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Policy development and implementation procedures for recognition of prior learning: a case study of practice in higher education

Author - Anne Murphy


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Information, awareness raising and capacity building

Since the approved RPL policy 2008 document was based on existing practice, as well as on statutory obligations, it was inevitable that the immediate needs of staff would have varying degrees of urgency. Academic and administrative staff involved in arrangements for non-standard entry and advanced entry inevitably required urgent guidelines. Academic staff involved with exemptions and credits based on prior learning had different, but equally urgent, needs. In response, the approach to information provision, awareness raising and capacity building involved the following:

  1. General briefing of academic staff in all Faculties as well as in-depth consultation where there were urgent needs
  2.  Intensive briefing sessions with staff involved in academic quality assurance
  3. Training days with staff involved in student admissions and processing of applications with structured opportunities to formalise their existing RPL  procedures for transparency and recording purposes
  4. Development of a formal continuing professional development programme at

            Masters level for academic and administrative staff with high levels of RPL

  1. Consultancy and intensive workshops for academic staff groups with immediate curriculum and assessment design needs.

Information for the public was designed and published both on the DIT website and in printed form. In this regard, and as indicated earlier, it proved conceptually and procedurally difficult to design any meaningful RPL self-assessment resources for the general public since all RPL applications are related to awards and qualifications only. In the Irish qualifications framework there is no provision for allocation of academic credits which are of a generic nature and not evaluated in relation to awards in the framework. Nor is there yet a fully-developed credit system for vocational education and training on the framework in the same way as the ECTS system applies to higher education.  This particular framework design issue has had a mixed impact on how higher education providers designed their RPL arrangements for two particular reasons. Firstly, it made arrangements simpler in that a provider need only consider RPL in relation to its own awards. Secondly, it solidified the division between academic awards and professional practice awards. The subsequent development of ECVET credits and the EQF for lifelong learning have not significantly reduced this division. But, perhaps this is a debate for the future!

RPL in assessment regulations and procedures

A significant element of RPL is the assessment process used in the recognition process. In higher education, assessment is generally regarded as an academic activity carried out by appropriately competent staff. Accordingly, an augmentation was agreed by Academic Council to the DIT General Assessment Regulations 2009 to reflect this principle. The full text of that augmentation is outlined in Table 4 below.

Criteria for evaluating prior certificated learning

The RPL policy development and implementation exercise exposed the need for greater transparency of existing practices with regard to evaluating prior certificated learning for entry and module exemption purposes. Prior certificated learning is mostly used to evaluate applications for entry to postgraduate programmes. The DIT traditionally managed that process quite transparently with clear benchmarks for standard entry. Additionally a non-standard entry committee evaluated applications from applicants who did not quite meet the benchmark criteria but who demonstrated a capacity to succeed and benefit. All non-standard decisions were subject to external quality auditing on an annual basis and outcomes monitored with regard to norms of academic standards. Statistics in this regard over several audits indicated that applicants who achieved entry with a combination of certificated and experiential learning performed marginally or significantly better than the ‘standard’ entrant. (see Table 4)

This feature has been found at undergraduate levels as well. The encouraging aspect of this finding is that RPL is an overall benefit to academic standards and not a risk in any way. The finding also reinforces the natural justice argument that gate-keeping on the basis of certificated learning is an unsustainable position. However, even within this stance it is essential that the criteria applied to evaluation of prior certificated learning be made explicit for all stakeholders. Guidance to DIT staff is to use the following criteria:

  • Volume (years)
  • Volume (credits)
  • Depth/NQF level
  • Learning outcomes
  • Content
  • Readings
  • Research component
  • Practice component
  • Internship
  • Currency/Recency
  • Examination papers
  • Status of awarding institution

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