I knew I could make it

Access into higher-education learning for adults has always been difficult, as recognition of learning acquired formally and informally is not commonly practised in our country's higher-education institutions, as is the case in the USA, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. JULIA MOTAUNG and CHARLES HONGORO use a case study to demonstrate an acceptable way of assessing prior learning. 

Formally known as recognition of prior learning (RPL), it is a way of measuring and assessing life-long learning required for a specific qualification, and awarding credits for such learning if it meets the requirements of the qualification.

Learning occurs in all kinds of situations, whether formal, informal or non-formal. Many adults, defined here as 25 years and older, may have acquired a great deal of learning in various settings. But because they have not had the opportunity to show what they know in the formal education system, they are excluded from certain jobs, promotion on the job and from further education and training opportunities, all of which require ‘certificates'.

The committee concluded that Richard demonstrated the requirements commensurate with the exit-level outcomes of honours level, which are a demonstration of a sound knowledge base and critical understanding of curriculum instruction design and development.

The problem has always been identifying what candidates know and can do; matching their skills, knowledge and experience to specific standards and the associated assessment criteria of a qualification; assessing candidates against those standards; and crediting them for skills, knowledge and experience built up throughout their lives.

Case study of prior learning assessment

The faculty of education of the University of Pretoria, which we studied for this purpose, makes use of two main forms of prior learning assessment: portfolio assessment and a 1-hour interview conducted with RPL candidates to determine whether they meet entry-level requirements of the targeted programme.

The programme manager for a particular RPL application compiles a set of criteria for the RPL committee to be used during assessment. For example, if a candidate wishes exemption from the BEd (Hons) programme for admission into a master's degree programme, the interview and portfolio assessment will focus on the candidate's knowledge and understanding of the outcomes expected at level 7 of the national qualification's framework.   

The head of department in the faculty, in liaison with the programme manager, then compiles a report based on the outcomes of the RPL committee and tables it at the first faculty board meeting. Such a report usually contains the applicant's formal application, copies of their academic qualifications, transcripts of the candidate's academic records, copies of testimonials, recommendations by the head of department, programme manager and external subject specialist and a global percentage reflecting the candidate's command of the field of specialisation.  

The dean of the faculty and the school chair designate will present the decision of the faculty board at a senate meeting, which makes a final decision on each RPL application. Faculty administration will then be informed of the outcomes of the assessment and then inform the candidate, usually in writing. No students register into a programme while the outcomes of the RPL applications are pending.

Richard Zeeman's prior learning assessment

In the following case study, the candidate was not in possession of the required BEd (Hons) degree to be admitted into an MEd programme. He held a BA degree, received in 1994, and a higher-education diploma, obtained in 1999.

But because they have not had the opportunity to show what they know in the formal education system, they are excluded from certain jobs, promotion on the job and from further education and training opportunities, all of which require 'certificates'.

Apart from having attempted the MPhil qualification, he also has numerous attendance and completion qualifications for short learning programmes such as project management, supervision and management skills, and leadership training. Richard submitted his application for RPL in 2005. He then appeared before the RPL committee of the faculty on 19 April 2006 where he went through an oral examination. There were three RPL committee members involved in this particular assessment process, namely, the head of department, programme manager and the external consultant and specialist in the field of curriculum studies.

The interview focused on a thorough discussion to determine why Richard wanted exemption from the BEd (Hons) programme, his subject knowledge of his field of specialisation, general understanding of educational research as methodology, and the foci and procedures for his proposed research at master's level. The faculty RPL committee also assessed Richard's portfolio and found that he had a profound understanding of his field of specialisation and educational research. The proposal he tabled for his envisaged masters studies indicated good intellectual clarity and understanding of the problems encountered in practice.

The committee concluded that Richard demonstrated the requirements commensurate with the exit-level outcomes of honours level, which are a demonstration of a sound knowledge base and critical understanding of curriculum instruction design and development issues. The recommendation was for him to complete one of the BEd (Hons) research modules in qualitative research. The executive committee of the senate of the university endorsed the decision of the faculty board to admit him into the MEd programme in 2006, just a few months after the start of the first semester.  

One of the many benefits of RPL is that deserving candidates can attain their educational gaols within a shorter period of time.

Lessons learnt

Any institution of higher learning intending to implement the national RPL policy, released in 2002, needs to have a well-developed process of prior learning assessment. RPL assessors and RPL candidates should know exactly what needs to be done from start to finish. There should be an attempt by all those involved in the process to adhere to the institutional procedure and process for prior-learning assessment, to ensure credibility and integrity of assessment results. 

The programme manager should be the first line in the gate-keeping process to determine if the RPL learner's portfolio and oral interview demonstrates learning and not just experience, a critical aspect of RPL. In this case, a high premium was placed by RPL assessors on recognising and crediting learning and not just experience, in line with international standards for prior-learning assessment.

Richard had a high level of confidence in his knowledge, skills and attributes when he approached the university to assess comparability of his prior learning with what goes on in lecture rooms. It came as no surprise that his prior learning was indeed equivalent with exit level criteria for the BEd honours degree, hence his admission into MEd programmes without the paper qualification.

Needless to say, there may be many adults in our communities with equivalent higher-education learning, but without the RPL service being offered in higher-education institutions, they may end up registering at these institutions and repeating what they already know - a total waste of time and money towards improving one's qualifications and skills. One of the many benefits of RPL is that deserving candidates can attain their educational goals within a shorter period of time.   

Dr Julia Motaung is a research specialist and Professor Charles Hongoro a director in the Policy Analysis and Capacity Enhancement (PACE) programme.