A critical review of the Australian experience of CBT (20 years)

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Despite many improvements over the past 10 years, some potential problems remain. The system is controlled overly tightly by the interests of industry and it also exhibits some inflexibilities. Both of these act to disadvantage some groups of learners.

It does not bear a great deal of relationship to current European notions of competence, which as Mulder et al. (2007) point out, provide what is a different, and may be seen as a broader, view of the term.

CBT remains predicated upon the needs of industry, and those wishing for a more liberal or academic education can no longer find it within the VET system. Industry clamours in ever louder voices for its needs to be met through the VET system.

Although CBT is attractive in principle, enterprises and RTOs are still struggling with how to deliver it well.

Teachers and trainers do not have adequate skills to work skilfully and critically with CBT, leading to thin pedagogy and a narrow focus on assessment of individual items of performance.

One reason for a lack of engagement with bigger issues of teaching and learning may be that VET teachers are becoming progressively de-skilled because of reduced requirements for degree-level VET teacher-training, as discussed earlier.

Extracts from: Erica Smith, A review of twenty years of competency-based training in the Australian vocational education and training system, International Journal of Training and Development, Volume 14, Issue 1, pages 54–64, March2010, http://bit.ly/1Pyw6zf

In a paper published in 1999, the author wrote about the first 10 years of competency-based training (CBT) in Australia (Smith, 1999). The current paper brings the reader up to date with CBT in Australia in 2009, describing and critiquing the way in which the system has evolved over the subsequent 10 years.

In this paper, the author reflects, both as an academic researcher and as a senior practitioner, on the experience of competency-based training (CBT) in the Australian vocational education and training system.

She seeks to draw conclusions about the Australian experience using a typology drawn from the academic literature which focuses on the philosophical, educational, technical and market aspects of CBT. She concludes that, despite many improvements over the past 10 years, some potential problems remain. The system is controlled overly tightly by the interests of industry and it also exhibits some inflexibilities.

Both of these act to disadvantage some groups of learners. Teachers and trainers do not have adequate skills to work skilfully and critically with CBT, leading to thin pedagogy and a narrow focus on assessment of individual items of performance.

The Australian (narrow) concept of competence

The Australian VET system is overwhelmingly competency-based. The key characteristics of CBT in Australia were described in 1997 in the following terms:

  • the focus of the training is on the outcome of the training;
  • the outcome is measured against specified standards not against other students; and
  • the standards relate to the relevant industry (Smith & Keating, 1997, p. 102).

While the definition remains appropriate for 2009, the form in which competency-based curriculum is presented has changed, as training packages are now the dominant form of CBT. These were progressively introduced from 1997 and have been described as ‘second generation CBT’ (Barratt-Pugh & Soutar, 2002).

Training packages are discussed further below, but at this point it should be explained that they consist of industry – or occupation-based collections of units of competency which are ‘packaged’ together into qualifications at different levels. They are produced through a national consultation process.

The Australian approach to CBT is of a particular nature, firmly based on industry-derived competency standards. As Westera (2001) and many others have stated, the word ‘competence’ has a range of meanings. CBT in Australia is based on training to undertake tasks in a workplace; in this sense, the Australian system is similar to the British system, particularly that section of it based on National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) (West, 2004).

It does not bear a great deal of relationship to current European notions of competence, which asMulder et al. (2007) point out, provide what is a different, and may be seen as a broader, view of the term. This review is written within the context of the Australian/British meaning of CBT. While this may seem a narrow focus, in fact this type of CBT system has also been adopted in several Asian and Middle Eastern countries (see, for example, Law, 2009), partly because of the presence of Australian and British advisers to governments on the development of their VET systems, and hence has wide applicability.

Views about CBT

Throughout the first 10 years of ‘training reform’ CBT (1987–1997), the notion of CBT was hotly contested; as Harris and Hodge (2009, p. 1) say, CBT had the ‘propensity to polarize’ between those who saw CBT as an answer to many problems related to national skill formation and those who saw it as mechanistic, overly vocational, behaviourist and limiting. A range of positions were adopted by authors in the field. Smith and Keating (1997, pp. 113–119) summarize these early objections to CBT as ‘philosophical’ objections, educational objections and practical problems associated with implementation.

West (2004) has provided a similar summary of early objections to NVQs in the UK. He divides objections into ‘technical’, ‘moral’ and ‘market’ critiques. Market critiques were related to the penetration of NVQs into the VET qualification market, and do not apply to the Australian context, as the hegemony of the Australian form of CBT has been complete because of the absence of the plethora of awarding bodies that create diversity in the UK VET market.

Despite such differences between the Australian and British context, West’s analysis of the underpinning values conflicts which led to such a heated debate over CBT rings true for Australia. West (2004, pp. 26–27) states that the three underpinning areas of debate were:

  • vocationalism versus liberal or academic education;
  • centralism versus devolution; and
  • the way in which NVQs could be used to measure and control national VET activity.

It is important to recognize that for some scholarly commentators and practitioners, these issues remain buried not far beneath the surface. Buchanan et al. (2009, p. 29) have recently referred to Australian CBT disparagingly as ‘a “pick-a box” vision of skill’; this term refers to their view that the development of individual units of competency has atomized notions of the skill involved in occupations.

Benefits of competence-based training

Interviews with managers, workers and other stakeholders, including trade unions, have shown that CBT has brought many benefits to companies and workers including, particularly, the ability of people of lower educational achievement to attain a qualification because of the emphasis on ‘doing’ rather than ‘academic’ work (Smith et al., 2005, 2009). Also, enterprises were finding the competency standards within training packages useful for other, non-training, purposes such as performance management and job descriptions (Smith et al., 2005).

The nature and structure of training packages

Training packages have generally been viewed favourably but there have also been concerns. Some employers complain that training packages are variously not up to date, too general or not sufficiently relevant (Smith et al., 2005). In some cases, their complaints seem to be due to insufficient understanding of the ways in which packages could legitimately be contextualized, or to insufficient awareness of the range of packages that could be of use to the company. Sometimes, this was because RTOs could be unable or unwilling to offer companies the full range of choices.

Companies did better if they employed what Smith et al. (2005) called ‘VET evangelists’, who understood the VET system well enough to negotiate effectively with RTOs and who knew the ways in which training packages could be used. However, it is clear that employers’ criticisms were often well-founded and pointed to deficiencies in training packages such as an insufficient emphasis on underpinning knowledge.

Smith et al. (2009) have identified further the need for good quality learning materials beyond the generic ‘support materials’ that are often produced as part of training package development. Such support materials are often in the form of simplistic workbooks which as one employer said ‘all look the same’. In relation to training package structures, there is a need for clear, sound, pathways from one qualification level to the next and appropriate alignment of qualifications to qualification levels.

Political manoeuvring was not uncommonly used to frustrate this desired outcome. For example, there were no proper pathways available from lower-level qualifications in the 2003 General Construction Training Package because the national construction industry trade union was unwilling to recognize anything less than full apprentice training at Certificate III level.

Challenges of delivery and assessment

Although CBT is attractive in principle, enterprises and RTOs are still struggling with how to deliver it well.

A favourite method of delivering CBT in enterprises is embedding it within normal work and performance management processes but some RTOs and enterprises recognized that this leads to training that is too enterprise-specific and are beginning to move away from this model. There was a perceived need for off-the-job training, not always seen as a necessity for some advocates of CBT.

Some RTOs and individual teachers within them had developed sophisticated means of delivering this off-the-job training, utilizing holistic but rigorous delivery and assessment of units of competency while others proceeded in a less sophisticated unit-by-unit manner. Sometimes, learners complained that the assessment tasks were too easy and that people were ‘let through’ who should not have been. They also complained if they were not given sufficient off-the-job training and if the learning materials were sub-standard (Smith et al., 2005).

Companies and learners alike were unhappy if RTOs employed ‘generic’ trainers without sufficient content expertise; but a few RTOs were reported to believe that it was acceptable that their staff had general assessment expertise and that employers should provide all the training and specialist assessment advice. RPL, often seen as being an integral part of CBT, proved problematic.

While it was understood that RPL removed the need for unnecessary training and that it validates previous job experience, enterprises were highly suspicious of ‘over-RPLing’. They often preferred to pay for their staff to undertake training again because they did not trust previous levels of attainment. Learners, too, wanted the chance to recap on their learning. The conclusion reached was that RPL should be used conservatively.

The implication of the findings on delivery and assessment, including RPL, is that teachers and trainers, both in RTOs and in enterprises, needed high-level educational skills and qualifications in order to deliver CBT properly.

Challenges in the development of training packages

Training package development and review is a highly consultative process which, while it appears on face value to be desirable, in fact presents some challenges. The consultation process can involve literally thousands of people and take extensive amounts of time.

If people’s views are not eventually included in the package they may become disgruntled. The major stakeholder groups such as employer associations and trade unions can block progress for considerable lengths of time.

For example, the Hairdressing Training Package, endorsed in 2000, had been delayed for over 5 years because of several issues including an argument about barbering units.

Stakeholders with resource issues at stake can distort the integrity of training packages: for instance, training providers may lobby for movement of units from core to elective to make the qualification easier to deliver.

Also, because the system is competency-based, no firm rules can be laid down regarding the amount of training time required for learners to achieve competence. Therefore, ‘nominal hours’ are allocated, which are quite political in their nature because they are related to funding if the qualifications are likely to attract funding by state VET systems.

The process of allocating nominal hours is therefore subject to lobbying from interest groups. For example, in the Health Services Assistant (Pharmacy) qualifications, some units that were relatively quick to teach were allocated high numbers of nominal hours because the required equipment was expensive for training providers to purchase.

Conclusions

It has been noted by several researchers that practitioners, once they were actually working with training packages, were finding ways to combat some of the problems they had feared (Australian Council for Private Education and Training [ACPET], 2000; Down, 2002).

Outright opposition to CBT and training packages seemed by the early 21st century to have reduced considerably; practitioners seemed to have ‘learned to love’ them – or perhaps to ‘live with them’.

However, this very acceptance and familiarity breeds its own challenges.

While people were still vocally opposed to CBT, they were able easily to articulate what it is that makes CBT problematic. For example, work by Boorman (2001), while perhaps unnecessarily critical of training packages, arguing that they represented an extreme form of Taylorism, was very explicit about the problems involved in trying to deliver training packages, with their rather unnatural and manufactured workplace bias, in a training provider context. His arguments led providers to consider ways in which they could overcome the disadvantages of delivery within providers.

In the research and professional experience outlined in this paper, an impression has developed that practitioners now tend towards passive acceptance of CBT and training packages rather than constructive and critical engagement. This leads to a lack of critical focus on pedagogical issues, which in many cases has been replaced with a focus on compliance with national audit frameworks such as the AQTF. One reason for a lack of engagement with bigger issues of teaching and learning may be that VET teachers are becoming progressively de-skilled because of reduced requirements for degree-level VET teacher-training, as discussed earlier.

A number of CBT issues remain or have emerged recently and may be receiving insufficient attention because of general satisfaction with the competency-based system. In analysing these here, use is made of the frameworks described by Smith and Keating (1997) and West (2004), described earlier. The two frameworks are elided to provide a four-fold typology of critiques of CBT: philosophical critiques; technical defects; pedagogical defects; and centralization and control. A fifth critique is added: lack of teacher capability in a system that demands such capability.

‘Philosophical’ critiques

CBT remains predicated upon the needs of industry, and those wishing for a more liberal or academic education can no longer find it within the VET system. Industry clamours in ever louder voices for its needs to be met through the VET system.

Technical defects

Training packages clearly display some flaws that still need addressing. The development process is too long and complex; it seems to create dissension rather than agreement; and does not lend itself to swift changes in industry or occupations. Progression for learners from one level to another is not always available. These conclusions concur with a 2008 OECD review of Australian VET policy (Hoeckelet al., 2008). Some of the political factors, while not necessarily arising from the competency-based nature of training packages, may delay implementation, and jaundice stakeholders’ views of training packages and of CBT more generally.

West’s (2004) summary of arguments about technical defects in CBT hinged upon two issues. First, that competency standards cannot create a sensible and sound syllabus that teachers can deliver. Second, that it is difficult for a competency-based system, despite its focus on criteria, to enable effective communication of desired performance standards. Hoeckel et al. (2008) support the latter issue, criticizing the Australian system for not having national assessment practices. In the training package system, both the construction of the syllabus and the standards of assessment are in fact left to the discretion of teachers and trainers, within the constraints of the RTO’s practices and the AQTF audit system. Thus there can be no demonstrable assurance of parity of student outcomes.

‘Educational’ or pedagogical critiques

Because of CBT’s focus upon industry, the paramount consideration is whether a learner can do the job after having been trained and/or assessed. This consideration affects both delivery and assessment, because teachers are nervous about placing too much emphasis on knowledge, focusing instead on performance. The evidence suggests that enterprises and learners alike would have preferred more attention to underpinning knowledge.

Centralization and control

CBT as implemented in Australia has certainly aided the centralization of the VET system; non-Training Package qualifications have almost disappeared. While this has had many functional effects including a better understanding of VET qualifications and freer movement of workers and students among States, there have been criticisms that flexibility is reduced, particularly for client groups such as those with disabilities and international students. Governments have used a tighter and better-defined set of qualifications as the basis for funding and for rewarding behaviour for companies and training providers, as West (2004) describes in relation to NVQs. This has both advantages (such as governmental transparency in making funding decisions) and disadvantages (such as reducing the scope for innovation).

Lack of teacher capability

This is perhaps the missing link in previous critiques of CBT. CBT requires and demands a level of teacher expertise that rarely exists, especially when teachers themselves are taught both their technical and their pedagogical skills in a competency-based system, and leads to the criticisms, described previously, of poor training delivery and ‘too easy’ assessment. As has long been recognized but not yet properly addressed, units of competency are simply too difficult and complex for many teachers or trainers to understand. It is likely that many teachers and trainers may not even know how to deliver CBT, let alone engage in a critical use of the pedagogy. Teachers’ de-skilling leaves them without the power to argue the case; in fact many do not seem to see a case to argue.

During a VET conference in 2008, a senior curriculum officer in the TAFE system stated ‘Nobody problematises Training Packages’. This statement, referring to the cornerstone of the competency-based system, and appearing to attract general agreement amongst those present, indicated that earlier, heated, debates about CBT have been almost forgotten in many quarters. The dysfunctional consequence of this complacency has been that, with no other system with which to compare CBT, practitioners are less able to recognize its deficiencies and thereby work for improvement. The improvements made during 1989–2009, reflected in Table 1, have arisen only because of outspoken criticism over a period of 20 years, so the current complacency has its dangers. It might therefore be productive for Australians to re-learn how to critique CBT.

 

 

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