Mind the Gap - from Experience to Lifelong Learning

Mind the Gap - from Experience to Lifelong Learning

Mind the gap - from experience to lifelong learning

Helen Pokorny, David Saunders, Helen Peters, University of North London, UK

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 31st Annual Conference, 3-5 July 2001, University of East London

WHEN students come to university as adults they have already passed through many sites of learning on their travels through life. The Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) seeks to provide a means of acknowledging students' journeys and enabling them to make sense of them in the context of their studies, as individuals and as members of the academic community.

The profile of APEL in Higher Education (HE) which had faded somewhat since the 1980s has re-emerged in recent years as part of the debate around lifelong learning and widening participation (Fryer, 1997). Within a national policy context APEL is seen as a route to opening access for students without formal qualifications and as a means of accelerating the rate of study for students through courses.

This paper explores the impact that the current lifelong learning policy agenda might have on the development of APEL in HE where it has traditionally been a marginal activity. It makes particular reference to the APEL practices within the University of North London (UNL), an inner city new (post-1992) university with a diverse student body derived predominantly from the local London area.


A Learning from Experience Trust survey of APEL practice in the English HE sector found that APEL is 'on the books' of a surprisingly high proportion of universities, but suggested that the difficulties in accessing hard data about numbers of students gaining APEL credit implied a small number of students were accessing the process (or that only a small number of institutions have established accessible procedures). The report also suggested that where institutions had university-wide APEL policies, practices are likely to be unevenly spread across the institution (Merrifield, 2000).

These findings reflect the current position at UNL, which has a high proportion of mature students (74% of students are over 21 on entry). Merrifield (2000) describes a number of catalysts for APEL development, including the existence of a ready market and connection between staff and the market. These particular characteristics can be seen in nursing, social work and teaching practice at UNL which have significant levels of APEL practice. We would argue there is also a close link between formal theory and practice in these subjects and a willingness among staff to work with the issues of balancing formal and informal learning. In these courses APEL is integrated into the programme and can significantly accelerate progression along the route to a professional qualification.

In order to provide opportunities for APEL to students outside of these subject areas an optional taught first year module is offered called Making Your Experience Count (MYEC). The aim of the module is to offer an induction into the APEL process for students who wish to pursue this type of assessment. It attracts a small number of students annually, a proportion of whom go on to complete APEL assessments. This paper examines some of the barriers these students face when subsequently attempting to gain credit for experience.

Within the institution's modular framework there is sufficient flexibility to allow for APEL credit to be awarded in the following circumstances:

  • for learning equivalent to the learning outcomes of existing modules;
  • for learning which is relevant to the subject area but does not match existing modules. In these cases students negotiate their own learning outcomes for the award of credit;

as general credit for learning of HE level which is outside of the student's major subject areas but can nevertheless count towards the free choice component of the course. This element can constitute 25% of a student's programme and is central to our ability to provide space for APEL credit in the curriculum. General credit does not displace subject specific credit within the student's programme of study, and staff are generally more flexible in their attitudes towards it.

At first sight APEL appears to fit comfortably within the current agenda around lifelong learning and widening participation. However, the process of revisiting one's past experience and re-interpreting it in a Higher Education context is not an easy one. The ways of thinking, communicating and evaluating knowledge in the academy do not naturally lend themselves to acknowledgement of the value of lived experience. This is the gap that students have to bridge.

Approaches to APEL assessment

Butterworth (1992) identifies two approaches to APEL, the credit exchange model and the developmental model.

The credit exchange model Here personal skills and knowledge are matched with the planned learning outcomes of an accredited programme.

The University has a number of programmes, for example information technology, creative writing, marketing, education and business which include modules often identified by students as relevant to their employment profile. It would seem to us that APEL assessment in these subjects should be straightforward; for example, the student provides evidence in the form of a portfolio of artefacts or other agreed forms of evidence with the addition of a reflective narrative in exchange for the award of credit.

Trowler (1996) calls this the credit exchange plus model, with the requirement for reflection and evaluation of the learning evidence providing the plus element necessary for an academic assessment.

In fact it is here that the greatest barriers often seem to exist. Various reasons are given. One subject pathway tutor expressed herself uncomfortable with the concept of APEL stating concerns about the undermining of the subject area.

She felt that within her discipline area the applied nature of the pathway made it vulnerable to the misperception that it lacked academic rigour, and that to acknowledge learning acquired outside of the institution might contribute to this.

She was anxious that the pathway should not be seen as a soft option by students across the university - something that anyone can do. She was concerned that an APEL student might come from a different discipline area entirely and, on the basis of a relevant pre entry background, could ask to undertake an APEL assessment for a module without having taken the usual pre-requisite modules. In the Business School several tutors felt APEL would not be relevant as the courses were not about management or professional practice but the theoretical underpinning which would prepare students for this. Many staff were concerned about elements of the taught syllabus the student would miss out on. Another pathway tutor was keen that his pathway should not be seen as a practical course, stressing that although some modules sounded practical they were highly theoretical and about undertaking a critical analysis of the materials used in practice. Despite a discussion about the credit exchange plus model and the requirement to reflect on practice (which could be referenced to formal theory) he still found it hard to see the relevance of APEL to the subject pathway as it did not have a practice element.

The foregoing comments suggest that in terms of vocational education staff can hold strong views on the clear separation of theory and practice - that is, experience of relevant practice is unlikely to develop an understanding of relevant theory.

The award of credit through APEL was also seen by some staff as a student opting out of what others - who will end up receiving the same degree title - have to undergo and recipients are seen in some way as selfish, depriving other students or the classroom situation of their contribution, motivated by a desire to get out of subjects they do not want to take.

Some staff concerns are purely pragmatic in that they are worried that APEL will threaten the viability of a subject area by reducing student numbers taking taught modules.

But we also a sense a more general discomfort with APEL- that the status of a subject and the value of its teaching would be undermined by the simple fact that it is possible for a student to be able to meet the learning outcomes of a module outside of the classroom environment/experience.

Thus the credit-exchange model, whilst on the face of it offering the most uncontroversial framework for the award of credit, appears unlikely to lead to significant APEL development, as it is frequently met with resistance by academics in precisely those subjects that would appear best able to make use of it. In addition, the focus of this model upon the matching of prior learning to existing HE study precludes a significant amount of experience ever being recognised through APEL.

The developmental model In the developmental model, the central requirement is that the claimant reflects on, and evaluates, the learning derived from experience. The experience is viewed as a source of learning. Hence in order for learning to occur the student must reflect on the experience and through a process of developing concepts from the particularities of the experience, demonstrate their learning. This approach is important in an institution which aims to: 'serve populations of students exposed to discrimination in the past and to be a sector leader in the promotion of an inclusive and equal opportunity society' (UNL Strategic Review 2000). The lived experience of many students at UNL does not derive from the professions or vocations reflected in the taught curriculum. Their experience may be rooted in oppression or discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, colour, gender and disability. It may encompass the experience of different cultures or of learning acquired in a voluntary or caring capacity. Michelson (1996) argues that an APEL process that excludes knowledge born of personal and social history marked by experience of class, race and gender, has to be questioned as a route to social justice and equality.

In considering the issues facing the expansion of APEL practice Trowler (1996:21) states that the developmental end of the APEL continuum has much to recommend it as one which is most appropriate to the HE context ... the processes it involves fulfil the criteria which Barnett (1990) suggests distinguish serious from non serious knowledge: social interaction ...; personal commitment ...; the development of the mind...; the involvement of values and openness ...

However he then goes on to impose a limitation: ... the developmental approach does not require academic staff to accredit a different form of knowledge from that normally accredited in higher education ...There is considerable advantage in a form of APEL which does not attempt to shift the epistemological ground under the feet of those disciplines founded upon prepositional knowledge. The main one is that it is more acceptable in general to academic staff... We would argue that an APEL process which does not challenge academic 'ways of knowing' (Bartholomae, 1985:134), will lead to a narrow and traditionalinterpretation of relevant sites of learning, primarily derived from specific vocational contexts. It is precisely this challenge which we believe the developmental approach can offer.

It is also true that where life experience is used as a basis for the award of credit the academy can be seen to have clear views as to how that knowledge should be expressed. Brah and Hoy (1989) consider that the interpretation of lived experience needs to be related to the wider social structure, and argue the case for presenting well integrated and coherent frameworks within which to locate and understand individual and group experience.

It has been argued that this emphasis on reflection in the process of APEL alienates students by requiring them to add value to their prior learning through current critical reflection (Usher, 1989). Freedman (2000:9) notes that, 'In essence all varieties of adult learning take experience as the unmediated raw material to be acted upon and transformed ...but somehow insufficient unto itself.' The tensions that arise from this requirement to describe their learning in academic terms need to be understood by students if they are to succeed in their aims, and they underpin the rationale and content of the MYEC module.

One of the key divisions is language. Bloor and Butterworth (1993) have pointed out that students of APEL will need to understand that they are very often not in a position to write as they choose about their experience, since they will have to write with a set of criteria in mind if their aim is to achieve credit. Through the MYEC module students are introduced to notions of differing academic discourses and forms of academic writing, and to writers such as Schon (1987) and Lave and Wenger (1991) through discussions about the nature of work based learning. Examination of concepts arising from critical theory and social science provides the opportunity to discuss the situated nature of learning from experience within a broader social framework of understanding. The role of context is emphasised.

Students are encouraged to question assumptions and to evaluate their experience and to make connections where relevant to formal theory. The module content attempts to address issues of cultural capital (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1997) and to provide students with the tools for APEL assessment. We also stress that within specific APEL assessments it is important to be clear beforehand of the extent to which the assess or requires personal meaning to be contextualised by formal theory. Although this could be seen as 'doing good, emancipatory education by helping students to question their own ways of looking at the world, merely in order that they should come to agree with ours' (Freedman, 2000:9), it has been pointed out that students need the tools for the task if they are not to feel disempowered: 'if you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier' (Delpit, cited in Flower, 1994:125).

Generally students report positively upon their experience of taking the module with comments such as 'This module helped me to evaluate much more of my experience as valid in academic terms than I expected. It also helped me to clarify my thoughts vis-a-vis other modules'. However the numbers who go on to take up APEL assessments are small. We have already highlighted the lack of encouragement for the process students may encounter from some members of academic staff.

It is also the case that APEL specifically requires students to focus on the process of learning in order to relate their experience to their learning. However, one APEL Coordinator has commented to us previously that he feels most lecturers are not interested in learning, they are interested in their subject. He described the APEL process as involving 'a level of conceptualisation of what you are doing as a teacher and as a student which is mostly absent.' (Peters, Pokorny and Sheibani, 1999:240). This sums up the potential gulf between the reflective APEL process and the traditional HE curriculum. It is undoubtedly difficult to introduce into a mass HE system processes like APEL which focus upon the individual within a social and cultural context, but without an ideological commitment the issue will not be raised and the pressure to do so never felt.

Crucially, these approaches to APEL and the difficulties they pose relate to debates about lifelong learning and widening participation in HE: Thompson (2000), Crowther, Martin and Shaw (2000) and Stuart (2000) all highlight the fact that the same phrases - lifelong learning and widening participation- can mean very different things to radical educationalists and governmental policy makers. To the former it offers the opportunity for a removal of elitism and the chance for new forms of knowledge to find a place in HE as academy meets community, while to the latter it involves a market led increase in HE numbers, individually valuable for students yet challenging neither elitism, individualism or meritocracy.

We would argue that part of the problem of APEL is that it cannot help but be radical since it involves putting new value onto experience and learning which the student, and society may not previously have valued. Fairclough (1999) highlights the power of external representations on our view of ourselves - many students do not see themselves as university students - itself a major barrier to access - whereas APEL can specifically enable these students to see how what they have done in life can be translated into something of academic value. Much literature rightly stresses the importance of an agenda for social education for traditionally socially disadvantaged groups; however we have also found that groups not traditionally disadvantaged, such as those previously successful in a variety of business and professional work contexts have also been unsuccessful in having their experience accredited either because their knowledge was excluded as unacademic or similarly, because they themselves had not been encouraged to see their knowledge as being at university level or themselves as university students. This is an issue which the reflective element of APEL may be able to address.


It is clear that the key to lifelong learning is in the hands of those who claim control of established sites of learning rather than those who seek to learn (Challis, 1998). It seems also that the drivers behind the current lifelong learning agenda are not concerned with developing independent learners but rather with accelerating qualification routes and accreditation. Within this agenda it seems inevitable that APEL will remain a marginal activity. To expand APEL activity requires the development of bridges between the language of education and the language of experience and an explicit approach to providing space in the curriculum - a broadening out and not just a moulding in of different forms of knowledge. It cannot thrive in an environment of widespread resistance. Not surprisingly, the APEL journey at the moment is seen by many students as too hazardous to undertake. Having embarked, they may subsequently find that they have not travelled along the right road after all and that the desired destination has suddenly shifted out of sight.