Thursday, June 2, 2011

How do Australian Universities think about "RPL" (a restrospective reflection)

In 2002 at the University of Western Sydney I lead the first research project in Australia that investigated the way in which Australian Universities provided web-based information about the Recognition of Prior Learning for students (Childs et al 2002). The research grew out of my concern that post-compulsory education was only one place in which adults learn in their journey throughout life; yet Australian Universities appeared to be unresponsive to what was called at the time "experiential", "informal", "lifelong" and "workbased" learning. This lack of response could be contrasted to a vigorous discussion taking place in the UK and Europe about learning equivalence, fanned by the development of the Bologna Process.

I'd come to universities from the TAFE sector, where I had been part of, and lead, an emerging engagement with lifelong and workplace learning. The Division of Foundation Studies of which I was a part as a discipline expert in adult literacy, had long talked about adult learning, including what was originally called "real life learning" in the 1980s, but then renamed as authentic or workplace learning in the 1990s. Within that discourse, and as we worked with discipline experts and adult learners, it was obvious that learners could and did come to the educational table with prior learning.

Yet when I came to work in a university, no such "obviousness" existed. The only "students" who were granted recognition were those at the elite end of credentials - the Honorary Doctorate - and for marketing reasons to students entering MBAs. During my first few years teaching and coordinating a Bachelor of Adult Education at the University of Western Sydney, I arrived at some anecdotal insights about the views held by academic colleagues about learning developed outside the codification of their university, their discipline, or their subject. The news was not good.

It appeared to me that students were not perceived to be "adult learners" and universities did not seem to have heard about the past 100 years of debates and knowledge building that had taken place under the heading "adult education" (except perhaps a shallow take on adult learning styles and Maslow's since discredited hierarchy of needs). Faculties of Education seemed to teach social theories of learning, but not to apply this thinking to their approach to students in their classes. These were the early days in the development of learning pathways between TAFEs and Universities (or at least some regional and rural universities), and as a Professor of Education once told me "Universities are the fine wine of education, and TAFEs are the rough red". Having taught since 1979 at High Schools, and then at TAFE since 1985,  and having seen some outstanding curriculum innovation and teaching in both those institutions that well exceeded the conservative and out-of-date teaching I witnessed in Universities in the mid 1990s, I found this elitist attitude hard to take.

My journey from a coal-dust childhood in Newcastle to a Frierian future as an English teacher, had taught me that no person, nor set of knowledge, was more important than another. But some were, and remain, more powerful than others. Giroux helped me understand, and deconstruct, my role as a gatekeeper. Feminism more generally and educators like bell hooks helped me understand how education works to reproduce disadvantage and priviledge. But I'd also learnt that institutions and educators could exercise choice in terms of the relationships they formed to the knowledge, cultures, histories, biographies, identities and languages that students bring to the learning exchange.

But back to the story of "recognition".

The "fine wine" attitude I met when I first joined the HE sector was something I had to try to understand when a new era began at UWS and I was tasked with the development of the UWS Policy on the Recognition of Prior Learning by the then new DVC Professor Chris Duke, who was appointed to the first (and only) Chair of Lifelong Learning at UWS Nepean. As an adult educator, and an inspiring leader, Chris Duke intrinsically understood the need for "the university" to rethink itself within the lifelong learning discourse. Read this archival record of his thoughts in 1997. Note his reference to accredited prior and work-based learning which reflected the work that was being done at the time in the UK concerning APL (Accreditation of Prior Learning).

More in my next post!

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Dialogue about blended learning

Visit a project I built using Wix in 2010 where colleagues and I explore the meaning of "blended learning"