HIGHER EDUCATION INTHE ECONOMIC CRISIS: RPL AS A TOOL FOR THE RECOGNITION OF QUALIFICATIONS, STUDENT MOBILITY, UP-SKILLING AND RE-SKILLING
3. The Delphi Survey Research Method
The Delphi survey research method is an iterative data gathering process. In research, it is a means of anonymous expert surveying without undue emphasis on individual opinion (Day, 2002). It was regarded as a highly effective way to elicit, collate and focus expert judgement toward a consensus, and to identify areas of convergence and divergence (Farmer, 1998; Skumolski, Hartman, & Krahn, 2007;Turoff & Hiltz, 1995). The Delphi method generally involves three or more questionnaires sent either as paper documents or online to respondents to self-complete without direct contact with the researcher (Watson, 2008).
The Delphi method was chosen for this particular research because it was regarded as an ideal methodology for the rigorous consultation of experts and stakeholders. A key advantage of a Delphi Survey was that it avoided the direct confrontation of experts (Watson, 2008). Additionally, it did not require them to meet physically - which would be impractical for international experts in any case (Okoli & Powlowski, 2004). Another benefit of the Delphi survey method was that it was less likely to suffer from a low non-response rate, perhaps due to its brevity and to its curiosity value among experts (Turoff & Hiltz, 1995). The Delphi survey method was also flexible in its design, which was a key requirement for this particular research (Mitroff & Turoff, 2002)
A sample frame of national, European, and global RPL experts was compiled from readings of the RPL literature and website searches. The result was a final sample frame of fifty-seven experts. Email addresses were obtained for all of the fifty-seven experts and they were contacted by email with a letter explaining the study, what their participation would involve, a consent form and the ethical guidelines governing the research. The final panel comprised individuals from different backgrounds and roles to reflect the variety of contexts and applications for which RPL is practised; not just confined to academia. Furthermore this variety of perspectives aimed to enhance the credibility of the research, which was facilitated by the process of feedback to respondents as a form of member-checking.
The research was conducted in three rounds of online questionnaires between October 2009 and December 2009 through "Freeonlinesurveys.com". A limit of three rounds was set for the study because with more than three rounds the process becomes too time-consuming to maintain high response rates. Each round was pilot-tested before being sent out to respondents. The results were analysed in SPSS with automatic generation of tables and graphs from the online survey tool. Feedback was delivered by email to each of the respondents after rounds one and two. Analysis of responses was based largely around points of divergence and ambiguity with less emphasis on areas of consensus and broad agreement.
The Delphi surveys were constructed in the style of what Oppenheim (1999) called 'panel studies'. Primarily closed questions were used for the surveys in order to avoid unnecessary completion time and extended writing for respondents. Closed questions also facilitate group comparison, which was an essential part of the Delphi process (Oppenheim, 1999). In order not to lose the spontaneity of responses, the surveys provided for respondents to leave comments or offer additional comments for each question, which many did. The first round questionnaire focused on the purposes for which RPL was practised in different organisational contexts, the main RPL tools used, the costs and benefits of RPL and the future of RPL. These areas were considered the most relevant to explore the value and future potential of RPL. The subsequent second and third questionnaires were structured from the analysis and feedback from the previous questionnaires.