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An Exploration of Student Focused Initiatives to Support Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) Case Preparation


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Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) is recognition given for relevant learning, regardless of how or where it was gained, prior to starting on a programme or module. This research explores a number of student focused initiatives to support RPL case preparation. An action research methodology was used where existing RPL procedures in an Institute of Technology setting were examined and evaluated. The aim of the research was to create a positive environment for RPL case preparation. A mixed method using both qualitative and quantitative approaches such as questionnaires and focus groups was used to gather data. The initial survey captured the existing picture of RPL in 2011. This was followed with an exploration of reflection using focus groups. Changes to the existing processes included development and re-evaluation and further amendment to the existing website. A Valuing Learning space was added to encourage documentation of competencies and this was followed with a trial of e portfolios and their subsequent evaluation. The findings contribute valuable insight to a complex field in education. They reveal that improving online supports is constructive for students preparing RPL cases. They further demonstrate that e portfolios are a significant tool and mechanism to activate learners and are purpose built scaffolds for RPL case preparation.
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An Exploration of Student Focused Initiatives to
Support Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL)
Case Preparation
Phil O’Leary MSc
Master of Arts by Research
Extended Campus
Research Supervisor: Dr. Siobhán O’Sullivan
Submitted to Cork Institute of Technology, March 2013
This thesis is entirely the work of the undersigned, and has not been submitted for an award
in any other institution or university.
Phil O'Leary
Dr. Siobhán O’Sullivan; Research Supervisor
I want to thank the following people for their patience with me while I wrote this thesis and
carried out the research steps within. I really appreciate your time and support.
To Ken and to Tadhg and Kate; to my Mam and Dad; to Kens Mam and Dad and my two
sisters Niamh and Eileen and Dermot, thanks for being there for me and for your endless
To Siobhán my research supervisor, thank you for your support and commitment to
research at an extraordinary point in your life with the birth of Daisy and Róisín. I am
touched by your openness and willingness to proceed at all points.
To my colleagues at work; especially to Deirdre who is steadfast in her support of my
research journey regardless of circumstances, I thank you.
To the students of CIT across all disciplines who contributed to this research I am deeply
grateful. Thank you for your interest in RPL and for supporting me with my research. I want
to mention the class of the BA in Community Development who helped me with the focus
groups on reflection and the e portfolio trial and evaluation. I could not have achieved this
work without your input. Thank you very much.
Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) is recognition given for relevant learning, regardless of
how or where it was gained, prior to starting on a programme or module. This research
explores a number of student focused initiatives to support RPL case preparation. An action
research methodology was used where existing RPL procedures in an Institute of
Technology setting were examined and evaluated. The aim of the research was to create a
positive environment for RPL case preparation. A mixed method using both qualitative and
quantitative approaches such as questionnaires and focus groups was used to gather data.
The initial survey captured the existing picture of RPL in 2011. This was followed with an
exploration of reflection using focus groups. Changes to the existing processes included
development and re-evaluation and further amendment to the existing website. A Valuing
Learning space was added to encourage documentation of competencies and this was
followed with a trial of e portfolios and their subsequent evaluation. The findings
contribute valuable insight to a complex field in education. They reveal that improving
online supports is constructive for students preparing RPL cases. They further demonstrate
that e portfolios are a significant tool and mechanism to activate learners and are purpose
built scaffolds for RPL case preparation.
Chapter 1
Introduction, Learning in a Time of Change ……………………………………………………………………. 1
1.1 Introduction
1.2 Learning in a time of change
1.3 Demand for RPL is increasing
1.4 Research Aim: To support the student with RPL case preparation
1.5 Research Focus: The starting point of the research carried out in this
1.6 Why reflection is significant: a second focus of the research
1.7 Introducing the methodology to be used
1.8 Why RPL is significant now; drivers of RPL
1.8.1 Knowledge economy
1.8.2 Globalization
1.8.3 Changing profile of the learner
1.8.4 Changing demands in education
1.8.5 Role of Frameworks in promoting lifelong learning in Ireland
1.8.6 Role of significant projects
1.8.7 Legislative pressure
1.9 Introduction to the structure of this thesis
Chapter 2
Recognition of Prior Learning and Experiential Learning Theory ..................................... 12
2.1 Introduction to RPL
2.2 The origins of RPL
2.3 RPL is known by a variety of terms around the world
2.4 Experiential learning
2.5 Models or theories of experiential learning
2.6 RPL in Higher Education
2.7 The benefits of RPL
2.8 The importance of Learning Outcomes
2.9 Summary of Chapter
Chapter 3
Reflection; Why it Matters .............................................................................................29
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Theoretical roots of reflection and definitions
3.3 Models of reflection
3.4 Why reflection matters for RPL
3.5 How to encourage reflection with RPL case preparation
3.6 Summary of Chapter
Chapter 4
Harnessing Technology to Support RPL Case Preparation ............................................. 41
4.1 Introduction
4.2 How we use technology is changing
4.3 Encourage a positive experience
4.4 Use the web to provide supports for students
4.5 The sustainable use of RPL resources
4.6 Introducing e-portfolios and other tools that capture knowledge, skills and
4.7 Summary of Chapter
Chapter 5
Lifelong Learning and the Importance of Valuing Learning ............................................ 50
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Lifelong Learning defined
5.3 Key organisations supporting Lifelong Learning agenda
5.4 Valuing Learning
5.5 Promoting digital archiving
5.6 Why activating the lifelong mindset of the learner’ is essential
5.7 Summary of Chapter
Chapter 6
Using e-Portfolios to Scaffold RPL Case Preparation ....................................................... 61
6.1 Introduction
6.2 Definition of e-portfolios
6.3 e-Portfolios for RPL case preparation
6.4 e-Portfolios are purpose built Lifelong Learning support instruments
6.5 Summary of Chapter
Chapter 7
Methodology ................................................................................................................ 71
7.1 Introduction
7.2 The research paradigm; positive or interpretative ?
7.3 Qualitative research
7.4 Quantitative research
7.5 Setting the context of this research
7.6 Why I chose action research
7.7 Action research as a methodology
7.8 Characteristics of action research
7.9 Sample selection
7.10 Data Collection and analysis
Chapter 8
Enactment of Research .................................................................................................. 84
8.1 Introduction and context
8.2 Enactment 1 RPL in 2011
8.2.1 Introduction and context
8.2.2 method
8.3 Enactment 2 Exploration of Reflection
8.3.1 Introduction and context
8.3.2 method
8.4 Enactment 3 Improvement of Institute Website for RPL to support case
8.4.1 Introduction and context
8.4.2 method
8.5 Enactment 4 Evaluation of Website
8.5.1 Introduction and context
8.5.2 method
8.6 Enactment 5 Develop a Valuing Learning space within RPL website
8.6.1 Introduction and context
8.6.2 method
8.7 Enactment 6 e-portfolio trial
8.7.1 Introduction and context
8.7.2 method
8.8 Enactment 7 Evaluation of e-portfolio trial
8.8.1 Introduction and context
8.8.2 method
Chapter 9 Results & Conclusions
Main Findings of Research ................................................................................... 98
8.1 Introduction
9.2 Enactment 1 RPL in 2011
9.2.1 Results
9.2.2 Reflection
9.2.3 Conclusion
9.3 Enactment 2 Exploration of Reflection
9.3.1 Results
9.3.2 Reflection
9.3.3 Conclusion
9.4 Enactment 3 Improvement of Institute Website for RPL to support case
9.4.1 Results
9.4.2 Reflection
9.4.3 Conclusion
9.5 Enactment 4 Evaluation of Website
9.5.1 Results
9.5.2 Reflection
9.5.3 Conclusion
9.6 Enactment 5 Develop a Valuing Learning space within RPL website
9.6.1 Results
9.6.2 Reflection
9.6.3 Conclusion
9.7 Enactment 6 e-portfolio trial
9.7.1 Results
9.7.2 Reflection
9.7.3 Conclusion
9.8 Enactment 7 Evaluation of e-portfolio trial
9.8.1 Results
9.8.2 Reflection
9.8.3 Conclusion
Chapter 10
Discussion of Results .................................................................................................... 171
10.1 Introduction
10.2 The methodology chosen
10.3 How this research has impacted the researcher
10.4 Discussion of Enactment 1; Questionnaire exploring RPL case preparation in
10.5 Discussion of Enactment 2; Focus groups exploring reflection
10.6 Discussion of Enactment 3; Expansion and redevelopment of RPL website
10.7 Discussion of Enactment 4; Evaluation of RPL website by students
10.8 Discussion of Enactment 5; Addition of Valuing Learning space
10.9 Discussion of Enactment 6; e Portfolio trial
10.10 Discussion of Enactment 7; Evaluation of e Portfolio trial
Chapter 11
Recommendations for future action and research ................................................. 192
11.1 Introduction
11.2 Recommendations at the macro level
11.3 Recommendations at the micro level
Bibliography ........................................................................................................... 196
List of Figures and Tables
Figure 1.1 Overview of the literature review and the research
Figure 2.1 Categories of learning; adapted from the Memorandum on Lifelong
Learning; images from
Figure 2.2 Kolb’s Learning Cycle
Figure 2.3 Adapted from the Experiential Learning Model of Lewin
Figure 2.4 Dewey’s Model of Learning
Figure 2.5 Adapted from Kolb’s conclusions on the similarities between the
models of Dewey, Lewin and Piaget
Figure 2.6 Levels of Learning on the Irish National Framework of Qualifications
Figure 3.1 ‘The pensive’
Figure 3.2 Kolb’s learning cycle
Figure 3.3 Bloom’s taxonomy of learning outcomes
Figure 3.4 Updated version of Bloom’s taxonomy
Figure 3.5 Peter Papas taxonomy of reflection
Figure 3.6 Gibb’s model of reflection
Figure 3.7 Levels of reflection adapted from Hatton & Smith
Figure 3.8 Barrett’s Kolb based model of the learning cycle includes reflection
Figure 3.9 Stages of reflection, adapted from Moon
Figure 4.1 How the learner engages with the process of learning; adapted from
the work of Dinevski and Psunder
Figure 4.2 Key aspects to consider when upgrading website for RPL provision
Figure 4.3 Online communities share ideas and solve problems together
Figure 4.4 A screen capture of Google sites
Figure 5.1 New Zealand’s five key competencies for living and lifelong learning
Figure 5.2 The outcomes and benefits of learning, adapted from Hoskins
Figure 5.3 The systems involved in activating the learner
Figure 6.1 Helen Barrett’s two faces of e Porfolios
Figure 6.2 RPL support requirements for cases built on an e portfolio
Figure 7.1 The research process
Figure 7.2 The action research cycle
Figure 8.1 Illustration of the work undertaken
Figure 8.2 CIT website on RPL in 2011
Figure 8.3 Initial e portfolio prepared using Google sites
Figure 8.4 Generic example of e portfolio prepared to support the trial
Figure 8.5 Screen grab of class support material for week 10 of semester
Figure 9.1 Illustration of the work undertaken
Figure 9.2 How did you find out about RPL ?
Figure 9.3 How did you find the process of preparing your prior learning case ?
Figure 9.4 What made you decide to take this option ?
Figure 9.5 Did it save you time ?
Figure 9.6 Would you take this option again ?
Figure 9.7 Were you able to reflect on your life’s experiential learning and use it
to prepare a good case for assessment ?
Figure 9.8 How did you find the task of answering the learning outcomes ?
Figure 9.9 Did you find this difficult ? What was difficult, can you say ?
Figure 9.10 What did you think of the learning portfolio and its structure ?
Figure 9.11 What would you change about the RPL process in general ?
Figure 9.12 What would you change about the Learning Portfolio ?
Figure 9.13 How did you find the task of finding evidence now?
Figure 9.14 What would you change about the task of finding evidence now ?
Figure 9.15 CIT web portal for RPL; Homepage March 2012
Figure 9.16 Sub page; Different types of learning
Figure 9.17 Sub page ; Form of recognition
Figure 9.18 Sub page; Submitting my case
Figure 9.19 Sub page; Assessment of my learning
Figure 9.20 Sub page; When do I get feedback ?
Figure 9.21 Testimonials of students
Figure 9.22 Sub page the ‘Popular modules “how to” guide’
Figure 9.23 Example of CIT module broken into stages
Figure 9.24 Example of Work Placement module broken into stages
Figure 9.25 Frequently asked questions section
Figure 9.26 Sub page, Useful links
Figure 9.27 Valuing Learning webpage at
Figure 9.28 Valuing Learning web page at
Figure 9.29 Staff of the Institute provide examples of useful evidence of
experiential learning
Figure 9.30 e Portfolio example used to support the BA Community Development
class with e portfolio development
Figure 9.31 Three home pages presented in various ways
Figure 9.32 Sample of CV pages with reflective elements
Figure 9.33 Sample of learning outcome pages
Figure 9.34 Example of how uploaded files are labelled to explain what they
Figure 9.35 Examples of verification section
Figure 10.1 Key results from enactment 1
Figure 10.2 Themes arising from enactment 2
Figure 10.3 Homepage of RPL site
Figure 10.4 Evaluation of RPL website by 20 students from a broad range of
Figure 10.5 Valuing learning website
Figure 10.6 e Portfolio trial, September 2012
Figure 10.7 Example of e portfolio structure; each subtitle is a page supporting
the prior learning case
Table 2.1 Definitions of RPL as presented by significant organizations
Table 2.2 EQF Definitions of Knowledge, Skills and Competence
Table 3.1 Revised model of Bloom’s taxonomy based on Anderson and
Krathwohl’s work in 2001
Table 5.1 Lifelong learning instruments developed in Europe
Table 7.1 Enactment 1 Questionnaire
Table 8.1 Student Sample for Enactment 1
Table 8.2 Questionnaire for Enactment 1
Table 8.3 Questionnaire for Enactment 2
Table 8.4 Focus group questions
Table 8.5 Web evaluation questions
Table 8.6 Questionnaire for evaluation of e portfolio trial
Table 9.1 Extracts from evaluation data presented against Question 1
Table 9.2 Extracts from evaluation data presented against Question 2
Table 9.3 Extracts from evaluation data presented against Question 3
Table 9.4 Key suggestions for improvements to RPL website
Table 9.5 Student responses to evaluation questions after e portfolio trial
Appendix A Expert group on future skills needs /OECD benefits of RPL
Appendix B Publication; NAIRTL Pecha Kucha presentation
Appendix C Publication; NAIRTL Collaborative Learning Poster
Appendix D Publication; LIN Action Research Approach to Valuing Learning - presentation
Appendix E Publication; LIN RPL Poster website
Appendix F Publication; InTed Poster and paper on e portfolio work
Appendix G Responses from entry 1
Appendix H Focus group transcripts
Appendix I Web evaluation comments
Appendix J e-Portfolio samples
Appendix K Assessment protocol for e portfolios
Appendix L Learning Journal of Author for module that supported e Portfolio trial
Appendix M Correspondence with overseas colleagues in support of the research
Appendix N Overheads for lifelong learning festival, Cork 2013
Chapter 1
Introduction, Learning in a Time of Change
1.1 Introduction
The research undertaken in this thesis is an exploration of Recognition of Prior Learning
(RPL) and the approaches which might be used to effectively support the student. The term
RPL is used to denote Recognition of Prior Learning from this point onwards. The chapter
begins with a consideration of the significance of RPL and the learner in a time of change
where many are returning to education as a result of the economic downturn. The work
explores the support of the student tasked with prior learning case preparation for
assessment. Finally, the chapter introduces the literature review and the research
undertaken in this thesis.
1.2 Learning in a time of change
This is an exploration of RPL in a time of change. As society aspires to the knowledge
economy, the way we live, work and learn is constantly changing and evolving. Knowledge,
innovation, the creation of knowledge and learning itself are all highly valued today
(Duvekot et al., 2007).
Globalisation, that process which occurs through interaction or trade in “goods, capital,
labour and ideas,” has impacted Higher Education and resulted in broad changes as to how
education is organized with the creation of a variety of different frameworks and the
increasing uptake in Higher Education (D. Bloom, 2005). These events are compounded by
the rapid changes in the use of technology impacting on how we live and work (Wheelahan
& Miller, 2002).
The global economy is in recession and increasingly workers are returning to education to
avail of reskilling and upskilling opportunities or additional qualifications. This steady influx
of people returning to education is seen as a natural feature of a knowledge economy, as
stated in ‘Tomorrows Skills; Towards a National Skills Strategy’ the skills needs of any
economy is ever changing. It is natural to see a shift in the types of reskilling and continuing
professional development sought as citizens adjust to changes in the economy at a Macro
level (Forfas, 2007). It is likely that education and training provision will be influenced by
the significant developments within particular sectors such as pharmaceutical and
biotechnology; food and drink; medical devices and ICT sectors. This cohort of students will
have significant life skills and will readily avail of RPL to access Higher Education and to
arrange for formal credit for what is already known (McNaboe & Condon, 2010).
RPL is of increasing significance in this context. This broader cohort of adults has different
needs to the traditional student. They are highly motivated as a rule but also have to
balance education with other commitments such as work and family. Appropriate supports
must be put in place should they choose to include RPL as part of their learning journey
(Coles & Oates, 2004; Werquin, 2007). Education providers must be prepared for this
cohort of students and engender to appropriately support them with their RPL case
preparation (Lester & Costley, 2010). What steps can be taken to achieve this support ?
The day to day work of the researcher involves helping students as they build their RPL
cases, mentoring them through the task. This is the focus of this research thesis.
1.3 Demand for RPL is increasing
Over the last number of years, in Cork Institute of Technology, Ireland, RPL provision has
grown from 53 cases in 2000 when it was formalised, to 142 in 2005; 502 in 2010 and 528 in
2012. There are 7000 full-time students and 7000 part-time students enrolled. The range
and complexity of RPL cases presented and successfully assessed has significantly
broadened and diversified over the years showing the abilities of staff in supporting the
preparation and then the assessment of the prior learning cases. This knowledge and
capability is significant; it underpins a level of comfort that took time to cement into the
foundations of the institute but once embedded was very much embraced and supported
across all disciplines and levels of learning (Cork Institute of Technology, 2012a). The
significant changes in the economy have reflected the demand for RPL in the same
timeframe. Staff have risen to the challenge in every way and the level of ability with
assessment of RPL cases that has been achieved has reinforced their reputation as solid
providers of education which allows for RPL. However there is so much more to be done to
develop RPL provision. The challenge is to consider what supports would lend to better RPL
cases being prepared ? Improving supports for the students undergoing such a process will
benefit all stakeholders; namely students and staff of a college.
1.4 Research Aim: To support the student with RPL case preparation
Students need support with the task of preparing a prior learning case (Lester & Costley,
2010). They must understand the assessment requirements of academia within which their
programme resides (CEDEFOP, 2009; NQAI, 2005; UNESCO, 2012). It is high stakes
assessment, in that the candidate is drawing from significant learning events from their
previous life experiences and they are presenting it now for academic credits as part of a
programme (Conrad, 2008). They are claiming formal academic credits for their prior
learning both formal, non formal and informal learning. He/she takes a leap of faith when
deciding to put in an RPL case. In essence, it is an act that challenges the conventional
assessment routes of the college with their own prior learning. To take this step takes
courage and commitment (Conrad, 2008).
Research Question and Overall Aim
When RPL policy and practice are embedded in an organisation, what
additional supports should be put in place to help with RPL case
preparation from a student’s perspective ?
All stakeholders benefit from having good support systems in place (CEDEFOP, 2009; NQAI,
2005). The staff benefit as the material is easier to assess when well-presented and the
evidence well signposted. The students benefit if the support system is well designed,
because they are shown what is required each step of the way, it should be robust enough
to easily portray a sense of what is required of the students. This support can take the form
of online examples and ‘how to’ tips in videoclip (Leiste & Jensen, 2011). The staff assessing
the prior learning material can expect authentic RPL cases well supported with evidence
drawn from the candidates Iife experiences. It is a requirement to present material that will
support an argument that has become reflective in nature. The person must showcase what
they know against the learning outcomes of a module and why the learning presented is
significant (Murphy, 2010; NQAI, 2005; Sheridan & Linehan, 2009).
1.5 Research Focus: The starting point of the research carried out in this thesis
In a time of increasing demand for RPL a key issue to address is to consider what supports
might be most effective for the student. The starting point of the research is to capture
what students think of how RPL was today in 2011. This was the first step in the research.
To explore this question the researcher asked thirty students who had prepared a prior
learning case in the previous year how they found the act of RPL case preparation. This
investigation took the form of a questionnaire, to capture a picture of RPL case preparation
for experiential learning in 2011. This resulting insight was presented at the NAIRTL
conference in 2011 (O'Leary & Coughlan, 2011).
1.6 Why reflection is significant: a second focus of the research
Reflection and having the ability to reflect is a key skill to have when preparing a prior
learning case. Reflection serves to underpin the process of RPL case preparation (Murphy,
2010). Any candidate must have the ability to sift through the many previous key learning
events in his or her life and select from them those that best fit against the learning
outcomes of a particular module. In building their case, they are selecting with the purpose
of claiming credit for this prior learning. The second step in this research was an exploration
of reflection with two focus groups (O'Leary & Goggin, 2010). This was to understand how
reflection is viewed by students; to see if there were difficulties getting into reflective mode;
and if so how could this research help ?
1.7 Introducing the methodology to be used
An action research methodology is used to guide this research which proved both a practical
and insightful approach for the task in hand. This thesis is set in a time when the web is a
powerful vehicle with an abundance of technologies freely available (e.g. web 2.0) to
support the learner and promote collaborative work so the research is influenced by the
various technologies becoming available (Prensky, 2012).
Action research as a methodology has allowed for seven interlinked pieces of research to be
carried out in the timeframe of the thesis.
Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) refers to a process where prior learning is given a value
(NQAI, 2005). RPL is a complex field in education and each piece of research contributes to
providing an insightful overall picture. In practice with RPL, no two prior learning cases are
ever the same in terms of how the case is prepared; what learning is used to build it; or
what evidence is used to support or backup the case (Arnold, 2010; Colvin, 2006). Adding
to this broad spectrum of variables are the assessors who will take an individual stance
when making a judgement (Conrad, 2008). And yet once policy, procedure and practice are
established in any Higher Education establishment; time itself supports the development of
a culture where RPL is mainstreamed (Bjornavold, 2007; Coles & Oates, 2004). The findings
here reveal that outside of time itself, there are simple things that a college can do which
will be a significant support to the student and promote a positive culture for RPL. This
positive culture should embed and normalise the practice of RPL across Higher Education
providers in a time where demand for such provision will likely increase (Hunt, 2011).
1.8 Why RPL is significant now; the drivers of RPL
1.8.1 The Knowledge Economy
The creation of the knowledge economy was supported by key policy developments. The
Bologna agreement, signed on the 19th June 1999 had the aim of developing “A Europe of
knowledge” to enhance European citizenship and underpin peaceful democracy (European
Commission, 1999). This was followed in 2000 with the publication of the Memorandum on
Lifelong Learning embedding Europe in the knowledge age. The Commission defined
lifelong learning as:
“all purposeful learning activity, undertaken on an ongoing basis with the aim of improving
knowledge, skills and competence(European Commission, 2000).
The Memorandum also stated that lifelong learning must become the core principle behind
which all education and training provision is delivered (European Commission, 2000). The
challenge then is for education and training to provide for this reality and to allow the
individual learner make lifelong learning possible. In 2006 Andrew McDowell, Chief
Economist for Forfas outlined how knowledge and knowledge creation was a key driver of
economic growth (McDowell, 2006). It follows then that the resulting drive to increase and
widen participation in higher education would be supported by all levels of society. RPL has
a key role in this context to facilitate entry and/or to formally acknowledge relevant prior
learning and incentivize the learner through the awarding of credit.
The increase in participation in Higher Education is significant and is a key driver for the
growing importance of RPL. It is expected that the number of full-time students enrolled in
Higher Education will increase by almost a third between 2009 and 2018, in 2009 there were
62,200 graduates from this sector (Department of Education and Skills, 2010).
1.8.2 Globalization
Knowledge is more highly valued than ever in the context of global economic systems within
which higher education plays a key role (Marginson & van-der-Wende, 2007). The
globalisation of Higher Education reflects the reality of knowledge having no boundaries
The increase in demand for and the broadening of participation within Higher Education will
result in an increase in demand for RPL. The European University Association Trends 2010
reported on the broad reaching implications of globalization in Higher Education including
the implementation of the National Frameworks. It considered the “deep reaching change
agenda” that has been adopted by Higher Education (Sursock & Smidt, 2010). Similarly, the
European Higher Education Area highlights RPL as a key tool to significantly broaden
participation in education. The ministers involved in the creation of the Bologna Process
highlighted the “vital contribution” education will play in supporting the development of a
Europe where creativity and innovation thrives (Official Bologna Process Website, 2009).
RPL is a key instrument which will encourage the broadening of participation in Higher
Education allowing individuals return to and accelerate within the learning system.
1.8.3 Changing profile of the learner
As participation in Higher Education broadens there will be a steady increase in the number
of mature students. The current level of 13% of the proportion of mature students within
the broader student population is expected to reach 25% by the year 2022 (Department of
Education and Skills, 2010). A range of initiatives, European and National will consolidate
this trend, however the exact uptake is difficult to quantify in a time of recession where
migration and emigration has implications for those attending or taking up educational
programmes (McNaboe & Condon, 2010).
1.8.4 Changing demands in education
The Expert Group on Future Skill Needs analysed student numbers for science and
technology programmes in its report ‘Monitoring Irelands Skills Supply, Trends in Education
and Training Outputs, 2010’ (McNaboe & Condon, 2010). The numbers of engineering
students increased between 2008 and 2009 while courses related to the construction sector
showed a significant decrease in 2009. This decrease reflected the collapse of the
construction industry in Ireland. The numbers of students participating in computing and
science related disciplines increased in the same period. At postgraduate level, the number
of PhD enrolments increased for science and technology related areas in 2007-2008
(McNaboe & Condon, 2010). These changing profiles in student numbers are likely to
continue in the context of high unemployment in the construction and retail sectors.
RPL has a significant role in such an environment. As described in ‘Developing RPL in the
Context of the National Skills Strategy Upskilling Objectives’ RPL can be used to support the
achievement of a more responsive “demand led provision” where education is attuned to
the reskilling and training needs of employees; including an awareness of the knowledge,
skills and competencies of workers within particular sectors. The report considered a
scenario where provision can be fine tuned to meet particular regulatory requirements of
staff for particular qualifications and how RPL might play a supporting role in such a case.
The report also highlighted priority groups (the unemployed, those with low levels of
qualifications, immigrants and older people) which could be targeted for RPL and upskilling
(Expert Group on Future Skill Needs, 2010).
In August 2010, an additional twelve million euro was made available for 5000 unemployed
people to avail of additional education and training (Qualifax NQAI, 2010). These Labour
Market Activation (LMA) initiatives have brought a new stream of students to Higher
Education. In the following two years, the Government led Springboard Initiative has
continued to provide free access to HE for the unemployed (Springboard, 2012). A large
number of this cohort would have previously worked for a number of years and would be
eligible candidates for RPL within a programme where the previous learning was relevant.
RPL has been highly successful in this context and a number of the candidates have availed
of the option.
1.8.5 Role of National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) in promoting lifelong learning in
The NFQ and education frameworks in general play a key role in promoting lifelong learning.
A framework of qualifications provides a way of comparing qualifications (National
Framework of Qualifications, 2011). The structure provides a simple description of the
education system making it easier to understand from the perspective of an individual or
the employer. The learner is enabled in accessing education when and where in life it is
appropriate. It could be argued that RPL and lifelong learning are inextricably linked as
emphasized by Sean O’Foughlu in 2003 when he outlined his “vision for the recognition of
learning;” one where learning is seen as a process that happens over a lifetime (NQAI,
2003a). RPL plays a key role in a society where individuals access the learning system over a
lifetime depending on their needs.
1.8.6 Role of significant projects
Nationally, a number of projects have served to act as drivers of RPL. Strategic Innovation
Fund (SIF) projects ran from 2006 2013 and were worth €510 million. The fund was
created to allow collaboration and innovation in teaching and learning in Higher Education
and to foster access and lifelong learning (Higher Education Authority, 2006). The
Education in Employment’ project focused on providing access routes to education for
those already in employment but who were seeking upskilling opportunities requiring a
flexible responsive approach from higher education. The project team created a model of
education delivery that was supportive of the circumstances of the learner (Education in
Employment Project, 2009). The project had four complimentary strands: RPL; work based
learning; progression of craftspersons and ethnic minorities in the workforce. However the
work on the RPL strand was significant in that it served as a catalyst to reinforce the practice
of the communities of institutes and universities involved in the area. The resulting reports
and symposia strengthened this (Sheridan & Linehan, 2009).
A second project Roadmap for Employer-Academic Partnership (REAP), was funded under
the second round of the SIF programme. There were eight partners in this project who
worked to identify the learning needs of workers and draw up a partnership between
employers and Higher Education which was responsive to these needs (Higher Education
Authority, 2008). RPL is a central theme underpinning this collaboration between learners,
Higher Education and the workplace facilitating learner advancement and enabling formal
recognition of learning. These projects served to further the cause of RPL in Ireland in the
timeframe 2006-2013.
1.8.7 Legislative pressure
Changes in legislation have also served to act as drivers of RPL today. As the workforce
becomes increasingly more streamlined and new legislation is introduced there is pressure
on the individual to achieve the necessary qualifications in order to obtain employment.
The legislation also impacts those already in a job to maintain future employability. A
recent report highlighted this occurrence when reporting that Fás, the National Training
Authority had previously provided RPL in partnership with trade unions and employers for
the retail and banking sector (Expert Group on Future Skill Needs, 2010).
In addition to changes in workplace legislation, changes in legislation supporting the
provision of Higher Education have served to significantly impact the demand for RPL.
Recognition of prior formal, non-formal and informal learning is a key area of policy interest
across Europe and relates directly to the establishment of the two European Frameworks
and the national frameworks behind them. The establishment of the European
Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning (EQF - LLL) and the Bologna Framework for
the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) have RPL as a central theme within, and have
served to highlight it (European Commission, 2011a). National frameworks have followed
suit, resulting in a Higher Education sector which must deliver RPL in a responsive, timely
manner. In 2005, the NQAI published ‘Principles and Operational Guidelines for the
Recognition of Prior Learning (NQAI, 2005). There is an increasing demand for RPL resulting
from this publication and a growing awareness that in a time of change RPL is a central
provision which will be used appropriately by Higher Education to accommodate the needs
of the learner.
1.9 Introduction to the structure of this thesis
This thesis is set out in the following manner. It begins with a literature review and is
followed by the actual enactment of the research; then results and discussion of the
The literature review begins with a consideration of what RPL is and that then follows with
an exploration of reflection and how it relates to the area of RPL case preparation. Chapter
4 considers how to harness the emerging web based technologies to support the student
with the preparation of their prior learning. Chapter 5 focuses on lifelong learning then the
area of valuing learning and how it might support RPL case preparation. Finally chapter six
reviews e portfolios; what they are and how they might be used to support RPL and lifelong
The enactment of the research begins by taking us through the steps of capturing what RPL
case preparation was like in 2011 followed by an exploration of reflection as relates to the
area. The later steps included the upgrading of the Institute website for RPL followed by its
evaluation; the addition of a valuing learning page follows and final two steps involved the
trialling of e portfolios and then the evaluation of this trial. Finally, the results and
discussion are presented in the latter part of the thesis.
Figure 1.1: Overview of the literature review and the research
Chapter 2
Recognition of
Prior Learning
explains what is RPL is
and the benefits of
Chapter 3
why reflection is
important for RPL
case preparation
Chapter 4
technology for
RPL case
exploration of how
technology can help
support the student
Chapter 5
Lifelong learning
and valuing
why lifelong learning
is important
exploration of the
concept of valuing
Chapter 6
Using e portfolios
to scaffold RPL
case preparation
consideration of e
portfolios for RPL case
preparation and as
instruments to
support the lifelong
learning mindset
Chapter 7
explaination of the
approach used to guide
this research
Chapter 8
Enactment of
Research within
this footprint.
My question is
how to better
support the
student with
their task as they
prepare an RPL
case ?
Chapter 2 Recognition of Prior Learning and Experiential Learning Theory
2.1 Introduction to RPL
Learning occurs throughout a lifetime and people accumulate knowledge, skills and
competencies through formal education in addition to more informal activities such as
training at work or through involvement with community and voluntary groups.
Traditionally, formal learning leads to a primary qualification whereupon an individual
obtains work. However changes in how we live and work and the emerging knowledge
economy have resulted in a renewed emphasis on lifelong and lifewide learning.
Globally, the establishment of the education frameworks have resulted in greater
transparency of qualifications across nations encouraging broader participation in Higher
Education (Bjornavold, 2007; National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, 2010; Werequin,
Recognition of Prior Learning refers to a process where prior learning is given a value (NQAI,
2005). It is known by a number of terms throughout the world and it is defined in various
ways (see this chapter Table 2.1); all include the idea that it is the assessment of learning
prior to a particular point. RPL is a general term which encompasses all types of prior
learning. Recognition is the process where learning is given value. Prior Learning is all
learning which has taken place prior to entering a programme or seeking an award (NQAI,
In 2000, the European Commission’s Memorandum on Lifelong Learning emphasised the
importance of lifelong learning stating it is no longer one aspect of education provision but
that it must become the “guiding principle” for participation in education across the
broadest “continuum of learning contexts”. The Memorandum outlined the importance of
education and training within the context of rapid changes in how we live and work and the
importance of keeping up with these innovations (European Commission, 2000).
According to the Memorandum, individuals have the right to choose the learning pathway
suited to themselves rather than a predetermined route. This encourages the individual to
return to education over a lifetime for a variety of reasons personal; work related or for
reasons depending on the stage of life (European Commission, 2000).
Hence, significantly now, policy is supporting and encouraging an individual’s learning path.
This will facilitate the individual to take a lifelong learning approach; accessing the formal
system when needed throughout a lifetime, while allowing for non formal and informal
learning to be accredited through RPL. The Memorandum, categorised learning as formal,
non-formal and informal. The following figure is adapted from this.
Formal Learning
Occurs in accredited education and
training Institutions; leading to
recognised awards such as diplomas and
Non Formal learning
Arises through training within the
workplace or community based settings
Informal Learning
Unintentional learning arising from
activities in the workplace, hobbies or
those of a voluntary or community based
Fig. 2.1 Categories of learning; adapted from the Memorandum on Lifelong Learning
(European Commission, 2000); images from
RPL encourages lifelong learning and the return to education throughout a lifetime
depending on an individual’s needs. It may be formative (supporting a learning process but
not leading to a qualification) or summative, leading to a qualification or to the award of
credit (Duvekot, 2010). In Higher Education, summative RPL is further categorised into
certified RPL or experiential RPL (NQAI, 2005). Certificated learning is learning that has
previously formally accredited. On assessment, it can result in admission to a programme,
advanced entry to a programme or the award of exemption(s) from module(s) on a
programme (Sheridan & Linehan, 2009; Werequin, 2010b). Experiential learning is learning
that has not previously been assessed or awarded credits. It is gained through life and work
experiences and is often unintentional learning. On assessment it can be awarded credits
and grades (NQAI, 2005).
2.2 The Origins of RPL
RPL emerged with the work of Morris Keeton amongst others in the USA in the 1970’s
(Fiddler, Marienau, & Whitaker, 2006). The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning
(CAEL) led the field in 1974, initially funded as a project by the Educational Testing Service in
Princeton, New Jersey, to investigate the validity and reliability of assessing for college
credit learning that had occurred outside the college classroom (Wertheim, 2011). The
Educational testing service and CAEL was established in 1974 and was among the first
organizations to consider prior learning assessment. CAEL set out standards for awarding
credit through assessment and Morris Keeton was one of the first to promote experiential
learning (Fiddler, et al., 2006).
2.3 RPL is known by a variety of terms around the world
Recognising all forms of learning is a priority policy area for a number of organisations such
as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), UNESCO,
CEDEFOP and the European Commission. RPL is known by a number of terms throughout
the world for example; Accreditation of Prior Learning (APL); Accreditation of Prior
Experiential Learning (APEL); Accreditation of Prior Certificated Learning (APCL);
Accreditation of Prior Learning and Achievement (APL & A); Recognition of Current
Competencies (RCC); Recognition and Accreditation of Learning (RAL); Learning Outside
Formal Teaching (LOFT); Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) and Recognition
of Non-formal and Informal Learning (RNFIL) which is used by the OECD. This variety of
terms reflects the diversity of practices and traditions in existence regarding RPL. Recently,
the OCED has stated that the use of various terms is to be accepted given the complexity of
learning systems throughout the world and that standardisation of terms would only be
necessary within a political entity (Werequin, 2010b).
Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have been significant users and developers
of RPL procedures and processes. In the United States of America, RPL has a long tradition
and is known as Prior Learning Assessment (PLA). The Council for Adult and Experiential
Learning (CAEL) in the USA said it is “earning college credit” for learning gained in work and
life and it acknowledges that adults bring their experiential learning with them into the
classroom (Colvin, 2006). Even countries such as Trinidad & Tobago use the term PLAR and
define it as:
“the knowledge, skills and attitudes acquired by experience or exposure to a particular field of
knowledge or occupation (National Training Assessment of Trinidad and Tobago, 2011)
In Canada, RPL has been used since the early 1990’s in post secondary education (Aarts et
al., 2003) where it is known as Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR). A
number of organizations regulate and support its delivery, namely the Canadian Association
for Prior Learning Assessment (CAPLA), in existence since 1994 which operates across its
states. There is, in addition to CAPLA the Canadian Institute for Recognizing Learning (CIRL)
an organisation dedicated to supporting ways of recognising learning arising from all
activities (Canadian Institute for Recognizing Learning, 2012). Interestingly, the Canadian
Information Centre for International Credentials (CICIC) reports widespread acceptance and
use of PLAR at second and third level (Canadian Information Centre for Foreign Credentials,
2011). The Canadian Institute for Recognising Learning was established in 2003 and has
published principles for PLAR implementation (Van-Kleef, 2011).
The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) was established in 1995 to support the
provision of qualifications from each education and training sector under a comprehensive
National Framework. The AQF defines RPL as “an assessment process” whereby relevant
prior learning is presented for credit (Australian Qualifications Council, 2011). In 2002 a
report by Wheelahan and Miller considered RPL to be one which;
“assesses the individual’s learning to determine the extent to which that individual has achieved the
required learning outcomes, competency outcomes or standards for entry to/or partial completion of
a qualification” (Wheelahan & Miller, 2002)
The New Zealand Qualifications Framework was launched in July 2010 replacing two earlier
bodies, the National Qualifications Framework and the Register of Quality Assured
Qualifications (KiwiQuals). Prior Learning and credit transfer is a central aspect of the
framework which provides general information on what is entailed with recognition. The
same standards apply to all learners within the Framework (New Zealand Qualifications
Authority, 2012).
The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) replaced the older National Qualifications
Framework which was set up at the birth of the South Africa as a nation in 1994. SAQA also
has provision for RPL. The mission page of the website highlights the importance of people
with ‘flexible generalist’ or lifelong learning abilities. Recognition of Prior Learning is the
term commonly used in South Africa (South African Qualifications Authority, 2012).
In Ireland, the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI) stated “Recognition is a
process by which prior learning is given a value(NQAI, 2005). This process normally
involves some form of assessment where the learner gains credit for this learning which
may have been gained in a variety of ways either formally or through workplace training or
through experiential learning within the workplace or in life generally.
The definitions in use are presented in Table 2.1, where organisations involved in RPL policy
implementation at global and national level are selected.
Table 2.1 Definitions of RPL as presented by significant organisations
“Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) or the Assessment of Prior Learning (APL) to
describe the process of earning college credit from learning acquired through work,
training, volunteer experiences, and personal life. PLA helps students determine
what they already know and what they still need to learn ... it recognizes that adults
bring their personal and professional experiences to the classroom and that learning
is a lifelong activity.” (Colvin, 2006)
“Formal learning is typically provided by education or training institutions, with
structured learning objectives, learning time and learning support. It is intentional ...
and leads to certification.
Non-formal learning is not provided by an education or training institution and
typically does not lead to certification. However, it is intentional ... and has
structured objectives.
Informal learning results from daily activities related to work, family life or leisure. It
is not structured and usually does not lead to certification.... It is unintentional on
the part of the learner(European Commission, 2011d)
“The formal acknowledgement of skills, knowledge, and competencies that are
gained through work experience, informal training, and life experience. .” (p. 85)
(Visceanu, Grünberg, & Pârlea, 2007)
Has separated the formative and summative aspects of RPL and terms such as the
identification and validation of non formal and informal learning. Validation is;“...
based on the assessment of the individual’s learning outcomes and may result in a
certificate or diploma” (CEDEFOP, 2009).
Recognition is a process by which prior learning is given a value. It is a means by
which prior learning is formally identified, assessed and acknowledged...Prior
learning may have been acquired through formal, non-formal or informal routes”
(NQAI 2005).
“Recognition of learning is the process of recording of achievements of individuals
arising from any kind of learning in any environment; the process aims to make
visible an individual’s knowledge and skills so that they can combine and build on
learning achieved and be rewarded for it.” (OECD, 2004)
“an assessment process that involves an assessment of an individual’s relevant prior
learning (including formal, informal and non-formal learning) to determine the
credit outcomes of an individual application for credit.”(Australian Qualifications
Council, 2011)
“identification and measurement of skills and knowledge acquired outside formal
educational institutions. Assessments are most often used to grant academic credit
or determine eligibility to practice a trade or profession. Recognition is based on an
assessment of skills and knowledge obtained through work and other life
experiences. Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition may also include
determination of future goals and individual training needs.”(Canadian Association
for Prior Learning Assessment, 2011)
“the comparison of the previous learning and experience of a learner, howsoever
obtained, against the learning outcomes required for a specified qualification, and
the acceptance for purposes of qualification of that which meets the requirements.”
(South African Qualifications Authority, 2012)
In general, the definitions presented by the various organisations comply with the spirit of
recognition for prior learning irrespective of how it was gained. The European Centre for the
Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP) acknowledged the complexities involved
with the use of terminology and in 2009 opted to separate the formative and summative
aspects of RPL by referring to the identification and validation of non-formal and informal
learning. CEDEFOP stated the identification of non-formal and informal learning to be a
process which makes the individuals learning visible (CEDEFOP, 2009); they then went onto
say the validation of non-formal and informal learning is based on the assessment of the
persons learning outcomes and possibly results in a formal award (CEDEFOP, 2009).
In conclusion, although RPL is known by a number of terms throughout the world, reflected
in the diversity of approaches and terminology used, it is well represented as a reality within
Higher Education provision. As stated by Patrick Werequin of the OECD in 2010, RPL
encourages people to return to education and is a valuable tool for the labour market
allowing a,
“Shift of attention from pedagogy to assessment in knowledge transmission has potentially large
implications for practice which should be fully considered” (Werequin, 2010).
2.4 Experiential Learning
Experiential learning is learning which is gained in non-formal and informal settings or;
“Education that occurs as a direct participation in the events of life” (Houle, 1980). It is
learning that is achieved through reflection on everyday experiences. Often it is unplanned
and incidental to another task. Experiential learning is significant in that it has never been
assessed before and in an age of lifelong learning where the learner may return to
education it may acquire a new significance when relevant to an area of study. Experiential
Learning is also known as Non-Formal and Informal Learning. The process of giving formal
recognition to this type of learning is described by the OECD as Recognition of Prior Non-
formal and Informal learning (RNFIL).
2.5 Models or theories of experiential learning
David Kolb and Roger Fry made a significant contribution to experiential learning theory
when they created a model out of four elements: concrete experience, reflective
observation on that experience, making abstract concepts from the experience and testing
again in new situations (Kolb & Fry, 1975).
Fig 2.2 Kolb’s Learning Cycle (David Kolb, 1984)
Kolb presented three models of the experiential learning process citing John Dewey, Kurt
Lewin and Jean Piaget. He evaluated their common characteristics in order to define
experiential learning (David Kolb, 1984). Kolb’s work explored how an individual makes
sense of real life experiences and the different styles of learning that may be involved. The
cycle can begin at any point, however the process normally begins with a particular action
and then the individual looks at the effect of the action in a particular situation. He
described how experience changes the learning process; “Learning is the process whereby
knowledge is created through the transformation of experience(David Kolb, 1984). He
stressed that the emphasis was on “the process of adaptation and learning as opposed to
the content or outcomes(Kolb, 1984) and that “knowledge is a transformation process
being continually created and recreated” (Kolb, 1984).
The work of Kurt Lewin formed the basis of Kolb’s model where learning is a four stage cycle
and experience formed the basis for reflection. This, in turn, informed the establishment of
new theories which were tested in new situations. The ‘here-and-now concrete experience’
(Kolb, 1984) is emphasised to test abstract concepts and any action research is based on
feedback processes. The process is shown below:
Fig 2.3 Adapted from the Experiential Learning Model of Lewin (DA Kolb, 1984).
A major influence on Kolb’s work was Dewey who challenged educators to develop
programmes that would not be isolated from real life experience (Dewey, 1938). His work
was to later influence Kolb and Fry (Kolb & Fry, 1975). Dewey stated that learning needs
structure and order and must be based on a clear theory of experience. His theory of
experience outlined two central themes, those of continuity and interaction. Continuity
related to the idea that humans are affected by experience and that we learn something
from every experience and build upon them over a lifetime. The other theme of interaction
explains how past experience can interact with the present situation resulting in every
person having a unique experience as a result.
“What he has learned in the way of knowledge and skill in one situation becomes an instrument of
understanding and dealing effectively with the situations which follow. The process goes on as long as
life and learning continue (Dewey, 1938).
Dewey believed that education should be about realising one’s full potential having the
ability to use those skills for the greater good. He established that having an experience
does not necessarily mean that a good learning opportunity occurs,
observations and
formation of
abstract concepts
implications of
concepts in new
“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all
experiences are genuinely or equally educative. Experience and education cannot be directly equated
to each other. For some experiences are mis-educative (Dewey, 1938).
Dewey’s model is similar to that of Lewin but he further developed the feedback process.
The model is shown below:
Fig. 2.4 Dewey’s Model of Learning (DA Kolb, 1984)
The emphasis is on learning as a “process which integrates experience and concepts
observations and action” (Kolb, 1984). He described how mature purpose develops from
blind impulse and how each cycle of impulse, observation, knowledge and judgement
develop as a result of the previous experience.
In describing the work of Piaget, Kolb outlined his four major stages of cognitive growth,
from birth to the age of 14-16. Piaget’s model reflected these four major stages of cognitive
development. For Piaget,
“experience and concept, reflection, and action form the basic continua for the development of adult
thought” (Kolb, 1984).
As a result of the similarities amongst the models, Kolb made a number of conclusions.
They are outlined in Figure 2.5.
knowledge judgement
impulse observation
knowledge 2 judgement 2
impulse 2 observation
knowledge 3 judgement 3
impulse 3
Fig. 2.5 Adapted from Kolb’s conclusions on the similarities between the models of Dewey,
Lewin and Piaget (Kolb, 1984).
Kolb concluded that learning occurs when experience is transformed into knowledge (Kolb,
1984). He emphasised the importance of the “process of adaptation and learning, as
opposed to content or outcomes and that the transformation of knowledge is a continuous,
ever evolving process where reflection on an experience plays a central role in identifying
what was learned in any situation.
Carl Rogers also made a significant contribution to the theory of experiential learning with
his book “Freedom to Learn in the 80’s” (Rogers, 1983). He recognised two types of
learning: cognitive (memorising formula, tables etc.) and experiential (knowledge from
doing). His work influenced the development of student-centred teaching and experiential
education where the teacher is facilitator. He outlined the conditions where experiential
learning can occur as those where the student is actively engaged and interacting with a
task, can direct the learning process and where self-evaluation to assess learning is used. In
Learning occurs
where the person
interacts with
Learning is a
process and is
grounded in
Conflicts must
be resolved for
learning to
There is
learning in
how we adapt
to the world
his earlier edition of Freedom to Learn, Rogers devoted a chapter on ‘Methods of Building
Freedom’ where the conditions for self-initiated, self-directed learning can be encouraged.
Amongst the methods discussed was programmed instruction as experiential learning. Self-
evaluation was another method discussed. He stated that ‘the evaluation of one’s own
learning is one of the major means by which self-initiated learning becomes also responsible
learning’ and that a person only “truly learns to take responsibility for himself and his
directions,” when he can evaluate his own learning and goals and the extent to which he has
achieved them. Thus for Rogers, the ability to reflect on ones learning and to evaluate it is a
key skill for the self-directed learner (Rogers, 1969a, 1969b).
Jarvis further developed Kolb’s experiential learning theory by developing a more complex
model showing that there can be several responses to a learning situation (Jarvis, 1995). He
categorised possible outcomes of the learning process as non-learning, non-reflective and
reflective learning.
2.6 RPL in Higher Education
RPL is now commonly offered across Higher Education providers across Europe, America,
South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. It allows for the recognition of prior formal, non
formal and informal learning at an appropriate point on an educational framework for non
standard admissions; for advanced entry onto a programme; or for credits within a
programme of study.
Briefly, the Irish Higher Education system is predominantly publically funded and operates
under the legislative umbrella of the European Qualifications Framework (EQF). In terms of
scale there were 145,690 full time students in 2009 and 39,278 part-time students
producing over 35,000 graduates (Higher Education Authority, 2010). The following policy
framework applies. The Universities operate under the National University of Ireland and
are governed by the Universities Act of 1997 ("Universities Act 1997," 1997) The Institutes
of Technology are governed by the Qualifications (Education & training Act) 1999
("Qualifications (Education and Training) Act, 1999," 1999). The Qualifications (Education &
Training Act) 1999 also established the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI).
Fig. 2.6 Levels of Learning on the Irish National Framework of Qualifications (National
Framework of Qualifications, 2010)
The Universities and Institutes of Technology operate in parallel with each other but with
distinct and complementary roles. On the 6th November 2012, the NQAI, Higher Education
& Training Awards Council (HETAC), Further Education & Training Awards Council (FETAC)
and the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) were amalgamated under the Qualifications
and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act (2012) to form Quality & Qualifications
Ireland ("Quality & Qualifications Ireland,," 2012). RPL is specifically provided for within this
framework which articulates within the EQF and the Qualifications Framework for the
European Higher Education Area.
2.7 Benefits of RPL
The benefits of RPL can be considered in terms of whether it is summative, formative or
generic RPL.
The formative approach to RPL supports career development. It relates to the interaction
between an individual and the workplace. A careful mapping process or learning plan can
clarify an individual’s hopes for the future whether it is future employment or additional
educational attainment. This approach was highlighted in Duvekot’s “lifelong learning in the
L3 triangle” (Duvekot, 2010).
In the summative approach, where prior learning is assessed for credits, RPL offers an
alternative route to formal qualifications. RPL relates to the interaction between an
individual and the Higher Education provider. The benefits of RPL used in a summative
manner are many and include the fact that a value is put on prior learning. It is a formal
acknowledgement of the value of this learning. This formal recognition is a confidence
boost for the individual learner. In addition, RPL can offer real time saving advantages to
the student who does not have to learn anything twice and can focus on other areas of their
coursework or life demands as necessary. It is now possible to obtain a full award through
RPL; such an award is based on 100% experiential learning.
As stated by Duvekot in 2010, RPL can work as a ‘matchmaker’ between the upskilling needs
of the labour system and how the learning system can respond to meet these needs. The
EQF and National Frameworks articulate the learning outcomes and RPL links these
academic terms to real-life “function-profiles from the labour system(Duvekot, 2010). The
interaction between the two systems (generic RPL) supports the operation of summative
and formative RPL. Generic RPL offers protection for Higher Education providers (actual
documentation, policy and procedures and through which the process must operate) and
the labour system (in terms of employees complying with legislation). RPL, when
established in a sector, results in a community of practitioners and support between
providers. The recent Irish Education in Employment SIF funded project illustrated how
through the initial impetus of funding that practice was established and the benefits of
strength in one Institute were shared and developed with others for society’s greater
benefit (Davies, 2010).
The benefits of RPL are many and they are presented in literature around the world.
According to Qualifax, the Irish national learners database, the benefits of RPL include the
acknowledgement of the learners knowledge as valuable and relevant, it provides for entry
for non traditional students to third level, it is a confidence boost to the individual and
allows for shorter timespan to achieve a qualification (Qualifax NQAI, 2011).
In 2010, the OECD presented the benefits of RPL in terms of benefits for employers,
governments, for the individual and for education providers/awarding bodies (Werequin,
2010b). This was summarised in a Government report from the Expert Group on Future
Skills Needs. This summary is presented in Appendix A.
RPL is well established in Australia. Amongst the material used to promote it is a toolkit for
volunteers in the community sector where the benefits of RPL are outlined in terms of it
being an access mechanism for further studies and that it allows for formal
acknowledgement of life skills (National Volunteer Skills Centre, 2006). There are various
approaches from around the world to present RPL to eligible candidates. The following
themes are common to all, namely that: RPL acknowledges the value of learning regardless
of how it was gained. It encourages access for ‘non-traditional’ students, it eliminates
unnecessary repetition, it can shorten the time necessary to complete a qualification, it
encourages lifelong learning and enhances the self-esteem of the learner (Werequin,
2010a). These benefits are tangible to the individual; the workforce and to the education
provider and suitable in the context of the establishment of the qualification frameworks
and policies resulting from them.
In Ireland the National Skills Strategy presented an ambitious vision of the labour market in
2020 where 48% of the labour force having qualifications at levels 6-10 on the NFQ and
where 45 % have qualifications at levels 4 to 5 and where the remaining 7% would have
levels 1 to 3 (Forfas, 2007). A recent report stated that RPL is highly relevant in terms of
facilitating the National Skills Strategy (Expert Group on Future Skill Needs, 2010). RPL can
make a real difference in terms of labour market activation and can contribute to the
provision for future skill needs of the workforce.
2.8 The Importance of learning outcomes
Recent policy updates have resulted in education focusing on a learning outcomes approach
(European Commission, 2011c). This is significant in that an outcomes based approach acts
as an enabler of RPL and such systems that allow for the accreditation of non formal and
informal learning. The European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning focuses on
the results of a learning process, or the achievement of learning outcomes, which can be
achieved through formal, non-formal or informal means as opposed to the length of time of
a programme of study. Therefore, when validating formal, non-formal or informal learning
it is the achievement of learning outcomes which is at the core of the process (European
Commission, 2011d). Programmes are written in terms of learning outcomes. Achieving the
learning outcomes is a requirement of any student regardless of the assessment method in
order to gain the required credits.
In the European Qualifications Framework (EQF), a learning outcome is defined as a
statement of what a learner knows, understands and is able to do on completion of a
learning process (European Commission, 2008). The following table (2.2) outlines the
definitions of knowledge, skills and competence according to the EQF:
Table 2.2: EQF Definitions of Knowledge, Skills & Competence (European Commission,
means the outcome of the assimilation of information through learning. Knowledge
is the body of facts, principles, theories and practices that is related to a field of work
or study. In the context of the European Qualifications Framework, knowledge is
described as theoretical and/or factual;
the ability to apply knowledge and use know-how to complete tasks and solve
problems. In the context of the European Qualifications Framework, skills are
described as cognitive (involving the use of logical, intuitive and creative thinking) or
practical (involving manual dexterity and the use of methods, materials, tools and
the proven ability to use knowledge, skills and personal, social and/or methodological
abilities, in work or study situations and in professional and personal development. In
the context of the European Qualifications Framework, competence is described in
terms of responsibility and autonomy
RPL encourages a change in emphasis from that of knowledge input to assessment of
outcomes which will have huge implications for the labour market in terms of lifelong
learning and the education system in terms of supporting this shift (Werequin, 2010).
2.8 Summary of chapter
This chapter considered various terminology and definitions of RPL around the world today
followed by an exploration of the theory of experiential learning. It followed with a
discussion on the benefits of RPL. RPL has been promoted as a key feature which supports
education providers respond to demands to broaden access and provide a flexible
responsive approach to learner and workplace needs.
The benefits of RPL are many and range from recognising lifelong learning, improving
morale, increasing access to education and encouraging the standardisation of training for
the volunteer sector. Various organisations have quite rightly categorised the benefits in
terms of the workplace, the individual, the learning organisation and others such as
education providers and governments. RPL is a very relevant aspect of provision for HE
today. The chapter finishes by highlighting the importance of a learning outcomes approach
to assessment.
Chapter 3
Reflection; Why it Matters
Fig. 3.1 The pensive; an instrument for
sorting out jumbled thoughts
and examining them
one at a time
(Rowling, 2000)
3.1 Introduction
The theoretical roots of reflection and the major contributors to the field are considered
here. Definitions of reflection are explored and then reflection is linked to the core of RPL
case preparation. It explains why reflection is central to the process of preparing a learning
portfolio. The chapter finalises with an exploration of how to encourage reflection in a
practical way while building a prior learning case.
3.2 Theoretical roots of reflection and definitions
An ability to reflect is central to RPL case preparation. To be able to reflect on a task is the
ability to concentrate on something and give it careful consideration. ‘Harry Potter and the
Goblet of Fire’ has been quoted (Miller, Divall, & Maloney, 2012), where Dumbledore
mentioned a stone basin; “the pensive;” to Harry, as an instrument for reflection where
jumbled thoughts can be sorted and examined one at a time; saying:
it becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form” (Rowling,
Reflection involves looking carefully at something and separating out the strands or themes
of a problem or thought to be considered. The field of reflection is significantly informed by
the work of John Dewey, Paulo Friere, Donald Schon and David Kolb. Any definition of
reflection should begin with a consideration of the input of these authors. More recently
Jennifer Moon and Nona Lyons have made interesting contributions to the area and so their
work will be explored here too.
John Dewey considered reflection as a mode of thinking; it is to have an awareness of the
actions that need to be carried out next;
“the kind of thinking that consists in turning a subject over in the mind and giving it serious and
consecutive consideration” (Dewey, 1930)
Dewey said reflection included the following states;
“doubt, hesitation, perplexity, mental difficulty in which thinking originates and an act of searching,
hunting, inquiring to find material that will resolve the doubt, and dispose of the perplexity” (Dewey,
Reflection is a messy process then, one without a clear or defined path, a process through
which one must give time and consideration to in order to question and challenge oneself so
as to come up with a solution to a situation or problem. Reflective thinking has a purpose
and a conclusion and that it leads to enquiry; this in turn leads to the person seeking
evidence to support the outcome (Dewey, 1930). He maintained that attitudes mattered
too and that it is important to be open minded, free from prejudice and whole hearted with
the enquiry.
Paulo Friere defined learning as having both active and passive (or reflective) components.
Friere maintained that a person learns by doing or constructing and also by thinking or
reflecting about these activities. He maintained that new learning arises out of the
combination of action and reflection of ‘praxis’. He considered reflection as an
interrogation of the political, social, cultural contexts of learning and living,” resulting in a
critical awareness or inquiry (Lyons, 2010b). It was his belief that education was never a
neutral process that it was influenced by the broader social and cultural contexts within
which it was delivered. His work has informed how we look at or read society today and the
influences to which we are all subjected to. His major works were ‘Pedagogy of Oppressed’
(Friere, 1972) and the ‘Politics of Education’ (Friere, 1985). He believed that we bring our
own experiences and learning with us to the education process and this frames what we
learn and how we place this knowledge. It was also his belief that we should act to
challenge our realities and reflect as to how we can transform society through further action
and reflection.
Donald Schon acknowledged his connection to the work of Dewey and considered reflection
as a way of knowing. His work considered the theory and practice of learning and his
contribution includes ‘reflection on action;’ ‘reflection-in-action’ and ‘double loop learning’.
By ‘reflection on action’ he maintains that one reflects back on a particular situation or
action in order to distil lessons learned from that event or happening. In contrast
‘reflection-in-action’ assists us as the task is being completed. It is that workspace that
allows us to adjust or tweak something as one works on it if it doesn’t seem right. It is
purposeful in that the adjustments must bring about the right action. It is the skill of
‘thinking on your feet’ and reacting accordingly when new or unexpected events happen;
“The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which
he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior
understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour (Schon, 1983).
With ‘reflection-in-action’ practitioners try to solve unexpected happenings ‘on the spot’ and
will adjust their verbal language to clarify a point or change their behaviour to
accommodate an unexpected happening and try to resolve these as they emerge. It takes a
working knowledge of an area to have this ability to combine various elements or
components of a problem and transform them to arrive at a working solution (Schon,
1983). These ideas have been influential and are widely supported. Finally double loop
learning was another key contribution to the theory of reflection and arose from Schon’s
collaboration with Chris Argyris (Argyris & Schon, 1978). Double loop learning is the
attempt by an individual or organisation to repeatedly solve a problem, changing the
approach with each attempt and trying again until the problem is solved. Single loop
learning on the other hand is where the individual or organisation makes several attempts
to solve the problem but varying nothing each time, just repeating the attempt. This thesis
has evolved through an action research spiral with reflection as a central part of the process
informing the next step through a consideration of the overall picture in order to improve
how RPL is supported. The reflective element is core to the process and allowing for it has
revealed valuable insight.
Reflection is a key element to David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle who was influenced by
the work of Dewey (David Kolb, 1984). To make sense of an experience we must consider
the previous events and attempt to make sense of them. This reflective step is where we
consider the information or experience and transform it through actively experimenting as
to what to do next; then form a plan for the next step which takes into account this
Fig. 3.2 Kolb’s learning cycle (David Kolb, 1984)
A more recent contributor to the field of reflection is Jennifer Moon who considers
reflection as a type of process which relates to a set of ideas:
a form of mental processing with a purpose and/or anticipated outcome that is applied to relatively
complex set of unstructured ideas for which there is not an obvious solution”
(Moon, 1999a, 1999b; Watton, Collings, & Moon, 2001)
Nona Lyons work in ‘The Handbook of Reflection and Reflective Enquiry’ provides significant
contributions from academics around the world (Lyons, 2010b). The text underlines the
importance of reflective practice in todays uncertain world of banking crises, financial
market collapse, where former pillars of democracy are dealing with new uncertainties.
Nona Lyons cited the works of Dewey, Schon and Friere when defining reflection and
presented them in an interpretative framework linking the ideas of each theorist into one
construct. In a previous work Nona Lyons and Vicki la Boskey defined reflection as
something that was done intentionally either alone or with others to investigate something
in order to understand it better; it looks at past events and into the future and that there is
normally a narrative aspect to the act and it often raises ethical issues for the people
involved(Lyons & LaBoskey, 2002).
3.3 Models of reflection
There are different models of reflection presented in the literature. Some models are based
on Blooms taxonomy (B. Bloom, 1964) and others are based on Kolb’s experiential learning
cycle (David Kolb, 1984). Some of the models describe stages to getting into the reflective
mode from descriptive to reflective; each level or stage becoming progressively more
contemplative or searching (Watton, et al., 2001). The models based on Kolb’s learning
cycle tend to be circular reflecting his work.
Benjamin Bloom identified different levels within the processes of thinking which he
presented in terms of increasing complexity from simple recall to the higher levels of
evaluation and creation (B. Bloom, 1964). He set out to classify educational goals and
objectives with the Convention of the American Psychological Association. Their aim was to
classify levels of thinking to better understand the learning process. The result was a
classification or taxonomy of three categories: the cognitive (knowledge based); the
affective (based on attitudes) and the psychomotive (based on skills). The cognitive domain
had six levels and Bloom provided six definitions of learning ability ranging from simple
recall to more complex such as evaluation. The levels are described as knowledge,
comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation and creation (B. Bloom, Engelhart, Furst,
Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956). The most basic level is knowledge acquisition or simple recall.
Each level is increasingly more developed.
Fig. 3.3 Blooms taxonomy of learning outcomes (Bloom et al. 1956)
This approach is still widely used today when preparing learning outcomes in curriculum
design. Blooms taxonomy provides a tool to measure learning and has been updated to
better reflect the modern world (Anderson, Krathwohl, Airasian, & Cruikshank, 2001). In
the updated version the top two layers have been interchanged.
Fig. 3.4 Updated version of Blooms taxonomy (Anderson, et al., 2001)
Table 3.1 Revised model of Bloom’s taxonomy based on Anderson & Krathwohl’s work in
2001 (Forehand, 2010).
Put elements together in a new form
Make judgements and critique
Break material into parts, organise or recombine
Carry out or use a procedure, implement
Interpret, classify, summarise, compare and explain information
Recognise and recall facts
These levels have been adapted and used as a framework to support reflection. An
example of this would be Peter Pappas taxonomy of reflection which poses questions useful
at every level (Pappas, 2010). This is included on the Google sites website (Barrett, 2012).
The questions posed should generally support or guide the reflective process and encourage
deeper exploration of ideas and values.
What should I do next ?
What should I do next ?
How well did I do ?
Do I see any patterns in what I did ?
Where could I use this again ?
What was important about it ?
What did I do ?
Fig. 3.5 Peter Pappas taxonomy of reflection (Pappas, 2010)
Gibbs model of reflection is based on Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle. It outlines six
stages and poses a question for each one (Gibbs, 1988). Again these questions are
intended to lead the person in the reflective process.
Fig. 3.6 Gibbs model of reflection (Gibbs, 1988)
According to Dewey, there were five phases to reflection. These were explored by Nona
Lyons in 2010 who stated the first one is “suggestions, in which the mind leaps forward to a
possible solution” the second one where the problem is felt or experienced; the third a
suggestion to solve it; the fourth where the idea is explored and the fifth the hypothesis is
tested (Lyons, 2010b).
what happened ?
what were you thinking
and feeling ?
what was good and
bad about the
experience ?
what sense can you
make of the
situation ?
what else could
you have done ?
Action Plan
if it arose again what
would you do ?
In “Reflection in Teacher Education” Hatton and Smith propose sequential levels of
reflection that go from non reflective to critical reflection. The first level is descriptive
writing where the text provides a straightforward account of the events in question,
remaining descriptive and setting out the context but it does not consider or question any
aspect. The second level is descriptive writing with some reflection. The written piece is
mostly descriptive in nature however there is some analysis of events contained within. The
third level of reflective writing is that of Reflective or Dialogic Reflection (Hatton & Smith,
1995). In this mode, there is a sense of the person stepping back from events and a sense of
them considering and discussing events from a number of perspectives; there is evidence of
building on prior experiential learning and making links between events. The deepest level
of reflection is critical reflection and this piece of writing will present text where the person
can stand back from events taking a metacognitive stance; the reflection will be self
questioning and consider their prior experience in light of the event. There will be narrative
discourse and they will consciously frame the issue within the wider
social/cultural/historical or political arena within which it is framed (Hatton & Smith, 1995).
Fig. 3.7: Levels of reflection adapted from Hatton and Smith (Hatton & Smith, 1995)
Helen Barrett includes reflection in her Kolb based learning cycle on many of her
presentations and website material (B. Barrett, 2010; Barrett, 2008, 2009, 2011c). The
sets the context
describes what happened
with some
mostly descriptive
little analysis of events
analyses elements
questions and considers; willing to be critical or explore; stepping back; discourse with self
metacognitive stance; emotions relate to writing; linking of ideas;
multiple perspectives noted; conscious framing of ideas in wider social/cultural/political or
historical arena
model highlights the reality that reflection occurs in a number of cycles as events unfold.
The reflection itself is influenced by what precedes it and adjusts or changes to take account
of emerging information as it arises.
Fig. 3.8 Barretts Kolb based model of the learning cycle includes reflection (Barrett, 2012)
In the 2005, White Paper Researching Electronic Portfolios and Learner Engagement
Barrett referred to the work of James Zull who provided evidence that the learning cycle
naturally reflects the actual structure of the brain (Barrett, 2005; Zull, 2002). Barrett
continued by linking this proposal with the work of Jenny Moon who explored the
importance of reflection in promoting actual deep and meaningful learning (Moon, 1999b).
Moon elaborated on the tasks that promote reflection as those that are:
“ill-structured, ‘messy’ or real life situations, asking the ‘right’ kinds of questions...tasks that demand
the ordering of thoughts, tasks that require evaluation” (Moon, 1999b)
Her model of reflection has been adapted and used widely (King). There are seven stages,
with the first three stages representing the basic steps, namely; ‘purpose’, ‘basic
observations’ and ‘additional information’(Moon, 1999a). The following four steps take the
reflection to a deeper level and begin with ‘revisiting’, ‘standing back’ then ‘moving on’.
This can be revisited again as shown in the following diagram:
Fig. 3.9: Stages of reflection, adapted from Moon (Moon, 1999a)
3.4 Why reflection matters for RPL
Reflection is at the heart of preparing an RPL case. The very core of the task is building a
portfolio to showcase knowledge, skills and competencies as they relate to a particular area
of learning. This must be presented in such a way that an assessor can clearly see what the
person is claiming credit for. So in practice they must present their work against a particular
set of learning outcomes, normally they belong to a module(s); or a stage of a programme.
Clarity in case preparation requires careful reflection in order to present appropriate
material against each learning outcome. Careful consideration needs to go into selecting
appropriate evidence to support the claim. The individual needs to consider what they are
including and what this piece of evidence shows about them. In all of this they have to keep
the following criteria in mind; currency; sufficiency; validity, reliability and quantity.
The very act of portfolio preparation and compilation allows for reflection over the period of
the task. If this is maintained over a longer period of time (maintaining a portfolio to
Additional information
Basic Observation
Standing back
Moving on
More Reflection
support a learning development plan, for formative purposes) it encourages the skills and
habits that promote critical reflection (Zubizarreta, 2009).
The portfolio environment is one in which we must order and organise items or products
that result from messy real life situations and present them with reflection as to how they
are relevant or meaningful to a particular situation. This act promotes reflection as
supported by Moon who highlighted tasks that demand putting order on thoughts, and
tasks that require judgement or evaluation as those which actually promote reflective
thought (Moon, 1999b).
In building an RPL case the candidate must reflect on previous experiences sift and select
through their key learning events and consider what matters and why ? This internal
discourse must be appropriately supported to result in good quality RPL cases for
assessment in Higher Education.
3.5 How to encourage reflection with RPL case preparation
As reflection is a core aspect of RPL case preparation; supporting the ability to reflect
appropriately is central to supporting good quality RPL provision for any college or Institute.
Candidates need to be supported with their task to ensure they put together a properly
documented case for assessment (Brown, 2012). This in turn should lend to them having a
positive experience with RPL. Positive experience with the task in turn lends to the RPL
service having a good reputation; which then in turn promotes RPL within a formal third
level setting.
In a time of increasing demand for RPL with the number of cases being prepared steadily
increasing in the past five years it has become essential to organise the provision in such a
way that caters for this demand. RPL services are increasingly using the web to support its
provision (Brown, 2011). Dr. Sara Leiste influenced this research with her paper on
promoting a positive experience for RPL case preparation (Leiste & Jensen, 2011). The
paper had a practitioner based viewpoint that I readily identified with. It presented
practical steps on how best to use resources to help the learner and I could visualise how
these steps would help in my workplace. Posting quality material online makes good use of
available resources. Using the internet to support RPL case preparation allows for a range
of good quality support material to be readily available to students. It is possible to present
examples of case preparation; video clips of what to do; testimonials of other students etc.
can be made available to all (O'Leary & O'Sullivan, 2012a). This material can be used as
backup material for workshops where students are provided with a practical forum
supporting their own preparation. As mentioned by Lyons, reflection does not come
automatically or easily to many and students will benefit from support and training in class
time to develop this reflective ability (Lyons, 2010b). Specific class time to work on
reflection and build an understanding of what is required provides the students with the
tools to become reflective practitioners (O'Leary & Goggin, 2010).
It is possible to provide a web space to specifically promote reflection within the act of prior
learning case preparation. There are examples available (Barrett, 2012; Brigham & Klein-
Collins, 2011; Brown, 2011; Kaemingk, 2008; SEEC, 2012). By articulating the how and why
of case preparation it is possible to highlight to the candidate the reflective steps they
should be considering as they gather and prepare their prior learning case. Such a space
would be supportive and provide reassurance that they are on the right track with their
preparations. Adult learners are task focused and benefit from real support (Leiste &
Jensen, 2011; Moores & Parkes, 2010).
3.6 Summary of Chapter
This chapter considered definitions and theoretical roots of reflection. It briefly reviewed
the work of John Dewey, David Kolb, Donald Schon and Paulo Friere and also that of Jenny
Moon and Nona Lyons. The chapter considered how reflection is central to RPL case
preparation, to support the learner with reflection while they are preparing their prior
learning case.
Chapter 4
Harnessing Technology to Support RPL Case Preparation
4.1 Introduction
This chapter will look at how to use the internet and other web 2.0 tools to support RPL case
preparation. The piece will begin with a consideration of how to promote a good
experience for the student. This is followed with an exploration of what web supports could
be most effective for the student as well as a consideration of the web as a sustainable
resource that can support increasing numbers of users. The concept of e portfolios is
introduced at the end of this chapter.
4.2 How we use technology is changing
The use of information technology and how an individual accesses information has had a
huge impact on how we live, work and learn today. Learning has changed and how the
learner engages with the process of learning has shifted to reflect these changes. These
were summarised in 2007 by Dinevski and Psunder as follows:
“from linear to hypermedia learning
from instruction to construction and discovery
from teacher-centred to learner-centred education
from absorbing material to learning how to navigate and
how to learn
from school to lifelong learning
from one-size-fits-all to customized learning
from learning as torture to learning as fun
from the teacher as transmitter to the teacher as
Fig. 4.1 How the learner engages with the process of learning; adapted from the work of
Dinevski and Pšunder (Dinevski & Pšunder, 2007).
Learning is more tailored to the needs of the learner now. RPL is highly relevant in this
context where the learner is central and the education provider is responsive to the
individuals changing needs over a lifetime of learning. Lifelong learning policy has resulted
in a broadening of the basis of provision to include increasingly diverse learning modes in
Higher Education today. Amongst the many ways to access education today are flexible
learning models; e-learning; distance learning; part-time modes; return to education
initiatives; labour market activation and continuing professional development courses. Each
of these approaches is designed to attract the non-traditional student who may have
knowledge relevant to a particular field of learning and who would benefit from RPL.
4.3 Encourage a positive experience
People engaging with RPL tend to be the non traditional student with significant life
experience. It is reasonably common for the returner to have previously had a poor
experience with education and carry these misgivings with them. However the adult
returning to education is purposeful and focused on the outcome of their actions. They see
the bigger picture where they gain in a professional or personal way as a result of the
programme they are enrolled on. This focus enables them to accept the gamble of
returning to learning as one worth taking. Many within this cohort have previous
qualifications or significant relevant life experience and so RPL becomes apparent to the
learner as a suitable step to incorporate within their studies to free up time or to advance
them within the programme where relevant modules or stages can be RPL’d and accounted
for. Higher Education has embraced RPL as an instrument that supports lifelong learning
and promotes the spirit of the education frameworks; that of mobility and transparency in
learning, which is available over a lifetime. Within the context of returning to education;
which is a huge experience in itself for the adult learner, RPL can be seen as a high stakes
leap of faith to take. Providers must organise their RPL provision to be motivating and
enable success (Leiste & Jensen, 2011).
Setting up an institutes infrastructure to provide efficient support with RPL is a core
requirement in a time of change for education (Hunt, 2011). Once policy and procedures
are in place there is still the significant task of building an efficient system where both the
learner is guided through the process and staff are confident of their own ability and that of
other colleagues to support such provision. The potential diversity of experiential learning is
immense when considered in relation to the range and scope of the programmes delivered
by an average Higher Education provider. However direct experience dealing with
experiential learning cases one at a time, as they arise, builds confidence and ability with
the mentoring support and subsequent assessment required (O'Leary & Coughlan, 2011).
The passage of time embeds RPL within Higher Education and it has become an accepted
norm of regular provision. However this picture is complicated by economic recession, with
the tightening of education finances in a time of increasing demand for RPL. In order to
properly support RPL in a time of increasing demand it makes sense to harness the
capabilities of the internet and web 2.0 to support RPL case preparation. Web 2.0 is that
webspace which allows for interaction and collaboration with the end user and for virtual
communities of practice to develop. In America, the Council for Adult and Experiential
Learning have set up Learning Counts an online service to provide RPL (Prior Learning
Assessment and Recognition (PLAR)) for those colleges who cannot provide such a service
(Brigham & Klein-Collins, 2011). As outlined more recently:
“web 2.0 technologies have become part of our culture (Duvall, Jooskelainen, & Pasque, 2012).
4.4 Use the web to provide supports for students
Adding to the existing material available on a colleges website in a web-space devoted to
RPL is both a cost effective and an efficient way to present good basic information in
accordance with policy and procedure. The web is easily accessible at any time or place and
when support material is put online it can be a considerable support resource for students.
Increasing student engagement and support through the use of the web is a highly relevant
approach to take today (Williams & Chinn, 2009). When redesigning a website the
perspective of the end user must be the central focus in its design. Initial primary research
pays dividends resulting in the subsequent redevelopment being user informed (O'Leary &
Coughlan, 2011). The following schematic suggests suitable steps which can be taken when
redesigning a web space for learners.
Fig. 4.2 Key aspects to consider when upgrading website for RPL provision
The initial needs analysis should consider how the overall space is to look; the overall
structure should be built and this then populated with text and images. A simple layout
with basic information is the main requirement to support the learner. Populating the site
with images and videoclips adds value to the supporting text. The use of downloadable
templates; examples and testimonials also supports an information rich web space (O'Leary
& O'Sullivan, 2012a). In practice this web resource should be supplemented with real
engagement with the learner. This can take the form of workshops and mentoring timeslots
which are devoted to supporting the individual with their task.
4.5 The sustainable use of RPL resources
To adequately support the learner a broader system should be in place, one element of
which is the website. It makes sense to supplement limited resources with well designed
online materials providing key information as to how the individual should build their prior
learning case.
Most colleges have a dedicated resource, a person who acts as a contact point for queries
and general support for those engaging with RPL. This role is pivotal in influencing whether
a candidate goes ahead with their task of preparing a prior learning case. The competencies
for RPL
Decide what is
How should the
overall space
look ?
Simple layout
with basic
Include examples and
Use images and
videoclips to
add value to site
of those professionals involved in supporting the RPL process were investigated in the
EuroguideVAL project and involve the ability to deliver information, support with the
identification of competencies and provide clear feedback after the assessment (Duvekot &
Konrad, 2007). In practice this person can point to the website initially while arranging for
workshops to provide mentoring support for case preparation. It helps too to have staff
nominated from each major discipline who understand RPL; in practice they can act as a
guiding hand in interpreting learning outcomes as needed (Popova-Gonci, 2009).
Structuring RPL to operate within a timeframe for case preparation improves the overall
system in a formal educational setting. This allows adequate time for assessment of the
material and return of judgement to the candidate.
4.6 Introducing e-portfolios and other tools that capture knowledge skills and
Promoting a positive experience for the student is as important as building a good quality
prior learning case (Leiste & Jensen, 2011). This positive experience in turn will reflect well
on the RPL service. Quality RPL cases are neatly presented and clearly signposted against
the relevant learning outcomes of a given module or a programme area. The process of
preparing these portfolios is reflective in nature and this should also be apparent in the final
product. When an assessor considers the prior learning case they are looking to see what
the candidate knows about the area; ideally against the learning outcomes and they want to
see clearly what they are using as proof and why it is relevant. Harnessing innovations on
the web and related technologies to help the individual capture what it is they know and
promote reflection on this learning should be investigated. The steady march of technology
and web related innovations can support the learner in showing us what it is they know. It
can allow creative opportunity for the learner when gathering and presenting their case.
Education providers must support and explore the uses of technology and consider novel
ways to capture and present knowledge, skill and competence.
An individual’s digital footprint gives significant insight as to their abilities and interests.
This viewpoint was not available ten or fifteen years ago and yet it presents a unique picture
of a person’s interests. This can be harvested to support a prior learning case whereupon
the person showcases this activity to support or prove their informal learning. For instance
it is possible to use Facebook, Twitter or ‘Linked In’ to capture the social and professional
networking skills of an individual. When carefully selected this data has the ability to
support a prior learning claim.
Another useful tool to support the individual are blogs which can be used to capture ideas
and thoughts as a person writes them; indeed they can represent reflection on action and in
action over time. Blogs are an ideal tool to use to build a learning journal (Barrett, 2011a).
They support the creation of a space or learning environment where the opinion or train of
thought is available to a group and presents a forum for mutual support and learning. Well
known blogging tools in use are Blogger on Google, WordPress and EduBlogs. Recently
blogs were shown to be a useful tool for increasing cooperation between students and
promoting a learning culture within a classroom (Kan, 2011). How we are interacting with
new technologies is changing how we approach problems and our approaches to learning.
There is an increasing emphasis now on creating communities of practice, on collaboration
and sharing around a particular subject. Online communities form and share ideas and
innovations around any particular interest or subject.
Fig. 4.3 Online communities share ideas and solve problems together
This collaboration is also apparent in the business sector. The EU project Netknowing 2.0
supports SME personnel sharing informal learning and promotes collaboration between
parties to support innovation and networking in the workplace (Netknowing 2.0, 2012).
Collaborative space
encouraging creativity;
sharing of ideas and
approaches to solve
Wikis are a webspace which is made by a collective input from a number of people each
with access to contribute to the content. Wikipedia is the most famous Wiki. In 2007
Edward J. Maloney investigated the use of wikis and blogs as tools which supported student
learning in higher education (Maloney, 2007). He maintained that the more we use these
web 2.0 tools in higher education the greater will be their likely impact in the way people
teach and learn. The way we interact with the web and with each other on the web has
significantly changed; now online content can be created by anyone as described by
Maloney there is a focus now on;
“innovation, creation and collaboration, and an emphasis on collective knowledge over static
information delivery, knowledge management over content management, and social interaction over
isolated surfing (Maloney, 2007).
Online videos such as YouTube are increasingly used in Higher Education today to add value
to class time and encourage active engagement of students with regular class material
(Sherer & Shea, 2011). Similarly YouTube has a potential role when it comes to capturing
and presenting knowledge skills and competence. These clips have the potential to form
part of an e portfolio supporting a claim for credit through RPL. Higher Education can
promote the use of such media by making explicit what is acceptable in its promotional
literature or websites supporting RPL and lifelong learning.
Reflection journals are useful in promoting self-reflection and learning (Ning, Law, &
Schmidt, 2011). The very act of keeping a learning journal encourages a student’s critical
thinking and self reflection skills. Reflection journals are also known as learning logs or
learning diaries and can be used to capture a persons learning journey over a semester or
longer. These tools provide a useful basis on which to reflect as to what worked out or what
did not. The act of maintaining such a journal or diary promotes a reflective mindset (Lew &
Schmidt, 2011). As described by Miller et al. the learning log encourages reflective practice;
“Reflecting retrospectively (‘reflecting-on-action’) on any encounter can be valuable, and often leads
to future ‘reflection-in-action (Miller, et al., 2012).
Higher Education can and should support the idea of digital archiving of significant events in
a learners life. This skill should invoke a lifelong learning mindset and is explored fully in
chapter 5 and 6. Higher Education needs to activate the motivation of the learner by
demanding such a skill of learners.
E portfolios can capture and document learning over time and provide a platform for
reflective thinking in relation to this learning (Garrett, 2011). They support self evaluation
throughout a career and can help the learner identify gaps in knowledge or strengths they
may have. The use of e portfolios was investigated from a lifelong learning perspective
(Gray, 2008) where their use was considered for continuing professional development (CPD)
and for appraisals in the workplace. The report also investigated a project named the East
of England Lifelong Learning Support project (EELLS), which considered the use of an e
portfolio system independent of any educational institution (Piper & Gamble, 2011). The
use of technology has developed dramatically and supports the learner now in ever more
innovative ways and also underpins and supports RPL provision. Helen Barrett outlined how
e-portfolios can become;
“dynamic celebrations and stories of deep learning across a lifespan“ (Barrett, 2011b).
There are a wealth of existing systems and packages available to support e portfolio
creation. It makes sense to use existing systems where the learner can focus on building
their case and not the technology in use.
Fig. 4.4 A screen capture of Google sites
In creating their own web space the learner is claiming ownership of their own learning,
they must think about what is to be included and why it is significant for them (Moores &
Parkes, 2010). Again Higher Education providers have a key role to play in the acceptance of
such systems. E portfolios can be particularly useful for learners in transition (Herman &
Kirkup, 2008); similarly this cohort are often the most likely to avail of RPL.
Mobile technologies can be used to support the knowledge economy in that they have
potential to promote the ownership of learning; and they are in use everyday by learners.
Using media such as mobile phones, tablets or MP3 players to record and capture events
can subsequently be presented online, on a presentation webspace or in a report
(McCaffrey, 2011). Similarly other technologies can be harnessed to support reflective
practice such as the use of video which was used in a community based youth group in
Scotland (Cosh, 2011). The piece described video enhanced reflective practice and how it
was used effectively to support effective communication skills. The video was used to
reflect on and explore practice. In another paper video was used as an aid to reflection two
weeks after the submission of an initial piece by students undergoing teacher training in
Texas (Pena & Leon, 2011). The students used the video to revisit their original work and
presented a further reflection, deepening their viewpoints and further exploring their work.
4.6 Summary of Chapter
This chapter begins with a consideration of the importance of encouraging a positive
experience with prior learning case preparation for the learner. The chapter then considers
the use of the world wide web to provide supports for students and followed this with a
discussion as to sustainable ways which RPL resources can be used. It highlights the
significant demand for RPL services which are apparent in times of economic uncertainty.
The chapter finishes with a brief introduction to e portfolios and other tools that can be
used to capture learning and suggests that Higher Education should embrace these
technologies as they present novel opportunities to capture the knowledge, skills and
competence of an individual.
Chapter 5
Lifelong Learning and the Importance of Valuing Learning
5.1 Introduction
This chapter begins with a consideration of what is lifelong learning and its significance over
the past 40 years. It considers the main organisations engaging with lifelong learning and
compares a number of definitions of the term. The chapter then considers the term valuing
learning and how it links to lifelong learning and RPL before discussing the benefits of Higher
Education promoting the idea of digital archiving. The chapter then highlights the
importance of ‘activating the lifelong mindset of the learner’ as an essential skill in today’s
mobile ever changing world.
5.2 Lifelong Learning defined
It is no longer enough to attend school or college with the resulting static role in the
workplace, a ‘job for life’ as it was known. Significant changes in how we live and work have
resulted in returning to learning many times over a lifetime in the guise of further
education; continuing professional development; in-company training or professional
qualifications. Huge developments in science, technology and information technology
related fields have changed how we access technology and seek information. We have
adjusted our lifestyles to incorporate useful innovations and subsequently must acquire the
capabilities to understand them as users. This occurs as incidental learning many times over
a lifetime, for varying reasons. Significantly, too there has been a shift in mindset as to
where learning happens, from that of the traditional classroom based model to one where
learning occurs in many modes, i.e. formal, non formal and informal learning. Indeed,
learning is now considered to be a lifelong and life-wide activity that occurs in many settings
and for many purposes (European Commission, 2010).
In 2010, the European University Association reported that lifelong learning is still seen as a
being outside of normal education provision and called for Higher Education providers and
national authorities to implement policies promoting the lifelong learning agenda such as
those which allowed “accessible, flexible and transparent student-centered learning
However an increasing number of providers are rising to the “challenge of attracting and
teaching a more diversified student body” and are implementing policies to support this
(Sursock & Smidt, 2010). To summarise, it is continuing learning and development after
formal education finishes. To quote Jarvis, lifelong learning is a process that happens over
time involving the whole person, their mind, body and behavior where they transform
information and combine this with their prior experiential learning to bring about a more
experienced person (Jarvis, 2006).
Lifelong learning is a priority policy area for Europe. In 2000, the European Commission
defined lifelong learning as;
“all purposeful learning activity, undertaken on an ongoing basis with the aim of improving
knowledge, skills and competence within a personal, civic social and/or employment related
perspective (European Commission, 2000).
There have been significant European policy and funding initiatives to promote lifelong
learning, including the ET2020 the Strategic Framework for European Co-operating in
Education and Training which structures the policy framework for progressing lifelong
learning (European Commission, 2011c).
In Ireland, the 2003 NQAI document on ‘Policies Actions and Procedures for Access, Transfer
and Progression for Learnersdescribed the implementation of a national approach to credit
and linked lifelong learning to recognition of prior learning resulting in opportunities for
learners through the recognition of non formal and informal learning (NQAI, 2003b). In the
UK the British Council says lifelong learning is that which;
“takes place after a young person has finished formal education and training” (British Council, 2012).
It is designed to meet the needs of both the community and society at large. The Collins
English Dictionary defines lifelong learning as;
“the use of both formal and informal learning opportunities throughout people’s lives in order to
foster the continuous development and improvement of the knowledge and skills needed for
employment and personal fulfilment ("Collins English Dictionary," 2012).
The Australian Qualifications Framework included a Qualifications Pathways Policy in 2011
specifically building lifelong learning into their framework by supporting progression and
recognising the many ways individuals gain qualifications including formal, non formal and
informal learning. They have defined lifelong learning as:
“any learning activities that are undertaken throughout life to acquire knowledge, skills and the
application of knowledge and skills within personal, civic, social and or employment-related contexts
(Australian Qualifications Framework Council, 2011).
Interestingly in New Zealand it is the “capabilities for living and lifelong learning” that are
emphasised; naming five key areas of competence that influence how we work and live and
relate to others in everyday situations (see Figure 5.1 below).
Fig. 5.1 New Zealand’s five key competencies for living and lifelong learning (Ipurangi, 2012)
This standpoint serves to highlight how these key areas of ability are valuable in supporting
a lifelong learning mindset.
According to the Oxford Handbook of Lifelong Learning builds on previous prior knowledge;
as it expands knowledge and skills in depth and breadth(London, 2011).
Lifelong learning arises because; it is not possible to equip learners fully at school, college or
university with all the knowledge and abilities that they will need to live successfully over
their lifetime (London, 2011).
and texts
Relating to
5.3 Key organisations supporting the Lifelong Learning agenda
Lifelong learning is a concept that has become more significant over the past forty years as
highlighted by the UNESCO Report in 1972 (Faure, Herrera, Kaddoura, Lopes, Petrovsky,
Rahnema, & Champion-Ward, 1972) and again in 1996 which was entitled “Learning The
Treasure Withinwhere he outlined his vision of a knowledge driven society underpinned
with learning opportunities throughout life. His intention is to support our ability to adapt
to changes in the workplace to encourage active participation in society (Delors, 1996).
These reports were followed with others in 2001 (Medel-Añonuevo, Ohsako, & Mauch,
2001) and 2009 (UNESCO, 2009b) and have been further supported with the formation of
the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning from what was the UNESCO Institute for
Education. Linking RPL with lifelong learning, UNESCO maintains a programme area called
Recognition, Validation and Accreditation of Non-formal and Informal Learning. The recent
report entitled UNESCO Guidelines for the Recognition, Validation and Accreditation of the
Outcomes of Non-formal and Informal Learning’ was published as a result of the 2009 Belem
Framework for Action arising from the 6th International Conference on Adult Education in
Brazil (UNESCO, 2009a, 2012).
Significantly, the European Commission has combined its education and training initiatives
under a single entity. The Lifelong Learning Programme; encourages lifelong learning for
individuals across the many stages of their lives and has four sub programmes, Comenius,
Erasmus, Leonadro da Vinci and Grundtvig (European Commission, 2012f). The programme
supports the modernisation of European education and training programmes by supporting
policy makers, providing tools and information to both the citizens of Europe and to those
providing the education and training (European Commission, 2011b).
Interestingly, the EC has developed tools or “lifelong learning instruments” to support
understanding about qualifications or knowledge arising from learning opportunities
between communities and countries. These include the European Framework of Key
Competencies which supports policy makers by articulating the key competencies needed by
people. The European Qualification Framework for Lifelong Learning (EQF) provides a
scaffold of eight levels each defined by descriptors linking qualifications to learning
outcomes at a specific level to help promote understanding about qualifications across
borders (European Commission, 2012d). These and other tools are presented in Table 5.1
Table 5.1 Lifelong learning instruments developed in Europe
Area of Support
European Qualification Framework for
Lifelong Learning (EQF)
A scaffold of eight level descriptors linking
qualifications to learning outcomes at a specific
European Framework of Key Competencies
Articulates key competencies of individuals.
European Quality Assurance Reference
Framework for Vocational Educational and
Training (EQAVET)
Supporting Vocational Educational and Training
European Credit Transfer and Accumulation
System (ECTS)
Promotes periods of study in other European
Diploma Supplement
Provides standardised information about
Higher Education diplomas.
Provides a standardised CV template
supporting the understanding of qualifications
and experience
National Academic Recognition Information
Centre (NARIC)
Supports recognition of foreign diplomas and
periods of study abroad.
EC site provides portals to support the
With career advice and for recognition of non
formal and informal learning
Strategic Framework for Education &
Training (ET 2020)
Supporting lifelong learning
This proactive range of initiatives makes a real difference in terms of activating lifelong
learning in a very real sense across the European area. It is envisaged by European
Commission that these tools will be used and relied upon over time by the ordinary citizens
of Europe to make lifelong learning a reality (European Commission; European Commission,
2012a, 2012b, 2012c, 2012e, 2012g, 2012h).
Showing that lifelong learning is still firmly on the Irish agenda the NQAI hosted a
conference on the 15th April 2010 on the role of the frameworks in supporting lifelong
learning. The conference concluded by saying that mutual trust and understanding
between stakeholders involved in providing frameworks will promote the agenda of lifelong
learning (National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, 2010).
In 2010, CEDEFOP published a European Lifelong Learning Indicator (ELLI) documenting
indicators for lifelong and lifewide learning based on the UNESCO framework where
learning is categorised as learning to know (formal learning), learning to do (vocational
learning), learning to be (personal development) and learning to live together (for social
cohesion). The report presents a tangible tool to measure a countries progress
implementing lifelong learning as well as highlighting the outcomes and benefits of learning.
(Hoskins, Cartwright, & Schoof, 2010)
Learning is lifewide and lifelong
Dynamic interplay
Wider Outcomes or Benefits of
Fig 5.2 The outcomes and benefits of learning, adapted from Hoskins, et al. 2010
In 2007, Patrick Werequin suggested mechanisms to promote lifelong learning, including
RPL and the use of learning outcomes. He suggested linking education and work as
appropriate policy response to support lifelong learning (Werquin, 2007).
ces Skills
attitudes and
Learning to know
Learning to do
Learning to live together
Learning to be
formal non
formal and
learning in
benefits and
Lifelong childhood and adult learning
Individual and social
5.4 Valuing Learning
A key theme in the lifelong learning movement is that learning is valuable regardless of how
or where it is gained. All learning is valuable: past (prior), present and all future learning
opportunities. UNESCO introduced the learning society and valuing learning in 1972 and
said that learning must involve all of a persons life and all of society and that education
systems must be overhauled (Faure, Herrera, Kaddoura, Lopes, Petrovsky, Rahnema,
Champion-Ward, et al., 1972).
The Memorandum on Lifelong Learning included valuing learning as one of its key
components with the aim of promoting quality systems for Accreditation of Prior and
Experiential Learning (APEL) (European Commission, 2000). Valuing learning can encourage
the individual to access learning opportunities throughout life depending on their needs.
Valuation of prior learning (formal, non-formal and informal learning) is a key principle
underpinning lifelong learning strategies. To quote Duvekot (2010) lifelong learning is;
“focused on empowerment and opening up individual perspective(s) by means of designing personal
learning strategies” (Duvekot, 2010).
CEDEFOP defines the valuation of prior learning as:
“The process of promoting participation in and outcomes of (formal or non-formal) learning, in order
to raise awareness of its intrinsic worth and to reward learning” (CEDEFOP, 2011).
To quote Duvekot, valuing learning is activating or empowering the learner (Duvekot,
2010). Increasingly, an individual will have many roles and responsibilities over a lifetime.
There must be a cultural shift to allow the ethos of lifelong learning to emerge, possibly
from a young age, the learner should have the ultimate say as to their learning journey. This
shift in power from the education system to the individual will realize the true learning
society (Duvekot, et al., 2007; Duvekot & Nilsen-Mohn, 2012). The onus is on the individual
to gather over a lifetime a learning portfolio or reflective journal in a formative way and
build a catalogue of knowledge, skills and competencies. The frameworks are in place now
and RPL is a reality. We must consider how to transform society to a place where every
individual takes ownership for their learning path throughout their lives.
All aspects of society have a role to play in promoting the valuing learning mindset. From a
young age children can be introduced to the concept of capturing a picture of what they
know about. This will promote confidence and a sense of well being as well as preparing
them for a life of reflective practice. The workplace can support staff to build and maintain a
portfolio of their workplace competencies and professional training attained overtime, this
can be built into a personal learning plan, which will underpin their working life; encourage
work-based learning and a valuing learning mindset (Duvekot, 2010). Finally, Higher
Education providers can take a central role by promoting a valuing learning theme through
their promotional literature and websites. This in turn will encourage learners to archive
their learning over time.
Fig. 5.3 The systems involved in activating the learner (adapted from Duvekot 2010 )
The importance of documenting learning throughout life is of increasing significance in a
society where all learning is valued (including prior learning). Traditionally, an individual
kept a folder or file with significant learning events captured and stored for future
reference. However key learning events are often incidental or perceived to be of no
Workforce capture
workbased learning
and personal
development plan
Higher Education
Providers promote
this mindset
Government Funded
Initiatives to Supprt
Training for Self
Management of
Competencies over
Primary and
Secondary Schools
learn the skills
significance at the time and are difficult to document when required to, at a later date in life
(due to changing employment, or address etc.). However, documenting learning requires
the learner to develop a certain mindset to enable the optimum return in terms of
documenting all learning opportunities (paid and unpaid activities, formal, non-formal and
informal learning). Developing this ability requires support and appropriate training. E
portfolios are an emerging tool and will be of increasing significance to support an individual
to document their learning in a digital manner throughout a lifetime. Indeed the
development and practice of a lifelong learning mindset does not have to entail the use of
electronic aids more the careful documentation of significant learning events, however the
use of information technology will certainly play an increasingly significant role.
5.5 Promoting Digital Archiving
To focus on the role of Higher Education in supporting digital archiving there are a number
of important aspects which deserve to be considered in terms of benefits to the learner; to
the higher education provider; and the employer. Promoting a valuing learning message will
encourage a positive experience when an individual approaches formal education with the
express hope of validating non formal and informal learning. To quote Sara Leiste,
preparing a prior learning case can be an intimidating experience for a student who in effect
is taking on the might of the learning system by taking this step. If the provider includes a
valuing learning space on its website; or prospectus or promotes digital archiving it shows
the learner that they are ‘RPL friendly’ and ready to help document their case. This space
then in turn supports RPL practice within an Institute or University. Prior learning cases well
laid out and well supported with appropriate documentation are an easier task for an
assessor to make a judgement on, as opposed to one which is poorly put together and
lacking in proof to support the claim (Leiste & Jensen, 2011).
Higher Education must expect the learner to provide a digital record of what they know and
this expectation in turn will encourage the learner to maintain this activity over time. The
Institute or University is acknowledging that learning occurs everywhere by taking this step,
and is in tune with the broader picture of where learning is gained today (O'Leary &
O'Sullivan, 2012b). This will in turn inform employers demonstrating Higher Education is
aware of the relevance of workplace competencies and skills. There is a need for society to
create a culture where education actively engages with employers (Cork Institute of
Technology, 2012b). Higher Education must be responsive to the ever-changing need for
reskilling and upskilling of workers and be in a position to meet these demands in a flexible,
meaningful way.
5.6 Why ‘activating the lifelong mindset of the learner’ is essential
Knowledge is valued now more than ever, and cutting edge or innovative ideas are ever
changing and moving on. In real life situations, our input in solving a problem or adapting to
a situation tends be very specific to a particular set of circumstances; however key learning
can be extracted from any event with reflective ability (Schon, 1983). This experiential
learning can be adapted and used again in another situation. Our role in life constantly
changes and information or knowledge which is seen as significant is always moving on;
with this comes a certain vulnerability. It makes sense then to foster this habit as a
protective one to be self aware as we continue and identify the knowledge skills and
competences which we possess and to put aside time to capture them as we go on an
ongoing basis. It is good career husbandry to maintain this habit over time (Barrett, 2009).
Indeed Tara Fenwick reported on mobile workers who maintain portfolios covering various
roles, adjusting the presentation for the next set of contract work opportunities (Fenwick,
The question is how do we prompt this to happen in a real way ? Society needs to be
supported to arrive at this activated learning state. Ideally this should happen early in life.
It could even be a compulsory activity in school. The project, Managing European Diversity
in Lifelong Learning (Duvekot, et al., 2007) considered this very question. According to
Duvekot, the individual must be in charge of their own learning path through life. He
suggested using ‘how to’ guides and training modules to support individuals and
organisations in self management of competencies. He suggests the use of an annual
publication to advise the individual and to promote these ideas (CHQ Foundation, 2012;
Duvekot & Nilsen-Mohn, 2012).
According to Judith O Brown, Barry University Florida USA, seven generic competencies can
be used as a scaffold to support the learner in building the portfolio or e-portfolio. These
generic competencies can capture abilities in all areas of life; namely abilities in
administration; communication; critical thinking; creativity; interpersonal relations;
investigation and research; supervision and leadership. In Barry University this portfolio is
combined with an autobiographical learning essay and a learning assessment worksheet as
part of an overall process (Brown, 2012).
To go through life in this learner activated’ mode, is to be prepared for the very real
eventuality of change and new work situations where a portfolio would be useful; on return
to education one would be already halfway there in terms of documenting a prior learning
case for RPL should that be an option (O'Leary & O'Sullivan, 2013).
The EU Lifelong Learning programme could be harnessed to provide funds specifically for
research and delivery of training in the area of activating the learner and digital archiving.
Employers and community based education could provide training initiatives and short
courses on digital archiving of competencies over time and should provide training to
support the individual with the task
5.7 Summary of Chapter
This chapter begins with a discussion on the significance of lifelong learning and provides a
number of definitions before investigating significant organisations supporting it in terms of
policy development. The chapter then considers what lifelong learning is and how it relates
to the idea of digital archiving. The chapter finishes with a consideration of the importance
of ‘activating’ the lifelong learning mindset of the learner, an essential mindset in order to
realise the potential of lifelong learning.
Chapter 6
Using e-Portfolios to Scaffold RPL Case Preparation
6.1 Introduction
This chapter investigates e-Portfolios and provides a working definition of what they are.
The chapter then relates the use of e-portfolios to RPL case preparation and finally explores
the concept of their use as lifelong learning support instruments.
6.2 Definition of e-portfolios
The last ten years have seen the use of e-Portfolios emerge as a significant tool for the
individual. They support a broad range of purposes from education to procuring
employment to the self-management of competencies. An e Portfolio is a digital version of
a portfolio. According to Barrett:
“an e-portfolio (electronic portfolio) is an electronic collection of evidence that shows your learning
journey over time(Barrett, 2011a).
Barrett maintains that e portfolios arise from two areas of literature that of portfolio
development and multimedia development (Barrett, 2000). They are used by 40% of
campuses now in the USA (Hager, 2012). Their use has evolved with the development of
computers and information technology. They have developed from the days of CD and DVD
formats to online environments with the emergence of web 2.0 tools (Barrett, 2011a).
Similarly in Europe their impact has been significant. The European Institute for E-Learning
(EifEL) promoted the idea of every European having an e Portfolio by 2010; they defined e
portfolios as:
any digital system supporting reflexive learning and practice by allowing a person (or an
organisation) to collect, manage, and publish a selection of learning evidence in order to have one’s
assets recognised, accredited or plan further learning (Ravet, 2009).
EifEL have a number of initiatives and strategies promoting the use of e-portfolios for
individuals and organisations. Objective 2010 e Portfolio for all was a major objective. A
broad range of projects are listed on their website They have also presented
the conference proceedings from London 2010 and other conferences on e portfolios in
recent years and are a valuable resource in the European context. Another related project
was the European Portfolio Initiatives Co-ordination Committee (EPICC) which classified e
portfolios according to their functionality, namely; assessment portfolios, showcase
portfolios, development portfolios, reflective portfolios. With the assessment portfolios the
owner must present evidence of competencies for assessment. The showcase portfolio
holds the owners best work. The development portfolios present personal development
plans. Reflective portfolios are used to track the owners learning and development over
time (European Portfolio Initiatives Coordination Committee). The EPICC project is now
under the remit of the Europortfolio Initiative which is available at
(Euro Portfolio), this initiative defines e portfolios as:
An ePortfolio is a purposeful (digital) selection of evidence demonstrating your achievements as
reflective learner or professional. In other words, it is an electronic document presenting information
about who you are as learner or professional. It may include information on your values, interests,
educational route with achievements (what you have learnt from positive and negative experiences),
learning, skills and competencies” (Euro Portfolio).
Another significant contributor to the field of e portfolios is the UK’s Government backed
body known as the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) they now provide resources,
knowledge and support on using e portfolios and digital technology for education and
research purposes. One of the JISC reports “Effective Practice with e-Portfolios; supporting
21st century learning,” highlighted the personalisation of e-portfolios as a key way to
motivate learners, along with encouraging them to use multimedia content to support their
achievements (Gray, 2008). Projects such as eP4LL:e-Portfolio for lifelong learning’ (Rees-
Jones, Smallwood, & Kingston, 2006); ‘Student Reflections on Lifelong eLearning’ (JISC, 2007)
and ‘Workforce Engagement in Lifelong Learning’ (JISC, 2009) and a wealth of others listed
on their website on provide significant insight to this field.
In Australia there has also been a wealth of research and reporting on e portfolios where
they are a key policy area. The Australian Flexible Learning Framework have invested in
significant research in the area in the last number of years providing reports such as
“Developing e-Portfolios for VET: Policy issues and interoperability” (Curyer, Leeson, Mason,
& Williams, 2007); “The VET e-Portfolio Roadmap (Galatis, Leeson, Mason, Miller, & ONeill,
2009), in support of lifelong learning; and a report entitled “e Portfolios for RPL Assessment
in the same year (Perry, 2009). The Australian Flexible Learning Framework defined e-
Portfolios as:
“a learner-driven collection of digital artifacts articulating experiences, achievements and evidence of
learning (Galatis, et al., 2009).
Portfolios (and e Portfolios) have a number of uses in education, one of which is a way of
presenting knowledge skills and abilities. They allow for a collection of evidence to be
provided to showcase a persons ability against a particular set of standards. As stated by
Walti in 2004;
“Portfolios...are always a goal driven, organized collection of items (artefacts) that demonstrate a
learner’s expansion of knowledge and skills over time(Walti, 2004).
Portfolios and e Portfolios have multiple uses and functions. They can be categorised in
terms of their use, i.e. e portfolios for students, for teaching or for institutional use. Their
functions encompass career planning; for showcasing knowledge skills and ability or for
capturing development overtime (Lorenzo & Littleson, 2005). E Portfolios allow people to
create a personal learning space where reflection is possible. They offer a novel learning
opportunity in that the student has the chance to create their own personal online space
and manage it (Geiger & Arriaga, 2012). This provides a rich learning environment as it
provides a space where reflective practice can be “practiced and displayed(Moores &
Parkes, 2010). However, Moores and Parkes followed this by saying that the students need
to be guided to develop this skill effectively. This is worth noting in the context of any
higher education provider introducing such a system, the quality of output is likely to be
influenced by the type of support a learner gets as they acquire the skill to reflect
appropriately on their practice.
A significant emerging theme within the e Portfolio movement as they are evolving now is
that they can exist outside of the remit of any institute or organisation and are owned
privately by the individuals themselves (Hager, 2012). This aspect of their development has
significant potential to be really useful as the e portfolio is ‘sticky’ (Herman & Kirkup, 2008;
Jafari, 2004) in that it connects with the person and is significant to them. The portfolio in
this mode is portable, travels with the person and has a prominence within their personal
lives where they regularly make entries; redevelop and rework the material within.
Overtime the individual builds in a reflective aspect to cement new learning experiences and
in doing so transform these events and make meaning of them. In this mode they are
building on prior learning experiences as they make sense of events and construct meaning.
In 2008 Herman reported on e Portfolios being useful for learners returning to the
workplace. The research reported that as well as needing to be sticky e Portfolios were
adopted when they were easy to use and that a group situation was more conductive to
learning the skills needed for their development and maintenance. The research maintains
that women were more likely to maintain them over time when they were learned in a
group situation (Herman & Kirkup, 2008).
Maintaining an e Portfolio supports student centred learning and develops the critical skills
needed to select what is needed from the onslaught of information saturation (Hager,
2012). The individual uses the space to track significant learning events, projects and
personal development plans. Helen Barrett (see Fig. 6.1 below) provided a useful diagram
showing the many faces an e Portfolio has (Barrett, 2011a), where it operates as a process
in capturing or organising work or operates as a product to showcase ability.
Fig. 6.1 Helen Barrett’s two faces of e-Portfolios (H. Barrett, 2010)
Key features of a successful e portfolio system are: access rights controlled by the learner; e
portfolios provide an overview of competencies and knowledge; they have a reflective
dialogue; should incorporate web 2 tools such as blogs, wikis and YouTube clips (Maloney,
2007). E Portfolios are a useful tool to respond quickly to online job advertisements
(Lathrop, 2011). E Portfolios can be used to draw together or integrate the broad themes
between modules in Higher Education, or to track the learners development over a
programme (European Portfolio Initiatives Coordination Committee).
E Portfolios are evolving all of the time with developments in technology. Users are
constantly exploring what is possible and how these new possibilities can be usefully
applied. Recent research has shown that user satisfaction was determined by how easy the
e portfolio was to use; including peer learning through social interaction and allowing a
sense of ownership (Garrett, 2011). Clearly new developments will be adapted and blended
with current formats. Other work considered the factors that affect users take up of e-
Portfolios and have found that attitude is one of the strongest and most significant effect on
intention to use the e Portfolio (Chen, Chang, Chen, Huang, & Chen, 2012). There is scope
for more research in this area exploring the processes that make for successful e portfolio
6.3 e-Portfolios for RPL case preparation
Portfolios have been widely adopted by many disciplines as they have inherent flexibility in
terms of how they are structured. The portfolio is a collection of documents showing what
an individual knows about a particular area. A key pedagogical feature of the portfolio is
that they support reflective thinking (BECTA, 2007). The actual construction of the portfolio
in itself lends to reflection. The person has to consider what they are including in the
portfolio, and what it demonstrates about their abilities; they must consider how the piece
is structured and presented.
Using e-portfolios for RPL case preparation is one of their well established functions. In the
USA the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) launched ‘Learning Counts’ a
national online service to support prior learning case preparation for credits (Brigham &
Klein-Collins, 2011). This resource was created to provide RPL services for those colleges
who did not have them. E portfolios are used to deliver this service. Another example in
Canada was developed to provide RPL for nurses who were educated overseas. On the
whole they found the process to be user friendly and they did not experience any difficulties
with the online environment (Mina et al., 2011). A third example relays how the e portfolio
is used as an instrument to capture learning in degree courses in the University of
Oldenburg, Germany (Zawacki-Richter & Hanft, 2011).
The process involves the candidate making learning visible and then reflecting and
choosing evidence to support this learning (Hager, 2012). The structure of the e portfolio
should reflect the purpose for which it is prepared. Recent research recommended e
portfolio systems should incorporate three levels of presentation, those of; “personality
driven”, “reflection-based” and “strategically organised, goal-orientated.” (Tzeng & Chen,
2012) Where the purpose is for presentation of a prior learning case for assessment for
credits, the portfolio should be structured around the learning outcomes. Prior learning
cases should keep “learning and knowledge as its foundational tenets” building the case
around the key learning requirements of the module or a programme (Conrad, 2008). This
focused approach supports the preparation of a strong case; cuts down unnecessary
documentation while highlighting the abilities of the learner in relation to the learning
outcomes or programme outcomes of a particular module or area.
Diane Conrad claimed that the attributes Daniel Pink listed as essential for success in a
‘communications rich world’ are also the skills needed to produce a learning portfolio
(Conrad, 2008; Pink, 2005). These abilities are presented as design, story, symphony,
empathy, play and meaning. Appropriate supports must be in place to enable this task
which is both high stakes creative and reflective in both its origin, development and
culmination (Conrad, 2008).
Preparing the e portfolio is a process which is normally well supported by a Higher
Education provider. When done appropriately these supports ensure a positive experience
for the candidate (Leiste & Jensen, 2011) and consistent, quality documentation for the
Fig. 6.2 RPL Support Requirements for cases built on an e Portfolio
Judith O Brown contests that prior learning case preparation is helped by the use of
information and communication technologies where the candidate can “demonstrate
knowledge visually and audibly” while presenting and selecting their relevant experiential
learning (Brown, 2011). She maintains in this paper that how we articulate learning is
changing as we adapt and use emerging technologies to support RPL case preparation
(Brown, 2011); this finding is further supported by research done for this thesis and was
presented as a poster for the Learning Innovation Network conference in Dublin (O'Leary &
O'Sullivan, 2012a).
Building an RPL case is a significant undertaking where the learner benefits from
appropriate support throughout the process. Where the case is to be build on an e portfolio
system the interaction with the e portfolio itself must be straightforward (Herman & Kirkup,
2008). Examples should be available for the candidate to see the standard that is required
of them (O'Leary & Coughlan, 2011). Where a prior learning case is to be presented for a
particular module on a programme the e portfolio should be structured around the learning
outcomes specifically.
- Candidate gets a
general Introduction
and process overview
- Support system
orientation at start
- Core task is to build
- Support use of
- Support during case
- Structure e portfolio
around learning
- Reflect on prior learning and
identify significant relevant
learning events
- Consider case preparation,
how to present learning, set
context, text preparation
- Identify suitable evidence of
this learning, upload evidence
- Consult again with mentor, is
evidence appropriate and
adequate ?
- Build case; reflect; amend
and finalise material and
RPL case preparation on e portfolio
Building the e portfolio is an act of construction aligning with constructivist theories where
the learner builds their own piece and takes charge of its creation, editing and growth over
time (Brown, 2011). The candidate should strive for clarity in their case presentation, in
terms of the e portfolio being a piece that is assessed for academic credits.
There are requirements on the part of the college to provide clear dates or ‘windows of
preparation’ followed by a submission date and submission requirements for the candidate.
The candidate will engage in reflection as they prepare and build their case, the process of
selection will require them to sift through their learning experiences, make sense of them
and to select the most appropriate (Garrett, 2011). The candidate should be encouraged to
explore the significant elements of what they are including in their case. They must explain
the context around their experiential learning and show what it demonstrates in relation to
the learning outcome(s). They should consider why it is a significant learning event for
them. RPL cases are improved when the provider highlights the importance of clearly
signposting the evidence. Clear labelling as to what the evidence is and what learning
outcome it is supporting, is the hallmark of solid RPL case preparation.
Finally, the introduction or personal statement should be reflective and be done as the final
piece of the e portfolio. This would normally be the Home Page; it should introduce the
portfolio and the prior learning case generally and give a sense of the person and of what
comes next. It is a good idea to include a YouTube or other videoclip on the homepage
where the learner can introduce themselves and the RPL case at the front of the piece.
Multimedia adds another dimension to the e portfolio, allowing the candidate to come
across in a very real way (Barrett, 2011a). Using these emerging resources as tools for
learning is very real test for education providers and one which we should be responsive to
(Sherer & Shea, 2011).
A successful e portfolio is an online personal record of learning maintained over time, it
allows for reflection on that learning and can support the student by making their lifelong
learning pathway visible.
6.4 e-Portfolios are purpose built Lifelong Learning support instruments
As outlined in the previous chapter there are enormous benefits to maintaining a personal
archive of competencies over time. In 2004 Cohn and Hibbits outlined an image for
EDUCAUSE where everybody should be allowed a lifetime personal webspace where they
could document their learning and record achievements (E. Cohen & Hibbitts, 2004). Now
this dream is certainly possible in reality where free webspace is provided for anyone who
wants to access it. Embracing web 2.0 tools allows the individual to maintain an e portfolio
for any number of purposes; for reflection; to showcase their learning; to store
documentation; for marketing their skills to would be employers. However a key reason for
maintaining an e portfolio is to support themselves in their lifelong and life wide learning
journey over time. Indeed there are benefits to maintaining and using a number of e
portfolios (Litoiu, 2009), each with a purpose of its own, possibly with overlapping elements
but certainly with different audiences and purposed in mind. Lori Hager maintains e
portfolios provide a distinctive learning environment in that they encourage self sufficiency
and enable the learner to steer their own learning path where the e portfolio can serve as
a compass (Hager, 2012). This analogy compliments the work of Bob Barrett who looked at
e portfolios in the context of graduates entering the workforce and having to prepare for
job interviews and subsequently for maintaining and showcasing real world skills (B. Barrett,
2010). He maintains that education providers who incorporate e portfolios into their
programmes are encouraging diversity in the student population as e portfolios are
supportive of a population who are constrained in terms of their job or family commitments
etc. Certainly e portfolios provide a support buffer in times of change; where the individual
has ready access to their own personal digital archive.
Helen Barrett is a significant contributor to the literature on the use of e portfolios in
education generally and also in the context of lifelong learning. Her many conference
papers outline the possibilities for using e portfolios. Barrett maintains a significant digital
footprint providing resources such as entitled “e Portfolios for
learning and also supports the use of GoogleApps for e Portfolios (Barrett, 2008). The 2005
White Paper on e Portfolios and Learner Engagement set the benchmark for research and
development in this area (Barrett, 2005). In her 2009 paper on Using e Portfolios for
Lifelong and Lifewide Learning, she outlined the following steps to create and maintain an e
portfolio; the first was to create a digital archive of material; followed by the use of various
tools to support interaction or reflection, and lastly to showcase or presenting the work in
presentation portfolios (Barrett, 2009). In a conceptual paper penned in 2009 Barrett and
Garrett outlined a space where the individual could harness the potential of cloud
computing over a lifetime from a very young age to the elderly (Barrett & Garrett, 2009).
Recently the question of linking e portfolios and Facebook to showcase the social
networking ability of the user has been posed (Tzeng & Chen, 2012). This question
underlines the ever changing nature of information and communication technologies and
how they might be harnessed to benefit the learner in today’s society.
6.5 Summary of Chapter
This chapter begins with a definition of e portfolios as outlined by a number of organisations
around the world. It explores how e portfolios can be used and then investigates the use of
e portfolios for RPL case preparation. The chapter finishes with a consideration of the e
portfolio as an instrument to support lifelong learning.
Chapter 7
7.1 Introduction
This chapter reviews the different types of educational research paradigms and considers
which approach is most suitable for the research in this study. Each research method has its
own strengths and weaknesses resulting in greater or lesser suitability. Qualitative and
quantitative research methods are introduced and the types of data generated from each.
Action research is a main focus of the chapter as this methodology was deemed most suited
for this study.
7.2 The research paradigm; positive or interpretative ?
There are two main paradigms in research. Positivist research is research which is based on
an objective reality where the researcher aims to explain and understand certain things,
how events happen and predict certain outcomes (L. Cohen, Mannion, & Morrison, 2007).
Positivist research seeks to observe and experiment in the scientific tradition. The
researcher takes an observer role and is detached from the subject of the research. Data
collected tends to be quantitative (Hitchcock & Hughes, 1995). Positivism can be traced
back to the French philosopher August Comte and the research involves the generation of a
hypothesis and testing of this hypothesis. Objectivity is important with the aim of
generating results which are value free and repeatable. The researcher takes a hypothesis
and looks at cause and effect. Scientific method is said to be positive in nature (Wellington,
2000). This research paradigm can generate valuable statistics and other quantitative data
but is less valuable where research in the social sciences is concerned. It is possible to
predict a chemical reaction in a test tube or other laboratory bench-top situation but this
approach is less successful when predicting the reaction of human beings in real life
situations (Wellington, 2000).
The opposite paradigm is an anti-positive or interpretative one, where the researcher sees
reality as a human construct and where he or she is not removed from the situation being
researched. The researcher interacts, explores ideas and immerses him/herself in the world
being researched. They see knowledge as personal, subjective and unique (L. Cohen, et
al., 2007). Qualitative data is more often the main type of data emerging from this
paradigm and the data will be gained through participant observation, focus groups,
transcripts of conversations or narrative enquiry. The researcher is looking for an insight or
understanding to a particular situation. This insight will be context specific and must be
interpreted (Wellington, 2000).
7.3 Qualitative research
Qualitative research seeks to understand human behaviour and the reasons behind such
behaviour. Qualitative research is traditionally used in the social sciences and tends to look
at the why and how of a situation. It uses smaller sample sizes than quantitative research
and is context specific. Qualitative research has the following characteristics;
“ it is interpretive... it is is is personalistic...When qualitative study is
done well, it is also likely to be...well triangulated...well informed” (Stake, 2010).
Data is collected from real-life settings and trends or themes emerging must be captured
and presented. Qualitative research is used to generate new hypotheses. Qualitative data
commonly takes the form of transcripts from interviews or focus groups, questionnaires,
case studies, notes from observations, personal and participant observation (Wellington,
There are different approaches to qualitative data analysis depending on the purpose of the
research. Commonly qualitative data analysis can be interpreted in a number of ways. In
terms of fitness for purpose, it helps to have a clear idea of what is wanted from the
research which implicates the analysis to be undertaken (L. Cohen, et al., 2007). Focus
groups were used to gather qualitative data in this study.
7.4 Quantitative research
Quantitative research uses mathematics or statistically based methods to explain
phenomena or events. Often quantitative research takes the form of a statistical data
collected on a large scale designed to represent a population as a whole. As defined by Hoy;
“Quantitative research is scientific investigation that includes both experiments and other systematic
methods that emphasize control and quantified measures of performance (Hoy, 2009).
Quantitative data collection takes the form of surveys, questionnaires or the population
census. The data is then represented in charts, tables or statistics. Quantitative data is used
to answer the “how, what, and when” of a question, resulting in useful data for providing
general information which then may need further investigation in a qualitative or in-depth
sense. Quantitative research is suited to answering the following types of research
questions: those where we are asked to quantify (how many ?); numerical changes, an
increase or decrease in a situation; help explain phenomena and finally hypothesis testing
(Muijs, 2010). Quantitative data is often processed with specialist predictive software such
as SPSS, which helps with data interpretation and decision making. This research includes
questionnaires which yields quantitative data.
7.5 Action research
In 1946 Kurt Lewin was first to use the term action-research when he wrote:
“The research needed for social practice can best be characterized as research for social management
or social engineering. It is a type of action-research, a comparative research on the conditions and
effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to social action. Research that produces
nothing but books will not suffice” (Lewin, 1946).
Lewin described the research occurring in steps such as: planning, action, consideration of
the result of the action and amending further future steps in light of this. In 2009 Lin
Norton, citing Janet Masters (Masters, 1995), described action research as having;
“two distinct traditions: 1 a British tradition that links research to improvement of practice and is
education orientated. 2 An American tradition which links research to bringing about social change
(Norton, 2009).
On its website, INFED (an online informal education resource) reviewed the development of
the different traditions of action research describing it as;
located in the realm of the practitioner - it is tied to self-reflection” (Smith, 1996; 2001; 2007).
McNiff and Whitehead defined action research as;
“a form of enquiry that enables practitioners in every job and walk of life to investigate and evaluate
their work” (McNiff & Whitehead, 2011).
In 1986 Carr and Kemmis defined Action Research as:
“a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the
rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations
in which the practices are carried out” (Carr & Kemmis, 1986).
Action research allows a process of communication between parties who want to improve
or change a situation. In this instance the action was to explore the learner’s experience of
preparing a prior learning case in an Institute of Technology setting. The action research
process normally occurs in a spiral of planning, acting, observing and reflecting on the
outcome followed by further cycles of planning, acting, observing etc. until the group are
satisfied that the changes have been implemented in the optimum way.
7.6 Characteristics of Action Research
Action research involves the practitioners themselves investigating and amending aspects of
their practice in order to work more effectively and in line with their beliefs and educational
values (McNiff & Whitehead, 2011). It is a cyclical process which involves the participation
of the researcher with some aspect of their practice that they want to improve. Through a
process of acting and observing, reflecting and amending; the practitioner, acting as
researcher leads their own research, and amends as they see fit. Part of the process
involves keeping records of what was done, how it worked (or not), tracking progress by
keeping a reflective journal, an oral account of what happened or a logbook (McNiff &
Whitehead, 2011; Norton, 2009).
Fig. 7.2 The action research cycle (Barrett, 2011b)
Action research allows for current practice to be reviewed in any workplace setting. Any
aspect which needs to be changed is identified (this is the research question) and the
researcher decides (with others normally) how the question should be addressed. This is
then tested and the results are examined. A reflection should happen next where the action
can be amended or tweaked as necessary. The cycle goes on with more planning, acting,
observing and reflection for a number of cycles with the lessons learned from previous
cycles are incorporated with each cycle. Action research literature, often gives the
impression of there being clear well-defined steps through the process, but in reality this is
rarely the case. There can be overlap between the stages and progress can be both forward
and backward, non-linear or chaotic (Cook, 1998). Indeed mess or chaos is an important
part of action research where chaos allows for new learning leading to transformation in
practice. Unexpected events can change the emphasis of an action research project or new
issues, opinions of participants can bring about unexpected turns of events. The process of
action research (observation and reflection) is an ever evolving approach where practice
involves learning and reflection till the researcher is satisfied (Cook, 1998). Action research
as a process “ is ongoing because as soon as we reach a provisional point where we feel
things are satisfactory, that point itself raises new questions and it is time to begin again”
(McNiff & Whitehead, 2011).
7.7 Setting the context of this research
Research Question
When RPL policy and practice are embedded in an organisation, what additional supports
should be put in place to help with RPL case preparation from a student’s perspective ?
The area of RPL case preparation is complex in that no two cases are ever the same and the
onus is on the individual to consider and finalise what material is essential to support their
The research question considers how to improve the experience of the student who is
within an education system and looking to prepare an RPL case. The following elements
come to mind in terms of questions that might be considered;
What supports are most effective ?
Does it help to have real examples of RPL cases laid out for the students to see, or is
this too prescriptive ?
In a time of high demand and finite resources how do we get to support every
student equally while maintaining quality RPL submissions ?
Does it make sense to put materials up on the web ?
What else can be done to effectively support the student?
While students are normally mentored through the task of building the portfolio, the
student must be able to reflect on and review their own learning and decide what is key to
supporting their claim. This lends to the following question:
How does reflection tie in with RPL ?
This is the second aspect which was investigated; Enactment 2.
The first step in the overall process was to capture a picture of how RPL case preparation
was perceived in 2011. This is the first Enactment of the research.
The group asked to inform this question were chosen from those who had prepared a prior
experiential learning case in the previous year. Thirty students took part in the study. It was
decided to contact them by email and to include a questionnaire. The intention was to use
the recommendations of the learner to improve the overall RPL preparation process. The
research is carried out following the steps outlined in Fig. 7.1
Fig.7.1 The research process
The initial interview with the student was part of the RPL preparation process and thus was
not included in the data of this thesis. A questionnaire was used to capture the opinions of
each of the participants and emerging themes were captured from this data. The action
research approach was used to bring change to the system improving it from the
perspective of the learner.
The ability to reflect is central to the RPL process therefore it was also important to explore
this consideration as to how the individual can develop as a reflective learner. The second
Enactment explores the reflection process and uses a focus group approach to gather data.
7.8 Why Action Research was chosen
Action research was chosen because it is a practice based form of research. It engages with
the learner on a daily basis and mentors them through the portfolio preparation process in
order to present experiential learning for assessment. It allows one to listen to the learner
and explore how to make their prior learning preparation smoother and less daunting a
task. As a practitioner, I am interested in looking at the practical side of my mentoring
practice. I want to improve and refine the learner’s experience and am willing to listen to
the student’s voice to see how the process can be improved for them.
Investigation of RPL case preparation
Questionnaire with thirty students
Exploration of reflection and how it is perceived by
Focus groups held with twenty five students
Redevelopment of RPL website for the Institute
This step will be informed by the initial questionnaire
Subsequent research steps will occur and will be
informed by the results of first two steps
In a time of recession, there is a significantly increasing demand for RPL. This has resulted in
more pressure on the service where I am dealing with increasing numbers of requests from
individuals who want to present prior experiential learning cases for assessment. I want to
make the RPL the process smoother and more user friendly while still adhering to the
rigorous quality assurance aspects demanded in a Higher Education institute. Quite often
the learner will have a different perspective or insight as to how to refine the prior learning
preparation task. They may be able to come up with new or easier ways of presenting
material. Quite often, innovation can come about in a time of pressure. This opportunity
can be used to listen to the learner, to explore their experience with a view to implementing
any ideas or suggestions which might help the process run more smoothly.
I am also interested in helping students develop as reflective learners. The ability to reflect
and to use this reflective process to engage with the learning process, in order to promote
deep learning is an evolving process. Reflection in and on action and the importance of
thinking on ones feet applying previous experience to new situations is a key life skill (Schon,
1983). Reflection is a central aspect of preparing a prior learning case. The ability to
consider what to include and why, against the learning outcomes is central to preparing a
good case and having a successful outcome.
As a research method, action research appeals to me; following through with an idea, seeing
where the journey takes me, while all the time trying to improve practice. The collaborative
aspect of action research (where I am a participant as well as researcher) is attractive as I
can work with both learners and colleagues to improve RPL in CIT. This approach should
enrich understanding of RPL in practice. Keeping a reflective journal and using this space to
record and reflect on a regular basis, for the duration of the research, supports my journey,
helps put perspective to the work in hand.
7.9 Action Research as a methodology
In this study, action research encouraged reflective practice in the workplace. When the
workplace is Higher Education, action research can be a powerful tool for change allowing
for an examination of the values, principles and practice to which one works. Using action
research as a methodology for this research it was possible to explore the learners
perspective of preparing an experiential learning case and the approaches needed to
develop as a reflective learner. To quote Norton, it can;
“bring about more radical change in which the very nature of higher education should be open to
critique and fresh perspectives (Norton, 2009).
This approach complements that called for in the ‘National Strategy for Higher Education to
2030’ which requires a flexible responsive approach from higher education in order to meet
the changing demands of society for education (Hunt, 2011).
Taking from the readings of Burrell and Morgan the methodology of this work will tend to
the subjectivist or anti-positivist side of the research spectrum. The methodologies used
will be adopted from the Idiographic perspective (Burrell & Morgan, 1979). The emphasis;
“ is placed on the explanation and understanding of the unique and particular individual case rather
than the general and universal”
(L. Cohen, et al., 2007).
A qualitative, interpretative approach will be taken with the research question in order to
better understand the subjective world of human experience. The interpretative model
seems to be the most applicable model to choose for research in a higher education setting.
However, like positivism it still has the shortcoming of having the research directed by the
researcher while acting as “expert(Wellington, 2000). However the quantitative aspect of
the work through the questionnaires should offset this tendency with statistics resulting in a
picture of how RPL is perceived by students in 2011.
7.10 Sample selection
7.9.1 Sample selection; Enactment 1 Questionnaire
In 2010, thirteen students were asked to complete a questionnaire asking about their
experience of preparing a prior experiential learning case. In 2011, a further seventeen
students completed the questionnaire. This was a total of thirty students across a broad a
range of disciplines and levels. I chose this approach because I wanted to consider the
range of evidence a student would have to present along with the task of preparing against
the learning outcomes from as broad a range of disciplines as possible.
7.9.2 Sample selection; Enactment 2 Focus groups
The BA in Community Development uses alternative assessment methods throughout its
programme with little or no summative assessments. I chose to work with this group
because the programme emphasises development of reflective practice from the very
beginning. These adult learners were asked to participate in a focus group in September
2011. Participants were informed of the opportunity to contribute at a class induction
session in September 2011. Twenty five participated in the focus groups. These class
groups had in the previous two years completed a module Portfolio Methods for RPL
(EDUC6004); where they were given the policy and procedures for RPL. Part of the
assessment of the module involved completing a sample portfolio.
7.11 Data collection and analysis
The following methods were used to collect data.
1. Candidates who had been through an RPL process in CIT, for an experiential
learning case were invited (by email) to participate in answering the
questionnaire in Enactment 1.
2. For Enactment 2, students on the BA in Community Development programme
were asked to participate in a focus group exploring reflection. These students
had previously completed the module Portfolio Methods for RPL (EDUC6004)so
had good basic knowledge of what RPL was and how it was used. Each one had
completed a sample prior learning portfolio.
3. A reflective journal was used to capture my thoughts as the research progressed.
4. Email correspondence was used to question students and gather data.
The data was physically collated in the following ways:
1. Results from questionnaires were tabulated in Word.
2. Focus group data was recorded and transcribed in full.
3. E mail correspondence was collected and archived.
4. A reflective journal was used throughout the research to document the progress of
the results.
1 Questionnaire
A questionnaire is a series of questions asked to a number of individuals to obtain
information on any given topic. In this instance, the questionnaire was used to establish the
student’s experience of preparing an experiential learning case. Each of the candidates was
known to me as I had previously mentored them through the portfolio preparation process
for presenting experiential learning for assessment in CIT.
In designing the Questionnaire, open format questions were chosen to allow each
participant respond freely. It was a quick and easy way to get a snapshot of their
experience. These students are mainly part-time and have family and work commitments.
It is difficult to get them together or to meet individually.
Students were asked if they would like to participate in this study. In designing the
questionnaire the guide for questionnaire construction as set out by Cohen, Mannion &
Morrisson was followed. Elements such as question content; wording; and order of
questions was considered while preparing questions. Open ended questions were chosen
as I wanted to allow the ind