Qualifications vs portfolios

This blogpost follows on from one of the most popular posts on this blog “Life on a piece of paper.”  (As an aside, should the full stop be before or after the closing quotation marks?)

For some strange reason, I still have nightmares about an horrific (an or a horrific?) A-level maths exam from the late 1990s where the difficulty level seemed to be far higher than anything that we had seen in past exam papers. A number of those around me dropped two grades with our final marks compared to what we scored on our coursework grades. Yet despite that horrible exam, much of what I learnt (in particular on the statistic and analytical elements) formed a sound basis for much of the work that I was later to go on and do.

Compare that to other qualifications & courses where some things that were taught quickly became obsolete due to scientific and technological advances. Yes, when I last studied physics, Pluto was a planet. There is also the issue of what some courses do not cover. For example on the post Is middle class no longer magical? Noel commented:

“Your class is determined by your place in the production process and how much autonomy and control you have over your work, everything else is the effects of this position.

As someone with an economics degree I’m surprised you don’t get this.”

Without getting into the wider debate on class, a number of socialist types who I lived with in my second year were the people who introduced me to the debate around ‘class’ (hence being familiar with the definition above) – yet I’m struggling to recall class even being mentioned during lectures and seminars at university. (See John Prescott describing someone as ‘working class’ only to face the reposte “But I don’t work!“)

Do qualifications have a use-by date?

Now that I’m in my early 30s, I’m asking what value the qualifications I gained in the pre-internet days of the mid/late 1990s actually have – both in terms of the time that has passed and the developments in society and technology in the years since. This was something I discussed with a friend last night. At what point do employers stop taking notice of qualifications from over 10 years ago? What is the ‘life expectancy’ of a qualification?

I only started using message boards and later, digital and social media after completing the ‘essential’ qualifications for the career path I first embarked upon (i.e. GCSEs, A-levels and degree). What I’m yet to do is to use digital and social media in the academic sense of problem solving and crowd-sourcing for new ideas. The same is also true in terms of compensating for below average (to utterly uninspiring) teachers who across more than a few subjects I care to mention did huge damage to my interest and passion in and for a number of fields. My point with this is that these qualifications were gained without the use of resources that (as I’m finding out now through teacher training) more and more schools and colleges now take for granted.

The uneven playing field

In Life on a piece of paper I asked a number of questions about the culture of exams and public expenditure on them. As far as employers are concerned, my take is that they are looking for a credible institution to vouch for an individual’s ability in a given field. In that regard I can understand why employers complain about some qualifications and standards not being ‘fit for purpose.’ One of the issues when I did A-level geography was that the syllabus that the sixth form centre at my old school used was not the same one that my sixth form college used – the latter using one that a number of trainee teachers at Homerton College in Cambridge at the time told me was at undergraduate level in some parts. (We had a lovely trainee teacher who lodged in my family’s house at the time who told me all about this). The thing is, employers don’t have the time to compare exam boards. With so many exam boards and examinations, what information should prospective employers take from exam certificates?

This also touches on the issue of information overload. The ‘choice is good’ mindset/assumption that underpinned my economics degree was something that got me asking ‘how much choice is too much choice?’ I think it was in a supermarket 10 years ago looking at a bewildering choice of cereals. Amongst other things, I did not have the time to take in all of the information that perhaps I would have wanted to make an informed choice. Is the same true with our system of qualifications and certificates? Is the amount of choice and variation preventing both employers and people from making informed choices because there is too much choice and too much information out there? What is the optimum amount of information to make sound choices?

Assessment centres

In the career field that I’ve been in, I’ve never been in a position where I’ve had to develop and present a portfolio of things. It’s always been a case of filling in forms, competency-based interviews and the following up of references that has been the story of my (working) life.

The only time that I deviated from this path was with the Fast Stream Assessment Centre, which was one of the most amazing days of my life. It was one of those rare occasions in life where I knew that I was being very strongly tested and stretched, yet at the same time had this feeling that I was excelling in it at the same time. Probably because I was enjoying what I was being tested on and how I was being tested. As assessments go, this was the toughest I have ever had to sit. At the end of it, I said to myself that if I didn’t get onto the Fast Stream it would be because I genuinely was not good enough, not because of lack of preparation or anything else.

Assessment centres are not cheap – which is probably why only the most affluent of organisations tend to use them (and even so, only for certain grades of staff). Yet given the way we do (academic) qualifications in this country, is there a role for having a system of external assessment centre-style assessments incorporated say in a general studies qualification at A-level standard or within degrees?

Going beyond paper qualifications?

One of the things that excites me about getting my hands dirty in the world of digital and social media is the ability to create a portfolio that bypasses all of the qualifications and assessments that I’ve ever done. I never imagined I’d end up with a little sideline selling cuddly toys due to something that evolved from running a social media account. Hence my questions in my last post Selling stuff online where my reaction feels like “I can’t do this – I haven’t got a certificate in it!”

What’s this portfolio going to look like? What’s going to be in it? Well, as with CPD, it’s going to be an ongoing thing with content added (& removed) as time goes by. Here’s some ideas for starters:

  • Digital video content – starting off around my skeletal plans for an “Introduction to Whitehall and Parliament” evening class – one of the reasons why I am doing teacher training at Cambridge Regional College
  • Photographic content – although I’m publicity-shy online, Puffles definitely isn’t. Also, blog posts that contain photographs of the cuddly toys get far more hits than most of the normal blogposts that I write.
  • A digital CV
  • A repository for documents and slides
  • A repository for sound recordings
  • A tumblr-style account for the really random stuff that perhaps I want to refer back to in a way that is more difficult with Twitter
  • …and a single portal for those of you who want to buy cuddly toy dragon fairies!
As I said in the last post, ultimately what I’m aiming for in my entire social media presence is to have the various different accounts bouncing off and feeding off of each other so that their combined presence is greater than the sum of their parts. Sarah Baskerville’s overall home page gives some idea of the range of options that are out there. My personal preference would be to stick with a smaller number of media platforms and use them regularly rather than try to manage a larger number infrequently.

Regular followers, feel free to link to your own examples where you are already combining various digital and social media platforms in a manner that goes beyond the sum of their parts – I and others are more than interested in seeing what you’ve done and how you’ve done it. 
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2 Responses to Qualifications vs portfolios

  1. Andrew Bower says:

    Thanks for sharing that Prescott clip, about which I’d heard but which I’d never seen. I do find the left’s wish to impose class on everyone to be offensive and I’m glad this attempt fell flat. Socialism absolutely depends on a sense of “them and us” existing in society, which is why they take every chance they can to stoke it up. That and universal welfare (to bind in the wealthier), which fortunately is receding.

  2. Frances Coppola says:

    The “life expectancy” of a qualification can be surprisingly short. For example, there is a thriving industry in MBA “updates” because MBAs get out of date so quickly. I completed mine in 1992 and never really used it, not even in my banking career: I was never a top manager of a large corporation, which is all the MBA seemed to prepare me for, and to be honest I don’t want to be. I doubt if any prospective employer would take much notice of it now, except as an indicator of my general educational level.

    Professional qualifications last longer. My ARCM is still current though I completed it in 1998. But the real issue is whether you use your qualifications. I regard them as a starting point from which to develop your knowledge and expertise further, not an end in themselves. I am now a far better singer than I was when I did my ARCM, because since then I have worked professionally as singer and teacher. Because of that, I could now update that qualification to Fellowship level (of the Royal Schools of Music, not the RCM, as they’ve changed the qualification rules now).

    It’s funny how life takes you in directions you don’t expect. Many people I know now work in fields totally unrelated to their undergraduate degree subject. And many people have more than one career in their lifetimes – I am one of these. I have had two careers so far. Now I am writing, maybe there will be a third? Or maybe it will be part of that “portfolio” that you mention, that
    I’ve always found an attractive idea because I never could decide what I really wanted to do? I don’t know. It’s all been rather unexpected. I went on Twitter to talk about singing & image consultancy, not to develop a reputation as an expert on banking and finance. And because it’s been nine years since I left banking, and lots has changed in that time, I’ve had to update myself – in my spare time, while working full-time as a singer and teacher. I don’t know where this is going. But I’m just going along with it to see where it leads. I guess you are doing the same.

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