Today learning happens everywhere and adults who learn in daily non-formal situations and environments need to be able to prove their skills to outsiders.
In recognition of competences, the line between non-formal and formal education is becoming blurred as education today entails many different areas of life.
But many different formats of informal learning – from certified experiences, courses that boost competences to hobby-based learning or even a skill acquired through experiences rather than the traditional education path – are often not recognised by employees, institutions or even public bodies.
In the modern labour market and world of education, many institutions lack a cohesive approach. Experts in the field argue that there is a need for a greater consistency in the use of validation methodologies because it is vital for an individual’s career progression.
Open borders and workforce mobility require systematic validation
The validation of non-formal learning has traditionally lacked gravitas. Take job seekers who may want to consider pursuing an international career as an example.
Whilst open borders have allowed people to move more freely in Europe, certifying or even acknowledging education achieved outside formal learning still has a long way to go when it comes to recognition outside one’s one home country.
Job seeker can spend up four hours writing an application while 72% of employers can spend no more than 15 minutes on processing one application.
In the case of European workforce mobility, this adds another challenge for individuals who are trying to confirm to the requirements of several countries.
Certificates, qualifications, CV references, interviews, talks, work samples, observations and portfolios are widely used but often ignored by employees.
Research by Malta-based Knowledge Innovation Centre found that a job seeker can spend up four hours writing an application while 72% of employers can spend no more than 15 minutes on processing one application. This begs the question of whether non-formal credentials will ever be useful in career development beyond narrow niches like IT, without non-formal credentials being data-rich and fully digital.
In the last 20 years, vocational, scientific and technological progress has progressed fast, but there have not been gains in the validation of adult education in the world of employment.
“On one hand, formal educational institutes cannot update their curricula or course offering fast enough to stay up-to-date with these developments and, on the other hand, working adults cannot afford the time to return to full-time education to update their knowledge, skills and competences,” says Ildiko Mazar, Research & Development Associate at Knowledge Innovation Centre.
Acknowledging achievements historically challenging
Different countries have different traditions and practices in learning validation but, despite the attempts of European institutions, the practices of validation vary widely from country to country.
Validation was historically a time-consuming process because proof or learning examples needed to be collected, assessed and recognised.
The root cause of the problem is the lack of trust and transparency.
“This was mainly because the source of knowledge used to be a teacher, a book or an educational institute in general, whereas now people have tremendous opportunities to learn from different sources and environments themselves,” says Professor Margarita Teresevičienė from the Lithuanian Vytautas Magnus University, who has been involved in developing recognition tools in open education.
Validation processes of non-formal learning credentials are different, not only across the EU or the world, but even within the same country between institutions. The root cause of the problem is the lack of trust and transparency.
“The ongoing trend of unbundling higher education, and the demand of the labour market for constantly changing unique sets of knowledge, skills and competencies, press higher education institutes to pay more attention to adult education provision with credentials that are widely recognisable, but best-practice cases are still rare,” notes Mazar.
Technology and innovation at the forefront
Studying environments are undergoing a transition with advancements in technology over the past decade or so.
“Students aren’t interested in or appropriately engaged by sitting in a classroom and listening to someone lecture. It’s time for education to catch up with the technological capabilities that are available. Students must be able to work from any location, have increased flexibility in their timelines and have lessons that are designed specifically for them,” says Teresevičienė.
New technologies could help create unified certification methods accepted globally. Whilst the digital formats of validation are mostly still in piloting and trials, in recent years many projects to develop validation and recognition of competences from virtual, non-formal and informal learning have seen the light.
One of them is ReOpen, or the Recognition of Valid and Open Learning, a platform that creates tools to help recognise non-formal learning such as learner credentials, digital badges, learning path recognition and assessment tools.
With digital badges, a learner can earn badges in different settings such as an evening course or a professional training course.
“As learning itself has an increasing tendency to move to digital environments, so there are also more and more technological possibilities to assess and validate learning. Different digital identification and authentication technologies allow the provision of valid credentials in online forms. Digital badges are examples of increasing popular tools,” says Teresevičienė.
No simple one-size-fits-all solution in sight
Europass is another useful tool for job seekers in Europe. It features a certificate supplement for vocational education and training certificates, as well as other EU-supported documents and self-assessment tools.
The development of free, open-source tools such as the EU-funded OEPass project’s Learning Passport and the MicroHE project’s Credentials Clearinghouse are promising signs.
Technology advancements are key to creating approved validation techniques, says Lisa Brown from GoNextEd, a company that specialises in adult education technology.
“Innovations allow simplified and accessible tools to prove learner identity and authenticity for online examinations,” she says.
Validation is a real double-edged sword because everyone is looking for the solution but no one has really found it.
“The increasing popularity of micro-credits allow learners to stack their learning achievements from different sources and environments. Block chain technology is an emerging practice providing valid and affordable recognition of open learning.”
One of the main issues regarding digital credentials is the limited output and access to underlying information or lack of technical standards for credential information.
“Validation is a real double-edged sword because everyone is looking for the solution but no one has really found it. Some solutions today just use a checkmark confirming that something has been done. Or if a student can memorise a book long enough to pass a test, that’s validation. As of now, there is no global approved technology,” says Lisa Brown.
Validation, when done right, has several benefits for the learner
Validation has been found positively to influence individuals’ self-awareness and self-esteem and boost learning capabilities. Any learning should give a student a sense of success.
Therefore, there is a strong need for validation to be digitally unified, the experts note.
“In the future adult learners will tie themselves less and less to one or other educational institution, but will collect their learning achievements from different places, while validation will need to be digital and collectible into one particular space,” says Margarita Teresevičienė.
Individuals need to be informed about the costs and benefits of validation, and how the process can influence progress in learning and employment.
Ultimately, validation should be about individual choice, where arrangements must be designed to allow the individual to opt for the most cost-efficient solutions, possibly for limited documentation rather than full, formal certification.
“Individuals need to be informed about the costs and benefits of validation, and how the process can influence progress in learning and employment. Guidance and counselling are of particular importance for reaching disadvantaged groups and for releasing their inherent potential,” says Teresevičienė.
This is set to change with the advancement of technologies, as tools designed to help learners with validation will catch up in the future.
“We’re all looking to perfect and improve upon validation based on actual skills, or the ability to apply knowledge rather than just memorise and then regurgitate content. Technology with AI and machine learning will likely help in the future, but we’re still at a very early stage with those technologies,” says Brown.