Research Paradigms: Functionalism

COOPERATIONBiological organisms have systems that perform various specialist and survival functions; similarly, social institutions “function” in a systematic and coherent way through their constituent elements to ensure their survival and optimal functioning. The mental state rather than the internal constitution of the researcher is important. This implies that motivation plays an important role in what the researcher would be willing to do to achieve success, i.e. the purpose of the research project.


Role differentiation and social solidarity are key elements in the smooth functioning of any organisation. This means that functionalism interprets each part of society in terms of how it contributes to the stability of the whole society. Society is more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, the contributions of all members of a society contribute to the performance of the society as a whole. Each individual plays an important part and the absence, or inability of each individual to contribute, detrimentally affects the performance of the community as a whole.


According to functionalism, an institution only exists because it serves an important role in the community. An individual or organisation that does not play a role in the community will not survive. This applies to individuals and groupings on all levels in society. The individual, families, clubs, schools, suburbs, cities, countries, etc. all will only survive if they add value to the community.


Organisations and societies evolve and adjust to changing conditions in order to ensure the continued, smooth, integrated functioning of all elements of the organisation or society. When new needs evolve or emerge, new organisations will be created to satisfy the new needs. When any part of the society is dysfunctional, it affects all other parts and creates problems for the society as a whole, which leads to social change.

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Who took the cookie from the cookie pot?

ethicsWritten by Dr J.P. Nel, MD Mentornet

They are at it again – students threatening to riot if they don’t get their way.

Everybody (well almost…) understands that university studies are expensive. However, claiming that government should pay for the studies is a terrible misconception. Government does not have money to pay tuition fees – taxpayers are the ones who pay. If tuition fees are increased government will simply increase taxes. If students are allowed to study for free – taxpayers will pay, not government. Students’ parents will pay more taxes and so will every other taxpayer. The end-result will be that tuition fees are spread more evenly in the sense that people who do not have children at university will now sponsor those who do. Those who can, for example most businesses, will simply increase the prices of the products or services that they sell. In the end the impact on the economy will be devastating. Ultimately it will be the most vulnerable and poor who will suffer the most because they cannot recuperate the added financial burden.

There are indications that the Minister of Higher Education and Training is already siphoning money from the National Skills Fund to universities. No doubt he will increasingly do so. The National Skills Fund is supposed to be used to pay for education and training in scarce and critical skills needs, i.e. occupational learning. After all, it is the industry that pays skills levies and it is they who should benefit from the levies. In the process private leaning institutions will suffer the most because few public learning institutions are willing and able to offer workplace related learning.  More importantly, workplace related learning, which the country needs the most, might collapse.

In closing, South Africa needs people who are trained to do specific jobs. We cannot afford to spend all the available money on academic education, especially not in fields that add little value to the workplace. Of course it would have been ideal if we could also cater for higher order knowledge and skills, but at the moment we need to focus on scarce and critical skills needs, which most university education is not.

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Research Paradigms: Interpretivism

EDU 10 IMAGEI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with Interpretivism.


Interpretivism has its roots in hermeneutics, the study of the theory and practice of interpretation. In hermeneutics the text is the expression of the thoughts of its author, and interpreters must attempt to put themselves within the perception or thinking pattern of the author in order to reconstruct the intended meaning of the text.


Often also called ‘anti-positivism’ or ‘naturalistic inquiry’, interpretivism is a softer and more subjective way in which to interpret data. Interpretivism relates to the constructivist epistemology. This perspective holds that individuals, in their reasoning, do not have access to the real world, suggesting that their knowledge of the perceived world is meaningful in its own terms and can be understood through careful use of interpretivist procedures.


Interpretivism is marked by three schools of thought in the social science research. They are phenomenology, ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism. All three schools of thought emphasise human interaction with phenomena in their daily lives, and suggest qualitative rather than quantitative approach to social research.

‘Phenomenology’ is a theoretical view point which believes that individual behaviour is determined by the experience gained out of one’s direct interaction with the phenomena. It rules out any kind of objective external reality. During interaction with various phenomena, human beings interpret them and attach meanings to different actions and or ideas and thereby construct new experiences. Therefore, the researcher has to develop empathic understanding to know the process of interpretation by individuals so that she or he can experience feelings, motives and thoughts that are behind the action of others.

‘Etnomethodology’ deals with the world of everyday life. According to ethnomethodologists, theoretical concerns centre around the process by which common sense reality is constructed in everyday face-to-face interaction. This approach studies the process by which people invoke certain ‘take-for-granted’ rules about behaviour which they interpret in an interactive situation and make it meaningful. They are mainly interested in the interpretation people use to make sense of social settings.

‘Symbolic interactionism’ emphasises the understanding and interpretation of interactions that take place between human beings. The peculiarity of this approach is that human beings interpret and define each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions. Human interaction in the social world is mediated by the use of symbols like language, which helps human beings to give meaning to objects. Symbolic interactionists, therefore, claim that by only concentrating attention on individuals’ capacity to create symbolically meaningful objects in the world, human interaction and resulting patterns of social organisations can be understood. As a result, not only human beings change themselves through interaction, but also introduce change to societies.


The interpretive perspective is based on the following assumptions:

  • Interpretivism leans towards qualitative research. Precise, systematic and theoretical answers to complex human problems are not possible. They assert that every cultural and historical situation is different and unique and requires analyses of the uniquely defined, particular contexts in which it is embedded. Because of the specific social, political, economic and cultural experiences underpinning each study, the findings cannot be generalised; they do, however, provide greater clarity on how people make meaning of phenomena in a specific context, thus aiding greater understanding of the human condition.
  • Human life can only be understood from within. Human activities cannot be observed from some external reality. Interpretivism therefore focuses on people’s subjective experiences, on how people “construct” the social world by sharing meanings, and how they interact with or relate to each other. Social constructions such as language (including text and symbols), consciousness and shared meanings are used to gain access to and understanding of reality.

Interpretivism emphasises that social reality is viewed and interpreted by the individual according to the ideological positions that she or he holds. Therefore, knowledge is personally experienced rather than acquired from or imposed from outside. The interpretivist paradigm believes that reality is multi-layered and complex and a single phenomenon can have multiple interpretations.

In studying a phenomenon, research techniques are used that will help us understand how people interpret and interact within their social environment. The social context, conventions, norms and standards of the particular person or community are crucial elements in assessing and understanding human behaviour (the truth is relevant and subject to these subjective elements); therefore are parallels with hermeneutics and phenomenology.

  • Social life is a distinctively human product. Interpretivists assume that reality is not objectively determined, but is socially constructed. The underlying assumption is that by placing people in their social contexts, there is a greater opportunity to understand the perceptions they have of their own activities. The uniqueness of a particular situation is important to understand and interpret the meanings constructed.

Interpretivism pays attention to and value what people say, do and feel, and how they make meaning of the phenomena being researched. Interpretivism foregrounds the meaning that individuals or communities assign to their experiences. Patterns, trends and themes should therefore emerge from the research process, and the role the researcher should be to understand real-life situations from the point of view of the insider (the members of the target group for the research).

  • The human mind is the purposive source of meaning. Interpretive research search for meaning in the activities of human beings. It is a form of qualitative research. In fact, all qualitative research should be interpretive in nature. Even so, interpretive research is distinguished from qualitative research in general by being distinctive in its approach to research design, concept formation, data analysis and standards of assessment. It can also be claimed to be radical in nature because it investigates real-life occurrences or phenomena.

By exploring the richness, depth and complexity of phenomena we can begin to develop a sense of understanding of the meanings given by people to phenomena and their social context. Through uncovering how meanings are constructed, we can gain insights into the meanings imparted and thereby improve our understanding of the whole.

  • Human behaviour is affected by knowledge of the social world. Interpretivism proposes that there are multiple and not single realities of phenomena and that these realities can differ across time and place. As our knowledge of the social world and the realities being constructed increase, it enriches our theoretical and conceptual framework. There is thus a two-way relationship between theory and research. Social theory informs our understanding of issues which, in turn, assists us in making research decisions and making sense of the world. The experience of doing research and its findings also influence our theorising. Inevitably, as theory will be abstract, as it gives a partial account of the multifaceted social world. Such a theory allows researchers to link the abstract with the concrete, the theoretical and the empirical.
  • The social world does not “exist” independently of human knowledge. Our own understanding of phenomena constantly influence us in terms of the types of questions we ask and in the way we conduct our research. Our knowledge and understanding are always limited to the things to which we have been exposed, our own unique experiences and the meanings we have imparted. As we proceed through the research process, our humanness and knowledge inform us and often direct us, and often subtleties, such as intuition, values, beliefs or prior knowledge influence our understanding of the phenomena under investigation. To conceive the world therefore as external and independent from our own knowledge and understanding is to ignore the subjectivity of our own endeavours.


In closing, the ultimate aim of intepretivist research is to offer a perspective of a situation and to analyse the situation under study to provide insight into the way in which a particular group of people make sense of their situation or the phenomena they encounter.


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Research Paradigms: Critical Theory

EDU IMAGE 15I introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This article deals with Critical Theory.

The term ‘critical’ refers to the capacity to inquire ‘against the grain’: to question the conceptual and theoretical bases of knowledge and method, to ask questions that go beyond prevailing assumptions and understandings, and to acknowledge the role of power and social position in phenomena.

Critical theory is any research that challenges those conventional knowledge bases and methodologies whether quantitative or qualitative, that makes claim to scientific objectivity. Critical research attempts to reveal the socio-historical specificity of knowledge and to shed light on how particular knowledges reproduce structural relations of inequality and oppression. Critical theory is concerned with the critical meanings of experiences as they relate to gender, race, class and other kinds of social oppression.

Researchers following critical theory methods assume that social reality is historically created and that it is produced and reproduced by people. Although people can consciously act to change their social and economic circumstances, critical researchers recognise that their ability to do so is constrained by various forms of social, cultural and political domination. The main task of critical research is seen as being one of social critique, whereby the restrictive and alienating conditions of the status quo are brought to light. Critical research focuses on the contest, conflict and contradictions in contemporary society, and seeks to be emancipatory, that is, it should help to eliminate the causes of alienation and domination.

Consciousness and identity are formed within the political field of knowledge. Critical theorists argue that the attempt to dispense with values, historical circumstance and political considerations in research is misguided. Our understanding of the educational situation depends on the context within which we encounter it, and our own theoretical knowledge and assumptions influence our observation. These factors create our ideological frames of reference that act as the lenses through which we see the world. The lenses that researchers use to critically analyse a system are regarded as subjective and the observations made through such are not subject to empirical verification in the positivist sense.

Every historical period produces particular rules that dictate what counts as scientific fact. Society reproduces inequalities from one generation to the next, called “reproduction theory”, and resistance becomes an important part of the response to injustices of this kind. This is called “resistance theory”. The implicit rules that guide our generation of facts about education are formed by particular world-views, values, political perspectives, conceptions of race, class, and gender relations, definitions of intelligence and many more. It is therefore the task of the critical researcher to disclose the needs and struggles of the people regardless of whether or not they are conscious of them.

Researchers using critical theory assert that what counts as valid social science knowledge arises from the critique of the social structure and systems as revealed through the analysis of the discourse in society. The critical researcher lays bare the current discourses in society and analyses them in terms of the system within which they operate with the aim of disclosing the power relationships within the system and its structures so that the oppressive nature of the system can be revealed. Conflict (for example racial, class, religious or gender conflict) and inequality are crucial to understanding the dynamics of human relations.

Critical theory postulates three types of knowledge: technical interest, practical interest and emancipating interest. Technical interest is concerned with the control of the physical environment, which generates empirical and analytical knowledge. A practical interest concerned with understanding the meaning of situation, which generates hermeneutic[1] and historical knowledge. An emancipating interest concerned with the provision of growth and advancement, which generates critical knowledge and is concerned with exposing conditions of constraints and domination.


[1] Hermeneutics deals with interpretation. Originally hermeneutics referred to the study of the interpretation of written text, but now it includes the interpretation of any form of communication, including verbal, artistic, geo-political, physiological, sociological, etc.

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The Research Paradigms: Social Constructivism

EDU IMAGE 14I introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with the social constructivism.

Social constructivism is based on the principles of constructivism. Like positivism, social constructivism also uses observation to gather information. Different from positivism, the researcher is part of what is being observed in social constructivism.

Positivism and constructivism are not the same. Both are epistemologies that present a different idea of what constitutes knowledge. However, positivism is a philosophical stance that emphasises that knowledge should be gained through observable and measurable facts, whereas constructivism states that reality is a social construct.

In social constructivism human interests are important for research purposes and knowledge is constructed through social interaction. Such knowledge is shared rather than an individual experience. According to constructivists, the reality is a subjective creation. There is no single reality. Race, for example, is a social construct. Claiming that people are different based on the skin of their colour is a (subjective) social construct.

Constructivism implies that reality is constructed through human interaction. Knowledge is a human product and is socially and culturally constructed. Individuals create meaning through their interactions with each other and with the environment in which they live. Social constructivism emphasises the importance of culture and context in the process of knowledge construction and accumulation.

The aim of constructivist research is to understand particular situations or phenomena. Rich data is gathered from which ideas can be formed. The interaction of a number of people is researched, mostly to solve social problems of the target group.

Social constructivism impacts strongly on the way in which people learn. It is, therefore, not a research paradigm in the true sense of the word. Learners add to and reshape their mental models of reality through social collaboration, building new understandings as they actively engage in learning experiences. Scaffolding, i.e. guidance and support, plays an important role in the learning process. Research is, of course, largely a learning process and researchers on any level can use it to gain knowledge and to structure their research.

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The research paradigms: Positivism

EDU 5 IMAGEI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with the third paradigm, namely Positivism.

The positivist paradigm of exploring social reality is based on the idea that one can best gain an understanding of human behaviour through observation and reason. Stated differently, only objective, observable facts can be the basis for science. According to the positivist paradigm true knowledge is based on experience of senses and can be obtained by observation and experiment. Positivist thinkers lean strongly on determinism, empiricism, parsimony and generality.

‘Determinism’ means that events are caused by other circumstances; and hence, understanding such causal links is necessary for prediction and control. ‘Empiricism’ means collection of verifiable empirical evidences in support of theories or hypotheses. Knowledge stems from human experience. Furthermore, the researcher is seen as being independent from the study and follows a deductive approach. The researcher concentrates on facts rather than human interests, making this approach a deductive one. ‘Parsimony’ refers to the explanation of the phenomena in the most efficient way possible. ‘Generality’ is the process of generalising the observation of the particular phenomenon to the world at large.

With these assumptions of science, the ultimate goal is to integrate and systematise findings into a meaningful pattern or theory which is regarded as tentative and not the ultimate truth. Theory is subject to revision or modification as new evidence is found.

Positivist paradigm thus systematises the knowledge generation process with the help of quantification, which is essential to enhance precision in the description of parameters and the discernment of the relationship among them.

An interesting feature of positivism is that it accepts the supernatural and abstract as data for research purposes. However, theological (the supernatural) or metaphysical (the abstract) claims must yield to the positive – that which can be explained in terms of scientific laws.

A positivist approach to knowledge is based on a real and objective interpretation of the data at our disposal. Such knowledge can be transmitted in tangible form – knowledge is often derived from observation. Positivism is a philosophy of knowing, also called epistemology, which believes that only knowledge gained through direct observation is factual and trustworthy. Factual information gathering, for example watching people work, measuring manufactured items, measuring time in athletics, is regarded as objective and therefore also valid.

Observations should be quantifiable so that statistical analysis can be done. Researchers following a positivist approach postulate that there is one objective reality that is observable by a researcher who has little, if any, impact on the object being observed. Positivism implies that there are objective, independent laws of nature to which human life is subjected. It is the purpose of research to discover and describe these objective laws. This view describes society as being made up of structures, concepts, labels and relationships. Proving the existence and impact of such laws require discovery through scientific means.

Positivists believe that knowledge can be “revealed” or “discovered” through the use of the scientific method. The “discovered” knowledge enables us to provide possible explanations of the causes of things that happen in the world. A positivist approach emphasises experimentation, observation, control, measurement, reliability and validity in the processes of research. This implies a quantitative approach.

Positivists argue that the scientific research method produces precise, verifiable, systematic and theoretical answers to the research question or hypothesis. They also suggest that the use of the scientific method provides answers that are neutral and technical and can thus be universalised and generalised to all historical and cultural contexts.

To explain the concept of doing research independent of other people, notably your target group for the research – a researcher following a positivist approach can receive and analyse completed questionnaires from people whom he or she has never met and don’t intend meeting either. All they are interested in are the responses from which objective conclusions can be made.

The advantage of a positivist approach to research is that the researcher can cover a wide range of situations in a short period of time. However, the following disadvantages of positivism should also be borne in mind:

  • Positivism relies on experience as a valid source of knowledge. However, a wide range of basic and important concepts such as cause, time and space are not based on experience.
  • Positivism assumes that all types of processes can be perceived as a certain variation of actions of individuals or relationships between individuals.
  • Adoption of positivism can be criticised for reliance on the status quo. In other words, research findings are only descriptive, thus they lack insight into in-depth issues.

Note: Sources for all the articles on research paradigms will be acknowledged in the book that the writer is writing on Social Science Research. Posted by Dr J.P. Nel

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The research paradigms: Empiricism

EDU 8 IMAGEI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with the second paradigm, namely Empiricism.

Empiricism is the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. The philosophy behind empiricism is that all knowledge of matters of fact derives from the experience and that the mind is not furnished with a set of concepts in advance of experience. Experience can be something that people learn from events in which they participated, things that happened to them and observations that they made. Experience can also be “staged” through deliberate and pre-planned experimental arrangements. Sense experience is, therefore, the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

Empiricists present complimentary lines of thought. First, they develop accounts of how experience provides the information that rationalists cite, insofar as we have it in the first place. As the name and philosophy implies, empiricism means that all evidence of facts and phenomena must be empirical, or empirically based. Evidence should be observable by the senses or extensions of the senses.

Empiricists will at times opt for scepticism as an alternative to rationalism: if experience cannot provide the concepts or knowledge the rationalists cite, then we don’t have them. David Hume,[1] for example, argued that our beliefs are a result of accumulated habits, developed in response to accumulated sense experiences. In his book entitled “Black Brain, White Brain”, Gavin Evans claims that religion is immune to logic. This is a typical empiricist argument. Evans does not understand, or conveniently ignores the value of abstract reasoning as a foundation of deductive reasoning. One wonders if Evans would also deny the possibility that there might be life in other corners of the universe as easily as he dispels the possible existence of a creator of the universe.

Second, empiricists attack the rationalists’ accounts of how reason is the source of concepts or knowledge. Empiricists are of the opinion that knowledge must be deducted or inferred from actual events that people can experience through their senses. The idea that people can learn through reasoning independently of the senses or through intuition are rejected. Stated differently, knowledge can only be derived a posteriori, i.e. through sensory experience. Innate ideas and superiority of knowledge does not exist.

A strong distinction is made between fact (objective) and values (subjective). Sense data is the ultimate objectivity, uncontaminated by value or theory. According to empiricism a person is born with an empty brain, like a clean slate, which is then filled by what he or she learns by experiencing things. Two learning processes take place – the individual experiences a sensation after which she or he reflects on it.

[1] Accessed on 11/07/2016.

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Assessment-driven Training

An advantage in Outcomes-based Education and Training but hardly understood…

The Outcomes-based (OB) approach in learning were implemented in South Africa’s schools and learning institutions, but endured much criticism – especially from those who did not grasp the advantages. Let’s not throw away the baby with the bath water…

Many benefits in the OB assessment approach

The assessment-driven approach in OB was thoroughly researched and proven to focus learners on the outcomes that are directly related to workplace skills. However, most assessment design and developers still do not grasp the difference between content-based and outcomes-based learning and the advantages embedded in the assessment-driven approach. When they need to design and develop assessment guides and instruments they reach out to the book and not the outcomes.

Does assessment-driven mean we don’t start with the book?

Exactly just that. You start with the assessment criteria in the unit standard. In fact, when you design and develop the whole programme, you are not even supposed to have a book until you have developed your draft assessment guide and instruments. Only after the assessment instruments are drawn up, the outline of the book should be drafted.

But what is wrong with starting with the content or the book?

Developers who start with the book rather than the assessment criteria usually end up having question papers with irrelevant questions. Their preferred method is to look for steps, formulas, procedures, definitions and difficult terminologies within the book. These will then be channelled into matching column, multiple choice, alternative choice and insert-type questions. When doing this, most developers do not take in account the weight of different outcomes, and assessment instruments are developed that’s invalid, unfair to the learners and unreliable. The context of the specific organisation is also not taken into account, which lower standards due to the generic approach that is being used.

What about subjective type of questions?

Most developers do not want to add open questions for different reasons. Firstly you need open-minded assessors to mark open-ended questions…seemingly hard to find. Secondly, it takes more time assessing them and thirdly not all providers trust their assessors to apply their minds. The truth however is that most learners like open-ended questions as many like to express themselves rather than being restricted. Are we fair to our learners by providing assessments that are accommodating their individual needs?

What about the memorandum?

The outcomes and assessment criteria direct and assist in the formulation of the learning outcomes. The learning outcomes should be stated and developed in the book. Audience and context is crucial in the selection and research of the content, which should only answer to the learning outcomes. The memorandum and the book are now developed concurrently as both documents should answer to the learning outcomes. Although the book is used as guide in drawing up the memorandum, open ended questions should acknowledge learning acquired outside the boundaries of the book. That will also simplify assessment in recognition of prior learning (RPL) where a holistic approach rather than a delimited style is preferred.

Doesn’t the unit standard become the content?

Even the unit standard can become content if we see it as the Alpha and Omega. Remember, unit standards are compiled by Standard Generating Bodies which consisted of people…who have limitations. They recognise their own short-comings through publishing it for a time period so that the public can participate in a democratic manner. Therefore the unit standard only becomes a guide and not the only source in developing assessments. The context (obtained through analysing the internal and external environment of each specific organisation) of learning plays a much larger role when developing assessment activities.

But Higher Education still believes in books, journals, publications…content!

Maybe with a better balance between knowledge based and workplace based learning, they will understand the gap that was created through the years of content-based learning. Maybe then they will understand why our economy look like it does and why workplaces are reluctant to provide jobs for graduates.


The value of assessment-driven training is the fact that it focuses on the outcomes within the workplace context instead of generic content. It increases standards and excludes irrelevant learning. It is valid and reliable as it focuses on the purpose of the skill.

Let’s keep and feed this baby!

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RPL Challenges in Higher Education

Easy to legislate…difficult to apply?

Initially when Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) was proposed and imposed through different legislation and prescripts in the early 2000s, the purposes of RPL in South Africa were social redress and transformation.  Higher Education institutions realized sporadically that RPL implementation will not only change their mission statement, but will also influence their admission policy, existing resources, assessment procedures, staff, exit policy and mode of delivery.

Today, 16 years later, Higher Education institutions still struggle to grapple with challenges in RPL implementation which may compromise high standards of institutions which provide them with credibility and integrity.  Some challenges still hinders implementation…

Challenges in RPL implementation

During a RPL workshop in May 2016, the following challenges were anticipated by high level (level 8-10) attendees from different faculties in Higher Education:

  • Conceptual knowledge can be difficult to find in workplace evidence.
  • Inexperienced assessors will have difficulty to assess RPL evidence in a holistic manner due to lack of workplace experience.
  • Admission policy guidelines will have to be amended to be more inclusive.
  • Exit points are currently protecting HE interest –open exit points can be misrepresented.
  • Fee structures can’t be generic, but should differ over the huge range of programmes.
  • Promotion of RPL to own management and training staff.
  • RPL Office for speedy implementation rather than immediate integration.

Conceptual knowledge difficult to find in workplace evidence

One of the challenges of RPL assessors in Higher Education is to identify and recognize conceptual knowledge within the evidence provided from the workplace.  Conceptual knowledge is different from procedural knowledge that simply follow rules to get to the same outcome. As long as you know “how” to do geometry, you will achieve acceptable marks, but why you are following the steps might be unknown for the candidate.  Conceptual knowledge answers to the “why”.  An excellent chess player can win a match purely by using his procedural knowledge in pattern recognition. However he will not necessarily prove conceptual knowledge.  Conceptual knowledge however can develop through years of experience in following procedures, but this is the question academics should ask:  ‘do we have proof of conceptual knowledge in prior learning, to recognize learning in a Higher Education context?’.

To enable recognition of learning in an Academic institution, emphasis of conceptual knowledge should be higher than procedural knowledge.  A person’s competence can only be justified if he/she understands why he/she is following the procedure. Assessors need to be advised on the difference so that the integrity of deliverables from a Higher Education institution will uphold their credibility.  In the case where an RPL candidate lacks conceptual knowledge as required through set assessment criteria, the candidate should be referred to institutions where the emphasis is more on procedural knowledge.

Holistic RPL assessment approach

Consistency in assessment judgement can only be obtained if assessors speak the ‘same language’, e.g. share a common understanding of competence in their subject matter.  Holistic thinking skills are developed through years of experience, which leaves young RPL assessors as a risk in making an RPL judgement.

The problem however lies in the fact that if we only allow high level assessors to make RPL judgements, the cost of the RPL assessment should drastically increase.  RPL thus become an expensive option, which is against the intended purpose of RPL.

Admission Policy

The admission policy in Higher Education is expected to be very strict to be fair to all learners and the institution.  However, in the case of RPL, a generic approach should be used and applications should be judged in a holistic manner.  Once again high level subject matter expertise should be involved in the admission of individuals, which increase cost even in application.

Should exit be voluntary for the RPL candidate?

In all learning institutions, policy states that exit is voluntary for the RPL candidate.  This means that at any stage when the candidate feel he/she does not want to continue, they may exit.  Academics however reason that in most cases, the input of Higher Education is acknowledged within their products (publications or thesis).  In the case where a professor spent hours in finding the gap in the candidate’s evidence, and went through numerous hours of top-up learning, his institution should be acknowledged.  However this will not be possible if the candidate decides at this stage to exit and applies at another Higher Education Institution.  Policy should thus include guidelines to exit mechanisms to protect the interest of the institution.

Fee structures can’t be generic

An RPL candidate cannot be required to pay a minimum, generic fee for RPL in Higher Education, as the different fields, different levels and requirements on high levels will differ.  Fees must rather be broken down into consultation, assessor, moderation and administration fees per level and field.  The turnaround time of RPL is also a disputable concept as this will also increase fee structures.

Promotion of RPL in Higher Education

An advantage for Higher Education in applying RPL is the partnerships that they will form with different workplaces to associate with typical workplace evidence.  However, it seems that academics still fail to see these advantages for their own academic development.

Need for RPL Office

Although the integration of RPL into existing training structures seems to be the most cost-effective way of implementing RPL, it seems as if it will rather be an add-on that will only increase the workload of high level assessors.  If assessors do not agree on the necessity of this function, it will not carry sufficient weight to mandate this function.

The alternative is to start with a RPL office from which all initial RPL interventions are promoted and coordinated.  Promotion should take place not only outside the institution, but ideally internally so that staff can first pick the fruit of RPL endeavours.  Internal RPL will promote the concept to the highest levels and assist in the training of RPL facilitators, assessors and moderators.


So what do we say?  It is easy to legislate RPL, but not so easy to apply…

Unless Higher Education starts implementing it convincingly and forcefully, we will never know whether this will be feasible and viable in their environment.

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The research paradigms: Rationalism

EDU 11 IMAGEI introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with the first paradigm, namely Rationalism.

Rationalism took shape in modern times as an integral system of epistemological views, as a result of the development of mathematics and the natural sciences. It postulates that truth can be discovered through reason and rational thought. Rationalists assume that the world is deterministic and that cause and effect holds for all events. There are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. They also assume that these can be understood through sufficient understanding and thought. A priori (prior to experience) or rational insight is a source of much knowledge. Sense experience, on the other hand, is seen as being too confusing and tentative.

Rationalists generally develop their view in two ways. First, they argue that there are cases where the content of our concepts or knowledge outstrips the information that sense experience can provide. Second, they construct accounts of how reason in some form or other provides that additional information about the world.

Rationalism adopts at least one of three claims: the intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis or the innate concept thesis.

The intuition/deduction thesis claims that some propositions in a particular subject area are knowable by us by intuition only while others are knowable by being deducted from intuited propositions. Intuition is regarded as a form of rational insight. Intellectually grasping a proposition, we just “see” it to be true in such a way as to form a true, defensible belief in it. Deduction is a process in which we derive conclusions from intuited premises through valid arguments, one in which the conclusion must be true if the premises are true. Intuition and deduction thus provide us with knowledge a priori, which is to say knowledge gained independently of sense experience.

Innate knowledge means having knowledge of some truth is a particular subject area. Like the intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis also asserts the existence of knowledge gained a priori, independently of experience. The difference between the intuition/deduction thesis and the innate knowledge thesis rests in the accompanying understanding of how this a priori knowledge is gained. The intuition/deduction thesis cites intuition and subsequent deductive reasoning. The innate knowledge thesis offers our rational nature. Our innate knowledge is not learned through either sense experience or intuition and deduction. It is just part of our nature. Experiences may trigger a process by which we bring this knowledge to consciousness, but the experiences do not provide us with the knowledge itself. It has in some way been with us all along.

According to the innate concept thesis some of the concepts are not gained from experience – they are part of our rational nature. While sense experiences may trigger a process by which they are brought to consciousness, experience does not provide the concepts or determine the information they contain. The content and strength of the innate concept thesis varies with the concepts claimed to be innate. The more a concept seems to be removed from experience and the mental options we can perform on experience the more plausible it may be claimed to be innate.

The above three thesis are necessary for a paradigm to be rationalist. The indispensability of reason thesis and the superiority of reason thesis may also be adopted by rationalists, although they are not essential. The indispensability of reason thesis claims that the knowledge that we gain by intuition and deduction and the knowledge that are innate to us could not have been gained through sense experience. The superiority of reason thesis claims that the knowledge we gain by intuition and deduction or have innately is superior to any knowledge gained by sense experience.

Rationalism is challenged by positivism, which seeks empirical evidence rather than relying on the perceived unreliability of individual thinking. It is also opposed by empiricism on the question of the source of knowledge and the techniques for verification of knowledge.

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