Skills-Universe

We all have “rules” or “values” according to which we live and operate even if only subconsciously. I have two such rules which look like they are in conflict with one another. One is “change is good as long as it is not a step backwards”; and the second is “don’t change something that works.”

 In the case of unit standards I can understand that the powers-in-being want to get rid of them, although I have yet to come across anybody at the CHE/HEQC or Umalusi who can explain to me why they have such a resistance against unit standards. And even though the QCTO claims that they will still use unit standards, only in a different format (split into three sub unit standards; one for theoretical learning, the second for practical work in class and the third for practical learning in the workplace), it simply will not offer the same benefits as the current unit standards.

 The problem with the unit standards that we have is that most of them are really badly written, they don’t always represent real workplace skills needs and some learning providers offer learning that they claim are based on unit standards when what they are offering is nothing more than a workshop discussion. Private providers sometimes offer learning programmes based on unit standards worth, say, 20 credits in two days, which is totally unrealistic in terms of the achievement of the required notional hours. I am of the opinion that this is one of the main reasons why the Minister of Higher Education and Training is threatening to close down private learning institutions and to do away with unit standards.

 So, most of the problems with unit standards have to do with the manner in which they are written and used. This is no reason why we should do away with what, in many other respects offer a multitude of opportunities to offer efficient learning. Firstly, unit standards represent small chunks of learning that achieves competencies in their own right. Large projects are achieved by breaking them down into a number of smaller projects. Unit standards are the small projects in learning that, together constitute a large project in lifelong learning. Unit standards enable us to follow a building blocks approach to learning in a well- structured manner.

Secondly, a unit standards approach is the easiest way in which to satisfy the skills needs of a variety of different industries. It lends flexibility to the learning process, allowing employers to select the skills that their employees should have in order to deliver productive work. But this can only be achieved if we really communicate closely with employers before we write unit standards. Many of the current unit standards were based on what existed in other countries, notably Australia and New Zealand, or they were thought out by SGB members or SETA ETQA staff members just to put something on the table.

Thirdly, and this is probably the most important reason why unit standards are essential for a country that desperately needs rapid community development; the large majority of employers cannot afford to send their employees on learning programmes that take a year or longer. What they need is short learning interventions (not more than five days at a time) that provide workers with new skills and that eventually leads to full qualifications. This is a real credit accumulation and transfer (CAT) system. What universities call CAT systems are not really credit accumulation systems but rather credit consolidation systems. Modules and subjects at universities often cannot stand alone, unit standards can.

Fourthly, students at universities or FET Colleges can write subjects or modules behind their names after they wrote their final examinations, but they still do not have anything to show for their efforts before they completed a full certificate, diploma or degree. Learners who complete unit standard-based learning programmes receive credits and certificates for courses completed, and this is a strong motivational tool. It is much easier to transfer credits from one learning institution to the next or from the learning institution to the workplace if learners have certificates or, even better, statements of results issued by a reputable quality assurance body. Unit standards facilitate this, curriculum-based learning do not.

In closing, the solution to the problems with unit standards is not to do away with them, but rather to review them and to make sure that they satisfy the real skills needs of the industry and public sector. In 2007 I did research on quality assurance in Europe by interviewing experts in quality assurance representing a number of EU countries. They were really interested in the unit standard concept and some of them expressed the wish that their countries would adopt such a system.  Since then I did not see much progress in this respect in such countries, probably at least partly because they don’t see it working here. In Australia and New Zealand they seem to have more success with the system even though they also have their followers and detractors. Point is, employers want a learning system that will enable their learners to learn new skills in short bursts of learning and unit standards are perfectly suited to satisfy this need.

Tags: nqf, saqa, standards, unit

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Hi Johannes

What I am saying is that I agree with you and that there is no way Unit standard based learning can be done away with. They powers that be may decide to call them something else but modules or whatever will continue to exist as will the need for short courses. 

Johannes said:

Hello Des, I read your reponse five or six times, closed it, thought about it and opened it again. I believe I now uderstand what you mean, but would appreciate some confirmation from you. Sorry, this is not my day for being quick. Would you care to elaborate a bit, please? Regards, JPN

Des Squire said:

Hi Johannes

Is it possible to study for a Qualification, Certificate, Diploma Degree or whatever without studying a combination of modules, unit standards or whatever we choose to call them????

There is no way - whatever we choose to call them - that unit standards can be done away with. 

Hi Zerelda

I could not agree with you more! What's worse is that often an AC in one SO is repeated in another SO. The developer then simply repeats much of the same content, in the same material, because the US says so! Learners are asked the same question in different ways and they are then left wondering which of the two answers is actually the correct one.

While one would hope that the developer and the evaluator has spent sufficient time infront of a group of learners in order to know whether their material is both learner and assessor-friendly, this doesn't seem to be the case.

I am of the opinion that within each SETA, a department should be established to quality assure learning materials. I know that it will be a cumbersome process, but is that not the job of the ETQA? CATHSSETA (and possibly a few others?) make their learning material freely available for download on their websites. I have used this material before and have found it more than adequate. Free learning and assessment materials may not be economically viable, so perhaps a "pay-per-download" system could be brought into practice. Either way, the ETQA's are really doing a good job (most of the time) but their mandate MUST reach all the way to the most important part of the process - the portfolio of evidence.

Zerelde Uys said:

............ I am concerned that too many developers are only using the unit standard as a curriculum framework for the learning material. The unit standard outcomes are even used as the lesson topics, and the sequence of learning is accepted to be that of the unit standard's sequence. The backward design principles just makes so much sense in an OBE system, but not much of learning material reflect such practice. Furthermore, too many assessment instruments just look like the unit standard statements' full-stop changed to a question mark. 

Is this not the foundation of assuring quality in learning? Should we not invest a lot more in developing OBE developers of adult learning programmes (starting with the interpretation of outcomes...)if we want to ensure quality of learning? I do not think that there is enough information or opportunities for such expertise to develop, and in my experience have seen very little leadership in such coming from the SETAs. (And I do not think it should only be left to taking a course in design & development). In fact, I would like to know what is the true extent of the expertise of Programme Evaluators in SETAs? Are they disciples of an OBE practice, or are they just checkbox tickers looking for a few specific headings, formats and attributes which states compliance? Do they really know what the unit standard is all about?

Celeste, thanks for sharing the concern. The issue of development of learning material is another discussion of course. It is a huge investment if done in all seriousness. In fact, I think that the learning material presented as the beginning-and-end of all learning, is just a resource in the learning experience. Therefore the importance of an extended interpretation of the unit standard - it should tie in with the strategic planning where the training need originates from, and impact the workplace application opportunity before assessment can take place. Much more than just the training manuals duplicated! Therefore, I am hesitant to agree with freely available learning material. It could only be justified where all other aspects of the learning programme is then also ensured to be in place - Appropriate facilitators, supported good enough in a quality relationship; Engaged workplace coaches to support the learner in the practise of and collection of evidence and eventually the assessment process. And I think you will agree that more verifications and site visits still does not guarantee better quality of learning?

Again is comes back to the importance of the unit standard as building block in the process of life-long learning. But what are we doing with it? And is this not why it is now so easily shunned? It's like OBE getting all the blame for bad schooling results - how was it planned, rolled out and implemented in the first place?

All that i can say for now is that, i am a graduate today because of Unit Standard based learning. Unit Standard based learning it is the most suitable route for employers and their employees, it is flexible and brings about the Articulation and progression of qualifications to reality. It is time saving, enforces learners to research, emphasises workplace intergaration through learning and assessment and eventually promote ROI to the most committed learners/employees willing to give back to their organisation and a country in general. I am from time to time engaged in crucial debates with the providers across all seta's due to the terms such as CAT, Exemption of the already achieved modules or Unit Standards  and RPL. Their escape route is always based in the name of "business" but then  i would be accepted on their Learning Progammes and proceed with my studies....

If you do not read, or get yourself up-to-date with all the ETD related policies in place....you will timeously get reaped off by the Providers.

Again Zerelda, we are each preaching to the converted :) and I agree with you, particularly the points you made below.

Again is comes back to the importance of the unit standard as building block in the process of life-long learning. But what are we doing with it? And is this not why it is now so easily shunned? It's like OBE getting all the blame for bad schooling results - how was it planned, rolled out and implemented in the first place?

I would like to bring this discussion full circle by reiterating what I believe is the standpoint of all the respondents thus far by saying: -

  • Scrapping Unit Standards is tantamount to tossing the baby out with the bath water, because
  • The decision may be strongly influenced by the inability of most to interpret the US correctly.
  •  Unit Standards should be seen for what they really are - building blocks within a larger picture - and
  • It must be understood that these US's are informed by SME's who are not necessarily infallible in the way in which they express themselves.
  • Keep the US but don't be blinded by it

Agree?

Zerelde Uys said:

............. I think that the learning material presented as the beginning-and-end of all learning, is just a resource in the learning experience. Therefore the importance of an extended interpretation of the unit standard - it should tie in with the strategic planning where the training need originates from, and impact the workplace application opportunity before assessment can take place. Much more than just the training manuals duplicated! ................aspects of the learning programme is then also ensured to be in place - Appropriate facilitators, supported good enough in a quality relationship; Engaged workplace coaches to support the learner in the practise of and collection of evidence and eventually the assessment process. And I think you will agree that more verifications and site visits still does not guarantee better quality of learning?

Again is comes back to the importance of the unit standard as building block in the process of life-long learning. But what are we doing with it? And is this not why it is now so easily shunned? It's like OBE getting all the blame for bad schooling results - how was it planned, rolled out and implemented in the first place?

I could not have put it better! Great summary and let's hope it's not only the converted reading here... 

I had found that there are a lot of repetition in unit standards within the same qualification.  In the one ECD qualification the one unit standard on level 4 and another one on level 5, with an almost similar name, is more than 90% the same.  There is not even a difference in the depth or what is expected of the learner.  This level 5 one is again almost the same as another level 5 unit standard within the same qualification.

The assessment criteria are sometimes so vague that is so open for interpretation that it affects the standard of the qualification.

Hi Jo, as far as I'm concern, unit standards are very good, but other organisations made them look so bad by not giving the employees time to do researches in order to complete the Portfolio Of Evidence. I am 1 such victim.

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