Today, it no longer makes sense to learn the same things twice. Therefore recognition of prior learning (RPL) is beneficial. It will help individuals to assess their skills, to facilitate the continuation of studies and provide with information on learning-promotion. The identification and validation of prior learning makes room for other studies and, ultimately, the students learn more. This in turn improves the quality and the employment of graduates and employers get people to work as quickly as possible. Furthermore, universities get motivated students and a well-functioning RPL enhances the education system.
There are lots of students who have earlier education and thus could gain from the RPL evaluation. RPL procedures have started well at Finnish universities of applied sciences, but there is not a unified way for validation of prior learning and the evaluation can be context-sensitive. Educators, students or employers do not always have the same understanding about the RPL concepts and thereby it may seem difficult or its benefits questionable. At Finnish universities there is a need to clarify RPL, in which the fluency and equity of the process are confirmed. It is also necessary to diversify the recognition methods.
Savonia University of Applied Sciences (SUAS) participates in an international Recognition of Prior Learning (RELATE) project, the participants of which are three universities and three vocational colleges in Germany, Estonia and Finland. The project aims to develop the RPL process and practices. This article describes SUAS intensification of both the vocational college and international co-operation of developing RPL practices.
International co-operation fostering RPL customs
Universities have the autonomy and are responsible for their degrees and also the quality of the accreditation of prior learning. Students and teachers have to know the methods and criteria of the RPL. It is also important to counsel students to describe their competence (Airola 2012, 107) to help them creating personal learning pathways (Muhonen 2012, 93–94, 95). The process also requires time and willingness for counselling (Venhovaara 2012, 63–64).
The RPL process is technically logical, but in practice it can cause confusion in all European countries. Thus it is effective to develop RPL by both national and international co-operation. The project aim of RELATE is to promote permeability into higher education programs within three European countries, Germany, Estonia and Finland, and to create a model of agreement between vocational education and training (VET) and higher education (HE) institution for simplified RPL (Figure 1).
Universities of applied sciences in Finland have a strategy partnership with each other. It is also necessary to have strategy partnership with vocational education and training institutions. In the project SUAS and Savo Vocational College (SAKKY) are working as a national pair with international partners from Germany and Estonia to foster practical co-operation and strategy partnership in RPL development. The main task in the project of SUAS and SAKKY is to develop new methods for RPL in health care education for practical nurses to registered nurse or paramedic education. The aim is also to adapt the process model for co-operation between VET and HE institutions and get ideas for the local co-operation in curricula development.
RELATE project proceeding in Finland
The RELATE project proceeded from gathering the best practices of student counselling, collection of data from students’ RPL experiences, comparing VET and He education and pilot testing practical RPL methods.
At first the RELATE project collected data about the national methods and legislation of RPL. Also the used practices of student counselling and RPL instructions were described. It was found that the RPL as a process is very similar in all the participating organizations. There is a common need to clarify the RPL process and foster more the understanding, that competence, not studying, as the base for the recognition. Diversities were found in the counselling process and the methods used in recognition. Estonia and Finland have a systematic counselling at the beginning of the university studies and the electronic student interface for initiating the RPL process. In Germany the portfolio is well-developed and widely used as a method for applying for RPL.
The second phase of the project was to get the students´ viewpoint of the RPL. Twenty university students were interviewed in Germany, Estonia and Finland either in individual or group focused sessions. The participants were both women and men and their age varied from 20 to 50 years. The results of students´ experiences about their RPL processes were grouped in three themes (Figure 2.)
Given guidance during the RPL process
The orientation course for studies was a starting point for the RPL. Suitable information was also found on the university internet and student counselling net system. The tutoring teachers ensured that the students knew the curriculum of their study program by having both individual and group counselling. Often the helper was also the teacher of the particular course, counsellor or IT-teacher. From fellow students, who had applied for RPL, could give good tips as well.
The methods used in recognizing the prior competence
Students found out that competence acquired before the degree studies could be credited as a part of the new studies from prior work experience or by the credit transfer of the earlier studies. The most common way was to apply for recognition of the practice periods and foreign languages.
Recognition was either applied by the e-learning program or by discussion with a tutoring teacher. The time spent in the process depended on how well the student focused on the task. Sometimes it was difficult for a student to understand that the competence was not a list of skills or tasks they mastered.
The most common method for RPL was a written description. Students had verified their competences by describing in-debt customer case-situations, reflected on the work they had done or wrote self-assessment. In any of the participating organizations simulations or other practical tests were not used in RPL.
The needed development in the RPL as a learning process
Mainly the RPL had given plenty of advantages e.g. possibility to work and earn money, to take time with family, to shorten studies by taking extra courses and to concentrate on personally challenging study areas. However, because of the difficult terminology, it took some time to understand the RPL as a practical tool for planning studies. Students suggested that teachers had uniform requirements and equal instructions for justifications of RPL instead of coincidence. There was a need for personal help with the documents, more help for arranging opportunities to do the studies faster and also different options for applying RPL; simulation, skills demonstration, possibility to show competence at the beginning of the placement period.
Third task for Finnish participants was to make a comparison between VET and HE health care education and find out the common competences. The aim was to create practices/methods that help the student know-how to become more effectively integrated into the new degree. For a closer inspection and piloting were selected two 5 credit-first-semester-nursing-education courses. Also the VET/HE educational co-operation were inspected step by step (Figure 3).
For VET graduates, who started studies in SUAS nurse or paramedic programs, it was developed practical pilot tests for RPL. Skill labs, simulations and case studies were used as test methods. Successful completion of the competence test entitled to receive a part of the course/ the whole course accredited.
How the project experiences are put into strategy
The RELATE project fostered the participants’ understanding about the importance of the RPL process from the strategical viewpoint. The benefits of RPL, with the study time shortening and enhancing the motivation of the student, have both humane and financial implications for universities of applied sciences strategic outcomes and international partnerships. Therefore this development is needed to continue both at the international and national level.
Based on the results of the RELATE project, the RPL guidelines in SUAS are already clarified, suggestions for counselling system in HE are planned and VET and HE co-operation in RPL has started. The criteria of good RPL practices have also been identified in Scotland and similarly found, that students should have enough information of the RPL process and guidance in the reflection process. Staff should also have clear guidelines of the RPL and procedures of monitoring the process. (Shapira 2012, 48.)
The international project co-operation of VET and HE organization produced strategical knowledge about planning fluent continuum of studies. It also widened understanding about the produced competencies in VET and HE institutions and thus help participants better to develop curriculums in co-operation. Practically it produced new methods for RPL and at this moment developing simulation competence tests is one common national and international development target. Supporting the co-operation of VET and HE institutions e.g. by this way, it will become more formal and standardized and thus widens students possibilities for RPL. Also other co-operative ways e.g. open access summer and multiprofessional studies and co-operation in working life should be developed. The results such as good practices for co-operation of HE and VET institutions and developing new competence test methods fostered overall the strategy partnership of project partners.
Marja Silén-Lipponen, Senior lecturer, PhD, Savonia University of Applied Sciences, firstname.lastname@example.org
Annikki Jauhiainen, Principal lecturer, PhD, Savonia University of Applied Sciences, email@example.com
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Muhonen, P. 2012. Osaamisen arvioinnin hyviä käytänteitä Pohjois-Karjalan ammattikorkea-koulussa. Teoksessa Airola, A. & Hirvonen, H. (toim.) Osaaminen näkyväksi. Kokemuksia osaamisen tunnistamisesta Itä-Suomen korkeakouluissa. Publications of the University of Eastern Finland. General Series No 8, 93–100.
Relate Project. Retrieved June 25, 2015, http://www.relate-project.eu/index.php/project-content.html
Shapira, M. 2012. Recognition of Prior Learning in Scotland. Report for project ”University Recognition of Prior Learning Centres – Bridging Higher Education with Vocational Education and Training” Employment Research Institute, Edinburg Napier University. Retrieved July 22, 2015, http://www.adam-europe.eu/prj/9626/prj/Report-Recognition%20of%20Prior%20Learning%20in%20Scotland.pdf
Venhovaara, P. 2012. Savonian AHOT-toimintamalli osana opiskelijan ohjauksen kokonaisuutta. Teoksessa Airola, A. & Hirvonen, H. (toim.) Osaaminen näkyväksi. Kokemuksia osaamisen tunnistamisesta Itä-Suomen korkeakouluissa. Publications of the University of Eastern Finland. General Series No 8, 57–72.