Give students some credit

February 26, 1999

WHAT. Universities need to get closer to further education colleges to remove traditional barriers to learning. Christopher Ball explains how credit networks help

WHY If we are serious about lifelong learning, students should be allowed to build up credits and transfer them freely around the UK and elsewhere

HOW: Tom, Dick and Harry are three lads whose task is to learn to play the trumpet. Tom has a trumpet, is confident of his ability to succeed, but does not want to learn. Dick also has a trumpet, he wants to learn to play it, but he has no confidence in his own ability. Harry wants to learn, believes he can, but has no trumpet. Who is most likely to succeed?

Most educational debate is about trumpets - the provision of good opportunities for learning. But common sense and professional experience tell us that confidence and self-esteem (feeling good about yourself), and motivation and desire (wanting to learn) are the two necessary prerequisites for success. Those who have these precious qualities (like Harry) normally find within themselves the requisite capability and discover good opportunities all around them.

The point is that the environment of learning, the opportunities offered and the conditions attached to the offer (the trumpet) themselves serve to enhance or discourage motivation and self-esteem. If we fail to pay attention to what learners want and deny them their choices, we demotivate them and damage their self-confidence. I believe we should honour the TILD principle: trust the informed learner's demand.

What do learners want? Most of us like to learn at a time, place and pace of our own choosing. We want to learn what we want to learn - not what other people think we should. Without understanding the theory of "learning styles' (is there one?), we want to learn in a way that suits us. We want to learn well, transforming our knowledge into understanding, our skills into effective performance, our attitudes and values into wisdom. We have high standards.

We need guidance. ("Is the trumpet the right instrument for me?'). We expect someone in authority to provide quality assurance (so as to ensure we do not learn to play a faulty trumpet). And we want a reliable system of qualification against which to measure our progress (Trumpet - Grades 1, 2, 3, etc).

But these things must serve learners, not impede them. Above all, the provision of guidance, the quality assurance of courses and institutions and the system of qualifications, must not be allowed to harm those fundamental prerequisites of learning, our self-esteem and motivation. Sadly, they often do.

This is particularly true of qualifications, which have become more like tyrants than servants in the house of learning. GCSEs, A levels and university degrees have taken control of the curriculum, rather than serving as convenient measures of learning progress. The graded music examinations offer a much better model.

Learners like to learn in bite-sized chunks, units of a convenient size from which they can earn credits, which both confirm their progress and encourage them to proceed to the next chunk.

They expect to be able to aggregate their credits to achieve awards - certificates, diplomas or degrees. In short, they seek a system of credit accumulation. They appreciate that in such a system some units may be deemed essential (like the study of Shakespeare's work in an English degree programme), and that they will be expected to accumulate an appropriate mix of credits derived from units at different levels (like multiplication and the calculus in a mathematics course).

They also expect to be able to transfer their credits freely from institution to institution both within and beyond the United Kingdom. Is that too much to ask? Is it too hard for the universities and colleges to provide such a system to serve the learners? If so, I would like to understand why.

The Derbyshire Regional Network originated as a consortium of five further education colleges: Burton-upon-Trent Technical College, Derby Tertiary College: Wilmorton, High Peak College, Mackworth College Derby, South East Derbyshire College, and the University of Derby.

It was formed to widen participation in post-school education by removing traditional barriers, responding to individual needs and by awarding transferable credits for all achievement. Unfortunately, my institution, the University of Derby appears to be the only university in step.

The system of credit accumulation and transfer is working well. Adult learners often switch levels of learning in a way that challenges our traditional ideas of progress.

They are also promiscuous in their learning, ranging (as little children do) from subject to subject in a remarkable way.

We should not be surprised; the brain is a "messy learner'. The problem for educators is to reconcile the necessary orderliness of formal instruction and reliable qualifications with the anarchy and adventure of the learning brain. A well-designed unified credit framework is undoubtedly an important element in the solution. Let's get on with it.

Sir Christopher Ball is chancellor of the University of Derby.


Brenda is married with two children. She left school at 16 with few qualifications and works shifts in a factory that manufactures plastic flowerpots and other garden accessories.

She enjoys gardening and flower-arranging and has started decorating the firm's reception with plants and flowers. A private firm previously did this at great expense.

Her employer has agreed to help with a floristry class fee.

What does this lifelong but formerly reluctant learner want from her course?

* She wants clear information as to what it will cover, how long it is, what it will cost,and what she has to do * She wants asympathetic but not patronising tutor * She wants to choose the bits that interest her and not just because the syllabus says so * She may not initially want a qualification but as her confidence grows she may want recognition in credits towards an award * She may well wish to add IT, book-keeping and fine art to her study with a view to starting her own business * She will not want to have to repeat things she knows but wants them recognised * If she goes for a qualification, she wants to know that credits can be accumulated towards it and that she will not have to start again even if her shift changes * Eventually she will want to know what she can do next and will require expert advice * She will want to know that the credit she has earned is fully transferable and will expect the same kind of flexibility and choice at the higher levels.

What do employers want?

Her employer has recognised that Brenda's flair and enthusiasm can save him money. He would like to invest a little in Brenda's talent. He wants: * Flexibility in the time and place and mode of study, so that it fits in with his shift system * The ability to design a programme appropriate to his needs, in small steps, which will accumulate to a qualification if appropriate over time * An opportunity to offer training to his staff that will show returns in the short term, through either productivity or some other form of market advantage * Cost-effective training * Evidence that what Brenda has gained on her employee development scheme is of benefit to her and to him * Evidence that Brenda's programme is of high quality and of a national standard Postscript Brenda now runs a small floristry business serving her former boss and other clients.

She has gained confidence and become chair of governors at her son's school. She is a role model to her children to strive higher.

She has also encouraged her husband to help with a literacy scheme for steel workers made redundant.

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