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A hammer for an uncertain world

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I’m just starting on a consultancy contract to completely update the national occupational standards for the UK travel and tourism industries. Those standards will become the new basis for the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) in the industry so it is important to get them right and we are taking best part of a year to do so. It will involve consultation with practitioners and employers throughout the UK.

The industries are demanding revision because the current standards are outdated and no longer fit for purpose. They require people to be trained in processes, products, services and technologies which no longer reflect practice in the sector.

The issue for me is that the current standards were agreed just three years ago. But “things” are changing faster than the industry can foretell. The shift to on-line and direct travel booking, the trend towards customers creating their own travel packages and the availability of instant on-line information about locations, availability, prices and real customer reviews is causing customers to question what they need from the industry.

To be fair, the industry is aware of the situation and is adjusting as fast as possible. However, it sometimes struggles to find people with the right skills to deliver what’s needed. Hence the revision of the standards which will inform the curriculum.

The question is, what standards should we define as the basis for training future and current staff? Do we go for current skills and knowledge requirements and know that the new standards will be out-of-date within a year or two, or do we try to predict the future needs of the industry and risk getting it wrong?

Two recent comments by other people have been sliding into juxtaposition as we wrestle with this dilemma.

The first from Annika Small, Chief Executive of Futurelab, in Vision (issue 6) describing the effect of a rapidly changing world on curriculum design,

“We are at a point where we need to teach what no one knew yesterday, and prepare our students for what no one yet knows.”

She makes the point that what is required is no less than the transition from what is, effectively a 19th century model of education to something that is fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Secondly, Dave Cormier (on the excellent EdTechWeekly #64) describes giving someone a hammer for the first time without describing what it is useful for. Yes, they may see the nice wooden handle and they may feel the weight of the forged steel head but it will be useless to them until they catch their toe on a protruding nail, make the connection back to the hammer and recognise that it is near perfectly designed for driving the nail back into the floor.

Now consider some of the tools of social and collaborative learning such as Moodle and all those little devices that make life more connective (such as Twitter, Skype and UStream). A typical reaction from many educators will be “Yes, very clever and very pretty but I don’t see that it offers me any value in my classroom.”

I recognise that change is necessarily “a good thing” if I am instigating it, however, if someone else is saying that I have to change it is, naturally, “a bad thing”.

My concerns are that the world of education is, by-and-large and for whatever reason, one of the last great conservative bastions of resistance to change. The longer change to new approaches is resisted the more entrenched that resistance becomes, because the gap between old practices and attitudes and those that are needed now gets wider and more difficult to cross every day.

The commercial imperative for the travel industry to discover new tools which enable existing services to be delivered more efficiently and for new services to be made available is readily apparent. Shareholders will demand return on investment. Less clear are the motivators for educators to make such transitions.

Which brings me back to the travel and tourism standards. Small incremental changes to keep everyone onside, or radical reform to (hopefully) keep the standards credible for a while into a very uncertain future?

Perhaps the strategy should entail both overhaul of the standards and a programme of reform of approaches to learning in this field. Maybe some innovative yet palatable resources and progressive introduction of aspects of on-line facilities and global collaboration / connectivism might help prepare the ground with enough practitioners to create a critical mass. Perhaps.

There are multiple uncertainties there (I’ll resist the Rumsvelt reference) but without movement from industry and educators, I can’t see an alternative to missing the impossible goal of coming up with standards that will simultaneously:

  • resonate with current industry practitioners and employers
  • be fit for purpose now and for the next five years
  • contribute to sector profitability and sustainability
  • allow the skills knowledge and attitudes to be taught and developed in traditional ways.

Eggs may have to be broken.

Anyone seen that hammer?

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