eCOTOOL – eCOmpetences TOOLs – is a 2-year European project in which Bolton / CETIS are collaborating principally through me. We are producing an information model for the Europass Certificate Supplement (ECS), applied to training in the agricultural sector.
The kick-off meeting was in Essen, December 14th to 16th, and this post is an attempt to summarise our agreed starting point.
The University of Duisberg-Essen (UDE) is leading the project, and the 8 partners besides UDE and ourselves are
- BIBB, the German Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training
- MAICh, the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania, Crete
- ELOT, the Greek national body for standardization
- Agro-Know Technologies, a Greek “research-oriented enterprise”
- UZEI, the Czech Institute of Agricultural Economics and Information
- KGZS, the Chamber of Agriculture and Forestry of Slovenia
- ISFOL, the Italian Institute for the Development of Vocational Training
- KION SpA, a company developing information systems for Italian universities
ISFOL and BIBB include their respective National Europass Centres.
We know several of the people involved through previous work. Christian M. Stracke, the overall project director, has been involved in many European standards bodies and projects. Cleo Sgouropoulou (ELOT) and Simone Ravaioli (KION) are part of the core team working with me on the European Learner Mobility work, assisted by Christian, our Scott (also working on this project), Alessandra Biancolini (ISFOL) and others. To understand this project, it is useful to set it in the context of this and other related work.
What the project is doing
At the meeting, Christian Stracke described as the “story in brief” how eCOTOOL provides the missing ingredient to add to a mix of
- Europass Certificate Supplement
- DIN’s PAS 1093
- The European Qualifications Framework
- ECVET, the European Credit system for Vocational Education and Training
to create a “Europass CS with Competence as Application Profile and XML.” What this means in practice is (I hope) explained in what follows.
What is the ECS, and how could it be used?
Well then, what is this Europass Certificate Supplement? Its cousin the Europass Diploma Supplement (EDS) is better known, as the EDS has much in common with transcripts offered to graduates, and the HEAR (Higher Education Achievement Report) that is expected to supersede the transcript in the UK. The ECS, in contrast, does not have details of the results of individual learners. Exactly the same certificate is given to all those who successfully complete the same course. It is not designed for the kind of academic study where learners get marks and grades depending on their exam results, but rather for the kind of training course where people pass or fail. Either you can do something, or you can’t, the view would be, and being awarded the Certificate says that you can, because you did the course. The key information held in the ECS is the detailing of what it is that someone can do after successful completion of the course, which is just what the EDS does not record. This is done in the ECS Section 3, called “Profile of skills and competences”. However, the paper ECS does not define any specified structure to this section, leaving it simply as a text box. This is adequate for human reading, but inadequate for precise automatic use of the information contained.
Despite the lack of official definition, a common practice has built up in ECS use to list perhaps 5 to 15 items in Section 3, each comprising one sentence starting with an action verb. The expectation seems to be that a list of skill and competence items is defined specifically for each ECS offered, which may be common to several courses across different providers. This at least offers a little more informal standardization, and perhaps increases the ease of translation, but still does not address automatic processing well.
But, surely, there is much that could be done with an ECS with more electronic detail and structure, particularly in that Section 3. Here are a few ideas, based on ones that came up at the meeting.
- National Europass Centres would be able to manage the national collection of ECS documents, being able, for instance, to search for all ECSs that had a particular skill or competence line.
- Learners and training providers would be able to search for courses that had ECSs containing particular skills or competences. Learners (or their employers) could use this to plan their training; training providers could look for competitors, or gaps in the training market.
- ECS information could be downloaded into e-portfolio tools for use by learners, without the need to cut and paste; or possibly even presented through e-portfolio tools, without any need for an actual downloading or copying. This, in turn, would facilitate the creation of CVs or other presentations that were searchable by recruiters for particular skills or competences.
The other “ingredients” of eCOTOOL are interesting for their illustration of the kind of approach to be taken.
PAS 1093 – what’s that?
Translated into English, this “Publicly Available Standard” deals with “Human Resource Development with special consideration of Learning, Education and Training – Competence Modelling in Human Resource Development”. In the Foreword, it is described as “This Publicly Available Specification (PAS) is a Reference Framework for the development as well as for the structural comparison and evaluation of competence Modeling in Human Resource Development.”
What PAS 1093 does do is give a structure for HR staff to go through the process of documenting the competences that are relevant to them. “Reference Framework” is a very slippery label, and PAS 1093 may not do other things that might be associated with the label. Probably, the essential “framework” could be summarised in a just few pages, but what is also useful about the document is that it sets out some of the thinking behind managing competence information.
EQF: the European Qualifications Framework
Much of the documentation for the EQF can be found though its European Commission page.
One obvious aim of the project is to include EQF terminology where appropriate into the information available through ECS documents. Clearly, one place for this is in Section 5, “Official basis of the certificate”, but ideally there might be a way of tracking though individual skills and competences in Section 3 to a corresponding EQF level, if that is not the same as the overall level of the certificate. There are two essential aspects to EQF terminology:
- the levels, 1 to 8;
- the distinction between knowledge, skill and competence;
and we may also want to find a good way of representing which of these categories a particular line or definition falls into.
The European Credit system for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET) is nicely introduced by that linked page on the European Commission site. ECVET intends to do for vocational education and training something like what the ECTS (the credit transfer system) does for university education, helping learners move between courses and between countries, both during and after their VET. However, implementation is not envisaged until 2012 and after.
ECVET depends partly on representing the intended learning outcomes of VET opportunities. Some countries have defined standards like the UK’s National Occupational Standards, which serve to underpin the UK’s National Vocational Qualifications. In principle, if similar national standards were established across Europe, and cross-related to each other, this might provide the right basis for ECVET to work.
The eCOTOOL project takes the agricultural sector as a test case for establishing what can be done. We will have to deal with considerable diversity, including such variations as the fact that in the UK, there are different NVQs, NOSs and Sector Skills Councils for agriculture (LANTRA) and food and drink (Improve), while in other countries they are taken together. To me, that makes quite a lot of sense, as some countries retain much farm-based production, whereas in the UK food raw materials have for a long time come from UK farms and abroad.
Relationship to my other work
I’ve had an interest in National Occupational Standards and representing competencies for several years now, partly though work done for XCRI and the ioNW2 project funded by JISC and run by GMSA, and partly what I have written for TENCompetence project workshops. Most recently, there are very strong connections with the European Learner Mobility work I mentioned above, the ICOPER project we are also now involved in, and all the skill and competence related discussions I have been involved in through our CETIS work on competences, and the related CEN WS-LT competency group. All of this feeds in to my role in eCOTOOL.
My role in eCOTOOL
Our main responsibility in eCOTOOL is for WP1, which is called “Application Profile Development of Europass CS”. In the kick-off meeting we had to explain that the term “application profile” really just meant an information model, but one that could well be created on the basis of other established specifications. Much as we did in the European Learner Mobility work, this will mean starting with the ECS structure as it is, and working out how best to represent that as elements in an information model. Obviously, we need to be able to represent existing plain document ECS examples, but we also want to look carefully at possible integration with other Europass documents (including the DS, which we have worked extensively on), and we want to bear in mind all the likely uses of this kind of competence information.
One particular issue that I will focus on first will be the relationship between the one-line versions of a skill or competence that currently appear in Section 3 of ECS documents, and the fuller definition of skills and competences that would not actually appear in an ECS document, but which are often implicit in course offerings. One of the issues that also impinges greatly on the portfolio interoperability work involving LEAP2A is how to represent structures of related skill and competence definitions. All this has to be done, of course, in a way that allows useful tools for applications that are really wanted by end users – in our case, particularly learners and training bodies in the area of agricultural VET.
I would (of course!) welcome any comments or correspondence, as it would be good to integrate as many good ideas as we can grasp.