Assessment in RPL of Adults with a Low Level of Schooling: Perceptions of Adult Educators Involved in the Process
Recognition of prior learning (RPL) has appeared in recent decades as an educational policy area and a policy concept “within the European Union, across countries in Europe and beyond” (Andersson, Fejes & Sandberg, 2013, p. 405). According to these authors, RPL process varies in practices, contexts, concepts and conceptions.
RPL is one of the five priority areas of the Action Plan on Adult Learning (Commission of the European Communities, 2007). Many European countries have been developing or expanding systems of validation of non-formal and informal learning (Eurydice, 2011). RPL is a recent educational practice in Portugal, the fruit of a governmental initiative, belonging to a considerable amount of policies devoted to lifelong learning. In 2001, a nationwide network of RPL centers was created, which remains at present.
The RPL system is organized differently in each European country (Cedefop, 2009). In Europe, RPL is a multispeed process because countries are at different stages of practical implementation and overall acceptance. Some countries, for example Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal, use RPL as an integrated part of their qualifications systems (Bjørnåvold & Le Mouillour, 2009).
In Portugal, RPL has the aim to get access to basic and/or secondary school level of certification. In some RPL centers, the RPL process allows a double certification, a scholar certification and a vocational certification (level 2 or level 4), according to the National Qualifications Framework.
This process, in Portugal, is implemented mainly by trainers and by adult educators who are accompanying adults with a low level of schooling throughout the process and are playing a mediation and support role. Over the past years, these adult educators have been named in several ways. Until 2013 they were named RVC professionals (Recognition and Validation of Competences professionals). After 2014 these adult educators changed the name to technicians of guidance, recognition and validation of competences. The described research focuses on this category of adult educators, who, at the time when the interviews were done, were called RVC professionals, and who were, according to Barros (2013), “the only elements on the team who perform a role of adult educators” (p. 434).
In Europe, the implementation of RPL mobilizes a diversity of tools and methods for assessing learning outcomes (Bjørnåvold & Le Mouillour, 2009). In Portugal, the assessment in RPL is present in two phases (Cavaco, 2012). Firstly, in the recognition phase, the adult educator helps adults to explore their life experiences, in order to highlight the learning referred to the key competences referential. During this phase, these professionals give guidelines to adults on how to write and structure their life histories, which should comprise learning from different contexts. Secondly, in the validation phase, the adult educator compares the prior learning evidenced in life histories with the elements of the key competences referential. In this phase the adult educator and trainers intervene. According to Farzad and Paivandi (2000), the recognition should end in a validation decision in order to formalize the process.
This paper will explore the perceptions of adult educators about the assessment process in RPL, in Portugal. The data used are from research integrated in a PhD program I’m attending in Education. From a theoretical point of view, this research uses elements from adult education and sociology of education. The main aim of this research is to understand the way adult educators view their role in the assessment process in RPL. This study intends to answer the questions: How do adult educators see the assessment in RPL process? How do adult educators invest themselves in the role of assessors? How does the assessment take place in RPL processes?
From an epistemological point of view, the research focuses on the phenomenological perspective. The phenomenology analyzes the phenomena, focusing on the meaning that is assigned by the individual who experiences them, so the description of them should be precise and detailed (Giorgi, 1997). The phenomenology focuses on the essence of the human experience with respect to a phenomenon, according to the description made by the individuals who had participated in the research (Creswell, 2007).
The research presents a descriptive character by undertaking a “narrative or description of facts, situations, processes or phenomena” (Afonso, 2005, p. 43) reported by adult educators in relation to the assessment in RPL of adults with a low level of schooling. The research is based on a comprehensive perspective that intends to describe, interpret and analyze critically the perceptions of adult educators about their role in the assessment process in RPL.
From a methodological point of view, we used the qualitative approach, as it was considered that this is the kind of research that provides a detailed understanding of the issue to investigate, which can be obtained by speaking directly to people, allowing them to tell stories uncontaminated by our expectations or what we have read in the literature about the subject (Creswell, 2007).
The method of data collection used was the explicitation interview (Vermersch, 1991) in order to get descriptive information about the way adult educators see the assessment in RPL process and how they invest themselves in the role of assessors. Thirty-two interviews were conducted with RVC professionals, who were adult educators who had intervened in the RPL processes. These adult educators established a closer relationship with the adults, promoting the remembrance of life experiences, encouraging dialogue, outlining the activities for each task, the writing skills, the discussion of ideas, and the cooperation and interpersonal relationships among group elements (Cavaco, 2009).
The interviews were recorded on audio support. As a data analysis technique, thematic content analysis was used (Bardin, 1995; Vala, 2003).
During RPL process, adult educators had participated in assessment, together with trainers. Assessment took place mainly when prior learning highlighted in life histories was compared with the competences defined in the key competences referential. However, the narrative of these adult educators was marked by a cleavage. On the one hand, there were a group of adult educators who assumed the assessors role: “Adults throughout their process complete a group of indications which we gave them, and they are assessed by work, by the ways they developed the process. They were assessed according to the competences that they were showing within the parameters which we gave them. This assessment is quite continuous (…) it is an assessment based on their life histories, on their know-how”.
On the other hand, there was another group of adult educators who refused the assessors role, considering it belonged to the trainer function. These adult educators considered that their role was to guide the adults along the RPL process: “We don’t have to assess, we have to share, to guide the work of the adults, we have to de-limit their work a little, but checking competences is a role of trainers (…) What we have to do is support adults to find out their competences”.
Adult educators assess prior learning using as methodologies the life history and competences assessment. As was mentioned by one interviewee, “In session and reading the portfolio, I try to explore a little bit what is behind. (…) when I am with them [adults] I pull a little more for them. I make the competences assessment.”
Regardless of the way the role of the assessor is invested by these adult educators, it should be stressed that their professional activity is characterized by a strong involvement of relational skills.
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This proposal is part of a master or doctoral thesis.