21NCGE NEWS Winter 2011Higher EducationAPEL and Masterchef IrelandRecently I watched the final of Masterchef Ireland. I saw three individuals who had volunteered themselves to the programme many weeks beforehand as worthy of having achieved an advanced level of professional cookery through experiential learning. A further nine 'applicants' had already been deemed not to have achieved this status. Over the weeks we watched the two expert assessors articulate the standards to be achieved in terms of professional knowledge and skills. We watched them set up challenge assessment tasks to test knowledge and skills, teamwork, project management, ability to follow orders, leadership skills, creativity and many other attributes of the working professional. We watched the candidates reflect on their initial standard of skills, self-assess after their challenge tests in relation to the professional standards required for the 'award title', and identify their skills gaps and new learning requirements. Essentially we were watching APEL (accreditation of prior experiential learning) in action, eavesdropping on the assessors and on the candidates throughout the process. In higher education APEL works a little like Masterchef Ireland. There is a body of knowledge and skills (learning outcomes) identified for different levels (NQF level descriptors). There are subsets of knowledge and skills (modules). There is an education standard to be achieved for the target award. There are professional experts (lecturers) who teach and assess in relation to the award. There are validated programme documents detailing the standard required for initial entry, advanced entry, exemptions and/or achievement of a full award. There are degrees in culinary arts graduating professional masterchefs. Most of these degrees built one earlier craft certificates, higher certificates and national diplomas. Most professional chefs working in industry engaged in both formal and non-formal training, as well as in work-based learning, and they can usually identify where and when they learned particular skills and competences.
22Higher EducationApel and Masterchef Ireland continuedNCGE NEWS Winter 2011So, we the Masterchef Ireland viewers, know how APEL works. We know that experiential learning is assessed by experts using a set of criteria that are appropriate and fit-for-purposes. We know that candidates for APEL can self-assess within their own interpretation of standards and can often mis-judge their own levels of knowledge and skills. We saw no coaches, mentors, advisers or counsellors intervene between the candidates and the expert assessors. We did see the assessors explain clearly what was expected from the candidates and how learning was to be demonstrated. In higher education this is broadly how APEL works. Experts in the target programme set up appropriate assessment mechanisms for candidates in relation to the entry requirements, advanced entry requirements, module exemptions, or whole award. Candidates provide evidence of having achieved the required learning and the capacity to articulate their learning. Assessors use a set of appropriate criteria by which to judge the evidence of learning in each case.Why then is APEL now becoming a site of contestation among education and training interests? There still persists the belief that brokerage services are necessary to arbitrate between a candidate and an awarding body. Powerful stakeholders in the adult and further education field have promoted such models since the mid-1990s and policy support in this regard ebbs and flows. The Expert Group on Future Skills Report, January 2011 'Developing Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) in the context of the National Skills Strategy Up-skilling Objectives' clearly exposes thetensions in the positions held by the further education/adult education sector and the higher education sector. Because higher education operates within the 'technologies' of the NQF it is unsurprising that the sector sees no role for external agencies in APEL guidance in relation to its awards. Nor is it surprising that bodies like AONTAS maintain their promotion of guidance services in relation to APEL. Higher education providers have considerably improved their policies and procedures of APEL in recent years, for the most part centred on subsidiarity to the academic programme and the award to which it leads. This model is likely to persist. However, much has also been learned about RPL (a term which includes both certificated and experiential learning) in relation to designing responses to immediate labour market needs, and in relation to strategies to assist unemployed persons to gain employment through improving their formal qualifications, particularly through the three annual round of Labour Market Activation Funds. Higher education well understands the challenges for applicants in these initiatives in making their prior learning visible, and much urgent learning has been achieved in this regard. The guidance and counselling required in this context is offered at the point of application initially by generalist experts and thereafter at the programme level by subject matter experts - the 'Masterchef' equivalent. These experiences have not forwarded the argument for a national strategy and centralised mechanism for APEL guidance and counselling at higher education level. But the argument for better internal, nationally funded, resources for APEL at all levels seems to have been enhanced.