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PREFACE: A few years ago, at the end of my presentation on the Validation of Nonformal and Informal Learning in France during a Council for Adult and Experiential Learning conference in Seattle, a woman asked me: 'Why did you decide to work on this issue?' It was an unusual question for me at this kind of event and I had never really thought about it before. But my answer came immediately: 'For personal and professional reasons'. She said: 'Oh sorry!' I replied: 'No, don't be embarrassed, I will answer you.'
My father was a farmer with no formal qualifications – nevertheless, he became leader of a trade union at a regional level. For years he was deputy mayor of the city where he lived, he made many speeches, wrote articles and negotiated with authorities. Later, when I was in charge of continuing education at my university, I met a lot of people with no or low qualifications. But they had all gained a level of learning through their professional and life experience that more than likely met university requirements for access or part-degree awards. These experiences oriented my engagement with Validation des Acquis de l'Expérience, first in my own university, then in French universities generally, and later at a European level. I think that all actors engaged in the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) have had similar experiences and that these at a more general level have reinforced their conviction that everyone learns at work and in other settings, and that this learning can be recognised in relation to formal learning.
Since the early 1980s, with the help of pioneers, RPL has grown in importance with reference to educational policies and has moved higher up policy makers' agendas. Nowadays, an increasing number of countries have developed or are elaborating policies likely to facilitate the recognition of learning gained outside classrooms or lecture halls. The European Union, after the publication of the Memorandum on Lifelong Learning in 2000, has incrementally built policy, through the adoption of Common Principles in 2004, then Guidelines in 2009, and most recently the publication of a Recommendation in 2012 obliging member states to develop arrangements for the validation of nonformal and informal learning by 2018. The publication, every two or three years, of the European Inventory on the Validation of Non-formal and Informal Learning measures developments and progress in this regard across all European countries. On a larger scale, a recent OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) research initiative on the recognition of non-formal and informal learning involved 23 countries on five continents. This activity demonstrated that many countries around the world are placing the recognition of non-formal and informal learning at the top of their educational policy agendas and linking the latter with the national qualifications frameworks that are considered essential for making lifelong learning for all a reality.
As RPL has become more important and more integrated within educational policies and practices, pioneers and promoters have found it increasingly necessary to support their often voluntary initiatives with research in order to find answers to particular questions, and to provide firm bases for implementation strategies. At the outset, RPL research was of little interest to academic researchers. As a result, supporters, with the help of some institutions, developed their own research agendas and, over time, RPL has emerged as a distinct area of academic research. In PLIRC (the Prior Learning International Research Centre) we have a good example of this 'bottom up' approach. This virtual centre aims to stimulate innovative and provocative research in RPL and to disseminate research findings to practitioners, policy makers and the research community. PLIRC involves actors engaged in concrete RPL activity at institutional and policy levels, who are also willing to develop research to deepen the discourse on RPL and encourage research relationships. Recently, a PLIRC database has been created, offering open access to most international research articles and publications.
NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education), a leading publisher of adult learning resources, has agreed to publish this book, the third in a series which attempts to establish a fertile link between practice and research (Re-theorising the Recognition of Prior Learning in 2006 and Researching the Recognition of Prior Learning: International Perspectives in 2011). This new book – The Handbook of RPL: Research into practice – illustrates perfectly the orientation chosen by a group of experienced and recognised RPL researchers in relation to this emergent field of research. The objective is clearly to link research and practice through a critical review and synthesis of international research and scholarly literature. After a first section presenting foundations, three further sections explore different dimensions of 'research into practice' at policy level, in relation to emerging issues, and in particular contexts.
Without doubt this publication is not only useful, but necessary, at this stage of rapid development of RPL. It is relevant for a large audience at an international level: policy makers, practitioners interested in deepening their reflection on their practice, and academic researchers from different disciplines.
It is my pleasure to recommend this book to all readers.
Section One: OverviewIntroduction and overview of chapters by Judy Harris and Christine Wihak