Ana-Elena Guerrero
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
Av. Tibidabo 39-43, 08035 Barcelona, Spain
a Minguill
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
Av. Tibidabo 39-43, 08035 Barcelona, Spain
E-learning, competencies, metadata, learning design, standards, LOM, IMS-LD, ontologies.
In this paper we describe a proposal for standardizing the concept of competency in a repository of learning
objects, by means of an extension of the LOM and the IMS-LD standards, and the use of ontologies for ensur-
ing consistency is also outlined. Following the recommendations from the Bologna Process, we identify the
competencies required and developed by means of the current learning resources and formative and evaluation
activities in a virtual e-learning environment and, using the most important taxonomies defined for such pur-
poses in the literature, we identify the necessary metadata to describe the competencies related to such learning
resources and activities. We discuss the process of shifting from content based metadata to competency based
metadata, and we present an example of improving the description of learning resources by adding metadata
for describing competencies, using a real case at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.
Nowadays, with the creation of the new European
Higher Education Area, also known as the Bologna
Process, it becomes necessary to shift from heavily
content-based courses to others where the concept of
activity is the key. Contents, or learning resources in
general, will become secondary pieces in the learning
process, while the activities and the competencies de-
veloped by such activities will become the focus of
any formative action. In order to do so, it is neces-
sary to achieve an agreement for describing both con-
tents and competencies as well, by means of meta-
data. It is also important to promote the formal ac-
knowledgement of skills, knowledge and competen-
cies gained through work experience, informal train-
ing and life experience, for prior learning recognition
purposes. From the Bologna Declaration, ”A Europe
of Knowledge is now widely recognized as an irre-
placeable factor for social and human growth and as
an indispensable component to consolidate and en-
rich the European citizenship, capable of giving its
citizens the necessary competencies to face the chal-
lenges of the new millennium, together with an aware-
ness of shared values and belonging to a common so-
cial and cultural space”, lifelong learning becomes a
clear objective, using a competency-based approach
for designing personalized formative itineraries. In
this paper we describe a proposal for describing com-
petencies using standardized metadata, with the aim
of promoting both formative and evaluation activities
based on competencies.
This paper is organized as follows: Section 2 de-
scribes the virtual e-learning environment of the Uni-
versitat Oberta de Catalunya. Section 3 reviews the
concept of competency in the literature and describes
the basic taxonomies adopted for metadata. In Sec-
tion 4, a proposal for the standardization of compe-
tencies through the use of metadata is outlined by ex-
tending the LOM and IMS-LD standards, and the use
of ontologies is also addressed. Section 5 shows a
case of study about acquiring basic competencies. Fi-
nally, the conclusions of this paper and the research
lines are summarized in Section 6.
The Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Sangr
a, 2002)
(UOC, in English known as Open University of Cat-
alonia) is a completely online university which of-
fers 19 official degrees, several graduate programs
and post-graduate studies, and a doctoral degree, with
more than 35000 students and more than 1500 peo-
Guerrero A. and Minguillón J. (2006).
In Proceedings of WEBIST 2006 - Second International Conference on Web Information Systems and Technologies - Society, e-Business and
e-Government / e-Learning, pages 275-280
DOI: 10.5220/0001243902750280
ple including instructional designers, teachers, tutors,
academic and technical staff, and so. The UOC vir-
tual campus is an integrated e-learning environment
which allows users to communicate with other users
using a mail system, and includes an agenda, a news
service, virtual classrooms, a digital library and other
e-learning related tools. Each subject has a virtual
classroom with all the needed elements for the de-
velopment of the learning/teaching process: e-mail,
access to documentation, the activity based teaching
plan model, access to evaluation results, access to the
teacher board, forums, debates, etc. The “Teaching
Plan” document acts as a contract between the student
and the university, and it establishes the minimum re-
quirements (in terms of learning objectives, activities
and so) that the student needs to know in order to suc-
cessfully pass the subject he or she is enrolled to. This
document is also a guide for helping students to pre-
pare their learning strategy according to the planned
activities during the academic semester in advance.
The teaching plan is the first step towards a com-
plete formalization of the learning process with the
help of the appropriate standard descriptions. The use
of e-learning standards for both content description
and structuring will allow the inclusion of complex
learning strategies such as personalization, for exam-
ple (Mor and Minguill
on, 2004). Currently, courses
are structured using contents as the basic pieces for
building formative itineraries, but this must be also
addressed from a competency based point of view.
2.1 From Content to Competencies
In fact, both the learning materials and the teaching
plan include a set of learning objectives that should
be achieved by the students at the end of the aca-
demic semester. There is also a set of guided activ-
ities that students must perform in order to achieve
such learning objectives. These activities have a dou-
ble goal: first, they are designed to be formative ac-
tivities, and second, they also serve for both student
evaluation and self-evaluation. The learning objec-
tives described there are evaluated through such activ-
ities, thus directly related to the competencies needed
to achieve the desired results. Therefore, it is pos-
sible to use such information to determine the com-
petencies required and developed by each learning
resource and the associated activities. On the other
hand, and from an instructional design point of view
(van Merrienboer, 2001), it is necessary to integrate
skills, knowledge and attitudes into professional com-
petencies, altogether with the differentiation of vari-
ous types of competencies. Content should be com-
plemented with the appropriate metadata in order to
describe such issues. Following the ideas described
in (S
anchez-Alonso and Sicilia, 2005), our goal is to
provide a complete description of the competencies
(both required and provided by) for any learning ob-
ject used to build formative itineraries fulfilling all the
desired requirements.
Students in higher education need to acquire a set of
competencies through established training actions and
they have to be able to demonstrate them at the end of
the course. For such purpose, it is necessary to as-
sume a teaching and learning methodology centered
in the student, where all the teaching actions are de-
signed to promote reaching the established compe-
tency goals. Therefore, in any formative action, it
will be necessary to design the content according to
such purpose, as well as some activities focused to-
wards practicing with the acquired knowledge and the
reached abilities during the training activity. In order
to do so, it is a key issue to identify what the compe-
tencies are, and which of them must be reached as a
learning result, in order to design contents, learning
resources and formative and evaluation activities.
3.1 Basic Definitions
In general, a competency is defined as “a specific
range of skill, knowledge, or ability to perform an ac-
tivity”. Competencies are one step beyond abilities
and skills, and is the term preferred to describe com-
binations of attributes that describe the level or degree
to which a person is capable of performing them. As it
is well known, European educational institutions are
evolving through the Bologna process towards a con-
vergent European system, working together towards
a new educational paradigm centered in the student,
and also taking into account another goals, such the
description of the qualifications in terms of load work,
learning results, achieved competencies and profiles.
At this stage, the concept of competency is being
widely discussed, but the definition more recognized,
as stated in the Tuning project report (Gonz
alez and
Wagenaar, 2003), is already a de facto standard: “the
competencies tend to convey meaning in reference to
what a person is capable or competent of, the de-
gree of preparation, sufficiency and/or responsibility
for certain tasks”. The complexity of subject falls in
how the design of contents has to be done with respect
to competencies in e-learning (Kirschner and Paas,
2001), understanding that e-learning in virtual envi-
ronments is learning through Internet, which plays an
important role in the delivery, support, administration
and assessment of learning itself (Bates, 2000).
3.2 Taxonomies for Competencies
Several taxonomies for classifying competencies can
be found in the literature. Among those, the well-
known Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) classifies
the educational goals and objectives on three do-
mains: cognitive, affective and psychomotor. This
taxonomy of learning behaviors can be thought of as
”the goals of the training process”. That is, after the
training session, the learner should have acquired new
skills, knowledge, and/or attitudes. Based upon these
three domains, Bloom classifies the competencies that
a student can reach in different levels, depending on
the domain. In particular, for the cognitive domain,
Bloom identifies six levels, going from a simple recall
or recognition of facts as the lowest, to the highest
order, which is classified as evaluation. Bloom cre-
ates relationships between competencies and demon-
strated skills, in a pyramidal structure (from bottom to
top): knowledge, comprehension, application, analy-
sis, synthesis an evaluation. Each competency in the
pyramid is supposed to include all the lower compe-
tencies. The first three competencies are supposed
to be basic, while the acquisition of the second three
competencies needs advanced skills from the student.
Regarding the affective domain, Bloom defines five
levels, namely: perception, response, valuing, orga-
nization and characterization. Unlike the cognitive
domain, there is not a clear relationship between the
levels and their degrees, although Bloom states that
they follow the same pyramidal structure. Finally, as
a practical guide for classifying a learning objective
into a competency level, Bloom uses the verb in the
learning objective as the key for classification. We
have adopted this simple procedure because almost
every learning resource used at UOC has one or more
learning objectives described using key verbs such as
identify, compare or justify, for example.
Another feasible taxonomy is the classification
about competencies described in the Tuning project
alez and Wagenaar, 2003). As in Bloom’s tax-
onomy, this taxonomy states that a typical student
does not either possesses or lacks a competency in ab-
solute terms, so that competencies can be placed on a
continuum. Based upon this fact, competencies are
classified in two types: general competencies, which
are considered important and common by everyone
and to all degrees, and specific competencies that are
related with a subject area and also to specific knowl-
edge of a field of study. The general competencies are
structured in three different kinds: instrumental com-
petencies, such as elementary computing skills; inter-
personal competencies, such as the ability of work-
ing in an interdisciplinary team; and systemic compe-
tencies, such as the capacity for applying knowledge
practically, or the capacity to adapt to new situations.
Other studies remark that the continuous evolution
of learning technologies requires new competencies
and the need to incorporate them, depending on the
role adopted by each user at any stage of the learning
process. We use the student’s role as the center for
the design of the competencies related to learning re-
sources, following the UOC’s pedagogical model. In
any case, like some experts say, the competencies are
an integrated whole of knowledge, skills and attitudes
(Kirschner et al., 1997) and, as recently stated in (Re-
ichert and Tauch, 2005), “the added value of Bologna
reforms is that it offers the opportunity from concen-
trating more in the needs and the competencies of the
students”. Therefore, it is important to focus on intro-
ducing a model of teaching and learning centered on
the student and based on the acquisition of competen-
cies. For that, it is necessary to identify the general
and specific competencies for each subject, and also
the teaching and learning resources and activities in
order to reach them. Notice that both taxonomies are
not completely orthogonal, so there is some degree of
overlapping. Nevertheless, both the Bloom and the
Tuning taxonomies are useful for describing compe-
tencies from different points of view, thus using both
of them.
In this section we describe a proposal for integrat-
ing the concept of competency following the taxon-
omy developed in the previous section into the cur-
rent e-learning standards in use at the UOC virtual
e-learning environment. The description of the ele-
ments of any e-learning process and all the interac-
tions between such elements is not a simple ques-
tion. Two basic levels of description can be identified:
the first level, pointed towards content management
through the use of learning objects, describes the as-
pects directly related to the educational content. The
second level describes the interactions between such
learning objects and the users within the framework
defined by the learning process. This separation is
needed to ensure reutilization of learning resources in
different contexts.
4.1 The LOM Standard
For the first level, the LOM (Learning Object Meta-
data) standard defines a structure for interoperable de-
scriptions of learning objects. In this case, a learning
object is defined as any entity, digital or non-digital,
that may be used for learning, education or training.
Notice that we do not use the classical definition of
learning object from Wiley (Wiley, 2002) because it
does not include non-digital resources, which are still
heavily used at the UOC virtual campus. Neverthe-
less, although there are several other definitions for
learning objects, all of them coincide in a single de-
sired behavior: reusability (Polsani, 2003).
Metadata for a learning object describes relevant
characteristics of such learning object to which ap-
plies, pursuing reusability. Regarding the LOM stan-
dard, such characteristics may be grouped in nine cat-
egories, namely: general, life cycle, meta-metadata,
educational, technical, educational, rights, relation,
annotation, and classification. For our purposes, the
“educational” and “classification” categories are the
possible targets for extending the LOM standard to in-
clude descriptors about competencies, instead of the
“annotation” category, which is mostly used for un-
structured descriptions. Finally, although it is not nec-
essary, it is also possible to add the appropriate data
to the “meta-metadata” category to identify the source
of the proposed extension.
4.2 Extending the LOM Standard
Following the directions given in the previous sec-
tions, Table 1 resumes the new elements added to
the LOM standard for describing a competency: an
optional textual description and a combination of
Bloom and Tuning descriptors. For each element,
its name, size (or cardinality) and its type or the
set of possible values are shown. The level (depen-
dencies) of the new element is also shown, in or-
der to clarify whether an element is present or not
depending on the value of its root element. For
example, both the TuningSpecificLevel and
TuningSpecificDescription elements have
only sense if a specific competency has been speci-
fied through the use of the TuningSpecificName
element, within another TuningSpecific one.
Notice that we have not included metadata for the
psychomotor competencies as described in Bloom
(Bloom, 1956), although its implementation is
straightforward following the same approach, in case
of other educational environment requirements. Cur-
rently now, we have also discarded to include a con-
fidence value as defined in (S
anchez-Alonso and Si-
cilia, 2005), because its usage is not clear and it might
generate doubts in the teachers adopting this proposal
for describing competencies. Regarding the taxon-
omy used for identifying the possible verbs describing
cognitive competencies, it can be found in (Bloom,
1956), but it could be extended if needed.
For describing the required competencies, that
is, the competencies that a student needs to per-
form a certain activity, they can be incorporated
into the proposal using the same approach, adding
a new level of description, one for required com-
petencies (“requires”) and other for developed
(“develops”). These competencies identify the
minimum requirements in competency terms of the
learning contents used to further develop other com-
petencies. Although required competencies are de-
fined by instructional designers and teachers, accord-
ing to their expertise, it is also possible to determine
some of them from the competencies described in Ta-
ble 1, using the appropriate set of rules defined in an
ontology about competencies. For example, as stated
in (Gonz
alez and Wagenaar, 2003), systemic compe-
tencies require as a base the prior acquisition of in-
strumental and interpersonal competencies.
Finally, for describing specific competencies di-
rectly related to narrow knowledge areas, it is better
to use available taxonomies when possible. For exam-
ple, for learning resources used in the Computer Sci-
ence degree, the 1998 extended ACM taxonomy
used (at the UOC) to describe the specific content cat-
egories, while the MeSH taxonomy
is widely used to
describe medical terms. UOC is currently redefining
the taxonomies for all the knowledge areas, in order
to establish a common language for describing all the
learning contents in the virtual campus.
4.3 The IMS-LD Standard
The IMS-LD (Learning Design) standard tries to de-
scribe the aspects more related to the learning process
in itself, such as sequencing or role playing, that is,
the second level of description as aforementioned. It
seems clear that this information cannot be stored in
the learning objects, but in a higher semantic level.
Although the IMS-LD standard may seem too com-
plex, its flexibility and multilevel description capa-
bilities allow the specification of any learning pro-
cess ranging from simple educational itineraries to
complex learning processes including personalization
and collaborative working capabilities. In IMS-LD,
“Learning-objectives” within an Activity” is pre-
cisely the place to describe competencies, but using
a more textual approach. Each learning objective is
described using, at least, two basic fields, a text based
description and a type, which can be one (and only
one) of the following: skill, knowledge, insight, at-
titude, competency and other. Therefore, any exten-
sion to include a more comprehensive description of
competencies should be included here, using the pro-
posal presented in this paper. IMS-LD will proba-
bly become a standard for defining complex learn-
ing processes, including personalization issues, and
so. Therefore, it would be interesting to study how
to include our proposal in the IMS-LD standard tak-
ing also into account not only competencies but also
activities and roles.
Table 1: New metadata elements for describing a single competency.
Level Name Size Type
1 CompetencyDescription 0or1 any text
2 Bloom 0or1
2.1 BloomCognitive 0or1 {knowledge, comprehension, application,
analysis, synthesis, evaluation}
2.1.1 BloomCognitiveVerb any taxonomy
2.2 BloomAffective 0or1 {perception, response, valuing, organization,
3 Tuning 0or1
3.1 TuningGeneral 0or1 {instrumental, interpersonal, systemic}
3.1.1 TuningInstrumental 0or1 {cognitive, methodological, technological, linguis-
3.2 TuningSpecific any
3.2.1 TuningSpecificName 1 taxonomy
3.2.2 TuningSpecificDescription 0or1 any text
3.2.3 TuningSpecificLevel 0or1 {basic, medium, advanced }
4.4 Integration Using Ontologies
The use of ontologies for standard integration and
extension is a common tool in the semantic web
field. As described in (Sicilia and Garc
2003), it is possible to use an ontology for describing
not only standards, but also the relationships that oc-
cur between the elements that take part of such stan-
dards, which cannot be part of the learning object
instances, providing coherence to metadata instances
and referring to the appropriate domains. The other
possible use of ontologies, and perhaps more interest-
ing, is to ensure consistency and to help users to create
the metadata for a learning object, using a set of rules
for both automatic metadata data filling and valida-
tion. If OWL (Web Ontology Language) (McGuin-
ness and van Harmelen, 2004) is used for describing
the ontology, it is possible to use an OWL reasoner
and any other rule based language to establish all the
constraints related to the LOM standard and compe-
tencies, such as RuleML or SWRL (Semantic Web
Rule Language), for example. Using the latter, rules
can be described as Antecedents Consequents, fol-
lowing a human readable syntaxis. For example, the
fact that if a general competency is classified as one
of the possible values for the instrumental category,
its general category has to be specified and be indeed
In order to exemplify the proposal described in the
previous section, we provide a basic example for a
learning resource about working collaboratively for
searching, selecting and creating a report about one
particular subject in the Computer Science degree.
This goal is structured in three continuous assessment
activities and one final practical exercise, and a basic
competency for making searches through the web is
required (denoted by H.3.0.a in the ACM taxonomy).
On the other hand, the same competency is developed
altogether with others more specific about using In-
ternet for searching, content selection and so (H.3.3).
5.1 Proposal Validation
Although the example shown above is far from being
a complete proof for validating the proposal, it can
be used as a basic guide for its evaluation. In fact,
all the learning resources available at the UOC virtual
campus are undergoing a reviewing process, includ-
ing metadata for describing both content and com-
petencies. Currently now, this represents more than
one thousand text books and other learning resources
which will be probably fragmented in several learning
units, which will be the basic pieces of the learning
objects repository. To implement this example, first
it is necessary to identify the competencies required
and developed in the teaching and learning for each
learning resource, using learning objectives as basic
sentences to determine the right category through the
verbs used in each learning objective, as well as the
more suitable learning resources for the design of the
activities. On the other hand, for each degree and
knowledge area, the specific competencies must also
be identified. Finally, the use of the proposal pre-
sented in this paper arises several issues that must be
addressed in order to improve the metadata that iden-
tify a learning object, and consequently, the reposi-
tories, focussing the contents, the activities and the
learning resources towards the future of the European
Higher Education Area, based on the acquisition of
competencies. This proposal could also improve the
reusability of the learning objects by means of valu-
able metadata.
Since the Bologna declaration in 1999, and with the
appearance of the concept of competency, it becomes
necessary to rethink the whole learning process from
a content based point of view to another more user
centered, based on activities requiring and develop-
ing competencies. In this paper we have described a
proposal for standardizing the concept of competency
using the LOM standard and a XML extension which
can be also used in IMS-LD. The use of ontologies for
both standard integration and validation and an exam-
ple of usage have also been outlined.
Current and further research in this topic should
include the complete description of the proposed ex-
tension using an ontology, in order to ensure a better
formalization of the concept of competency and sim-
plify the process of adding it to any other e-learning
standard such as LOM and IMS-LD. The learning
resources available at UOC are being currently re-
viewed in order to add metadata for educational pur-
poses, so we expect to validate our proposal with a
large repository of learning objects.
This work is partially supported by Spanish govern-
ment grant MULTIMARK TIC2003-08064-C04-04.
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