Current Challenges In Validation Of Informal Learning (Vinfl) In Europe
What are the political origins of VINFL in Europe? What is the current debate and which challenges can be identified in the field of VINFL? In this reflective paper the authors critically evaluate the issue and plead for a recognition of competences, which differentiates between validation as a concept and validation as a process. Validation as a process covers the appreciation of learning in everyday situations and people's life experience. Reliable validation tools would then support individual professional development and mobility by making these learning processes creditable for future education, training and employment paths. They conclude that today there is a strong need to look at the VINFL’s potential to take into account, to identify, and to identify individual knowledge, skills and competences, and also to regard it as a comprehensive tool to integrate the different learning pathways; because VINFL is a way not only to motivate adults and attract them into continuous lifelong learning by helping them to become more aware of their level of skills and competencies, of their capabilities and their potential and to have a better grasp of the benefits of learning.
Keywords: CompetencesLifelong learningInformal learningValidation
Validating non-formal and informal learning is currently a top priority in the educational discussion.
There are various EU funded projects, studies, policy papers and European and national initiatives going
on to engage in this issue in order to implement the concept in the EU2020 programme. Looking closer to
this matter we could firmly suggest that validation as a
identification and acknowledgment of different competences that were essentially acquired through
informal learning (Singh, 2005, p. 12). VINFL –as long as it is based on a reliable tool– it may also create
a better match between the learners’ competences and the labour market demand. There is not much
awareness however about the validation procedure proposed by the Commission and an increasingly
intensive discussion on how to embed counselling (career coaching) and further training in this
procedure. Validation as a
providing an added value to those competencies (largely horizontal or transversal) that are acquired
through non-formal or informal learning paths, by using instruments, mechanisms or techniques that
somehow grant reliability to the process, but also monitor or control the end result of the process; hence
authorization (Zarifis, 2016). It could be argued therefore that VINFL is mainly dependent on the
purpose: if the purpose is less formal (e.g. to empower learners to expand their competences) formative
assessments are useful – for qualification purposes summative assessments (that nevertheless have to be
fit on purpose (and correspond to the envisaged competence level) is the right choice (Sava, 2012, p.
It is very much the case that prior learning experiences in daily life settings take into consideration
skills acquired in domains such as home, the marketplace, the workplace, or the community. The current
changes in working life however, the need for continuous adaptation and lifelong learning, and the
decline of what we could label as conventional learning are new challenges for validation as a process.
According to EAEA1 validation is a key tool in order to promote lifelong learning, to ensure more flexible
learning pathways, to encourage learners and build their self-confidence as well as to create a more
comprehensive understanding of competences. A major obstacle in the current discussion on validation of
informal learning however, is certainly a lack of clarity in regard to central terms and definitions. VINFL
offers a system for evaluation and evidencing of learning outcomes with the help of a well developed,
unique approach that has been scientifically approved and applied in a large scope of learning projects in
non-formal and informal contexts. The specifically created tools incorporated in VINFL facilitates the
comprehensive documentation and visualisation of learners’ competence developments in all kinds of
learning arrangements The VINFL evaluation procedure is on the one hand standardised and enables at
the same time grass-root projects to establish an individualised reference system for assessing and
evidencing relevant competence of their beneficiaries in a process-orientated way. It also allows the
learning providers to evidence the impact of their work according to a standardised procedure while, at
the same time, keeping up the specifications of their informal learning projects in their individual
contexts. VINFL plays an important role in Human Resource Management (HRM) as well. This applies
on the one hand when new staff members enter the enterprise or organisation, be it as new appointed
personnel, but also as interns or apprentices. On the other hand also the continuing professional
development is of major importance especially against the background of demographic change and
rapidly changing demands at the workplace. It goes without saying that “learning on the job” is one of the
major contexts of informal learning and for the acquisition of VINFL (Charraud, 1999). Non-formal
competences matter a lot for life and employment and their validation may be very motivating for the
learners of all ages and informative for the employer. Some education professional – working in different
educational sectors (higher education, adult education, VET) – are also pointing out the importance of
1 See EAEA at: http://www.eaea.org/en/policy-advocacy/validation.html
VINFL for migrants (Zarifis, 2016). Professionals also highlight the key role played by mobile devices in
supporting learning especially in adult education, as well as the use of self-produced videos as a tool to
prove acquired competences. It was clear that the development of an IT tool to validate transversal
competences that could be applied and trusted EU-wide would be very important and helpful. Finally, all
participants agreed about the need for customized and flexible tools to support validation. Participants in
all countries agreed that validation systems integrated in VINFL are very much wanted and anticipated,
but the connection of virtual learning environments and validation is expected to be easy to use. Virtual
learning environments could be as intuitively automatized as possible (e.g., using key words, recognition
of associations, etc.) to require less support and provide a maximum of objectivity. The possibility to
connect such procedures to IT based learning systems is attractive, but needs to be based on sound
description of learning outcomes and transparent criteria and procedures. Also, respective technical
competences to establish and maintain these systems on organisational level are needed.
There is also quite significant evidence (Hawley et al. 2010) that shows that the process of recognition,
validation and certification of competences is based on the assumption that there is continuity between
learning and experience, and that learning processes are independent from the accumulation of
experiences, therefore making it pertinent to recognise and validate the learning acquired by adults with a
low level of schooling throughout their lives, giving this knowledge visibility through certification (see
CEDEFOP, 2005). It is also acknowledged that learning results from the need to respond to the
challenges and unforeseen events that life throws up, as “a non-transferable right that each person has to
survive” (Gronemeyer, 1989, p. 81), and as such learning takes place throughout life and in several
contexts, in informal, non-formal and formal ways.
2. Political Origins
The increased interest on VINFL, led the European Commission to launch a “Proposal for a Council
Recommendation on the validation of non-formal and informal learning (Official Journal of the European
Union, 2012). The recommendation suggests that informal and non-formal learning is not only delivered
by main-stream educational providers. All kind of social organisations and self organised entities may
also deal with “informal learning” – and may not even be aware of it. Thus informal and non-formal
learning is a rather ambivalent topic: On the one hand it is highly recognised by educational experts but
on the other hand there is not much consciousness about the value in the field and – as consequence –
there are relatively few and rather scattered approaches to give evidence of this important modality/way
of learning. This is the reason why VINFL is currently one of the top priorities on the educational agenda
of the European Commission. However there are major systematic obstacles to a validation of informal
and non-formal learning since the uncountable variety of learning contexts; contents and the lack of
specified learning objectives are limiting a standardised evaluation. One should also keep in mind that the
goals of educational administration and funding bodies in regard to a validation of informal and non-
formal learning do not necessarily match with those of the experts working in the field, e.g. in grass-root
educational projects. These fundamental target conflicts have to be considered when evaluating “informal
and non-formal learning” especially in order to secure that it may serve those target groups that are
already disadvantaged in the formal education system.
The policy debate on validation however, goes back to the early 1970s when policy planners and
economists at the World Bank (OECD, 2007a,b) proposed that education professionals from different
sectors of education, including higher education, adult education as well as corporate world support
VINFL. Some professionals have a lot of experience in working with Learning Management Systems,
others have some exeperience, and some have no experience at all. All of them agree however on the
importance of VINFL at all levels of education and in all sectors they represent. Those who have more
experience in European projects have more developed concepts of validation, yet those are also aware of
the complexity of the subject of validation. In general, there is not much awareness about the validation
procedure proposed by the European Commission (identification, documentation, assessment, and
certification) and an increasingly intensive discussion on how to embed counselling (career coaching) and
further training in this procedure. (CEDEFOP 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009a,b,c and Tissot, 2004).
Reading however the relevant policy and research documents we identify that when discussing VINFL
reference systems, the idea was taken on board to develop so called “action fields” to describe the acting
situation of the learners and to transfer them in a next step into a learning field (which is then represented
by the reference system as basis for competence descriptions and derived learning outcomes, contents and
learning materials (“learning objects”), assignments and assessments. According to the different purposes
of VINFL systems, desirable features vary. Generally, we should anticipate limits of available resources
of the educational professionals in practice applying them and add value against existing analogue
procedures, they should be easy and quick to use. The possibility to connect such procedures to VINFL is
attractive, but needs to be based on sound description of learning outcomes and transparent criteria and
procedures. Also, respective technical competences to establish and maintain these systems on
organisational level are needed. (Charraud, 2007, pp. 149-160).
Against the background that especially the adult or lifelong learning community should profit from
these learning modalities relevant European policies unite behind the following principles: Non-formal
and informal learning should gain more attention in the European learning community. It should be
recognised on an individual and purely voluntary level and it should reflect the living and learning
contexts of the individuals. It should also ground on action research principles and include all
stakeholders (experts from the field, the learners) in the evaluation process. Last but not least it should not
only evaluate learning following a utilitarian approach, e.g. against the principle of employability, but it
should also recognise a free learning which is not directed to specific job-related competences. In the first
place VINFL must support the individual by highlighting the developed competences to raise motivation
to learn in informal learning contexts. It may also contribute to recognition of good informal learning
practice in terms of learning outcomes to motivate learning providers to increase their efforts to create
good informal learning offers (Council of Europe, 2012, p. 17). The OECD (see Werquin, 2010, p. 8)
differentiates the order and process. Other colleagues in different countries (see Carneirro, 2011) point
out different stages with the same rationale. On the other side, there are those who have a limited concept
of VINFL with high hesitations regarding the dangers of subjectivity in validation of non-formal learning.
Personal and organizational competences, especially teamwork are appreciated by employers.
The above approaches essentially direct towards the way lifelong learning as a concept has evolved
through the years, particularly as a policy concept rather than a realistic process that touches upon human
development. It is about a perspective which – going beyond the traditional conceptions of the
economical development, including those concerning the theme of human capital – focuses on people’s
abilities to live their lives and appreciate them, while multiplying the realistic opportunities at their
disposal by acquiring and developing those skills which represent a strategic condition for the
individuals’ fundamental freedom and focusing on the likeliness of carrying out an active role within the
economical and productive process (Alberici, 2008). Such a perspective arises from the 1960s on (Faure
present scenario, more and more influenced by the social complexity, on the one hand the principle of the
learning potential of human beings is undoubtedly internalized (Jarvis, 1992) while on the other hand, the
primate of economical rationality is strongly questioned, also considering the global economical-financial
3. Current Challenges
There are a number of fundamental questions arising: Can competences acquired in informal learning
settings be assessed and even validated? Can we validate exactly those competences that were developed
by the learners specifically in this learning environment? The constant utilisation of different concepts
under same titles, the different meanings of a theme (for instance different definitions on “informal
learning”) is a phenomenon that can be seen as a major thread throughout the current discussion. To
answer the questions raised above, to avoid meaningless discussions and to lower down the political
implications behind these approaches it seems useful to clarify some basic terms and definitions – or at
least to show that there are different connotations of the same terms and expressions. Obviously there is a
huge gap between the two concepts presented in chapters one and two. As soon as they are combined
different connotations of central terms lead to a rather confusing discussion. This is why basic terms and
definitions in regard to validation, assessment, accreditation and evaluation are normally presented and
discussed in order to create an awareness what different educational stakeholders mean when they talk
Today more than ever, there is a need for strong mechanisms to recognise the skills and competences
students, trainees and employees acquire both through on-the-job learning and non-formal training, as
well as informal learning. Such mechanisms would support the individual’s career development and
mobility, by enabling learning to be recognised for future pathways in education, training or employment,
including pathways into formal learning (Brown et al. 2010). As well as the drive from the public sector,
demand from the private sector can also lead to the introduction of validation initiatives. According to
sectors is a prerequisite for the successful development of validation of non-formal and informal learning.
Validation needs buy-in from all parties so that the outcomes can be trusted and bring full benefits to
beneficiaries, as well as to extend opportunities for accessing validation to different categories of learners
and at different levels. However, the respective role of stakeholders is somewhat different according to
the type of validation. For example, in vocational education and training and in higher education,
education providers, private partners and social partners are also responsible for the development of many
successful validation practices on the ground. Within these areas, the role of private sector stakeholders is
stronger in the VET area (CEDEFOP 2005 & 2009).
There are a number of other developments, specifically within the sphere of education and training,
which have an influence on the development or implementation of validation systems. Perhaps most
significant is the move towards a learning outcomes approach, which has to some extent been encouraged
by the development of national qualifications frameworks, driven in many countries by the development
of a European Qualifications Framework. Two other important developments identified are the
introduction, or wider use, of occupational profiles or standards and the increased use of modular, unit or
credit-based qualifications. In addition, as outlined in more detail in the Inventory 2010 thematic report
on the use of validation in the higher education sector, the Bologna Process has provided some impetus
for further developments in this area (Hawley et al. 2010). It is also worth noting that developed guidance
and counselling systems also play an important role in the use of validation, as through them individuals
can be pointed out towards appropriate educational pathways, and opportunities for VINFL. Last but not
least, the role of European funding programmes and associated projects in the development of validation
has been referred to above. Yet evidence indicates that not only European funding programmes but also
wider European drivers have played a significant role in the development of validation practices.
According to Villalba-García et
emphasised within the context of the development of lifelong learning policies in Europe over the last
decade. Validation has acquired an increasingly central part in most of the educational discourse of the
EU: general education, vocational education and training, higher education and adult education. The
Recommendation of the European Council on VINFL in December 2012 can be regarded as the
beginning of a new stage for validation in Europe as it signals an enhanced level of political commitment,
call all Member States to establish by 2018 arrangements for validation of non-formal and informal
learning. The Re-commendation is significant in that it sets a date and intro-deuces a coordinating body
that is responsible for its follow up: the EQF Advisory Group (EQF AG). It also identifies the systems
that will be used for the reporting and monitoring of the situation concerning validation and allows for the
continuous development of supporting tools, notably the European Inventory and the European
According to Zawacki-Richter et
assessment has been realized only insufficiently. The prerequisite for competence-based assessment is
that the courses of study are themselves based on recognised competence models, which contribute to
making a portfolio not merely a collection of artefacts but a systematic presentation of acquired
competencies accessible to an assessment by third parties (Zawacki-Richter et al., 2010).
As Singh (2005, p. 21) indicates non-formal learning and transversal competences are highly
appreciated when companies select students for internships or work in HE and also crucial for career
development and progression. In addition, non-formal and informal learning (e.g., volunteering, active
participation) may be even a more deciding factor in determining personal and career success that
academic achievements (i.e. the best academic achievers are not necessarily most successful in
employment) (Werquin, 2010, pp. 44-64).
There is agreement today that VINFL instruments have to be contextualised – which leads to the idea
that VINFL tools have must serve a high adaptability – in other words: they have to be so flexible that
they can carry different contexts, contents, serve different target groups etc. The realisation of a fully
pledged VINFL methodology would contribute to fill existing gaps of knowledge and needs for user-
friendly online systems for both learning and validation. Many experts in the field report that recognition
and validation of non-formal and informal learning entails comparison of the learning and experience of a
learner, howsoever obtained, against the learning outcomes required for a specified qualification, and the
acceptance for purposes of qualification of that which meets the requirements. Also, they appreciate that
applying learning management systems is lifesaving for the current reality in HE where attending classes
is optional enhancing student’s engagement as they become part of everyday life of the academic
environment. Many experts also highlight that an online validation system helps educators to check their
own knowledge, methods and practices to improve them by bringing them in contact with new ideas and
theories and in some way, validates them. They consider very important the fact that ICT facilitates open
access to knowledge in a society with the goal of increasing the per capita rate of knowledge for personal
and professional development. They also suggest that virtual learning environments should be easily used
by anyone and have a pleasant environment. VINFL is essentially about the individual, about its values,
its capabilities and strengths, to take stock of existing competencies. VINFL therefore can be seen as a
way of empowering people (Zarifis, 2016). As a resume, it is clear the importance that non-formal
learning and transversal competences are assuming when the companies select students for internships or
work and also crucial for career development and progression. Nevertheless, it is always mentioned that
transversal competences are subjective and difficult to measure. When VINFL methodology is clear, thre
is also great appreciation on the system to link the validation and the virtual learning environments in an
IT platform. In some cases however the possible use of a validation tool to choose future competences to
develop and to enrich the curriculum trough the validation of informal learning may be needed. As it is
underlined by some researchers in the field, a reliable validation system would have to be trustworthy,
and easy to use (Charlot, 1997,
91), VINFL reflects on those characteristics that would allow comparability from one country to another
and learners and companies could really trust and use the certificates linked to the system. As final
sentence, it is clear that the development of an IT tool to validate transversal competences that could be
applied and trusted EU wide would be very important and helpful.
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