Recognition of prior learning and assessment of adult learners : considerations for theory, policy and practice.
As part of the transformation agenda of education and training policy, the main thrust of Recognition and Prior Learning (RPL) in the South African policy context was to contribute to addressing social justice issues such as equity, redress and access of the majority of adult learners, who were historically denied access to formal learning. The study focuses on the following critical questions: What are the official policy claims of the assessment and recognition of prior learning at the national and sectoral level? How do assessors mediate official policy in recognising and assessing prior learning of adult learners in an institutional context? What are the experiences and engagements of adult learners in having their prior learning assessed? This research responds to the conceptual gaps in the study of RPL policy and practice and the National Qualifications Framework. The study examines epistemological issues such as: what and whose knowledge is considered as valid; the relationship between knowledge and experience; the relationship between different types of knowledge and learning; and the relationship between knowledge and access to power. The study also addresses a contextual gap: very limited research exists on the RPL experiences of societies in transition with similar transformational agendas as South Africa. The present research study also examines the implementation process in a transitional context, exploring the gap that develops between intended policies and actual practice. This is a qualitative study using the case study approach to examine the complexities of the assessment and recognition of prior learning process in a Technical College Institution located in the Further Education and Training Band. The analysis of selected international case studies of RPL contributed to identifying and exploring conceptual gaps in RPL policy and practice. These conceptual issues provided the first set of preliminary lens for the production, description and analysis of data in the research study. The preliminary lens were then re-interpreted and elaborated in relation to Bernstein 's theory (1996) of symbolic control and cultural production. reproduction and change. The synthesised conceptual framework provided a theoretical vocabulary to redescribe and reinterpret data at deeper levels of abstraction. The key findings of the research were as follows: The undertheorisation of RPL in policy circles and the ways in which policy has tended to gloss over issues such as "equivalence", "integrated competence", knowledge-power dynamics and the differences between mainstream and outsider knowledge; The gap between policy rhetoric and sectoral practice. The sector advocated a technicist approach to RPL that was preoccupied with matching adult experiential learning against prescribed standards. The sector practice marginalized or even excluded adult learners who had acquired their knowledge and learning in non-formal and informal contexts; Nevertheless, assessors who were socially and culturally sensitive to the RPL process had an implicit understanding of the different types of knowledge and knowers. Their developmental approach to RPL provided an enabling environment for adult learners to demonstrate their learning and knowledge from experience. Adult learners without high levels of formal literacy were able to demonstrate their ability to reflect on their experiential learning to transfer their abstract and critical thought processes to solve new problems in the assessment context. The research highlights the commensurability between informal and formal knowledge and the ability of workers who have learnt their skills informally to demonstrate high levels of conceptual and transferable skills. The present research makes the following theoretical contributions: Firstly , Bernstein's theory was extended to examine policy formulation and the policy process. Within the framework of critical policy analysis, a new construct: "relations outside" was created as an analytical tool to examine the nuances of the macro-contexts (historical, political, social, economic) which shape the meaning and significance of policy. Secondly, the research study produces a new conceptual framework to analyse the complex and dynamic nature of RPL policy and practice in a transformational context. The present study advocates a critical and holistic approach to RPL that interrogates how power-relations within and across contextual, epistemological and pedagogical issues reproduce or challenge the existing patterns of inequalities in society.