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Research Developments from ACER

Higher Education

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Improving the national qualifications framework

ACER research is helping to ensure that Australia’s qualifications framework is adaptable to the changing nature of education, training and work.

In March 2019, the Australian Department of Education commissioned the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) to support its review of the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) by exploring the most appropriate way to develop and present a taxonomy of learning outcomes. ACER’s findings were adopted extensively by the AQF Review Panel in its report and recommendations to the Minister for Education in October 2019.

The research revealed that an effective learning outcomes matrix provides a common language and set of independent reference points against which to describe key qualification specifications. Features of an effective learning outcomes matrix include:

  • Explicit principles, rationale and a conceptually based classification system to underpin content decisions
  • A visual presentation that makes it possible to track progression across broad domains described against a set of sub domains (focus areas)
  • Level descriptors with sufficient detail to enable differentiation from one stage to the next, with the number of stages determined by the ability to make clear distinctions.

A second part of the project was to review and revise the AQF descriptors for ‘Knowledge’, ‘Skills’ and ‘Application of Knowledge and Skills’.

ACER’s analysis found that the current descriptors do not provide meaningful differentiations across ten levels. The researchers concluded they could not address this within the current construct because there were issues with the language of the descriptors that were a symptom of a deeper problem. The AQF learning outcomes matrix does not appear to be built on a clear conceptual base, and there is no clear conceptual link between the descriptors and the taxonomy underpinning the matrix. Rather, the descriptors appear to have been written largely to describe existing qualification types.

Recent reviews of national qualifications frameworks internationally suggest the majority have been developed in a similar fashion and have similar issues with their descriptors. However, maintaining the current structure and content of the AQF learning outcomes matrix would mean there would be no logical way of improving the descriptors so they could do the job for which they were intended – namely differentiating qualification types. There would also be no way of incorporating any new qualification type within the AQF in the future.

Based on these findings, the Department subsequently commissioned ACER to develop and test the feasibility of several different models that might address the significant issues identified. This work led to the development of a prototype reflecting a constructivist view of learning.

It differs from the current AQF in four fundamental ways:

  • It provides a set of reference points that are independent of existing qualification types
  • It uses descriptors of qualification type design features rather than learning outcomes
  • It differentiates qualification types on the basis of a small set of design features, while providing the flexibility to describe key features of individual qualifications within a type
  • It offers a way for individual qualifications to signal the ways in which learners apply knowledge and skills during their courses, rather than attempting to predict the context within which all graduates of a qualification type might apply what they have learned.

The prototype describes Knowledge, Skills and Application across multiple bands against a set of focus areas that can be used in different configurations to differentiate one qualification type from another. This provides a level of detail that has not been available before.

The prototype is based on the principle that the Knowledge, Skills and Application domains, and a set of Essential Capabilities, interact to foster learning, with application in learning contexts playing a key role throughout (Figure 1). It provides a way of teasing out these individual domains, with detailed descriptors that make it possible for key users such as course designers and regulators to ‘zoom in’ on specific areas as required.

Figure 1: Integrated view of Knowledge, Skills, Essential Capabilities and Application

With further testing and development, the prototype has the potential to provide a more flexible and future-oriented approach to the differentiation of qualifications in Australia. ■

Read the full report:
Revision or Re-Vision? Exploring approaches to the differentiation of qualification types in the Australian Qualifications Framework, by Kate Perkins, Justin Brown, Paul Weldon and Louise Wignall, Australian Council for Educational Research, 2019.

Read the AQF Review Panel report:
Review of the Australian Qualifications Framework, by Peter Noonan, Allan Blagaich, Sally Kift, Megan Lilly, Leslie Loble, Elizabeth Moore and Marie Persson, Australian Department of Education, 2019.

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