UniServe Science News Volume 15 March 2000


Web-based Learning and Generic Skills Development

Ron Oliver
School of Communications and Multimedia, Edith Cowan University
Catherine McLoughlin
Teaching and Learning Centre, The University of New England

This report is a shortened version of a paper presented at ASCILITE 1999 and published in the conference proceedings.


In today's information-oriented and technology-based society, people everywhere are beginning to take more holistic views to teaching and learning than has previously been the case. Evidence of this in Australian universities is readily apparent when one scans their web pages. Not too far from the top of the information pile, it is usually quite easy to find descriptions of each university's distinctive aims for the development of their graduates' skills and knowledge, and the processes by which these aims will be achieved. And in most cases, there are broad-brush descriptions of the development of generic skills, those skills that students need to become successful learners and successful practitioners in their fields of study and work and in other aspects of their life (Dearing Report, 1997).

But what these generic skills actually are and how individual teachers can successfully target their development are broad and complex issues. These issues are set to become even more prominent as the processes and products of university teaching and learning evolve through increased use of information and communication technologies.

Defining generic skills and competencies

Defining the full range of generic and transferable skills that are useful (or essential) for university students is an exhaustive process. It is almost as exhaustive as finding agreement in the terms which might best be used to describe the set. In the context of this paper we use the term generic skills to describe the transferable skills that are considered to be essential life skills for people both in and out of the workforce.

There has been interest in the concept of generic and key skills as outcomes of education for many years now. It was perhaps the Finn Report (1991) which introduced this concept into Australia. The Finn Report used the term key competencies to describe 'certain essential things that all young people need to learn in their preparation for employment'. The subsequent Mayer Committee (1992), further clarified the concept of employment related key competencies in compulsory education and training.

Many questions still surround the concept of generic skills. They are described by a number of synonyms including personal, transferable, generic, common, work and employment related skills. Are they skills or are they competencies, capabilities or learning outcomes? The key skills that are reported as important outcomes of schooling tend to be broad and extensive. In university teaching, the skills set is often narrowed to focus on those that are not, or cannot, be taught as discrete components of coursework. At the same time, those skills sought by university education assume learners are numerate and literate as a consequence of the requirements of university entrance.

The generic skills included in the mission statements of most universities tend to include higher level aims relating to critical thinking, inquiry and a capacity for lifelong learning. Such skills described in the literature for university graduates include:

  • skills that students need to develop to become successful and self-sufficient learners e.g. information literacy, metacognitive skills (Bruce, 1998);
  • the development of intellectual and imaginative powers, understanding and judgement, problem solving skills, critical thinking skills and an ability to see relationships (Ramsden, 1992);
  • personal and interpersonal skills needed for communication, cooperative and collaborative teamwork, and leadership (Ashcroft and Foreman-Peck, 1994; Gibbs et al., 1994); and
  • skills required for successful work practices including time management, task management leadership and self evaluation (Gibbs et al., 1994; Blumhof et al., 1996).
  • Bennett, Dunne and Carre (1999) offer an elegant model to conceptualise generic skills in the higher education sector by suggesting a framework comprising 4 broad managerial skills. These authors argue that the important key skills are fundamentally those associated with being able to manage self, others, information and task. They propose that such a model can be applied "to any discipline, to any course and to the workplace and indeed to any other context" (p. 77). Table 1 displays this framework and shows the various elements within.

    Management of Self
    Manage time effectively
    Set objectives, priorities and standards
    Take responsibility for own learning
    Listen actively with purpose
    Use a range of academic skills
    Develop and adapt learning strategies
    Show intellectual flexibility
    Use learning in new or different situations
    Plan/work towards long-term goals
    Purposefully reflect on own learning
    Clarify with criticism constructively
    Cope with stress
    Management of Information
    Use appropriate sources of information
    Use appropriate technologies
    Use appropriate media
    Handle large amounts of information
    Use appropriate language and form
    Interpret a variety of information forms
    Present information competently
    Respond to different purposes/contexts and audiences
    Use information critically
    Use information in innovative and creative ways
    Management of Others
    Carry out agreed tasks
    Respect the views and values of others
    Work productively in a cooperative context
    Adapt to the needs of the group
    Defend/justify views and actions
    Take initiative and lead others
    Delegate and stand back
    Offer constructive criticism
    Take the role of chairperson
    Learn in a collaborative context
    Assist/support others in learning
    Management of Task
    Identify key features
    Conceptualise ideas
    Set and maintain priorities
    Identify strategic options
    Plan/implement a course of action
    Organise sub-tasks
    Use and develop appropriate strategies
    Assess outcomes

    Table 1. A framework for the development of key skills (Bennett, Dunne and Carre, 1999)

    Developing key skills

    By their very nature, generic skills are difficult to teach through formal instruction. Traditionally the development has been attempted through 3 main types of learning activity: integrated approaches; stand alone approaches; or approaches where key skills are developed in parallel with the conventional curriculum (Drummond et al., 1997 cited in Bennett, Dunne and Carre, 1999). Many writers question whether it is really possible for the learning taking place in university settings to be transferable to vocations and the work place. One school of thought suggests that through situating learning in meaningful contexts, this transfer can be facilitated (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1989). Contemporary thinking is that university learning can be significantly strengthened through workplace-based practica and applications (Seagraves, Kemp and Osborne, 1996).

    Much of our work at Edith Cowan University has explored the use of technology to support the implementation of situated learning environments and inherent in much of this work has been the development of learners' key skills (Herrington and Oliver, 1997). Our recent exploration of problem-based learning environments (Oliver, Omari and Stoney, 1999) has furthered our interest in this area and provided the impetus for this paper and line of inquiry.

    A web-based learning setting

    In the introductory multimedia course in our undergraduate programme, we have embraced a web-supported problem-based learning environment by which the students engage and interact with the course content. The system involves learners working in collaborative groups to explore the solutions to open-ended and ill-defined problems related to the weekly course content. From these activities we have observed learners developing a raft of generic skills through their interactions and activities in the web-based course.

    We have developed an on-line database-driven system to support a problem-based learning approach. The system has been described in several papers as has its capacity to engage and motivate learners (e.g. Oliver and Omari, 1999; Oliver, Omari and McLoughlin, 1999). The system supports problem-based learning by providing a means for students to collaborate on set problems, to share resources, to post solutions and to compare and review answers from other groups. This style of problem-based learning involves a number of activities and tasks that appear to provide strong support for the development of a number of key skills. The activities which the students are required to undertake each week include:

  • Information Seeking The tasks require students to seek information from appropriate sources to create an answer that reflects current thinking and knowledge. The students are able to use the Web as an information source but have to isolate from among the myriad of resources available, those that are relevant and helpful.
  • Critical Thinking Having obtained relevant information, the students are required to apply this to the immediate setting to explore the options and possibilities available in developing a solution. The students have to examine the information, consider the scope of their inquiry and decide the parameters in which they are going to work.
  • Collaboration Each group has a number of members. The problem solving task requires members to organise themselves into productive teams who share the workload, undertaking separate tasks and maintaining tight deadlines and schedules from one week to the next. Such activities demand that students consider the requirements of others, be adaptive, responsible and flexible.
  • Problem Solving Each task is different and needs to be tackled in varying ways. Students need to use their initiative and intellect to consider the form the solution will take and to consider ways in which the solution can be expressed concisely and succinctly.
  • Outcomes

    We have used this system in several units now involving relatively large numbers of students. In each instance we have been surprised and delighted with the learning which has been achieved. It is patently clear to us that the problem-based learning model provides very powerful contexts for learning the course content. The activities encourage the learners to interact with the course content, to read and explore beyond the immediate setting and to reflect on what is being read. At the same time, the learning activity encourages and supports many other useful tasks. A close examination of these tasks suggests a high degree of incidental learning is occurring in the form of key skills.

    When the activities and tasks undertaken by the students exposed to this form of learning environment are examined in the light of the model proposed by Bennett, Dunne and Carre (1999), its capacity to support generic skills development immediately becomes evident.

    The learning setting helps and encourages learners to practise and develop key skills across the full range of managerial skills.

  • Management of Self The activities require students to complete a large and unstructured task within a set timeframe and within a number of constraints and limitations. The activities require learners to plan their steps, explore the domain and work towards a goal. In the process, they need to confront unexpected outcomes and hurdles, reflect and judge their progress and use a variety of learning strategies to develop their solution.
  • Management of Others In the group setting, students are required to work with others and maintain a good working relationship throughout the semester. On a day-to-day basis, they need to be cooperative and adaptive to the group's needs, defend their own stance, negotiate and give and accept criticism.
  • Management of Information In this regard the activities require students to apply the various technologies to seek information and to deal with the large amounts obtained. They need to interpret the information and deal with the multiple perspectives presented. They have to then create a succinct summary requiring reflection and critical thinking.
  • Management of Task Finally in terms of managing the task, these activities compel students to identify sub-tasks and to conceptualise what is being asked and how it can be dealt with. The activities require the learners to instigate and carry out the course of action and to reflect on the outcomes and directions.
  • The capacity of our on-line problem-based learning system to support the development of such a large set of generic skills suggests many more contexts and applications for its use. While our initial rationale for its development and design was to promote learning in discipline areas, its capacity to promote learning in other key areas makes it more valuable again. In our previous research we have explored the forms of learning enhancement achieved in the context of discipline content and skills. We are now very much encouraged to pursue our inquiries of the use of this teaching strategy to promote the development of generic skills.

    Summary and conclusion

    Problem-based learning has long been proposed as a powerful and flexible form of learning for university settings. The support for PBL has come from many quarters and for many reasons. It offers the flexibility to cater for a variety of learning styles and the means to create meaningful and authentic settings in which to situate learning. It provides the opportunity to create engaging and stimulating student-centred learning activities. With problem-based learning, the focus moves from dealing with content and information in abstract ways to using the information in ways which reflect how learners might use it in real-life.

    The combination of the use of the Web as a means of supporting problem-based learning has in our experience provided enormous benefits to our teaching and learning programmes and to the extent and forms of learning achieved. It has provided many opportunities for students to undertake activities which have the prospect to develop their generic skills. It is not yet clear from our work how well the various skills are developed, nor is it clear what forms of intervention might be needed to more fully assist their development. We are looking forward to exploring these issues in future variations and implementations of our on-line learning systems.


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    Blumhof, J., Honeybone, A., Pearlman, D. and Pinn, K. (1996) Tackling the problem of skills development in a modular degree programme: the Skillswise Project. In G. Gibbs (ed.), Improving Student Learning: Using Research to Improve Student Learning. Oxford, UK: Oxford Centre for Staff Development, 328-339.

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    Oliver, R. and Omari, A. (1999) Replacing lectures with on-line learning: Meeting the challenge. In J. Winn, (ed.) Responding to Diversity: Proceedings of the 16th Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education. Brisbane, Queensland University of Technology, 257-264.

    Oliver, R., Omari, A. and McLoughlin, C. (1999) Planning and developing a problem-based learning environment for large on-campus classes using the WWW. In G. Cumming, T. Okamoto and L. Gomez (eds.) Advanced Research in Computers and Communications in Education. Proceedings of ICCE99. Amsterdam: IOS Press, 720-727.

    Oliver, R., Omari, A. and Stoney, C. (1999) Collaborative learning on the World Wide Web using a problem-based learning approach. In J. Chambers (ed.) Selected Papers from the Tenth International Conference on College Teaching and Learning. Jacksonville: FCCJ.

    Ramsden, P. (1992) Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

    Seagraves. L., Kemp, I. and Osborne, M. (1996) Are academic outcomes of higher education provision relevant to and deliverable in the workplace setting? Higher Education, 32(2), 157-176.

    Ron Oliver
    School of Communications and Multimedia
    Edith Cowan University


    Catherine McLoughlin
    Teaching and Learning Centre
    The University of New England

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    UniServe Science News Volume 15 March 2000

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