Competency-based Education, Lifelong Learning and Adult Students: Insights from International Partnerships between East Africa, Southern Africa and USA-based Institutions of Higher Education.

Author:Tolliver, Derise E.


Most African education systems bear the impact of colonialism, of which most of the pedagogy is either outdated and/or not relevant to needs in the context of contemporary Africa. This situation has especially been the case for adult learners who have been marginalized, historically disempowered and denied access to opportunities for higher education. While these learners often have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that they have garnered through life and work experiences, conventional educational approaches are generally unable to accommodate the flexibility that these students need in order to pursue studies. Similarly, learning that takes place outside of the formal classroom may not be valued or may be dismissed as substandard, not "real" and/or not sufficiently intellectual for modern times. Change needs to occur, especially in light of criticism that many conventional institutions of higher learning are producing graduates who are ill-equipped to function competently in the labor market or in their communities.

Competency-based education is being touted by some as a possible transformative pedagogy that can reinvigorate higher learning with relevance, purpose and meaning for its constituencies. South Africa and Kenya are among a number of African nations that have universities and colleges working with international partners to develop their own version of competency-based programs for adult learners. An examination of these collaborations may be useful to others as they explore approaches to facilitate learning among adult students.

Adult Learners and Adult Education

... most of Africa's problems are adult problems that need adult solutions (Avoseh, 2002, p.4)

We begin with definitions for "adult learners" and "adult education" in order to provide the context for discussion of other key concepts in this paper. Adult learners represent a diverse group of students. On the one hand, they are often defined by age, sometimes referred to as mature or non-traditional, being older than the more conventional 18-22 year old undergraduate student in higher education environments in the West. However, adult learners might also be identified based on other characterizations of "adulthood," such as self-concept, behaviors or biology (e.g. post-puberty). Traditional African practice, on the other hand, has considered adulthood to be a stage of life, marked by having successfully completed rites of passage or initiation into the adult community.

Similarly, adult education, has various definitions. According to Darkenwald and Merriam (1982):

"adult education is concerned not with preparing people for life, but rather with helping people to live more successfully. Thus if there is to be an overarching function of the adult education enterprise, it is to assist adults to increase competence, or negotiate transitions, in their social roles (worker, parent, retiree etc.), to help them gain greater fulfilment in their personal lives, and to assist them in solving personal and community problems" (p. 9). We believe that adult education must be purposeful, meaningful and relevant to learners in their lives, supporting liberation from the oppression of ignorance and dependency. It should foster liberating ideas and skills, while promoting personal and societal transformation.

The purpose of adult education, then, within the context of contemporary African realities, is to support "sustainable development... where cultures and ways of life are balanced with global and international pressures and demands" (Owuor, 2007, p. 21). Avoseh (2002) concurs with this expectation of adult education, given the sociopolitical and economic realities of the Continent. He calls for an integration of modernization with the strengths of traditional African values to engage adult learners to seek the solutions to Africa's problems. By reclaiming positive cultural identity, integrity, confidence, and empowerment, it is believed that adult learners can help recognize and decolonize the oppression of "western dominated school curricula" (Ouwor, 2007, p. 25). Adult education in Africa requires confrontation of systems of power, domination and control. It must be poised to challenge injustices and prepare the learner to build stronger communities, while assisting in healing from oppression's wounds (Osofo Atta, personal communication, June 1, 2017).

Lifelong Learning

Never stop learning because life never stops teaching. African proverb

Lifelong learning can be seen as a basic human right, where all citizens are engaged in some form of learning, to be supported regardless of age, gender, cultural background, etc. This should not be a luxury. Avoseh (2002) reports that Namibia, for example, considers lifelong learning as a part of its development priorities, as important as financial indicators of national wellness.

Nafhuko, Amutabi and Otunga (2005) define lifelong learning as a process, not an endstate, but a broad approach to knowledge that can reflect both formal education and informal learning. As such, it represents a holistic view of education that is horizontal--capturing learning between self, home, community, school and the workplace--and vertical, reflecting different formal levels, such as elementary, secondary and post-secondary instruction.

Lifelong learning also addresses modern economic and social needs, with requirements for people to be adaptive and creative. As conceptualized within the two partnerships to be discussed later in the paper, lifelong learning becomes a praxis that enriches one's personal life and becomes a knowledge base for critical thinking and informed decision making.

While some might situate the theorizing of this concept within a Western paradigm, many African scholars note that it is very much grounded in the African worldview and life experience. Omolewa (2007) notes that lifelong learning has been part of a "systematic, coordinated ... theory and practice" (p. 13) on the Continent. Traditional education reflected in rites of passage age groups, apprenticeship systems, and formal and informal community instruction all speak to the recognition of ongoing learning processes that were interwoven into various aspects of people's lives, including spiritual, political, economic and educational. It "emphasized relevance, responsiveness, respect for the dignity and integrity of all" (Omolewa, 2007, p.14).

Preece (2014) notes that lifelong learning in Africa has generally been rooted in the collective, reflecting one of the central tenets of traditional African culture, as compared to the individualistic focus in Western thought. Avoseh (2007) states that traditional African cultural values, which influence lifelong learning experiences, provide motivation for engagement and then ownership for learning activities, particularly for adults. This latter point is critical to consider for designing educational approaches, such as competency-based education, in Africa.

Lekoko and Modise (2011) concur with Omolewa (2002), advocating that lifelong learning be conceptualized within an indigenous African knowledge system, incorporating self-learning, experiential learning, and application of learning. They suggest that lifelong learning takes place ".within a specific context in which acquisition of relevant skills never stops" (p. 10). Their description of women weavers in Botswana who participate in compensatory education programmes in order to validate and credential themselves for the knowledge, skills and abilities they have attained and grown outside of formal education systems speaks to the African tradition and understanding of lifelong learning, a concept that is not associated with Africa nearly enough in the scholarly literature.

Probably the most notable proponent of lifelong learning in Africa was Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania after independence from British rule (Major and Mulvihill, 2009). His educational philosophy was firmly grounded in the faith that lifelong learning could effectively counteract the colonialist assumptions and practices of the dominant formal means of education system. He also believed it was necessary for the liberation of all African nations. Nyerere championed adult education, lifelong learning and learning for liberation. More recent scholars, such as Oketch (2012), share his vision of lifelong learning playing a critical role in the reclamation, revitalization and reascension of Africa.

Competence, Competency and Competency-Based Education (CBE)

While often described as a "new" paradigm for higher learning, competency-based education actually has a long history as an educational philosophy (Jones and Olswang, 2017). It is based on the concept of competence, which Mulder, Gulikers, Biemans and Wesselink (2009) define as:

... a series of integrated capabilities consisting of clusters of knowledge, skills and attitudes necessarily conditional for task performance and problem solving and for being able to function effectively in a certain profession, organization, job, role and situation (p. 757). This definition suggests that while the concept of competence is often associated with job readiness and performance, it can also be related to how learners are prepared to function in their lives and communities beyond their work persona (Cleary et. al., 2017). Nyambura, Kombo and Anzoyo (2011) describe competence more succinctly as a "statement of learning outcomes for a skill or a body of knowledge (p. 157)." Competence suggests knowing and the ability to do (Kouwenhoven, 2010).

Competence and competency are terms that are often used interchangeably, yet they are generally considered to be two distinct concepts. Whereas competence refers to the knowledge, skills and abilities that the learner possesses, a competency describes how things have to be done and at what level. According to Mulder et al (2009), competency is an element of competence...

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