simply altering the course materials. We’ll also work together to find ways to measure people’s existing skills in a useful way. That means, for example, that someone who’s been working for years in various capacities can achieve recognition for their skills.

This is crucially important for IT workers in Vanuatu, because formal educational opportunities have in the past been few and far between. The industry as a whole has always lacked a really useful means of formalising many critical skills. There are a number of interesting product-specific training products on offer, but their value to employers is limited. Technology products come and go. It’s nice to know that you can hire someone versed in what you’re doing today, but what about next year’s version, and the one after that?

As an employer myself, I look for more generic skills. My ideal employee doesn’t necessarily have much experience in the products I use. I want someone who can troubleshoot effectively, who can characterise a problem in a useful way, slice the challenge into workable tasks, and then take each one on until the job is done. I want someone who understands processes and protocols, who isn’t afraid to admit her limitations and ask for help. In fact, I want someone who tries my patience with her constant desire to learn more.

Not all of these skills can be adequately measured based on the paper someone holds in their hand. But a number of them can. It’s possible, for example, to teach troubleshooting basics and to verify whether those who take the course can apply those skills or not. We need only to encapsulate the skills needed for this into a list of finite requirements and then to take that list and develop it into a workable and useful course.

Doing so using the older, more academic approach would more likely result in training providers focusing on what the students knows at the end of the course. That’s all well and good, but what student and potential employer really want is to know what they can do with that knowledge. Competency Based Training aims to achieve exactly that.

This focus on finite skills does have some limitations. I’m sure the temptation will be strong among training providers – ours included – to shoe-horn as many existing courses into the new format. There will also be a strong inclination to continue to offer product-based – not skills-based – courses, using the rationale that we’re teaching a skill in a particular and relevant context. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it moves the focus from the skill to the task, two very different things.

Curriculum creation is time-consuming and expensive. It requires very highly skilled people, and time spent in course creation carries an opportunity cost as well. The time spent creating these courses is time they could have spent earning significant amounts of money for their employer working projects with a much shorter timeline.

For my employer’s part, Edwards Computer Foundation is creating new content for our upcoming distance education service. We’re quite excited about VNTC’s new approach to certification because it serves our students in remote settings better. They can work at their own pace, developing the skills and experience required to perform a given set of tasks. When the time is right, they can travel to a testing location and receive formal recognition for their new abilities.

There are a few preconditions that need to be met if this exercise is going to be successful. None of them are bigger than participation. VITUS is committed to participating in this process, and will be discussing all aspects of this in some detail on the VIGNET mailing list, as well as in other public fora.

I’ve written, here and elsewhere, how in every society the majority of people are content to let someone else do the heavy lifting. That’s appropriate, to the extent that we often benefit from leaving the detail work to experts. But before the experts can get down to brass tacks, they need to clearly understand the task at hand. Given that virtually every job these days requires some computer knowledge, it is critical that everyone’s needs get met, and not just those of the IT department.

VITUS and the VNTC will make every effort to ensure this happens, but we can’t succeed without support from the community as a whole.