Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The AQF and RPL in Australia

Recently a much tweeted article by The Guardian considered the question Will a degree made up of MOOCS ever be worth the paper it is written on? in response to the design of degrees offered by the University of The People. In the article, as a  side note, Laurillard was noted as thinking about approaching her university to allow a MOOC she was running to be granted "six credits" towards a Masters. Given the robust conversation about APEL in the UK, and the University of London's Policy on Accreditation of Prior Learning, it was disappointing to see credit considered as an after thought, rather than something embedded from the get-go in learning design.

In Australia, DeakinConnect (Humanitarian Responses to 21st Century Disasters) and UniTas (Understanding Dementia MOOC)  have both offered opportunities to students completing MOOCS to access credit in relationship to degrees. In the former case, students could pay a fee to have the MOOC accredited.  In the latter, students could gain value from the MOOC by enrolling in a Bachelor of Dementia Care, and "trade in" MOOC learning for the subject Negotiated Study in Understanding Dementia.

Although DeakinConnect and UniTas did think about providing opportunities to students completing MOOCS to gain credit, this has been achieved at the expense of their own RPL policies. Deakin, for example, has a comprehensive credit and RPL policy and uses Credly.  Under this policy a student may well have been able to present prior learning, including the MOOC, to gain advanced standing in a degree. For no cost, and potentially gaining much more than 1 costly subject. The UniTas Policy is much harder to find, as is their application form. But again, they are required to comply with the AQF in terms of RPL and credit.

The AQF and RPL in Australia, pre 2013
I have written about the Recognition of Prior Learning in Australia now for a decade, along with co-travellers like Tim Pitman, Tricia Fox and Ros Cameron. Website information about RPL policy has improved since the audit I lead in 2002, but we've seen the original AQF RPL Guidelines come and go, with little change happening in practice. Although Higher Education increasingly talks about aligned learning outcomes, work-integrated learning, capstones, evidence, eportfolios and authentic assessments, a disconnect remains when a student enrols at a University bringing all these kinds of learning with them. Frustratingly, learning and teaching discourse maintains an underlying fiction that mitigates against considerations of the final capstone experience, for example, as taking place in the first or second semester. Rarely do we consider a degree as a professional learning adventure - or intervention - in an adult's complex life. Rather it is still considered as a pre-employment "employability" endeavour. Despite this, I believe we are now in a time when a genuinely RPL conversation might become possible in Australia.

The AQF and RPL in Australia, 2013 onwards
The AQF (2013), like it's predecessors defined RPL and credit transfer, and importantly volume of learning provided parameters for  flexibility. Emphasis is placed on "provider decisions about the duration of the delivery of a qualification" but these " must take into account the students’ likelihood of successfully achieving the learning outcomes and ensure that integrity of the qualification outcomes is maintained. If the duration of delivery is substantially different from the volume of learning allocated to the qualification, providers should be able to provide pedagogical rationale to support the variation" [emphasis added].

Applied in delivery, "the duration may be reduced for individual students if credit towards the qualification is given in the form of credit transfer, recognition of prior learning or advanced standing." The University of Newcastle talks about it this way: Volume of Learning and Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL): "A key issue in the AQF is the volume of learning completed by a student at the end of a degree. This also means the volume of learning the student has on entry is important".

The AQF suggests the following RPL assessment criteria. Assessment:
  • should include reasonable adjustment for the literacy levels, cultural background and experiences of students but should not be a proxy for the assessment of skills such as literacy except where these are intrinsic to the learning outcomes of the qualification component
  • should address  the specific evidence required to demonstrate prior achievement of the learning outcomes and assessment requirements of the particular qualification components for which credit is sought 
  • should provide a range of ways for individuals to demonstrate that they have met the required outcomes and can be granted credit.
Does the AQF mandate % limits on RPL?
The short answer is: no. But it is a complex "no". Firstly, TEQSA makes specific comment on it's expectations of the implementation of the AQF as it pertains to RPL. In essence it states that "all students should start a course with a sufficient basis of prior knowledge and skills to achieve the course learning outcomes and the learning outcomes for the AQF level in the time available in the course". The AQF gives guidelines concerning the design of courses at different levels, and the characteristics of those levels. It also provides an explanation of RPLSecondly, in theory it should be possible for a student to achieve an UG award through prior learning, given all the AQF requirements line up. However, in practice the sector does not allow this: it is standard that no more than 66% of an UG and 50% of a PG award can be gained via RPL. Students who gain entry to a PG award, based on evidence for alternative entry, are in effect being given 100% RPL, without being given an award. Thirdly, universities wish to protect their brand by ensuring that a graduate is a "CSU graduate" or a "UOW graduate" or a "MQ graduate" and to do this the view is that they must enrol in subjects, and study them in the normal way.

The underpinning principles and resulting practices of projects like Assuring Learning, or the Capstone Curriculum Project vibrate to the core with the principles and practices of RPL. The more the sector talks about course learning outcomes (CLOs), assuring learning, assessment, authenticity and evidence, the more likely RPL is to flourish. I am placing great hopes on the Assuring Graduate Capabilities Project and Beverley Oliver's work on digital credentialing as one more space in which RPL may become enabled in the Australian context, and that RPL is embedded, rather than bolted on as an afterthought or marginalized as a tick-a-box in AFQ compliance.

To return to where I began: a degree "made up of MOOCS" would not actually be possible in Australia at this time, so the question about it's worth or otherwise is a moot point. I recently tweeted, as part of the #OLT2014 conversation that we need to shift attention away from courses, micro-credentials, MOOCS and badges towards a student's learning journey. A focus on CLOs allows this focus to be actioned.

Much is made of the disruption caused by the digital age to Higher Education. Yet fence-sitting, and do-nothing abounds in response to growing evidence of open learning, digital badges, MOOCS, workplace learning, lifewide learning in terms of RPL. It is as if a magic wand illuminates all these approaches to evidence of learning outcomes once a student is enrolled, but the light suddenly fades to grey if the same evidence was self-authored by a learner outside enrolment. Credentialing evidence of learning is a creative pedagogical challenge. I hope before my career ends, that somewhere in Australia it becomes possible for a student to achieve a degree through evidence. [OERu may aim to achieve this outcome, but AQF policy enables it already in the Australian context]. For such an outcome, enlightened and visionary work is needed, from policy, systems and cultural attitudes through to assessments. RPL should not ask more of a learner than the volume of learning, and evidence of learning outcomes, required through study. Old practices such as over-assessment for RPL, onerous single-subject-by-single-subject interrogation, and downgrading of and contempt for learning outcomes/evidence achieved through work or social engagement, need to fade into memory. MOOCS, digital badges and other open learning opportunities can be contextualized within a learner's story, rather than accredited as stand-alone and undervalued micro-credentials in relationship to single subjects. Our focus needs to embrace learning journeys and evidence of learning outcomes, in addition to credit transfer. It's time RPL came out of the "too hard" basket.

Presentation to Digital Futures in Higher Education conference November 2012 from Merilyn Childs [Dr Merilyn Childs is now Associate Professor at the University of Wollongong].


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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"