Obstacles in the way of the National Recognition of Prior Learning System in South Africa

KICK OUT 3I read the SAQA document entitled “Lifelong Learning at the Centre: the National Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) system in South Africa” with interest. It is, indeed, a well-researched report and SAQA should be congratulated with the progress that they have made in establishing RPL as a tool by means of which to address access to learning and redress challenges.

In my opinion the numbers of people who can potentially benefit from RPL quoted in the report are extremely conservative. The real figure is probably much higher. Unfortunately there are a number of obstacles in the way of achieving the potential benefits that RPL hold for redress, lifelong learning and, ultimately, employment. The following are such obstacles.

  • Lack of cooperation between stakeholders. Learning institutions are supposed to support the quality assurance policies of the quality assurance bodies that accredited them. And yet, some quality assurance bodies accuse learning institutions of copyright infringements when they align their RPL policies with the policies of said bodies. They do not understand that their policies are supposed to serve as the foundation for RPL on lower levels.
  • Some quality assurance bodies only recognise RPL for the purpose of gaining access into further learning. They rigidly ignore other opportunities to promote lifelong learning by also utilising RPL for certification, crediting, improved promotion and remuneration, and to redress political and social injustices.
  • The “50% rule” is jealously applied. This rule is a huge obstacle in the way of objective and flexible recognition of prior learning. One wonders if, perhaps, learning institutions, especially universities, are not using it to protect their client base and to polish their image.
  • Quality assurance bodies claim that the same set of credits cannot be transferred to more than one qualification. This is a rigid, short-sighted and senseless stance.

In closing, SAQA’s stance of recognising RPL for access and for credits and towards the granting of whole qualifications testifies to a holistic and open-minded approach that supports the objective of the National Skills Development Strategy. Focusing on what has been learned rather than on the status of the institution, organisation, place or context where the learning was obtained shows that they truly understand the meaning and purpose of RPL. Excellent work.

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Why most curricula are wrong

POST STRUCTURALISMWritten by Dr J.P. Nel, MD of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd

The curriculum should serve as the blueprint for any learning programme, regardless of the level or type of qualification or part-qualification that it represents. It is frustrating to see how often curriculums are written just to please a quality assurance body or to create the impression that the learning institution offers professional education and training.

Any learning process has as elements theory and philosophy on the one side and procedures and processes on the other. Academic learning should focus more on theory and philosophy while occupational and vocational learning, which are actually the same thing, should focus more on procedures and processes. The mistake that especially higher education institutions, notably universities, make is to ignore or neglect procedures and processes.

Occupational curriculums, on the other hand, tend to ignore or neglect the necessity to link knowledge outcomes with practical outcomes and workplace outcomes. Some may refer to outcomes as learning objectives or modules.

Learning should always lead to improved performance in the workplace and the workplace requires competence. Ironically higher level tasks and basic level tasks often require practical competence only. High level tasks are sometimes too difficult for some workers to understand; consequently they are taught only procedures or steps. They perform the tasks in a particular sequence but do not understand why this is necessary. Low level tasks are easy to perform; therefore workers doing basic work are also only taught steps. Both groups, therefore, require practical competence only.

In between high and basic level tasks are the majority of tasks that require comprehension. Workers need to understand why tasks are performed in a particular order and way. Workers, therefore, require foundational competence, and this is where curriculum writers often err.

You should not have knowledge outcomes in a curriculum that are not linked to practical outcomes. Also, it is most unlikely that you will have practical outcomes with no theoretical foundation. That is why each and every knowledge outcome should be linked to a specific practical outcome and in the same order so that they can logically be grouped together when learning materials and practical exercises are developed and learning takes place.

Foundational competence, mostly achieved through a combination of theoretical and practical learning at a learning institution, serves as the foundation for the achievement of reflexive competence. Reflexive competence is achieved when what the individual learned is applied in the workplace. That is why workplace outcomes need to be aligned with theoretical and practical outcomes. Reflexive competence mostly requires practice and lots of time.

It would be unfair assessment practice to test learners against workplace outcomes that were not taught at the learning institution. You should never teach learners certain knowledge and skills (foundational competence) and then test them against other competencies at the workplace. Therefore, workplace outcomes, if they are specified in a curriculum, should also be aligned with knowledge and practical outcomes.

It is possible to have more than one practical outcome linked to just one theoretical outcome, and more than one workplace outcome linked to just one practical outcome. However, this should not be the result of shoddy design and should not complicate the work of the learning material developer. Stand-alone outcomes of any nature should not be included in a curriculum.

It is debatable if workplace outcomes should be specified in a curriculum, because reflexive competence is often integrated and on a relatively high level. It mostly takes rather long for most people to achieve reflexive competence. It also takes long before anybody can demonstrate reflexive competence, and the more an individual practices, the better she becomes at a task, for example doing surgery. Insistence on the achievement of reflexive competence as a precondition for certification can lead to inefficient learning. What happens in practice, however, is that the final assessment becomes a sham – learners are not properly tested, the learning institution is no longer involved in the assessment process for many possible reasons, many learners do not even attempt the final exam, and many more.

In closing, there should be a logical progression from practical competence to foundational competence to reflexive competence by offering learning aligned with knowledge outcomes, practical outcomes and workplace outcomes that are equal in number with knowledge, practical and workplace outcomes supporting one another towards the achievement of the purpose of the qualifications or part qualification. In my opinion formal learning to meet the requirements for certification should not include testing reflexive competence.


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Five misconceptions about RPL and the CAT system

ANGER 4Written by Dr J.P. Nel, MD Mentornet

It is important to keep objectivity, flexibility and fairness in mind when conducting recognition of prior learning (RPL). Here are five misconceptions that people sometimes harbour about RPL:

  1. Credits earned for one qualification cannot be transferred to more than just the one qualification. People do not understand that credits are given in recognition of learning, no matter when and where the learning took place. They are so rigid and jealous of students achieving more than one qualification through careful planning of their studies that they actually include such preclusions in their RPL policies. All that is needed is a proper understanding of learning and the structure of qualifications. Once people understand that credits for one qualification can also count towards other qualifications, they accept this. That is the actual purpose of the credit accumulation and transfer (CAT) system. It does change the status of qualifications, but why is it a problem? A more flexible approach will improve efficiency in learning and is that not what we want?
  2. RPL is only accepted for gaining access to further studies. Using RPL exclusively as an entry requirement for further studies reduces RPL, and qualifications achieved through RPL, to something inferior to formal studies. This is an unfair and conceited attitude that should not be allowed.
  3. RPL is not a process of assessment. RPL is said to be a specialised pedagogical process. To begin with RPL is almost never an option for children, so it cannot be a pedagogical process. Secondly, it is an assessment process. People who claim that it is not an assessment process do not understand that RPL almost always consists of two processes, namely assessment and closing gaps in the candidate’s knowledge and skills. Closing the gap, i.e. additional learning, is sometimes not necessary, but assessment is always needed.
  4. Prior learning is measured against credits. This is probably because people recognise RPL only for access to further learning. They do not understand that RPL should be a holistic assessment process in which the candidate’s knowledge and skills are measured against the purpose of the qualification, not learning outcomes in a curriculum, contact time, self-study, work integrated learning, assignments previously done or examinations. All these things can, of course, be used as evidence of prior learning if available.
  5. RPL applies only to informal or non-formal learning. Any learning can count towards RPL, including RPL of formal learning. Furthermore, CAT only applies to formal learning exclusively because informal, coincidental, experiential social and any other non-accredited learning do not lead to credits that can be transferred. Not allowing credits to count towards more than one qualification renders the CAT system worthless.

In closing, it is rather alarming that some quality assurance bodies and learning providers are completely closed to any arguments that differ from their rigid stance. We need to discuss issues like this and we need to have open minds to the arguments of others. Not one of us knows everything and rigidity causes serious damage to any learning system.

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Stand or sit during facilitation

Course- 117871

Date- 6-10 March 2017


This particular group was very lively and outspoken, they were super eager about this particular course because everyone knows that the facilitation course is so much fun. However during the week I got an odd question that I never expected, and to be honest I never really thought about it before. One of the learners asked “is it really necessary to stand while facilitating, or can you sit’?

I pondered on the question for a second and re-directed it back to the class to find out what were their thoughts and feelings about the matter. Surprisingly, most of them felt that siting while facilitating was perfectly okay. I’ve always felt that it’s more professional to stand and facilitate and move around a bit, of course you don’t want to distract them either, but sitting while facilitating has always been something I’d frown upon. I feel that it’s not professional to sit and facilitate. However if you have a medical condition that doesn’t allow you to stand for so long, in that case I personally would feel that it’s more than okay to sit down, however the quality of facilitation must never be compromised whether sitting or standing while facilitating.

I would love to hear other people’s opinions on the matter. What do you think? Should you sit or stand while facilitating?








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Scientism – where am I missing the point?


I actually stopped my discussion of research paradigms halfway through because nobody seemed interested. My articles did not attract any discussion or even criticism. I need to share my notes on scientism with you, though, because my interpretation might be completely wrong. I am hoping that some research wizard will point my cognitive dissonance out to me.

Scientism is discussed here as representing the technicity group of paradigms. It is unlikely that researchers using qualitative methodology will adopt this paradigm because it is usually used when quantitative research is conducted. Supporters of the scientism paradigm claim that it is based on the “rule of law of science”.[1] Even so, some scientists do regard scientism as a paradigm that can be used as the favoured assumption when doing qualitative research.

The “rule of science” refers to the prescription of a domain, a set of practices and an attitude to the world. This actually applies to any paradigm because all paradigms are assumptions upon which research is developed. Scientism, it is said, manages the match between the rule of science and the knowledge emerging from the rule, ensuring that the rule adjusts so that it is never too out of sync with what is known. If this is the case, then I cannot see how one can use scientism as your paradigmatic assumption if you follow a grounded theory research design. In grounded theory you are supposed to have an open mind, allowing your data to lead you to conclusions and recommendations. In grounded theory you need to accept your research findings even if it does not agree with what you had in mind. Actually, this should apply to any scientific research.

Scientism, it is said, creates a closed system of knowing that certifies itself by scientific discoveries or evidence that fits its own closed system of paradigm understanding. If the new knowledge does not fit the paradigm, it is usually assumed that there was something wrong with the methodology that produces it, rarely with the paradigm understanding itself. In terms of the nature of research this is a rather risky and questionable point of view, because research should always provide for the possibility that a hypothesis can be disproven, which does not mean that there is anything wrong with the research process, gathered information or conclusions made. It might be possible that not sufficient information was gathered or that the information was not sufficiently corroborated. However, questioning the methodology because you do not agree with the research findings may well be extremely subjective and unscientific.

What do you think? Where am I missing the point?

[1] www.nsuworks.nova.edu/cgi/viewcontent.egi?article=1981&context=tgr. Accessed on 05/04/2017.

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The paranoia of quality assurance bodies with libraries

ChildAdultArticle by Dr J.P. Nel, MD Mentornet

It is an international trend for library budgets to be slashed. Especially in South Africa public libraries are disappearing at an alarming rate where they are needed the most, namely in rural areas and small towns. To make things worse, people read much less than two decades ago. Printed books are being replaced by e-books and even they are read by a rather small percentage of the population.

Computers and the internet are not bad news only. Dedicated computer programmes render the work of librarians much more accurate and less time consuming even if not always much easier.

The nature, layout and even functions of libraries are also changing rapidly. Libraries used to be halls filled with printed materials and trained staff to assist library members to find the information that they need. Now book shelves are being replaced by computer screens. More tables and chairs are brought in, although they are increasingly arranged like stools and round tables in a bar. Library members are allowed to enjoy coffee, cold drinks, sandwiches and cakes while doing research in the library. Books on computer no longer take up much physical space. The internet provides access to more information than the book shelves of any library in the world. Libraries look more like internet cafes than the quiet, clinical rows upon rows of books of some two decades ago.

In spite of all the changes in the library environment, quality assurance bodies still insist that learning institutions must have libraries with a minimum number of books. This, and many other questions about the validity and relevance of quality criteria used by quality assurance bodies, which I will discuss in a number of articles after this one, makes me wonder if quality assurance bodies make any contribution to the quality of learning offered by both public and private learning institutions.


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Principles of Adult Learning: the Perceptual Principle

44959302504762__898x505-ARGB_8888514827429Written by Dr J.P. Nel, MD Mentornet

It often surprises me when people see things completely different from me. Of course this does not mean that my perception is the only right one. Then again, it also does not mean that the way I see things is necessarily wrong. Point is, we need to keep in mind that people see things differently and we need to have much more patience than most of us normally have with those who disagree with us.

The following are a number of perceptual “facts” that we can utilise to improve the learning that we offer. Sadly, they are often also the ones that destroy our efforts to teach people – when we don’t pay attention to them.

People learn much better if the learning is attractive. This applies to the manner in which our learning aids are prepared, our speaking skills, the venue where we offer the learning and what we look like.

Learning should originate from observation, propositions and images of fantasy. One should start with the concrete and from there proceed to the abstract, although the other way around sometimes also works.

Perception is the observation of the world around us by means of all our sense and we should use them all to enhance learning.

The brain is capable of thinking in other ways than just to absorb and memorise information. We should also use innovation if we are to progress from the known to the unknown. That is how we grow in our intellectual capacity. That is also how students achieve self-actualisation.

We need to accept that people are not the same and we should not force them into one size fit all learning process. We need to embrace and respect differences between people if we are to make a positive difference to the whole.

I guess these rather cryptic remarks are sufficient food for thought to those who are not satisfied with just marking time on the same spot, year in and year out. Progress and growth can only be achieved if we grasp the opportunities that differences in perception allow us rather than to see it as a threat.

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Principles of Adult Learning: the Motivation Principle

COOPERATIONArticle by Dr J.P. Nel, MD Mentornet

There are numerous theories about motivation and they are all partially true. People are motivated by motivators, but I don’t quite buy the story that hygiene factors (Herzberg) do not motivate people. Not long ago I offered our researchers R6,000.00 each to do a certain job. None of them was interested However, when I offered them R30,000.00 each for the same job, they all accepted. It is also true that there are different levels of motivation, or needs, as Maslov told us. It is also true that people sometimes deliberately sabotage their own performance just to please others, as Adams observed.

Then there were (past tense because it has been decades since I heard anybody claim this to be the case) academics who told us that you can’t motivate people – you can only create an atmosphere in which the person can motive him or herself. Who cares where it starts?

Very well, let’s accept that your job as an educator is to create an atmosphere that is conducive to good student performance. This, in my opinion, applies equally to children and adults. At school I performed much better for teachers who treated me with respect than with teachers who ruled by fear. I need to admit, though, that I performed better with teachers who ruled by fear that those who did not care – the ones who appeared not to notice that you actually exist.

Let’s finish this discussion by getting back to adult students, because they are the ones with whom we work. Adult students are motivated by empowering them. This means that you need to show that you trust and respect them; you need to allow them to make their own decisions; you need to show that you believe in them and you need to be there to help them when they make mistakes.

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Principles of Adult Learning: the Individualisation Principle

evette individualiseArticle written by Dr J.P. Nel, MD Mentornet


The individualisation principle postulates that every student learns at his or her own pace and has his or her own particular aptitude for learning. These differences should be taken into consideration when offering learning as well as when assessing students.

Some argue that it is discriminatory to group students according to ability and to offer individual assistance to “slower” students. There is an element of truth in this argument. However, not catering for the individual needs of each student can be unfair towards both the “slow” and the gifted students. It, furthermore, can lead to less effective learning than would have been the case if each student was treated according to his or her abilities.

As far as assessment is concerned – we should not underestimate the value that assessment can add to the learning process. Especially summative assessment is used to determine to what extent a student learned and if the student can be promoted to a higher level of learning. Successful students will receive certificates, and for some it might mean the end of the line as far as formal learning is concerned. Therefore, assessment is often the last chance that the educator has to teach students something more – the opportunity should not be wasted.

One should keep in mind that students are not robots – they have emotions and emotions can hamper or promote learning. Observation tells me that adults are more able to control their emotions than children. However, even adults are influenced by their emotions. How students experience learning and the way in which they are treated can have a huge influence on their motivation and, therefore, learning performance.

In closing, the educator should consider the emotions of students for creating an atmosphere that is conducive to learning, i.e. to ensure that they perform in accordance with their potential. This brings us back to a scaffolding approach to learning. In terms of the individualisation principle, Scaffolding can be used to:

  • reduce the scope for learner failure,
  • enable learners to accomplish tasks that they would not be able to achieve on their own,
  • move learners to a new and improved zone of understanding, and
  • encourage learners to work independently.
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An Open Letter to the student who wish to enroll for the Bachelor’s degree in Occupational and Vocational Learning

ETHNIC GRADUATIONWe are delighted at the number of people who already indicated that they would like to enrol for the Bachelor’s degree in Occupational Learning (not the official title). However, it has come to my attention that some students who completed the certificate(s) or diploma in OD ETD are under the impression that they would receive credits for these qualifications and that they, therefore, will need to do only one or two additional years for the degree. This is not the case.

You need to understand that the degree course is on a higher level and covers a wider spectrum than the ODETD qualifications. Furthermore, we will focus much more on the theory and philosophy of occupational learning in the degree course while the ODETD courses focus more on practical work. The degree, therefore, focuses more on the ontology (how we know things) and the epistemology (what we know) while the OD ETD certificates and diploma focus more on the procedures of occupational and vocational learning.

You need to keep the following in mind when deciding of you would like to enrol for the degree:

  1. You will write end of the year exams on every module and they will not be open book. This means that you will need to study.
  2. You will need to submit a mini thesis on every module at the end of every year.
  3. You will study for at least three years.
  4. You will receive substantial guidance and support and you will attend one five day study school per month for eleven months per year. You will need to do a practical assignment at your workplace during the remaining three weeks of each month for ten months per year.
  5. You will receive a laptop computer when you start your studies and all your practical assignments, formative assessments and books will be loaded onto your computer.
  6. You will still enjoy lunch at Mentornet during study schools as when you did the OD ETD courses.
  7. You will have access to our online learning platform and you may work in the library, which will be arranged like an internet café, whenever you wish.
  8. Your course fee will cover your books, exams, registration, enrolment, laptop computer, study schools, work on the online platform and guidance and support and certification. There will be no additional costs apart from the course fee, which will be most competitive.

Students who did OD ETD courses through Mentornet in the last six years will feel that they are repeating work that they already did during their first year of study towards the degree. This is because we piloted some of our books for the degree course with you. You, therefore, received much more learning content than the unit standards required, although we did not test knowledge or skills outside the unit standards in the exams. The advantage of this is that you will feel comfortable with especially your first year of study.

I would appreciate it if you could indicate if the above changes your mind, i.e. that you are no longer interested in enrolling for the degree course. Those who did not indicate that they would like to enrol and wishes to do so now, are asked to please let Evette know by fax or email if this is the case.

Kind regards,

Dr J.P. Nel, MD Mentornet


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