Defragging the vocational education IT curriculum

Traditionally, vocational education and training (VET) has aimed to equip people with the skills required to perform specific tasks within specific job roles. In Australia’s TAFE system, these skill requirements are defined in consultation with industry to produce the competency based training packages that effectively define the training curriculum for teachers and students.

Evidence of a serious mismatch between the existing VET curriculum and actual workplace needs is clear in the fact that in 2016 a full two-thirds of VET graduates were working in occupations not directly associated with their qualifications. In the view of international VET expert Professor Leesa Wheelahan, this situation can largely be attributed to the VET system’s narrow focus on specific workplace skills, which “is short-changing students and is a key reason why our scandal-ridden training sector is in crisis.”

Fragmented curriculum

In Professor Wheelahan’s view, the training packages in current use focus on “narrow competency based training that educates workers for largely routine and supervised roles, rather than training them to be proactive and versatile.” In other words, the VET curriculum does not provide students with the practical, real world skills they need to survive and thrive in today’s fast-changing world where current job roles are disappearing and future jobs cannot be accurately predicted. Thriving modern enterprises require creativity, initiative, flexibility and adaptability in their employees, not rigid uniformity.

VET units tend to structure learning as a series of narrow competency definitions which fragment knowledge and skills and provide students with only limited, specific procedural knowledge to be applied in limited, supervised contexts. Rather than knowledge fragmentation, what is required is knowledge integration: the ability to creatively connect, synthesise, recontextualise and reapply ideas and skills in a dynamic, ever changing work environment.

Professor Wheelahan argues that the way forward is for government to immediately stop wasting funds on the private sector VET fiasco, and instead to rebuild TAFE colleges as strong autonomous institutions capable of negotiating future unpredictability and change.

In particular, she argues that TAFE colleges must have the ability to develop their own qualifications, free from the restrictions of the existing competency-based system. Such a move could force up to 2,000 small private providers out of the VET system overnight, because only larger providers like TAFE would have the resources to produce the quality courses that the sector now needs. In Professor Wheelahan’s view “That would be a good thing.’’

Whose industry?

Another factor in the mismatch between VET curriculum and actual workplace needs could be the industry consultation process itself, particularly where the process is limited in scope.

Not all industry representatives necessarily possess accurate judgement about current and future employment needs across what is now a very broad and diverse IT industry. Some adopt narrow, conservative perspectives based on the convenience and familiarity of “the way we’ve always done it” rather than informed, objective assessments of emerging trends and technologies. Others are in the thrall of specific vendors, or have years of technology choices and spending decisions to implicitly justify and defend.

For example, in an industry where remote and freelance work in the context of cloud and web-based startups is now increasingly common, the perceptions of a local corporate IT manager regarding his current training needs may not prove to be so useful for the majority of IT trainees in his region in 10 or 15 years time.

The problem is not the concept of industry consultation itself, but rather of the scope of that consultation. Given that today “every business is an IT business“, is it unreasonable to suggest that almost any business or organisation in the community could potentially provide useful feedback on regional IT trends and needs?

Moving forward

The reality is that TAFE teachers must work with the competency-based VET curriculum for the foreseeable future. This does not mean, however, that we cannot seek opportunities to begin building a new curriculum within the shell of the old.

The notion of clustering VET units is not new. Clustering could extend not only horizontally but vertically to form larger meta units which wrap multiple VET units into more organic, integrated packages. The underlying units would still exist and drive assessment of course, but their fragmentary and somewhat nit-picking performance criteria complexity could be at least partly abstracted away, while natural connections between units could be emphasised. Teachers and students could operate at a higher level on a day-to-day basis and engage with the lower level complexity much more infrequently. No doubt many teachers are already doing this, whether instinctively or as a survival mechanism.

There are risks of course. As a colleague pointed out, clustering can create difficulties with assessment where a student who does not successfully complete one portion of a clustered unit may throw the result of all clustered units into doubt. This risk could be managed by maintaining robust mapping to underlying performance criteria; managing such a situation is an example of how teachers would still need to deal with the underlying nitty-gritty on occasion.

It should still be possible to completely account for any work a student has completed in terms of the underlying units. Clustered units tend to follow a natural sequence so that a student leaving half-way through term, for example, would tend to be in a similar assessment position whether their units were clustered or not.

For example, a term-length Certificate III level meta unit titled Operating Systems could comprise the following underlying units:

  • ICTICT302        Install and optimise operating system software
  • ICTICT304        Implement system software changes
  • ICTSAS301        Run standard diagnostic tests
  • ICTICT301        Create user documentation

Or a term-length Diploma level meta unit titled Network User Management could comprise these units:

  • ICTNWK504        Design and implement an integrated server solution
  • ICTNWK505        Design, build and test a network server

The underlying units still exist and student assessment is ultimately mapped back to them, but students and teachers engage with the material at a higher, more integrated level that emphasises broader knowledge and skills that are more readily adaptable to changed circumstances and new contexts.

That’s the theory anyway.


Narrow training sells students short

Setting vocational education free