Why should non-traditional learning be recognised?

The recognition of non-traditional learning is important in order to facilitate access for learners to future learning paths. In the spirit of the Lisbon Recognition Convention, non-traditional learners should benefit from the same principles of transparency, mobility and fair recognition as those with formal qualifications, ensuring also that academic progression on the basis of non-traditional qualifications is as close as possible to progression on the basis of those earned the traditional way. As such credential evaluators are advised to take into consideration what the learner knows and can do irrespective of their chosen learning path.

Types of non-traditional learning

Non-traditional learning encompasses all skills, knowledge and competences acquired outside the traditional classroom setting, through other types of learning activities in a non-formal context and may lead to a set of relevant learning outcomes comparable to learning outcomes achieved the traditional way. It may be considered the overarching term for various forms of learning including informal and non-formal learning. In the ECTS users guide the following concepts are defined:

Formal learning

Learning typically provided by an education or training institution, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and leading to certification. Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective.

Informal learning

Learning resulting from daily life activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and typically does not lead to certification. Informal learning may be intentional but in most cases it is non-intentional (or “incidental”/random).

Non-formal learning

Learning that is not provided by an education or training institution and typically does not lead to certification. It is, however, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support). Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective.

Recognition of non-formal and informal learning

The process through which an institution certifies that the learning outcomes achieved and assessed in another context (non-formal or informal learning) satisfy (some or all) requirements of a particular programme, its component or qualification.

Informal and non-formal learning would not ordinarily lead to a certified award; however, learners may apply for recognition of prior learning (RPL) from an institution for credit towards a qualification based on the learning outcomes achieved through the non-traditional way. For more information on this, please turn to the information in “Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL)”.



Types of flexible learning paths

A flexible learning path refers to any situation in which the graduate has obtained a qualification in a way that is not the standard learning path followed by the mainstream student. The flexibility of the learning path may be:

  • access and admission to the programme not based on the standard requirements in terms of entrance qualifications (e.g. a secondary school leaving certificate);
  • exemptions of part of the programme based on a previous obtained qualification or period of study;
  • exemptions of part of the programme, or the whole programme, based on non-formal or informal learning;
  • credit transfer during the programme (e.g. via exchange programmes);
  • distance learning and e-learning.

Flexible learning paths are mostly based on the methodology of recognition of prior learning (see “Subtopic 2 – Recognition of Prior Learning”). In the case of flexible access and admission, the more traditional instrument of (individual) entrance examinations may also be used.

Types of flexible learning paths

Flexible learning qualifications are outcomes-based

As the concept of lifelong learning is becoming more important (e.g. in the EQF-LLL), it will become more common that qualifications are obtained in a flexible way. Before this development, education used to be seen as an input-based process expressed in workload and length of studies (hours, semesters and years). In a competence-based system, education is seen as an output-based process expressed in the competences achieved by the learner. As a result, the qualifications awarded in higher education are no longer seen as proof of participation and successful completion of a programme but as the recognition of having achieved certain predefined learning outcomes.



What is recognition of prior learning?

While ‘recognition’ in this manual is used to refer to the process of evaluating a foreign qualification, the recognition in Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) refers to the process by which a competent authority or education institution in one particular country assesses the knowledge, skills and competence that an individual possesses as a result of a period of for example:

  • Learning acquired in a non-formal or informal setting;
  • Learning that did not lead to a qualification;
  • Learning acquired through professional experience;
  • Learning acquired through unfinished studies at a recognised institution.

There is a wide range of different terminology which refers to the process of identification, assessment and formal acknowledgement of prior learning and achievements (examples are Accreditation of prior learning (APL), validation des acquis de l’experience and Accreditation of prior experiential learning (APEL). In this manual we use the term RPL to cover all these different terminologies.



What is open/distance learning?

The term distance learning (distance education, open education) refers to any educational activity in which students are separated from the faculty and other students. The development of distance/open learning was enabled by the development of information and communication technologies. This may include, in addition to correspondence instruction, synchronous or asynchronous learning environments with a variety of instructional modes, e.g., audio or computer conferencing, computer-mediated instruction, Internet-based instruction, videocassettes or disks, or television. Students and the faculty may be based in one country or in different countries. In the latter case, distance learning can become an electronic form of transnational education (see chapter ‎14: “Transnational education”).

Distance learning courses may or may not require a physical on-site presence for such reasons as taking examinations or defending a thesis etc. The distance study texts are different from that for regular courses of higher education study. The aim of them is to make a full-value guided independent study possible.

Provision of open/distance learning

Distance learning may be provided both by institutions dedicated solely to distance learning (such as the Open University in the UK or the Fernuniversität Hagen in Germany) and by “traditional” institutions that – apart from “traditional” programmes - provide also distance learning programmes.

Distance learning as a form of provision is recognised as legitimate in most countries, and it may be provided by public or private higher education institutions, or take the form of transnational education due to enrolments from anywhere.