Joachim H. Knoll

In educational research and practice, discussions of adult education have in recent years increasingly focused on matters of informal learning. In this context, the question also arises of the recognition to be given to competences gained in this way in comparison with those acquired formally, and the criteria to be applied to certificating them. The author puts forward three models. Prof. Joachim Knoll is Professor Emeritus of Adult Education, Ruhr-Universitat Bochum. He has supported the work of the IIZ/D W for many years and is a member of the Advisory Board for International Affairs of the German Adult Education Association. In 2004, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Free University of Berlin.

Informal Adult Education - Between Formal Qualifications and Competencies

Three National and International Models

In recent years, discussion of the theory and practice of adult education has focused increasingly on issues of informal learning. The statements by the EU, such as the "Memorandum on Lifelong Learning" (2000) and the report summarizing the European consultation process on "Creating an Area of Lifelong Learning" (2001), had already set the framework for educational practice and policy. In both documents, lifelong learning is concentrated on "continuing education", which has had an unfortunate effect on the concept of lifelong learning as a continuum of successive stages of learning.

In the national and international context there is some convergence of views on informal learning, but this relates more to general principles than to specific issues in relation to its peculiar mixture of skills acquisition and formal training.

In general, it is suggested that greater attention should be paid to informal learning, particularly to the content and place of learning. The conviction is also expressed that a distinction should be made between skills and formal training, but that equivalency could conceivably be established, although it is admitted that the instrumental difficulties should not be underestimated, and ultimately there is agreement that informal learning contributes to the flexibility of the learning society. There are nonetheless considerable reservations. It is objected, for example, that:

  • if greater value is placed on the notion of skill or competency, this might be accompanied by less emphasis being placed on the notion of qualification
  • obstructions may be placed in the way of traditional education structures offering formalized certification in the wake of modernization, and lastly that
  • it is very difficult and complicated to establish equivalency of informal learning outcomes

a. The Contributions of the OECD

Essentially, the work of the OECD in the area of informal learning in adult education is concentrated on the theme of competencies, through two programmes, one of which is closely tied to the programme on "Definition and Selection of Competencies: Theoretical and conceptual foundations" (DeSeCo) and the other is more loosely associated with the "Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies" (PIAAC). Both are directed at the discussions being held on the issue elsewhere and use schemes of references not used at national level. The two programmes are linked in that the terms and definitions anticipate the subsequent discussion of the link between labour market and employment policy on the one hand, and skills, abilities and knowledge on the other.

The OECD provides a relatively concise definition of competencies drawn from the individual's everyday and working world, and takes particular account of social skills, which go beyond the demands of the individual. The definition reads:

"A competence is the ability to successfully meet the complex demands in a particular context",


"Competent performance implies the mobilization of knowledge, cognitive and practical skills, as well as social and behavioral components such as attitudes, emotions, and values and motivations"

The definition is then more precisely defined and mapped on to a range of jobs, surroundings and personal circumstances. This is evident in the announcements of two OECD publications which have appeared in "DeSeCo News": "OECD Publication Identifies Key Competencies for Personal, Social and Economic Well-Being", and "Key Competencies for a Successful Life and a Well-Being Function in Society." This programme concentrates on the relationship between skills, knowledge and competencies and the underlying theoretical basis, which this makes more explicit.

The authors, all of whom think along the same lines, are agreed on the need to try to capture different competencies either by means of descriptors and indicators, or by linking descriptors with levels, thereby describing the connections and interrelationship between key competencies and individual career opportunities.

In the second programme, PIAAC, the OECD goes a decisive step beyond the theoretical basis of the notion of competency and the listing of different types of competency, in the aim of making a strategic contribution with a much wider impact than the internal discussion of education and having it applied in economic development and recruitment.

The aims of the programme are evident from the following statement:

"The Programme for the International Assessment for Adult Competencies aims at developing a strategy to address the supply and demand of competencies that would

a) identify and measure differences between individuals and countries in competencies believed to underlie both personal and societal success

b) assess the impact of these competencies on social and economic outcomes at individual and aggregate levels

c) gauge the performance of Education and Training systems in generating required competencies; and

d) help to clarify the policy levers that could contribute to enhancing competencies."

In the course of the discussion within the PIAAC programme, the experts involved initially expressed the common view not only that skills and abilities are acquired within recognised establishments of the formal and non-formal adult education system, but that informal learning at the work place and in general life must also be taken into account. This calls for a list of indicators identifying competencies that are important in individuals' lives, although too little attention has yet been paid to how individuals can be made aware of their acquisition of such competencies.

Generally, however, as is evident from many other national and international reports, plenty of queries still remain unanswered and need clarification:

"Skills and competencies are also acquired outside the education and training systems of member countries. How these competencies are acquired is one question. Equally important is a second question: How the individual can and does make use of his/her competencies is a crucial factor for the performance of our economies and society at large".

An impartial observer will not be able to escape the impression that while all partners are quite willing to discuss a set of instruments to assess competencies, there is as yet no practicable method available to achieve equivalency.

Furthermore, the international dimension, which looks beyond the cultural peculiarities of nation-states, has not yet faced up to the additional difficulty of having to move from generalized comparison to comparisons between individuals.

The research design for a strategy of lifelong learning that is gradually emerging to take the necessary account of informal learning, might be described broadly in the following terms:

  • first, direct measurement of fundamental skills by means of formal qualifications, which would need no new tools
  • indirect measurement of active capacities
  • self-reporting of performance, covering the fields of gainful employment, social participation and personal development

A positive view of this research design does not, however, preclude reservations relating primarily to the relative imprecision and complexity of a set of empirical instruments. What is needed initially is a demonstration of theoperability of such models by means of concrete examples.

b. The Feasibility Study on the Education Passport

Much attention and thought have clearly been paid to informal learning in Germany. A large part of the preliminary work on the certification of continuing education has been done by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), supported by the German Institute for International Educational Research (DIPF) in Frankfurt, the German Institute for Adult Education (DIE) in Bonn and the Institute for Development and Structural Research in Hanover.

The "Feasibility Study" referred to here preceded the establishment of a German Panel on Lifelong Learning, which set out to create a database that would include social indicators in addition to the "basic and structural data". In other words, the aim is to explore the questions of efficiency, financial input and educational output lying behind the statistical findings. The Panel acknowledges that statistical knowledge about continuing education is something of a disaster and wants new areas and perspectives to be added to the statistical base.

An announcement from the BMBF states:

"There is no sustainable framework for the establishment and further development of lifelong learning. Above all, there is a lack of knowledge about how individuals' competencies change, which might provide evidence of how individual competencies grow, change and are lost."

This document notes in passing that the initial outcomes have been reported to the OECD programmes mentioned above.

A group of experts has been set up to steer the activities of this panel, and to answer a number of questions, just a few of which are the following:

  • How to define domains of competency
  • How to measure competencies
  • How to ensure a link with the continual measurement of competency at school age
  • How to provide an international reference framework

Before and after the Feasibility Study, the literature on the topic has grown almost unmanageably, and the empirical aspect of assessing competencies has thrown up a large number of detailed descriptions, which also refer to the international literature on adult learning.

There is no need to give references for the individual papers.

In Germany, the discussion has focused increasingly on the visibility and recognition of informal learning and personal skills through continuing education passports.

The Feasibility Study is a milestone which encourages further activities; it has taken this preliminary work into account and has developed a reference model for a national continuing education passport, the so-called ProfilPass, of which 2000 copies have initially been distributed.

This year, conclusions are to be drawn from this pilot. A reference model II will then be made available to all those interested, and the passport will be used on a voluntary basis.

c. European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning

Very recently (8 July 2005), the European Commission unexpectedly produced a "working document", the purpose of which is evident from the title "Towards a European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning". (Commission of the European Communities, Brussels 8. 7. 2005, SEC (2005) 957)

This paper on the design of a European Qualifications Framework (EQF) "will form the basis of a Europe-wide consultation process and, in this context", as David Coyne in a letter to the EAAE (European Association for Adult Education) puts it.

"/ am now writing to consult European educational associations and NGOs. The objective of the planned EQF is to create a European Framework which will enable qualifications systems at the national and sectoral levels to relate to each other."

The European Commission clearly intends to initiate a process already used in the consultation on the "Memorandum on Lifelong Learning" of October 2000 which then led to the Communication on "Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a Reality" of November 2001. This process has proved valuable in that the consultation resulted in a document based on a wide consensus in which the partners in the adult education systems in the European Member States could feel that they had played a part.

The new working document is evidently expected to lead to a similar outcome, although I wonder whether the national qualifications systems are sufficiently well advanced to lead to the development of a conclusive more or less Europe-wide design; the document now produced assumes that such national frameworks exist in all Member States.

Of course a European Qualifications Framework can only build on national frameworks because the subsidiarity principle enshrined in the European Treaties would otherwise be breached. The care used in the language clearly shows that national frameworks would in any case need to precede the European meta-framework.

The aims are also formulated in terms of achieving a balance between national and Europe-wide qualifications frameworks and the intention of going beyond a purely coordinating function and putting forward ideas for the development of a recognition scheme with a transnational dimension: a European Qualifications Framework

"would thereby enable qualifications frameworks and systems at national and sectoral level to be related to each other- thus facilitating the transfer and recognition of the qualifications of individual citizens."

The creation of an EQF was called for by the heads of government of Member States at their meeting in Brussels in March 2005, reinforcing earlier recommendations and building on the existing "Guidelines for professional qualifications".

One of the priority tasks of the EQF is set out in the working document "Promoting the mobility of learners and cross-border labour market policy". But the text offers more than just this rather over-ambitious aim. A working paper for a follow-up workshop sets out the following goals of the EQF for "those with responsibility for education and individuals":

  • Lifelong learning
  • Comparability
  • Transparency
  • Comparability
  • Transfer of credit points
  • Recognition and accreditation

The "working document" claims that there will be greater technical and structural differentiation, and a wider range of principles, in the application of this model than in the other models already referred to. For example, qualifications are described at all levels of a possible EQF in terms of three types of learning outcome:

  • Knowledge
  • Skills and
  • Wider competencies (personal and professional competencies)

The standard of learning of a learner can be established by means of a list of specified requirements, at eight incremental levels. If a global view is taken of a learner's knowledge, skills and competencies at the various levels, a qualification can be awarded. However, the EQF is not intended to determine national recognition procedures, still less to award qualifications itself; this must be done at the relevant national level. Hence the working document clearly states what the EQF cannot be:

"An EQF would not replace existing or emerging national and/or sector frameworks; it would fulfill additional and different tasks and should not be understood as the 'the sum' or 'representative average' of national/sector frameworks. An EQF cannot encompass detailed descriptions of particular qualifications, learning pathways or access conditions."

On the positive side, the document says rather vaguely that an EQF should: "Enable individual citizens to navigate within and between complex systems and locate their own learning outcomes in this broader context."

Even though the working document is thus subsidiary to national and sectoral frameworks, it can be assumed that such a detailed statement of the eight stages of the European Qualifications Framework by learning outcomes is intended to be taken up by the national bodies.

A timetable has been set for further discussion, according to which the consultation process is to end in December 2005. A draft Council Recommendation on the EQF should then be ready in spring 2006, and adoption of the Council Recommendation is scheduled for spring 2007.

One of the undoubted advantages of the working document is that it has built on the expert knowledge currently available and has drawn on earlier work, such as that set out in the study on the European Inventory on validation of formal and informal learning of 2004. However, even here I would say that there is a tendency to aim at detailed perfection, which gets in the way of comprehensibility and transparency, and there is an optimistic assumption that lifelong learning can be made available throughout Europe and classified neatly.

Although it is not directly related to the model of the EQF described, I should like to mention the PLOTEUS Portal available on INTERNET, which is already operating, and is viewed as a material extension of the EQF. The portal is intended to offer students, people seeking or in work, parents, counsellors and teachers, information about "learning opportunities and training possibilities throughout the European Space". Its early stages are very promising, and it is to be hoped that it will be used more widely as part of the consultation process.

In Conclusion

There may be some uncertainty over the thought being given to attempting to give non-formal adult education a qualifications framework aimed at measuring and certificating performance, and there may also be doubts as to whether the attempt to include informal learning in this process will succeed to any great extent.

It is certain, however, that despite the differences between formal and non-formal adult and continuing education, questions of applicability, efficiency and employability will play an increasingly important role for funding bodies and will crop up in all fields of continuing education; allowance needs to be made for the largely unsystematically, non-certificated way in which civic education and the teaching of cultural creativity function, and the testing of competencies should not be taken too far.

We shall closely monitor the further progress of the project positively and empirically, with the critical reservation that an educated person is more than the sum of his or her proven qualifications.

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