Case Study 2

National University of Ireland, Galway:
The School of Nursing and Midwifery

Introduction

 

Recognition of Prior Learning Policy

Institution - Level Policy

- RPL and Programme Design

- Data Collection

- Communication

 

Programme-Level Policy within the School of Nursing and Midwifery

 

Recognition of Prior Learning Process

- Assessment of RPL applications

 

Reflections

 

Introduction


This case study examines the development and implementation of a recognition of prior learning policy and associated processes within the School of Nursing and Midwifery in the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway). The School of Nursing and Midwifery was established in 1993. The School offers five Honours Bachelor Degree programmes (NFQ Level 8) in General Nursing, Psychiatric Nursing and Midwifery, as well as a Higher Diploma in Midwifery (NFQ Level 8). The School also offers a range of postgraduate programmes delivered through blended learning, including thirteen Postgraduate Diplomas (NFQ Level 9) in a range of specialty areas, five Masters Degree programmes (NFQ Level 9) and four Doctoral Degree (NFQ Level 10) options. Recognition of prior certified and prior experiential learning is offered for the purposes of entry, or advanced entry to a programme.
 

Recognition of Prior Learning Policy
 

Institution - Level Policy
 

NUI Galway has a single institutional-level RPL policy in place since February 2009. The policy is designed to ensure consistency and transparency in the application of the principles of RPL throughout the university. The policy sets out a range of definitions for terms such as the recognition of prior learning, prior experiential learning, prior certified learning, credit, learning routes and learning outcomes. The policy also includes a set of guiding principles, details of the RPL process, as well as guidance on assessment and on how RPL should be communicated to prospective applicants and enrolled students. The policy seeks to provide a coherent framework and principles which can be used by all academic units to guide them in the operation of RPL within their programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The policy does not seek to be prescriptive; it allows for a range of assessment mechanisms to be used, appropriate to the module content, and sets out broad criteria to guide assessors. The policy also sets out that assessors and other persons involved in the recognition process will be given training and support as appropriate. The policy is available at Appendix 2. A range of supporting documents have been also developed, including a student information guide and a model assessment form designed to instill the principle that a systematic validation process is required for RPL applications.
 

Within NUI Galway, prior learning, whether certified or experiential, may be assessed for the purposes of granting entry or advanced entry to a programme or granting exemptions from modules within a programme. It is felt that it is best not to grade prior learning, particularly a combination of experiential and certified learning so as to avoid complicating the assessment process. It is university policy that a learner may be exempted from no more than 50% of a programme. It is felt that setting such a limit ensures that the learner undertakes a substantial volume of learning within NUI Galway and that the limit can act as a ‘safety-net’ for staff who may be new or uncertain of the RPL process and its outcomes. A school or discipline may determine that learners cannot be exempted from a certain module or number of modules, or indeed may determine that no advanced entry can be offered to a programme. This will vary from department to department and is at the discretion of programme staff and those assessing learning. The university does not offer full awards on the basis of RPL. As long as RPL activity operates within these parameters there is a degree of discretion afforded to individual colleges and disciplines in terms of policy application.
 

Table 6: Development of Institution-Level RPL Policy at NUIG

Development of Institution-Level RPL Policy

The NUIG institution-level RPL policy was developed following an examination of existing local policies and the perspective of staff. The development of an institutional policy highlighted the work of departments such as the School of Nursing and Midwifery and showed that RPL had particular application in determining eligibility for admission or advanced entry and granting admission to part-time and postgraduate programmes.
The development of the policy was also informed by insights into practice in other institutions gained through NUI Galway’s involvement in the SIF Education in Employment (EIE) Scheme. Based on this work, a draft policy was circulated widely within the university and feedback sought. The policy was then approved by Academic Council and subsequently published in February 2009.

RPL and Programme Design


Programme design in NUI Galway is informed by the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ). This allows smaller units of learning, through the use of non-major awards types, to be recognised for credit and exemption purposes (this applies equally to learners who have completed these awards in NUIG and elsewhere). Such flexible programme structures facilitate the recognition of prior learning and have proved a marketable aspect of programmes.
 

Learning outcomes form the basis for the assessment of prior learning. A statement of learning outcomes is necessary for programme approval within NUI Galway. All new programmes, which have commenced in the last five years have learning outcomes set out at both programme and module level. In NUI Galway, part-time programme development often comes about through an initiative of the Adult and Continuing Education Office and its approach to the relevant college. Adult and Continuing Education is aware of the requirement for learning outcomes and the possibility of RPL applications, so these elements are considered from the initial design phase. Adult Education must give consideration to the marketing aspect of their work and allowing for learners to join at various stages of a programme. It was noted that the Department of Adult and Continuing Education must have regard to business as well as academic considerations and seek to draw in new learners in a competitive market.
 

A number of adult and continuing education programmes comprising core and elective streams facilitate the recognition of prior learning by allowing applicants to seek exemptions from specific elective modules, or demonstrate that prior learning meets the learning outcomes of a general component of the programme. The NUI Galway RPL application form asks whether applicants are seeking a general module exemption or specialist module exemption. Importantly, such exemption can only be sought from elective modules; core modules must be completed.
 

Specific credit may be offered for a specific module where the learning outcomes achieved are deemed equivalent to the learning outcomes of a specific programme module. General credit may be offered for a programme, where prior learning is not directly relevant but is deemed equivalent in level and credit weighting to modules in the proposed programme of study. The facility to offer general credit is considered a generous one, however such credit cannot be used where there is an impact on the specialisation required to complete the programme. Accordingly, general credit is more readily granted for a programme such as an Arts programme, rather than one with a specialty in science and technology.

Data Collection
 

While the various schools within the university maintain a record of local RPL decisions and rationale, data on RPL applications is not collected centrally within the university. Where exemptions from elements of a programme are granted, these will be denoted by an 'Exempt' remark on student transcripts; it will not be indicated that the exemption was gained through an RPL process. The ‘Exempt’ remark can be used in a number of scenarios, such as where a student is repeating a year, but is exempt from repeating certain modules. The student records system does not currently have the capability of distinguishing how exemptions have been gained, although it was acknowledged that the university may be asked to collect such data at some point in the future. Currently all records, including details of validation processes, are held locally, and most likely stored in different formats within schools and departments.
 

There has been no discussion to date of centralising RPL data collection within the institution; such discussions may be required as the university addresses any increases in the number of RPL applications in the future. Any such process would require significant involvement from each of the disciplines.
 

NUI Galway offers Access Courses for school leavers and mature students and is a partner institution in the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) scheme. These schemes offer opportunities to access NUI Galway programmes to learners who would otherwise be unable to enroll in a university-level programme due to economic or social reasons. Data on the number of students accessing programmes through these routes and completion rates is recorded centrally.


Communication
 

The availability and details of the NUI Galway’s RPL process is promoted through a range of promotional materials, such as prospectuses and the university website, as well as at promotional and recruitment events attended by staff. Additionally, admissions staff receive training on RPL so they can respond effectively to queries from the public. Staff described how Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF)/Education in Employment (EIE) funding allowed for increased promotion of RPL and the opportunity to develop a RPL policy, and offer training and generally respond to any resulting demand. With dedicated funding now finished, the institution is conscious that continued promotion of RPL will generate demand and draw on resources and staff.
 

Programme-Level Policy within the School of Nursing and Midwifery
 

The School of Nursing and Midwifery, NUI Galway was established in 1993. The School began to develop a credit-exemption policy in 1998 on foot of changes to the types of qualifications required to work in the nursing profession, and also to the range of applicants approaching the School seeking entry to programmes and add-on programmes. In 1994, nurse training changed from an apprenticeship model (Certificate/ Apprenticeship Programme) to a three-year National Diploma Programme. NUI Galway was the first institution nationally to offer the Nursing Diploma and be confronted with the issue of recognising the existing clinical and academic qualifications of those seeking entry to the programme. The National Diploma programme was superseded in 2002 by the current An Bord Altranais professional registration requirement of a Level 8 Honours Bachelor Degree.


The School developed an approach to admitting learners to the programmes of study or add-on programmes on the basis of their existing certified learning in the main, in some cases combined with an element of experiential learning. Applicants were asked to make an application for entry or advanced entry to a programme and supply relevant evidence to support their application. The necessary new elements of learning undertaken to obtain new awards were largely not competence based – applicants were already practitioners with many years of experience, and, instead, may have needed to study topics in the field of research, critical thought and nursing theory.
 

Initially, the language used was that of ‘exemptions’ as RPL was not a widely used concept in NUI Galway at the time. The development and implementation of this approach proved a struggle in its first year as there was a lack of experience and information on the assessment of prior learning. Only with the recording of decisions and rationale has a body of experience developed surrounding the assessment of prior learning and the School has developed confidence in its processes.
The demand for recognition of prior learning continued to grow as the suite of programmes within the School expanded to include postgraduate programmes. Currently, the majority of RPL applicants are mature students applying to postgraduate programmes. Applications have mostly been concerned with the recognition of prior certified learning. Where experiential learning is presented, this has been for the purpose of ‘topping-up’ certified learning. As learners complete newer academic qualifications and seek entry to postgraduate programmes, it is expected that exemptions will be sought based on the recognition of prior experiential learning. To date, however, there has only been one application submitted to the School seeking recognition of experiential learning solely. It is expected that the processing of any such applications received in the future will be quite time consuming.
 

The School’s policy approach was formally ratified by the NUI Galway Academic Council in 2004. According to that policy, recognition will be given for no more than 50% of the total credits for an academic programme. It is felt that given the pace of change in nursing and midwifery, previous learning must have been completed within the previous five years. It was put forward that implementing a strict time limit on the currency of learning is a product of the responsibility of producing graduates, suitably educated and trained to work in a regulated profession, such as nursing and midwifery. An Bord Altranais, the regulatory body for the nursing and midwifery professions in Ireland, has set out requirements as to how learners may access a programme which leads to registration as a nurse and how an education institution is granted approval to offer a programme leading to registration; this limits the discretion of institutions to grant exemptions to undergraduate applicants. Accordingly, the majority of the School’s RPL applications are for exemptions from postgraduate programmes.
 

RPL Application Process
 

Table 7: RPL Application Process for the School of Nursing and Midwifery

Application Process
• Applicants are made aware, on the application form for admission, of the option of applying for a module exemption through an RPL process. The form states that learners must make a case setting out evidence as to why they should be exempted from a specific module.
• Applicants must:
o Demonstrate that they have attained the necessary learning outcomes through some other form of learning;
o Provide evidence of the assessment of this learning; and
o Provide evidence of the credit given for this learning.
The onus is placed on the applicant to provide this information; they may often need to contact institutions they have previously attended to source information for inclusion in their application.
• The application is then sent to the programme director who will in turn identify the relevant module leader to assess the application.
• The module leader will review all the evidence, comparing the previous learning with the learning outcomes of the relevant module, and will also discuss the application with the module team.
• A decision, including a clear rationale, is then returned to the programme director.
• The decision is submitted to the School board for final sign off at School level before being forwarded to the Academic Affairs Office and Admissions Office. All applications are reviewed by the Student Affairs Committee which has responsibility for ensuring equity in decision making in regard RPL.
• The learner then receives notification of the decision.
Applicants are given comprehensive advice and support from the outset of an application.
 

Timelines 
 

The time frame within which an application is assessed will depend on the quality of the application submitted, whether additional information must be sought and how much guidance the applicant may require. This may be an issue especially where applicants present foreign qualifications and there is difficulty in sourcing documentation and additional information. Additionally, information and detail may be lost through the translation of documents. Applications may be received after the deadline for submission which will be accepted and may lead to a processing backlog.

Staff commented on how the infrastructure of the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) assists with the processing of applications; in particular the development of award and level descriptors assists with the matching of learning outcomes, while the Framework structure provides a tool for the comparison of international qualifications, in particular those from the United Kingdom.
 

Applications to date have been entirely paper-based, and have not included interviews. Applications are mostly made by mature students, who may be in full-time employment, applying for exemptions from postgraduate programmes – the bulk of their previous learning will be certified and evidenced through paperwork. To date, the largest number of applications received in a given year has been 24. Staff offered that should there be an exponential increase in the number of applications they do not think they could cope with the workload involved. There have been no instances of an appeal of the outcome of an application. Staff feel the support and guidance offered to applicants avoids such situations.
 

Assessment of RPL Applications
 

As described, learning outcomes form the basis upon which prior learning is assessed, both in the School of Nursing and Midwifery and across NUI Galway. Staff feel that it is crucial that learning outcomes are written clearly, as this will allow RPL assessors to provide advice to the learner on how to demonstrate that they have attained the necessary learning outcomes for entry or advanced entry. As part of the EIE-funded project, a designated RPL officer provided this support and advice to learners; where questions specific to a discipline arise, these are dealt with by the relevant college.
Staff generally do not often have to rely on advice or draw in resources from outside of the School of Nursing and Midwifery in assessing applications. Staff that are inexperienced or new to assessing RPL applications will be mentored by colleagues. The School has developed a bank of experience and a record of decisions and there are a number of qualifications which are repeatedly submitted for assessment. Additionally, the majority of staff in the School hold qualifications in the field of education, which assists this work. Staff may on occasion need to refer to colleagues in other departments where they are presented with learning from another discipline, though this is quite uncommon. The newest challenge faced in assessing applications is the increased number of applications for the recognition of qualifications and learning from countries outside the EU. In these cases, Schools may seek advice from the Admissions Office or the International Office.
 

Reflections
 

Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF) seed-funding provided through the Education in Employment (EIE) project has allowed resources to be dedicated to RPL policy and practice within NUI Galway in the last number of years. This has allowed the University to respond to the growing profile of RPL nationally and the increased awareness of RPL amongst learners. The funding allowed for the appointment of a dedicated RPL officer within NUI Galway who led discussions on the use and implementation of RPL; queried staff views and experiences, which ultimately led to the development of the institutional policy. The NUI Galway Council of Deans acknowledged the growing profile of RPL, within the institution and nationally, at a meeting in autumn 2010 and also the discussion and planning which will be required around RPL as demand grows. Now that SIF funding has ceased, such planning will need to consider where responsibility lies for the implementation of RPL and the best means to manage the demands of RPL policy and practice on staff.
 

Staff within the School of Nursing of Midwifery spoke of the necessity of RPL and their willingness to continue to embrace and develop the process so that learners may have their prior learning and skills acquired acknowledged. The School seeks to be flexible, and makes it a priority to grant credit where appropriate and not require students to repeat learning. Some of the staff in the School have personal experiences of a time when such options were not available and learners were asked to 'start from scratch' each time they begun a new phase of learning. Where once the School operated in near isolation from this perspective, there has been a move towards a lifelong learning culture institutionally and nationally. Administrative and policy supports are in place centrally in NUI Galway and staff are glad of these structures which can offer guidance and clarity to new and existing staff and students where needed. Equally, the professional body, An Bord Altranais, now supports the development of procedures to allow access, transfer and progression in its guidance for education providers. It remains that staff must be conscious of the requirements established by An Bord Altranais for entry to nursing programmes.
 

At institutional level there is a similar high regard for RPL and the flexible learning it facilitates. NUI Galway is partner to a project with Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) and the University of Limerick (UL) which hopes to develop relationships with regional industry and seek to respond to their education and training needs and offer RPL where appropriate. The link between employers and institutions may allow credit be offered for existing training, and open up opportunities for learning and training to employees. It is hoped that where this project stimulates demand, the institutions involved will be able to pool resources to respond accordingly. At the time of writing, this project is still in a planning phase; however, it is envisaged that this will prove a major area for the development of RPL in the future. Contact to date has shown enthusiasm from industry, provided the requirements placed upon it are manageable and beneficial, so this will require significant planning on the part of the institutions. This activity is ongoing, although there remain unanswered questions as to how this work will be co-ordinated and resourced and importantly ensure the continued good-will of staff towards RPL. In terms of current ongoing processing of applications, staff offered that the next element of RPL to be developed is guidance on assessment of applications. Staff suggested that there are a limited number of practitioners and examples of relevant practice which could be used to develop guidance and policy in the area of assessment.
 

Those involved in the promotion and implementation of RPL offered a range of perspectives. Their experiences have shown that RPL can serve to boost a learner’s confidence; the reflective element in particular can affirm for a learner that they have already achieved a recognisable substantial bank of learning. Individual stories, such as the granting of an award following admission or advanced entry based on RPL or the motivation learners demonstrate in the class room offer inarguable evidence of the benefits of RPL to staff. Additionally, teachers and tutors have spoken of the value of peer to peer learning in the class room and the invaluable comments and feedback shared by professionals who have returned to learning.
 

No evidence has arisen to date within NUI Galway to suggest that RPL has a negative impact on the quality of learning, nor have suggestions that RPL may offer unfair advantage to certain learners, whereby mature students take the place of learners who would be accessing programmes through more traditional routes. Staff interviewed were positive and enthusiastic towards RPL, offering specific examples of learners and their experiences which showed the value of RPL.
 

Such good will is tempered by the very real demands already generated by RPL. Staff from the School of Adult and Continuing Education offered that RPL applications constitute only 20% of the applications received for admission from adult learners; however these applications demand a majority of staff time. Processing an application is time-consuming. This can be dependent on the quality of the application received by the School in question, the additional information which must be sought and the support required by the applicant. The recognition of experiential learning or a combination of experiential and certified learning can be even more time consuming as it requires the examination and verification of a portfolio of learning. Staff in the School of Nursing and Midwifery suggested that, should there be a significant jump in the number of RPL applications received, they do not think they could cope with the workload. This expectation is based on their experiences in recognising prior certified learning, though staff offered that there will most likely be an increase in the demand for the recognition of experiential learning received in the future.
 

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