Developing and Assessing Professional Competencies: a Pipe Dream? : Experiences from an Open-Ended Group Project Learning Environment

Abstract: Professional competencies are explicitly identified in the primary learning outcomes for science and engineering degrees at many tertiary institutions.  Fulfillment of the requirements to equip our students with these skills, while formally acknowledged as important by all stakeholders, can be hard to demonstrate in practice.  Most degree awarding institutions would have difficulties if asked to document where in degree programs such competencies are developed.The work in this thesis addresses the issue of professional competencies from several angles.  The Open-Ended Group Project (OEGP) concept is introduced and proposed as an approach to constructing learning environments in which students’ development of professional competencies can be stimulated and assessed.  Scholarly, research-based development of the IT in Society course unit (ITiS) is described and analyzed in order to present ideas for tailoring OEGP-based course units towards meeting learning objectives related to professional competence.  Work in this thesis includes an examination of both the meanings attributed to the term professional competencies, and methods which can be used to assess the competencies once they are agreed on.The empirical work on developing ITiS is based on a framework for educational research, which has been both refined and extended as an integral part of my research.  The action research methodology is presented and concrete examples of implementations of different pedagogical interventions, based on the methodology, are given.  The framework provides support for relating a theoretical foundation to studies, or development, of learning environments.  The particular theoretical foundation for the examples in this thesis includes, apart from the action research methodology, constructivism, conceptual change, threshold concepts, communities of practice, ill-structured problem solving, the reflective practicum, and problem based learning.The key finding in this thesis is that development and assessment of professional competencies is not a pipe dream.  Assessment can be accomplished, and the OEGP concept provides a flexible base for creating an appropriate learning environment for this purpose.