The Suitability of Technology-based Education for Skills Development
Skill development has traditionally been a non-academic endeavor. That is, those students who have a "technical" rather than and "academic" focus would be involved in skill development classes. Currently, however, that reality is changing quite rapidly and has already changed to a great extent. Skill development now refers not only to specific technical skills for specific vocations but to the development of workplace skills (or competencies) and personal development skills as well.
The Framework of Competencies by the Advanced Manufacturing Industry defines the top 3 tiers of their skill pyramid as:
- Personal effectiveness;
- Foundation academic competencies; and
- Workplace competencies.
While all of tier 1 and much of tiers 2 and 3 refer to behaviors, most of the competencies refer to skills like teamwork, problem solving and decision making, planning and organizing, basic computer skills, presentation skills, listening, business writing, and skills in reading for information. In other words, much of what is currently regarded as required for success in the workplace is skill-based, not content-based. Yet most of our students attend courses that are foundationally content-driven and learn from teachers who are regarded as "content experts" rather than skill-development experts.
Additionally, K-12 seems conflicted in what is being developed in students--early grades focused on skills and higher grades on content--and, specifically, content required to pass tests. While individual teachers may continue to strive to prepare students more effectively for various post-secondary studies and training (including college and university), most are overwhelmed by a preset system of rote memorization and repetition.
What Is Skill, and What Is Content?
So what are the basic distinctions between content and skill? Simplistically one could argue that the main difference is that content addresses what needs to be learned while skills addresses how something is learned and used in real terms. The challenge with that notion is that skills in listening, thinking, processing, application, and use are still required for any content-driven course, although those skills are not really valued and certainly not rewarded in terms of grade points. Conversely, skills cannot be utilized in a vacuum but must have relevancy of context, which is ultimately provided by content. The reality, then, is that both skill and content are integrated into any learning environment; however, if the instructional design and the learning outcomes are not intentional and clearly defined, the curriculum can become driven by either one and ultimately not holistic or integrated for the students. In a content-driven environment, focus is on content over process and the value of the grade is distributed accordingly. In a skill-driven environment, the content rigor can suffer and become diminished, thus making the learning experience inadequate for the student. What difference does technology make in either of these situations? Despite the most obvious notion that technology itself is skill-based and that students must learn how to use the technology before using it, both content and skill can be more highly developed in a technology-rich learning environment than a more conventional, teacher-driven environment.
That is, technology can help students to process content more efficiently, if access to that content has been provided and delivered in various formats. Additionally, if students are provided an opportunity to discuss and dialog the content through online discussions (reading, thinking, reasoning, writing) and real live chats, they are more likely to understand the content they are discussing. While that is occurring, students are also being required to read and/or listen carefully, read and work from instructions, collaborate with others and manage their time and tasks accordingly. In a conventional teacher-driven context, those skills are not usually developed as teachers make those decisions and lock-step tasks and timelines for the students. In a learning environment where the instructional design intentionally requires the use of various technological tools, skills and content can be developed, and students can be challenged to think through and apply content directly online.
The Transferrable Skills Required in Today's Workplace
"The day when unskilled but willing workers could show up [for a job] has passed," said Engleri, echoing comments he made recently at a discussion on the future of middle-skill jobs. "We have to align worker skills with the educational pathway."
It could be argued, of course, that these comments refer only to the manufacturing workplace and, therefore, have no relevance to other contexts. The reality, however, is that the skills highlighted by this agency are similar to skills required by other professional workplaces and even within more conventional higher education and traditional research fields. Learning to communicate clearly, work collaboratively, network efficiently, manage and organize information and tasks, think critically, and develop new knowledge is increasingly required across all working areas simply because expectations are changing, and budgets and organizational planning demand more efficiency in the workforce. Therefore, more exploration should be made as to how these kinds of skills, often referred to as "transferrable" skills, are developed. In what contexts of learning do these skills develop? New technology is simply making the need for these skills even more obvious. Because new technology sustains connectivity, mobility, and customization of purpose and application, users of the technology must have or be developing the kinds of skills necessary for making tasks simpler and technology more efficient.
Again, if the focus is on content, then these transferable skills will not be developed. If these skills are intentionally developed, then they must be grounded in content and valued in the grading scores so that students feel affirmed and rewarded for their efforts and various skills can be seen as helpful in the learning process.
The Challenge to Instructors
The challenge to instructors, then, is two-fold:
- Finding the right balance between content and skill; and
- Establishing fair and transparent grading structures that reflect true learning.
Why be satisfied with developing note-taking skills and listening/comprehension skills and even summary or analysis skills if students can also develop additional skills that will help them even more as working professionals? Why do we insist on testing content knowledge and rewarding memorization more than skill development? If the need is for more diversely skilled workers, we are doing students a major disservice by not preparing them adequately for what is ahead.
Understanding as well that many students do not attend college or leave high school early--postponing this kind of learning for a later time that may not come for some students--is ignoring the challenge with which we are faced.
Integrating Fast Technology Change
While new technology can present various challenges to teachers and higher education faculty in terms of learning how to use the various tools and then how to integrate their use into real environments of learning, the greater challenge is to understand the concepts behind the use of the technology. In other words, the goal should never be simply to use a technology tool because technology is changing too quickly. The critical components for educators must always be:
- The learning process that is being supported;
- The communication method that is being facilitated;
- The content area that is being reinforced; and
- The working skill that is being developed.
In general, the major areas of understanding that must be developed by teachers using new technology (even as those tools continue to change) are the following:
- Communication and networking (communities of learners);
- Student engagement and participation (collaboration and dialog);
- Processing content and supporting information (knowledge building);
- Accessing adequate supports for individualized learning outcomes (customization); and
- Assessment portfolios (useful learning measures).
While various technology tools can help with these outcomes, understanding the need for these areas to be integrated into any instructional design is key for effective learning experiences and for the balance between skill and content to be reached.
Therefore technology is really not an option for current teachers, but an opportunity for effective learning to be supported and facilitated. Additionally, teachers have an opportunity to provide learning environments in which students can develop working skills, life skills, and learning skills, as well as content knowledge and growth. Students who have experienced these kinds of learning environments will become future professionals and workers who will approach their jobs with the kind of holistic knowledge and understanding and developed skills that are needed for success.
Ruth Reynard, Ph.D., is a higher education consultant specializing in faculty development and instructional design. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.