Unit standards : an 'easy' pathway for foundation learners : a thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Education (Adult) at Massey University, Massey Campus
Foundation learners come into the tertiary environment at levels one, two and three. They can select from courses of study that include unit standard assessment. These unit standards are credits toward a vast array of national certificates. In recent years, learners have been faced with an ever increasing variety of ways in which they can complete these qualifications from classroom based to online modes of delivery. Many of the programmes and courses on offer are zero fee and promise a self-paced and individualised learning environment. Further investigation reveals that even at this foundation level these programmes play an important role in the political and social agenda to upskill all New Zealanders to better prepare them for the 21st century. The sweeping reforms of the 1990s have turned educational courses at all levels into industry focused curricular (Peters & Marshall, 1996; Olssen & Mathews, 1997; O'Neill et al., 2004) and unit standards are increasingly the chosen pathway of those changes. Over the last 15 years, polytechnics and private training establishments have incorporated New Zealand Qualifications Authority unit standards into many of their programmes. The intention was that these units would be assessments only and would be able to be 'massaged' into existing courses. This proved to be challenging for educators (Goodwill, 1999) and unit standards now dominate the curriculum (Codd, 1997). This research focused on how foundation learners were experiencing unit standards. Nineteen foundation learners, studying at an ITP and two PTEs, were invited to talk about their feelings about assessment, what they thought unit standards were, and how they were finding them. These learners took part in an individual interview and a focused group conversation. The results identified that foundation learners are having an 'easy ride' with unit standards. They can learn the material and then pass the unit. If they don't meet the requirements of the unit standard, they get another chance and do a resit. They like learning 'unit' by 'unit' and doing the assessment straight after the learning, while it is still 'fresh.' If possible they prefer to do it at their own pace, working through the material and being assessed when they are ready. They are now finding assessment less scary than previous experiences and there is opportunity to feel a sense of achievement and not be compared with others. The transparency of the units appeals and the relationship with the tutor is seen as important. It was also evident that students are studying 'units' and that sometimes they find the language of the assessments difficult to understand. There has been a shift in learning, from curriculum-driven 'education' focused programmes to student-driven 'industry-influenced' credit acquisition. The National Qualifications Framework has succeeded in its goal of offering units as attractive learning packages. These learners accept the new language of learning; they don't have the knowledge or understanding about assessment to question the units that are offered to them. "They have no insights into the reforms, no understanding of their political rationales, nor any methods of critiquing them"(O'Neill et al., 2004, p, 17). The biggest challenge for educators is not to teach the unit standard, rather engage learners and encourage them to explore their curriculum in a broader sense. Foundation learners now understand the value of credits; they also need to be encouraged to understand the value of education. 'Learning for life' should be more intrinsic than getting a box ticked. This research highlights the importance of the learning environment, the relationship between learner and tutor, and the relevance of explaining clearly what unit standards are, and how they fit into the bigger picture of the National Qualifications Framework and education itself as a life changing path.