How to educate in a changing world? Towards competence-based tertiary agricultural education
Arjen Wals, Martin Mulder and Natalia Eernstmann, Education & Competence Studies, Wageningen University, Wageningen, Netherlands
We live in turbulent times, our world is changing at accelerating speed. Information is everywhere, but wisdom appears in short supply when trying to address key interrelated challenges of our time such as; runaway climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the depletion of natural resources, the on-going homogenization of culture, and rising inequity. Living in such times has implications for education and learning.
(Wals and Corcoran, 2012)
Borrowing from one of the latest books on education and learning in the context of sustainable development – Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change (Wals & Corcoran, 2012) – it can be observed that the speed of change, physically, socially and culturally, is accelerating. Continued globalization and digitalization are not only affecting how we think, what we know, who to believe, how we act, they also affect the role of education in society. Higher education, for instance, and the science it produces, is no longer the sole authority of truth, if ever it was. Rather, science oftentimes represents just another point of view or an opinion in the public debate of controversial and ambiguous issues such as; the causes and impacts of climate change, the role of GMOs in food security, the use of biofuels, etc. Scientists can be found on different ends of the ongoing debates, although more might be found at one end than on the other. It is not easy to decide who is right, who is wrong, or who is more right than others, or what the best way to move forward might be.
What do we educate for in such a world when things change so fast and knowledge becomes obsolete before you know it? How do we prepare today’s graduate for the world of tomorrow? And more specifically, what are the implications for tertiary agricultural education (TAE) around the world? We will respond to these questions by offering a brief review of some trends in TAE within Europe and zooming in on a world-wide response by shifting from traditional transmissive (based on the transfer of static knowledge from a sending teacher to a receiving learner) to emerging transformative (based on the development of more dynamic competencies in real-world settings based on authentic tasks and issues that require knowledge-in-action) forms of education which we will refer to as ‘competence-based’ (Mulder, 2012).
Firstly, we need to observe that compared to ten years ago, TAE is more in demand today because of an increased interest in quality-of-life issues, including amongst young people. Issues such as climate change and related worldwide weather-related disasters, the end of peak oil and the search for alternatives, feeding the world and related food-security issues and emerging transitions towards a bio-based economy, circular economies, urban agriculture and sustainable consumption and production, have led to a more prominent place for TAE in the world of higher education. At the same time, agricultural universities started changing their identity by positioning themselves as life science universities, which aspire to contribute to a better world and improved quality of life. For example, Wageningen University does this by, among other things, publishing weekly front-page ‘infomercials’ in one of the Netherlands’ most prominent newspapers, showing how the university is dedicated to helping to solve societal problems regarding food security, the environment, landscape, health, community development in the South, etc. The enrolment figures of Wageningen University have increased almost 10 years in a row after a low point in the late 1990s. Draconian measures were taken during the years 1999-2003; complete programmes and about 25 chair groups were eliminated. But, this resulted in new and creative solutions for the tensions that were felt throughout the university, which is a good example of “innovation under pressure”.
Innovation and development strategies in TAE in selected EU member states
Clearly the new dynamic in our interlinked world and the new demands and needs that arise from the challenges of creating and supporting developments that are more sustainable than the ones currently employed, requires a number of new competencies. These include; interdisciplinary problem-solving, addressing multiple stakeholder interests, participatory approaches in innovation, interactive methods in conflict resolution, responsive actions regarding community needs, critical media literacy, and social responsibility in entrepreneurship, to name a few, along with those that still connect to specific content areas (e.g. animal science, plant science, environmental science and agro-technology).
How does TAE deal with these new demands? The results of a European review of competence needs and pertaining varieties of educational practices in life-science education provide some lessons (Mulder and Eernstman, 2006). Strategies of various institutes of TAE in Europe to develop new competencies were studied. Several universities (Austria – Universität für Bodenkultur Wien (BOKU); Czech Republic - Czech University of Life Sciences (CUL); Denmark – Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (KVL); France - Institut supérieur d'agriculture Rhone-Alpes; Germany – Universität Hohenheim and Technische Universität München (TUM); Hungary – Corvenus; Ireland – University College Dublin; Poland – Warsaw Agricultural University (SGGW) and Agricultural University of Poznań; Romania – Agricultural Science University Bucharest; Spain – la Politécnica de Madrid; UK – Newcastle University) were either visited or contacted. A topic list was used during the interviews with the institutes. It is beyond the scope of this article to provide more details about the study and its limitations.
The most important findings regarding the expectations of the public and the educational innovations, as experienced by the interviewees, were synthesized. The most important focus points were selected, and information gaps were determined regarding competencies needed to respond to the observed demands and related pedagogical/didactical solutions. This led to a refined study description and a new questionnaire. Comparison between the various universities was not the main purpose of this study. The intention was to get a picture of challenges regarding public expectations with which TAE institutes were confronted, and how they responded in terms of competencies stressed and didactic/pedagogical strategies used for developing the competences needed. The results from the literature review and the interviews are presented below. The requirements are mentioned first, followed by the pertinent competencies.
|Requirements as defined by the public||Competencies considered relevant|
|Dealing with the complexity of the contemporary society||
|Decreasing the gap between science and society||
|Preparing students for the increased competition||
|Responding to internationalization||
|Shifting from generalization to adaptive niche specialization||
|Human resources development (extension - consultancy)||
|Responding to the wishes of the capricious consumer||
|Decreasing the gap between the consumer and the agricultural sector||
|Dealing with the consumer paradox||
|Sustainable production/quality orientation||
|Considerations about GMOs||
Towards competence-based education and training (CBET)
The overarching innovation at this moment is competence-based education and training (CBET). In a recent issue of the Journal of Agricultural Education & Extension Mulder (2012, p 319) writes: “The main reason for competence-based education is the alignment with needs in society, a sector, a region, a community or a company. CBET intends to give graduates access to the world of work. It also wants to enable them to have added value for the economy, and to ensure them a good livelihood in terms of self-employment, employment in commercial farms, processing companies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), governmental agencies, or international donor organisations, or as independent entrepreneurs. The CBET movement is a response to education programmes that are obsolete and irrelevant for socio-economic development.” A matrix was developed by ECS staff members with these principles and levels of implementation. This matrix is primarily meant for competence-based agricultural vocational education, including higher professional education (see also: Mulder and Gulikers, 2011, 2012; Sturing et al. 2011ab). The principles are:
- The competencies, that are the basis for the study programme, are clearly specified.
- Vocational core problems are the organizing unit for (re)designing the curriculum (learning and assessment).
- Competence-development of students is assessed frequently (before, during and after the learning process).
- Learning activities take place in several authentic situations.
- In learning and assessment processes, knowledge, skills and attitudes are integrated.
- Self-responsibility and (self)-reflection of students are stimulated.
- Teachers both in school and practice fulfil their role as coach and expert in balance.
- A basis is realized for a lifelong-learning attitude for students.
Case Study: A ten-step re-design of the MSc curriculum on horticulture at the Jimma University College of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine (JUCAVM) in Ethiopia
(Based on Mulder, 2012)
The public has various expectations on a multitude of issues in the fields of agri-food production, environment, landscape and the management of natural resources. New competencies are needed for graduates to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world with diverse societal demands and tightening ecological boundaries. Educational institutes in Europe that were traditionally aimed at providing agricultural education have responded widely to new qualification needs (Mulder and Eernstman, 2006). There are also various ways, building on existing programmes, courses and in practical educational settings, to develop the new competencies needed, such as beta-gamma interaction, facilitating multiple stakeholder processes, participatory methods, interactive strategies, conflict resolution, responsiveness regarding community needs, and social responsibility.
Traditional educational innovation trajectories (based on needs assessment, curriculum design, instructional design, implementation and evaluation) are not sufficient to reorient TAE towards the direction needed within the prevailing global change dynamics. These trajectories take too long because of their inherent time lag of many years. Clear values regarding the content-related issues together with an appropriate educational philosophy are imperative.
 See, for a review of the literature on the concept of competence and of the current understanding of professional competence as situated expertise, Mulder (in press). Conceptions of professional competence. Billett, S., Harteis, C., and Gruber, H. (Editors). International Handbook on Research into Professional and Practice-Based Learning. Frankfurt, Germany: Springer.
Mulder, M. 2012. Competence-based education and training – about frequently asked questions. Journal of Agricultural Education & Extension 18(4), 319-327.
Mulder, M. and Eernstman, N. 2006. The public’s expectations regarding the green sector and responsive practices in higher agricultural education. In: Proceedings of the 8th European Conference on Higher Agricultural Education – Czech University of Agriculture, Prague, Czech Republic, 14-16 September 2006.
Mulder, M. and Gulikers, J.T.M. 2011. Workplace learning in East Africa: a case study. Malloch, M., Cairns, L., Evans, K. and O'Connor, B. (Eds.). The SAGE Handbook of Workplace Learning. London, UK: Sage, pp. 307-318.
Mulder, M. and Gulikers, J. 2012. Workplace learning in East Africa: a case study. In: Proceedings of the SIG Workplace Learning at the AERA 2011, New Orleans, USA, 08-12 April 2011.
Sturing, L., Biemans, H.J.A., Mulder, M. and Bruijn, E. de 2011a. The nature of study programmes in vocational education: evaluation of the model for comprehensive competence-based vocational education in the Netherlands. Vocations and Learning 4(3), 191-210.
Sturing, E.K., Biemans, H.J.A., Mulder, M. and Bruijn, E. de. 2011b. Evaluation of the Model for Competence-Based Vocational Education. Poster presented at the EARLI Conference, Exeter, UK, 31 August 2011.
Wals, A.E.J. and Corcoran, P.B. (Editors) 2012. Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change. Wageningen, Netherlands: Wageningen Academic Publishers.
Key resources available via Transformative Learning.
Brinkman, B., Westendorp, A.M.B., Wals, A.E.J. and Mulder, M. 2007. Competencies for rural development professionals in the era of HIV/AIDS. Compare 37(4), 493-511.
Kibwika, P., Wals, A.E.J. and Nassuna-Musoke, M.G. 2009. Competence challenges of demand-led agricultural research and extension in Uganda. Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension 15 (1), 5-19.
Wals, A.E.J. and Bawden, R. 2000. Integrating sustainability into agricultural education: dealing with complexity, uncertainty and diverging worldviews. Gent, Belgium: ICA, 48 p.
Wals, A.E.J., Caporali, F., Pace, P., Slee, B., Sriskandarajah, N. and Warren, M. 2004. Education for Integrated Rural Development: transformative learning in a complex and uncertain world. Journal of Agricultural Education & Extension 10, 2, 89-100.
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