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Exploratory study about the implementation of the competency-based approach (CBA) in #graduate programs from two #Panamanian universities – #elearning

Exploratory study of the competency-based approach (CBA) and its impact in the future of Panamanian graduate students

Abstract

The purpose of this case study is to explore the association between implementing the competency-based approach in graduate programs and the student’s perception about the aforementioned approach. The research was conducted with 504 graduate students from Universidad Tecnologica de Panama and Universidad Tecnologica Oteima in the Republic of Panama in order to explore their perception about the competency-based approach. The research is descriptive and the results show that 84% of participants will be benefit in their future professional development through the competency-based approach. Authors conclude that the competency-based approach has had an international coverage and can be replicated in local scenarios as Latin American Alfa Tuning Project (2004 -2007) has been implemented in universities from Panama.

Key words: Generic competencies; international competency-based approach; syllabus; Higher Education.

Introduction

This manuscript pretends to walk the reader through a case study about the implementation of competency-based approach in graduate programs of two universities in the Republic of Panama. The research worked with a population of 504 students from Universidad Tecnologica de Panama and Universidad Tecnologica Oteima.

The manuscript has been organized in the following sections: (i) state of the art with the theory that supports the research, (ii) research methodology that provides a framework of the research, (iii) results that provides the most important outcomes from the research, (iv) achievements, (v) limitations of the study, (vi) discussion, recommendations and conclusions (vii) references.

State of the art

The following topics will be covered in the start of the art section of the manuscript to provide an idea of the basic concepts that have been utilized in the research: (i) university syllabus, (ii) competencies in university life and (iii) competency-based approach initiatives.

University Syllabus

A syllabus is the set of objects, content, methodology criteria and evaluation that students must achieve in a certain level of education. In general, the structure of the syllabus answers the following questions: what to teach, how to teach, when to teach and what, how and when to evaluate? (Hirst, 2010). Arredondo also (1981) defines syllabus as a dynamic and technical process than can also be continuous and participatory. A syllabus can be explained in four phases: the first phase called ‘analyzing a syllabus ‘performs an analysis of the characteristics, conditions and needs in the social, political and economic context; the educational context, the learner, and resources that are required and its availability. The second phase called ‘designing a syllabus’ reproduces the following actions: achieve the educational goals identified in the previous analysis, design the mediums (content and procedures) and allocate human resources, informational materials and financial, temporal and organizational resources. The third phase called ‘implementing a syllabus’ implements the designed procedures and the fourth phase called ‘assessing a syllabus’ establishes a relationship among goals and also evaluates objectives, means and procedures according to the characteristics and needs of the components of the student context and the resources, as well as the effectiveness of the components in achieving the intended purposes.

The baseline of the university syllabus is the curriculum approved by university, whose purpose is to ensure that through its implementation, students attain the competencies needed for a rapid integration into the labor market (Suskie, 2014). A syllabus should emphasize in development a set of competencies such as basic competencies associated with formative processes; generic or transferable competencies associated with all disciplinary areas; specific competencies that are specific to a particular profession; symbolic competencies that allows to solve and identify problems through the domain of oral and visual symbols and representations; personal competencies related to critical knowledge of space and time in which the student learns and self-learning competencies that are the set of skills that allows you learn to learn (Didriksson, 2010).

Competencies in University Life

Learning conceived from the constructivist perspective of Ausubel, Novak & Hanesian (1978) is defined as the process by which the entity of learning processes the information in a systematic and organized way, not just in rote manner, with the aim of generating knowledge. In this process, we can identify three key indicators in the learning process: attitudes, skills and content. However, from Piaget researching we can note that skills in particular take two different orientations such as intellective skills and procedural skills (Mercer, 1997).

The development of each of the attitudes, intellective skills, procedural skills and content are identified with training areas such as thinking, knowing, doing and being, respectively. The learning that has been achieved through the synergy of these four dimensions is known as significant learning. The trainee in the training process reconfigures the new information through his experience, allowing the learner integrating large bodies of knowledge with meaning. This integration between knowledge with meaning and experience, results in the development of the competency (Iafrancesco, 2004).

The term competency was commonly used in the 1980s and was always associated with the psychological characteristics that allow achieving a higher performance. The history of competency started several decades ago specifically in countries such as the United States of America, England, Australia and Germany. To keep the high standards of efficiency (Tobon, Sanchez, Carretero & Garcia, 2006), each competency merges with practical skills, knowledge, values, attitudes, and emotions that are triggered according to a particular activity.

The competencies in general education are associated with a set of questions that demand a space for analysis (Villarroel & Bruna, 2014). A partial list of questions that guide the theoretical framework concerning competencies are: what kind of individual are we forming, how a competency training model transcends in the learning process, what implications do we get by implementing a competency training model, if the goal is to achieve the formation of a better person to society, is this model both ideal and factual, and what is the contribution of competencies to such a training? (Benito & Cruz, 2005; Alfaro, Apodaca, Arias, García & Lobato, 2006; Benito, Rodríguez & González, 2009; Villamil, 2013; Villarroel & Bruna, 2014).

To answer these questions, two concepts are introduced. First, generic competencies are defined as those skills that include the ability to learn (to learn) more academically conceptual competency as well as communication and team player skills (Kalet & Pusic, 2014). Competencies or generic skills are important because the world of work requires flexibility, initiative, and the ability to undertake many tasks (Hattie, Biggs & Purdie, 1996). Notably, human resources within organizations must be capable of working as a team, solving problems, and handling non- routine processes. In addition, the person must make decisions, be responsible, be accountable, and communicate effectively. Skills in the wide range of generic competencies have become the main requirement of the contemporary worker (Schniederjans, Schniederjans & Starkey, 2014). Second, professional preparation requires training or training in specific competencies based on a profession, i.e., knowledge and techniques associated to a professional field; examples of specific competencies are: interpreting a graph of temperatures and rainfall, coding an information system using a programming language, managing customer credit, and diagnosing a radiological study, among others (Corominas, 2001). Specific competencies are focused on knowledge of the profession, knowledge of how to do things, knowledge of how to guide, and knowledge of how to assist others to do their job; in contrast, generic competencies are framed in poise and knowledge to be. They are transferable in the sense of serving in different professional fields (Gonzalez & Gonzalez, 2008).

After presenting generic and specific competencies, authors formally introduced the competency-based approach (CBA) that is intended to synchronize undergraduate and graduate university programs with the needs of the environment, the national productive sector, international integration. CBA influences the role of the teacher and the student from a holistic vision and integral educational process. In this way, it has contributed to the re-contextualization of learning process in formal education (Corvalan, 2008; Julia, 2011) and reactivating the social relevance in the training of professionals (Camperos, 2007).

Villarroel and Bruna (2014) highlight the importance of rescuing the value of CBA in the formation of students. These authors analyze the incorporation of generic competencies into the syllabus by discussing the challenges for faculty to teach and assess these competencies, in addition to educational institutions providing the conditions for this to happen. CBA has been the main core in international initiatives that are fully described in Table 1:

Table 1: International initiative that promote CBA - (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Table 1: International initiative that promote CBA – (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Which of the projects listed in Table 1 is suitable for the case study? Through its National Tuning Center and with the assistance of four universities including Universidad de Panama, Universidad Tecnologica de Panama, Universidad Santa Maria La Antigua and Universidad Latina de Panama, Panama participated in Latin America Alfa Tuning Project (2004-2007). Based on the fact, that Panama participated in this initiative makes Latin America Alfa Tuning Project (2004 – 2007) a good pick for this study.

Which of the categories for competencies quoted by Didriksson (2010) and presented in the previous section is suitable for the case study? Authors of the manuscript have chosen to work with generic competencies; their decision were based on the statement by the Ministry of Education of Panama (2005) who pointed out that in the context of the 21st Century it is highly required a methodological exercise linked to the development of generic competencies. In addition, Villarroel & Bruna (2014) have emphasized the importance of rescuing the value of CBA in the integral training of students, analyzing the incorporation of generic competencies into the syllabus, discussing the challenges for faculty to teach and assessing these generic competencies in universities to provide the conditions for this to occur.

Based on the previous two questions and their answers, the set of generic competencies from the Latin America Alfa Tuning Project (2004 – 2007) is formally introduced and will be fundamental in the case study:

  • (1) capacity for abstraction, analysis, and synthesis,
  • (2) ability to apply knowledge in practice,
  • (3) ability to organize and plan time,
  • (4) knowledge regarding the area of study and related professions,
  • (5) social responsibility and commitment to citizenship,
  • (6) capacity for oral and written communication,
  • (7) ability to communicate in a second language,
  • (8) ability to use information and communication technology,
  • (9) capacity for investigation,
  • (10) ability to learn and update learning,
  • (11) ability to search for, process, and analyses information from a variety of sources, 12) critical and self-critical abilities,
  • (13) ability to react to new situations,
  • (14) creative skills,
  • (15) ability to identify, pose, and solve problems,
  • (16) ability to make decisions,
  • (17) ability to work as part of a team,
  • (18) interpersonal skills,
  • (19) ability to motivate and work towards common goals,
  • (20) commitment to look after the environment,
  • (21) commitment to socio-cultural environment,
  • (22) value and respect for diversity and multiculturalism,
  • (23) ability to work in international contexts,
  • (24) ability to work autonomously,
  • (25) ability to formulate and manage projects,
  • (26) ethical commitment, and
  • (27) commitment to quality.

Research Methodology

The purpose of this case study is to explore the association between implementing the competency-based approach in graduate programs and the student’s perception about the approach. To answer the previous research question, authors will develop a methodology by describing the following components: (i) Participants, (ii) Instruments and (iii) Procedure.

Participants

The unit of analysis is the student. The student participation in the research will explore their perception about the competency-based approach. The methodology was developed from a case study involving 504 graduate students from Universidad Tecnologica de Panama and Universidad Tecnologica Oteima in the Republic of Panama. Table 2 breaks down the distribution of participants based on university, faculty name, number of courses, number of students and duration of the term.

Table 2: Break down of the case study - (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Table 2: Break down of the case study – (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

The characteristics of the participants are presented as follows: with respect to the maximum level of education attained by the participants prior enrolling to the graduate program, 159 participants have already obtained a bachelor degree, 201 participants have already completed engineering programs, 27 participants have already gotten a post- graduate degree, 112 participants have already completed a master program and 5 participants have already completed a doctorate program. In relation to the first degree achieved by the student and according to the classification of UNESCO, 11 participants have initial training in Mathematics, 12 participants in Life Sciences, 18 participants in Earth Sciences and Space, 47 participants in Agricultural Sciences, 30 participants in Medical Sciences, 237 participants in Technological Sciences, 28 participants in Economical Sciences, 10 participants in Geography, 10 participants in History, 32 participants in Law and Legal Sciences, 32 participants in Pedagogy and 37 participants in Political Sciences. Finally, in terms of working experience, 48 participants do not have previous working experience, 95 participants have less than 5 years of working experience, 165 participants have more than 5 and less than 10 years of working experience, 102 participants have more than 10 and less than 15 years of working experience and 94 participants have been working for more than 15 years, before enrolling in the graduate program.

Instruments

Instrument to assess generic competencies

Instrument 1 intends that participants evaluate the impact of the Alfa Tuning generic competencies in their career path and professional development. The instrument 1 has two sections. Section one includes three questions related to the participant’s background and section two includes seven questions that explore student’s perceptions about CBA. Section one is completed once the participant answers the three questions. See format in Table 3.

Table 3: Instrument 1, section 1 - (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Table 3: Instrument 1, section 1 – (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Section two is completed by answering the seven questions. See format in Table 4.

Table 4: Instrument 1 – section 2 - (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Table 4: Instrument 1 – section 2 – (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Instrument to tabulate participant’s responses

This instrument aims the tabulation of all evaluations from participants once questionnaires are completed and received in digital format. Table 5 presents a matrix which includes the seven research questions (rows) and the possible alternatives to be chosen by the student. Question 1 has 4 associated columns and questions 2, 3, 4 and 5 have 2 associated columns. Questions 6 and 7 are not included in the format because their answers are open. See format in Table 5.

Table 5: Instrument to tabulate results from instrument 1 – section 2 - (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Table 5: Instrument to tabulate results from instrument 1 – section 2 – (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Procedure

The research is descriptive and has considered the following phases: the first phase establishes the background of the participants by using instrument 1 – section 1 represented by Table 3. The second phase explores how the competency-based approach is perceived by graduate student through the use of instrument 1 – section 2 represented by Table 4. Finally, the third phase tabulates the evaluation of each participant using Table 5.

The specific actions taken by the Research team to conduct the study case are presented as follows: the first action was to get the approval from the authorities from Universidad Tecnologica de Panama and Universidad Tecnologica Oteima to conduct the case study. The second action was to include a list of generic competencies from the Alfa Tuning Project, in the syllabus of all courses by the research teachers. The third action was to invite students to voluntarily participate in the research. The fourth action was to identify the background of all participants. The fifth action was to explore the perception of graduate students from Universidad Tecnologica de Panama and Universidad Tecnologica Oteima about the CBA. The sixth action was to tabulate and process all assessments in order to prepare the results. Finally, the seventh action was to formally present the results of the case study to both faculty and administrative staff from Universidad Tecnologica de Panama and Universidad Tecnologica Oteima.

The duration of the case study was of 5.8 years (2,147 calendar days). The main activities are described as follows: the first activity was the presentation of the case study to both Universidad Tecnologica de Panama and Universidad Tecnologica Oteima for their approval within 2 calendar days. The second activity was the approval of the research by both universities within 3 calendar days. The third activity was based on the planning and designing of the syllabus for 30 courses within 330 calendar days (10 days per course). The fourth activity was the implementation of the syllabus for 30 courses (average of 60 calendar days per course) within 1,800 calendar days. The fifth activity corresponded to the tabulation, analysis and discussion of the research results within 10 calendar days. Finally, the sixth activity was the presentation of research results to the authorities of Universidad Tecnologica de Panama and Universidad Tecnologica Oteima within 2 calendar days.

Results

Table 6 shows the results of the case study:

Table 6: Results from instrument 1 – section 2 - (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Table 6: Results from instrument 1 – section 2 – (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Of Table 6 are extracted the following results: First, 160 participants have enrolled in the graduate program to pursue a promotion and a raise, 247 participants have enrolled in the graduate program to maximize their personal toolkit, 75 participants have enrolled in the graduate program to pursue a degree from an accredited university and 22 participants have enrolled in the graduate program to get recognition from work and relatives. Second, 429 participants have considered that the syllabus of the course clearly included the list of generic competencies; however, 75 participants have considered the syllabus did not clearly include the list of generic competencies. Third, 354 participants have considered that their final grades depended on their performance in respect to generic competencies and 150 participants have considered that their final grades did not depend on their performance in respect to generic competencies. Fourth, 73 participants have preferred the traditional evaluation method which explicitly excludes CBA; however, 431 participants have preferred the CBA evaluation methodology. Finally, 425 participants have concluded that CBA will impact favorably their career path and professional development and 79 participants have concluded that CBA will not impact their career path and professional development.

The participants had the opportunity to choose from a total of twenty seven generic competencies from Alfa Tuning (2004-2007) the most beneficial competency for their career path and professional development. Table 7 shows the results:

Table 7: The most beneficial generic competency for participant’s career path and professional development - (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Table 7: The most beneficial generic competency for participant’s career path and professional development – (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Table 7 shows four tiers that group a set of generic competencies based on their individual rankings, the highest tiers have better rankings than the lower tiers. The first tier includes the following competencies chosen by the participants: use of information and communication technologies, ability to learn and update learning and the ability to search and analyze information from different sources. The highest tier is associated with the tendencies of the Knowledge Society where ICTs, learning process and analysis are keys to succeed in the job market (Jones & Sallis, 2013). The second highest tier includes the following competencies chosen by graduate students: creativeness, organization and planning and applying knowledge in practice. This tier is associated with organization learning which is also vital to succeed in today ́s competitive market place (Argote, 2012). The third tier includes the following competencies: problem solving, decision making and researching. This tier is associated with the skills that a good manager should have (Proctor, 2014). Finally, the fourth tier includes the following competencies: quality assurance, work autonomously, formulate and manage projects and motivation toward common goals. This lower tier compiles a heterogeneous set of generic competencies and can ́t be group as the previous tiers (Blömeke, Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia, Kuhn & Fege, 2013).

The participants also had the opportunity to choose from twenty seven generic competencies from Alfa Tuning (2004-2007) the least beneficial competency for their career path and professional development. Table 8 shows the results:

Table 8: The least beneficial generic competency for participant’s career path and professional development - (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Table 8: The least beneficial generic competency for participant’s career path and professional development – (c) Rodrigo Durán, Christian A. Estay-Niculcar, Humberto Alvarez y J. Randolph

Table 8 shows a total of 8 competencies that have been chosen by the participants. In one hand, the least beneficial competencies chosen by graduate students that registered the highest rankings are: awareness for the environmental (Cornelius-White, 2013), awareness for socio-cultural matters (Baker, 2015), critical & self-critical abilities (Trede & McEwen, 2012) and abilities to communicate in a second language (Harley, 2013). On the other hand, the least beneficial competencies chosen by students that registered the lowest rankings are: social responsibility and commitment to citizenship (Bowen, 2013), capacity for abstraction, analysis and synthesis (Abbot, 2014), value and respect for diversity and multiculturalism (Henson, 2015) and ability to work in international contexts (Pedersen, Lonner, Draguns, Trimble & Scharron-del Rio, 2015).

Tables 7 and 8 have listed the perceptions of graduate students about their career path and professional development. Table 7 represents a list of required skills and Table 8 represents a list of desired skills for the contemporary job market (Cappelli, 2012). Therefore, graduate students have shown a more pragmatic than an ideal attitude with respect to their choices about the generic competency that generates the ‘most value’ and the ‘least value’ in the present case study (Danziger, Montal & Barkan, 2012).

Finally, by revising Tables 7 and 8 which total 21 competencies, authors have verified that none of these competencies has been repeated in the aforementioned tables. Authors have also identified that 6 generic competencies have been completely ignored by the students in the category of ‘most beneficial’ and ‘least beneficial’. This group of six competencies includes the following ones: competency 4 – knowledge regarding the area of study and related professions, competency 6 – capacity for oral and written communication, competency 13 – ability to react to new situations, competency 17 – ability to work as part of a team, competency 18 – interpersonal skills and competency 26 – ethical commitment.

Achievements

Was explored the association between implementing the competency-based approach in graduate programs and the student’s perception about the approach? First, with the collaboration of faculty, the CBA has been included and has been implemented in 30 graduate courses at Universidad Tecnologica de Panama and Universidad Tecnologica Oteima to determine which generic competencies from Alfa Tuning (2004-2007) would be included in each syllabus. Second, a total of 504 graduate students have assessed the CBA and have determined the impact of this methodology in their future professional development and chose the competencies that would be ‘the most beneficial’ and ‘the least beneficial’ for their career path and professional development. A total of 504 evaluations from participants were collected and were processed during six years of research. Based on this information, the case study fully explored the association between implementing CBA in graduate programs and graduate students perceptions about the CBA.

Limitations of the Study

The research has presented a number of limitations among which are: first, an important group of students did not submit their evaluations on time which delayed the process of tabulating and processing the data for analysis purposes. Second, only two research teachers participated in the case study from both universities. It would have been ideal to have a larger number of teachers involved in the research. Third, only two universities participated in the case study, a larger number of universities would have enriched the results of the study. Fourth, the research team acknowledges the limited sample of n = 504 students. However, it is important to take into consideration that Master Programs have smaller enrollment compared to undergraduate groups. Based on these four limitations, generalizations will not be included in the conclusions in the present manuscript.

The team suggests expanding the sample and then collecting more data by replicating the proposed methodology, in other researches, specifically in Master programs in Panama or internationally, in order to explore more about the association between CBA and graduate student perceptions about this methodology.

Discussion, Recommendations and Conclusions

The results from Tables 7 and 8 could be easily debatable. However, authors will focus on competency 7 – ability to communicate in a second language by addressing the following questions: why the aforementioned competency was not chosen by none of the graduate students that participated in the case study as ‘the most beneficial’ and why 16% of Panamanian graduate students have considered the ability to communicate in a second language as ‘the least beneficial’ to achieve their career path and professional development? These are genuine questions to be discussed based on today’s globalization trend. First, even though the Panamanian government has promoted bilingualism (Ministry of Education of Panama, 2015) most of the job descriptions in Panama do not require the domain of a second language such as English, Portuguese, Mandarin, among others (Ministry of Work of Panama, 2015). Therefore, a group of Panamanian graduate students do not feel the need to engage in learning a new language to pursue a job opportunity domestically. Second, Panama has a low rate of emigration to other countries where Spanish is not the first language such as United States of America (Migration Policy Institute, 2015). Therefore, there is a perception from an important group of Panamanian graduate students that a second language is not a required based on this reality.

What should academic advisors do in order to plan graduate curriculum? Academic advisors should not plan graduate curriculum programs by simply considering existing literature. This approach is currently considered anachronous (Andrews, 2009). Therefore, a multidimensional approach should be adopted by academic advisors. In addition of existing literature, the aforementioned group should focus on: (1) utilizing their knowledge base (Burns, Luckhardt, Parlett & Redfield, 2014), (2) benchmarking what other universities are offering (Agasisti & Bonomi, 2014), (3) gathering information from subject matter experts in the private and government sector to understand the trends (Wilensky, 2015), (4) establishing the real needs from the job market locally and internationally (Rolston & Cox, 2015) and (5) collecting, processing and analyzing data from graduate students (Hattie & Yates, 2014). Through this multidimensional planning process, universities will be promoting in their curriculum, the best practices of the industry (Sterling & Huckle, 2014).

After completion of this research, the following recommendations are made:

  • The inclusion of generic competencies in the planning, designing and implementing university curriculum, reduces the gap between university and the world of work. If each course defines a set of competencies to be implemented, the educational sector is forming a person with the skill set necessary to compete and obtain the desired job position.
  • For those universities in Panama and abroad that already have a competency-based approach, it is recommendable to review and make it part of the curriculum. It means that universities need to focus on continuing education to knowledge transfer these best practices to teachers. For those universities that do not have a competency-based approach, it is highly advisable to adopt one and make it part of the core of the syllabus. The research team recommends that teachers carefully review all generic competencies in order to select the correct set that generates value to graduate students.
  • Adopting generic competencies in a University syllabus is a major challenge to be accomplished. The research team suggests ‘an updated line of investigation from this manuscript, through the relationship between activities and the generic competencies within university syllabuses. In addition, there are other topics in the world of competencies that could be researched. A short list includes the exploration of competencies in specific verticals such as health care, government, logistics, distribution, and others.
  • As a result of the presented descriptive research, the authors of the manuscript can conclude that the competency-based approach has had an international coverage and can be replicated in local scenarios as Latin American Alfa Tuning Project (2004 -2007) has been implemented in universities from Panama.
  • Finally, the research team concludes that the competency-based approach is a good methodology to favorably impact the future of Panamanian graduate students because 84% of the students whom participated in the case study affirmed that the aforementioned approach will benefit their career path and professional development.

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