The development, assessment and certification of units of learning outcomes

In 2014 the Dutch Ministry of Education commissioned the Partnership for Lifelong Learning (LLL) to organise a number of employer-based pilots to test the use of the ECVET principles in a lifelong learning context. Even though the pilot projects ended in 2016, they have continued with support from the National Reference Point. Employers pay a fee for this support.

Each project is based on the needs of the labour market. They enables employers to more easily update or improve the skills and knowledge of their employees, or enable them to acquire new skills as efficiently and effectively as possible. The projects recognise that sometimes access to education or training is a response to individuals’ changing responsibilities, functions or even jobs. Each project focusses on the mobility of employees.

Each project has a working group comprising:

  • an employer;
  • employees;
  • a VET provider covering either formal or non-formal training (plus a representative from the VET provider’s examination board);
  • a provider who has been accredited to validate the learning outcomes of the employee – in the Netherlands organisations can apply to become an accredited provider for prior learning (these are called APL providers);
  • consultants from the support team working for the Dutch Partnership for Life Long Learning (Nederlands Partnerschap Leven Lang Leren). This support team includes a project manager and someone who is able to design learning outcomes and develop ECVET units (this may be someone from the Inspectorate of Education).

Each project works with a stakeholder group for feedback on progress and implementation – these groups do not comment on content-based decisions. The main tasks for these groups, which include a representative from the Inspectorate of Education, are to:

  • create commitment among stakeholders;
  • promote the idea of certificating units. This is within a VET system that has a national qualification framework based on learning outcomes.

Each project follows a three step process:

  • an expert from the support team divides a qualification (this can be a qualification awarded by the formal education system or a sector) or a job profile into ECVET units based on meaningful clusters of learning outcomes. During the process the employer is consulted because these units have to be relevant and make sense to them. Once the units have been proposed, the expert develops the detailed arrangements for the units in consultation with the employer – these continue to be adapted until they are agreed. The descriptors of the EQF/Dutch Qualifications Framework (NLQF) are used to design the learning outcomes for each unit;
  • the support team works closely with the representative of the examination board from the VET provider and the APL provider to identify what is needed to validate these ECVET units and to prove that the employee has achieved the required learning outcomes. This process includes:
    • working with employers to develop methods to validate prior learning (including agreement on the required products);
    • developing tailor made training that assists the employee to acquire those learning outcomes that have not proven during the validation of prior learning;
    • once the learners enrol, the APL provider is able to validate what employees already know and which skills they already have. Once this is complete, all those who are involved in the pilot project decide jointly whether training is necessary and what training is required to complete the qualification;
  • organise and provide customised training to meet the needs of individual learners. This approach is based on the examination board of the VET provider awarding certificates for those ECVET units which have already been achieved by the employee.

Use of EQAVET+ indicative descriptor and links to EQAVET indicators

The projects are being evaluated in order to assess the effectiveness of the process and the impact of working with ECVET units. Quality assurance is not explicitly addressed in the projects but it is a natural part of the process. The approach being used is one that:

  • involves the VET providers’ examination boards as they need to recognise validated units and issue certificates. They quality assure the process of validating the ECVET units and the issuing of certificates to employees. The criteria for quality assuring the examination processes are strict in the Netherlands and, for example, involve:
    • processes which are independent of the VET provider’s approach to issuing certificates in relation to the training of employees;
    • ensuring employees and employers/branches are part of the quality assurance process;
    • a requirement to use information from evaluation to make improvements (the quality assurance cycle has to be more than making plans and knowing where the risks are);
    • the VET provider converting the plans into concrete actions to improve quality;
  • includes a representative from the Inspectorate of Education (he/she is also involved in workshops for APL providers and decisions by the VET providers’ examination boards in relation to the certification of units);
  • is based on the quality assurance cycle – particularly in relation to discussions with employers about the practical relevance of the ECVET units and the processes which will be used to recognise achievement. The experiences of employers and employees are collected through questionnaires - this information is then discussed and translated into concrete actions which improve the quality of the process and the content of the ECVET units;
  • uses evidence based research to improve the efficiency and effectivity of lifelong education and training.

Problems which have been encountered and overcome

In the Netherlands the main focus is on full qualifications and younger students. These LLL projects aim at developing, assessing and certifying units of learning outcomes for employees. It takes a lot of effort and time to implement a new way of thinking in relation to units when the dominant focus is on full qualifications. The Dutch qualifications are less applicable for adult learners and employees at the moment.

A second problem relates to finance: only full qualifications are financed by the Dutch government (there is currently some research taking place on financing partial qualifications).

Alongside these projects there have been many discussions with relevant stakeholders on LLL. Initially the idea was that employers would spread the word – and more employers would start this type of project for their staff. It takes more effort to stimulate employers to become involved in this type of project and a multilevel approach to encourage participation is needed.

In some projects the units of learning outcomes were validated in the NLQF. This validation process is complex and many problems had to be addressed. The involvement of examination boards from the VET providers and the inspectorate was essential to identify suitable solutions for each problem.

In the Netherlands there is no legal base or need to validate units of learning outcomes in the NLQF. If units had been included in the NLQF it would have helped employers to engage with the project and help their staff to gain qualifications. In 2016 the Dutch government made some legislative changes for students who leave a VET programme without a full qualification. The examination board of VET providers are obliged to give these students a certificate covering the learning outcomes which they have achieved. We expect this change in the law to support the idea of partial qualifications for students and support the further implementation of developing, assessing and certifying units of learning outcomes for LLL.

Lessons learned

The evaluation of the pilot projects identified:

  • the involvement of stakeholders from the start of the projects is crucial;
  • developing, assessing and certifying units of learning outcomes in a LLL perspective is complex. It is crucial to involve experts who are able to provide clear information to the members of the working group during the whole project;
  • the aim of the project was on certifying units of learning outcomes. However the focus for employers and employees is to use the analysis of an individual’s competence as a starting point to understand what skills and knowledge employees already have in comparison to a full qualification;
  • it helps if there is a legal basis for the units of learning outcomes. In the Netherlands discussions on this legal basis are on-going and not yet finalised.

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