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Symposium on Outcome-based Approach to Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Higher Education: International Perspectives

9:00 am, 15 December 2005 (Thursday)
Chiang Chen Studio Theatre, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Opening Remarks by Mr Michael V Stone,
Secretary General, University Grants Committee

Professor T.P. Leung, Distinguished participants,


I am honoured to be invited to speak at this opening ceremony for the Symposium on Outcome-based Approach to Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Higher Education. Gerald Levin once said that “the opening of young minds will remain the most crucial activity any society can undertake.” But perhaps it is equally important to open the minds of the not-so-young, because we as adults and educators are responsible for nurturing the next generation. I thank the organizers of this symposium for giving us this opportunity so that we can engage in constructive dialogue on this important topic.

We are witnessing an international and significant shift in the way we determine educational quality. As higher education has moved from the limited preserve of the few to mass education, so have the ways in which quality is considered changed. Like it or not – and I know some do not – the stake society now has in higher education has meant a greater desire and need for more accountability. Accountability has its good and bad points. But its here to stay. One element of accountability concerns quality. Until recently, the assessment of quality was based primarily on terms of inputs and processes: intentions and efforts, procedures and feedback, spending and time. Recently and internationally, there has been an increasingly specific focus on outputs: goals and ends, products and results. The questions asked of our educators are often “what are our children learning, how well are they learning it and how do we know that they are learning it?”

Debate on Outcome-based Approaches

Outcome-based approaches reflect a belief that the best way for individuals and organizations to get to where they are going is first to determine where they are and where they want to be – then plan for the best way to get from here to there. Advocates of this approach have one common belief – we should articulate what we expect our students to learn, and we must gather evidence to determine whether they have learned it.

These approaches are certainly not new to any of our institutions. It is unthinkable that teaching staff have never considered the intended outcomes to be achieved by students before designing the curriculum or assessment methods of any given programme. To different extents, all staff – and hence - institutions have been consciously or sub-consciously using outcome-based approaches, but they maybe implicit or ad hoc in many cases. Outcome-based approaches are therefore not about creating an alternative scheme. They build on and make the existing one better.

A number of challenges can be anticipated in the early stages of implementation, and experience in other jurisdictions shows that there are liely debates on the merits of implementing outcome-based approaches, and the best strategies for adoption. I think this is natural and healthy, because only through dialogue and discussion can we open our minds and find out what is best for students.

I am sure we all want to deliver the best for the next generation, and no education professional would be resistant to this objective. Nevertheless, change very often brings about anxiety and mistrust, if it is not properly managed. The institutions and the UGC need to involve stakeholders early and often. We need to discuss with the teaching staff, students, employers and the general public – with the merits of outcome-based approaches thrashed out in open dialogue.

UGC’s Motives – Why are we Doing This?

Not being an expert in outcome-based approaches, I will defer to the distinguished speakers in this event to talk about practical experience. But the audience perhaps expects me to speak on the UGC’s thinking on this subject. It occurs to me that the skeptics of outcome-based approaches might well be the quickest to adopt precisely these approaches when they ask the UGC to outline the intended outcome of using outcome-based approaches! And I think it is a perfectly legitimate request, and I shall articulate UGC’s motives, if only to dispel any misunderstandings about our intentions.

The motives for undertaking outcome-based approaches for different jurisdictions are complex and varied. In Europe, a cross-national effort is currently under way under the auspices of the Bologna Process, which aims to create a “common European higher education area”. Credible learning outcomes form the basis for a system of credentialing student learning that can transcend established boundaries. In the US, one objective is to enable taxpayers to hold educators accountable for results and decree appropriate consequences for success or failure, and another is to provide more information to consumers of education. I know that Dr Baume shortly tell us of the UK experience.

So why does the UGC wish to promote outcome-based approaches? The UGC published the “To Make a Difference; To Move with the Times” document, which we call the “Roadmap document”, in January 2004. It contains the agreed role statements of each institution. A recurrent theme in each of the statements is that all institutions should “pursue the delivery of teaching at an internationally competitive level in all the taught programmes that are offered.” Our goal is simple and straightforward – improvement and enhancement in student learning and teaching quality.

An outcome-based approach to student learning is a student-centred approach. Placing the emphasis on learning outcomes helps institutions focus their education effort on what that effort is meant to achieve, and itself leads to better teaching and learning. It facilitates institutions’ academic planning by placing students’ interest at the forefront. This is particularly relevant when all institutions are planning major changes in their curricula under “3+3+4”. Clear understanding and articulation of what it is intended that students should achieve, facilitates the design of an effective curriculum and appropriate assessments to measure achievement, and to plan the learning process for individual students.

UGC’s Role and Position

The UGC’s role can best be described as a facilitator to the institutions, traveling as companions to help build up their capacities and providing support, when asked and where possible. As an external ally, the UGC has commissioned a baseline research exercise, to collect information on international experience, advice on the application of outcome-based approaches, and outline the challenges and stakeholders’ concerns and how to overcome them. Our consultant, Dr Peter Ewell of the US National Centre for Higher Education Management Systems, came to Hong Kong a few weeks ago. He visited and engaged in in-depth discussions with five institutions. He will be coming back.

While some external stimulation will – we hope - kindle institutions’ interest – and that’s why the UGC has commissioned the consultancy study – the Committee equally appreciates that outcome-based approaches cannot be unilaterally imposed nor micromanaged. Institutions must take ownership and ultimate responsibility, and we would wish to see the concept internalized through cultural and behavioral shifts, rather than acts of mere compliance. These approaches are only effective if they are deeply rooted in each institution’s nests of operations. Outcome-based approaches should be designed to challenge excellence rather than mandate adequacy. Our institutions are at their best when pursuing the best. Only through self-motivation with the aim to deliver the best teaching, can our students truly benefit from outcome-based approaches. It will be a tragedy if some institutions react by creating a superstructure for compliance, producing endless piles of paper for external consumption, while shielding the academic core from any real change. Unfortunately, this has happened elsewhere. The UGC intends to be careful not to go down the same path.

The UGC advocates an incremental and measured approach in taking forward this subject. Different higher education systems around the world are moving at different speeds towards more explicit use of learning outcomes. The shift from a focus on inputs and processes to outcomes is not an event that happens over-night. Rather, it is a gradual process that takes place over years. A unified and sustained vision by institutional leaders, shared by their colleagues and students, is necessary for genuine change to occur over time. Just as educators must allow time for careful planning and implementation, they must cultivate the patience and commitment to allow their efforts to evolve into lasting change. I am painting an evolution – it probably will not start with a bang, but certainly it should not end in a whimper.

And here I need to point out that, by encouraging the adoption of outcome-based approaches, the UGC is not attempting to straight-jacket our institutions. Maintaining institutional differentiation is as important to UGC as to the institutions themselves. Institutions differ in role and vision. They describe their ideal graduates (or “preferred graduate” as I believe PolyU calls them?) in diversified ways, and the way each institution adopts outcome-based approaches may well be different. UGC recognizes the importance of diversity across institutions and disciplines. There is therefore a compelling need to avoid a process of comparison based on a single set of criteria or the perception of “common standards.” We shall watch out for the trap of producing common templates for everyone.

The UGC has no plans to link implementation of this initiative with the on-going discussion on student numbers for the next triennium or under “3+3+4”. Not that we think this subject is not important or worthy enough to be linked with resources. But we understand our institutions are at different stages in digesting this philosophy. At present, our goal and focus therefore remain to empower institutions to enhance quality of teaching.

Institutions’ Progress and Examples of Best Practices

Having talked in quite some length on UGC’s thinking, perhaps I should now move on to how the UGC-funded sector is progressing. The progress that many institutions have already made in this area is indeed encouraging and impressive. We would not be here today if this concept was not already pretty well developed. This is the result of many years of hard work and planning. As I said, institutions are at different stages, but all have a good basis on which to make progress.

For example, we have observed dedicated, well-staffed and active central units that coordinate the institutional effort at the system level, deliver workshops and assist front-line staff in different departments. The better prepared institutions have curriculum development processes that are totally or partially outcomes based; constructive alignment of: teaching and learning processes and assessments, with outcomes; elaborate student and staff feedback systems; an understanding that outcomes assessment is not about examinations; strategies based on evidence; and benchmarking against self-selected peers outside Hong Kong. There is also an important recognition that this is not a paper exercise – documentation is important, but it is vital to anchor the process in real student and teacher work. We still have a long way to go, but we have a good foundation.

Most importantly, all institutions accept the need for broad-based, participatory, and consensus building processes. Institutions concur that members of staff should be involved early and often for this to be a success. There needs to be extensive buy-in across the faculties, and involvement in the planning stages.

Building consensus and rapport is certainly essential. Another element is to reflect on the existing curriculum and identify what has already been done. You may be surprised to find that a platform has already been quietly built up. Also, it is inherently easier to implement outcome-based approaches in certain academic disciplines, such as professional programmes. Outcome-based approaches maybe difficult to comprehend in the abstract. That is why we need early victories to spark more success, and visible results so that others will follow. We should therefore be open to using an experimental approach, involving the use of pilot programmes.

Way Forward

Choices need to be made about how to proceed. But by understanding the underlying dimensions of choice more fully, institutions will be in a better position to make informed decisions. The baseline research project, which I mentioned earlier, is scheduled for completion before the end of 2006. We have shared the consultant’s preliminary report on international experience, terminology, and conceptual framework with representatives of our institutions. For the next step, we see it is important for us to develop a simple “common language” so that the UGC, institutions, and academics can better understand each other and collaborate. In addition, we will look at generic outcomes across institutions and showcase best practices for assessment. All of these may set a stage for an eventual focused symposium which would involve local academics, overseas experts and employer representatives.

Concluding Remarks

I have reached the end of my speech. But it is important to realize that there is no end to implementing outcome-based approaches. It is an iterative and continual process of improvement that is never done. Nevertheless, as long as we keep sight of our goal, namely improve the quality of teaching and learning and give the students what they deserve, we shall have achieved our intended outcome.

Thank you.

UGC Secretariat
14 December 2005