Organisational Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) for Indigenous Australians WA 2008

Distance Learning Australia


This case study describes the process and framework that was developed to improve access for Aboriginal care workers and management at Guwardi Ngadu Frail Aged Hostel in Fitzroy Crossing and a partner organisation, Nindilingarri Cultural Health Service (NCHS) Home and Community Care (HACC).
The Organisational RPL for Indigenous Australians project was focused on developing a framework which would allow RPL for 13 units of competency from the Certificate III in Aged Care and Community Care courses to be offered online.
Distance Learning Australia (DLA) is a private registered training organisation operating in all states and territories in Australia; the main DLA office is located in Canberra. DLA also trades as the Australian Qualifications Training Systems (AQTS).
Guwardi Ngadu Frail Aged Hostel has approximately 26 staff members. Their mission is to provide a high quality, culturally appropriate Aged Care Facility for the residents of the Fitzroy Valley. The specific target group for this project was care workers and management.
The assembly of the RPL framework involved input from people of different law and culture (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal).
The underpinning theory to this project centred around the RPL – Done Well in VET Report1. We also investigated the use of the Australian Flexible Learning Framework’s Aged Care RPL Guide2, part of the Flexible Learning Toolbox (Toolbox3) collection. Toolboxes are highly valued by AQTS and we are frequent users and customisers of them. We were interested to see whether the Aged Care RPL Guide could be customised to suit the needs of our client.

The Framework connection

This is a 2008 Western Australian E-learning Innovations project output developed by DLA with seed funding from the national training system's e-learning strategy, the Australian Flexible Learning Framework (Framework).
The Framework provides the vocational education and training (VET) system with the essential e-learning infrastructure and expertise needed to respond to the challenges of a modern economy and the training needs of Australian businesses and workers.
E-learning Innovations aims to embed e-learning into the national training system by supporting and enabling innovation in training design and delivery, at the state and territory level.


Before the project began, several barriers to RPL were identified with our clients at a meeting involving the project team, the IT Manager at DLA and Guwardi Ngadu management and staff. For those staff with existing skills and knowledge appropriate to all or part of the standards RPL is often overlooked due to:
• remoteness and lack of strategy making it difficult for management and staff to access expertise and help
• the lack of research into RPL at organisational level
• barriers to the use of existing RPL documentation due to language and cultural issues
• lack of systems or structures to enable efficient reporting and collection of data.
Drawing on DLA’s previous extensive involvement in developing RPL processes and tools for the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment and the Diploma of Frontline Management, and on the reports of McKenna, Mitchell and Spencer and the Aged Care RPL Guide, a further three meetings were conducted at Fitzroy crossing to develop a suitable approach comprising of systems and tools.
This model provided a structured approach to a process which has enjoyed a high level of success in the Community Services industry.
From 2004, DLA has focused on the development of RPL tools and strategies, beginning with the production of an individual online RPL tool in 2005 through to a community of practice with the Australian Public Service for a recognition tool for the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment. This remains ongoing today.
During this time DLA has taken an innovative approach to RPL. It has been apparent that candidates do not have the skills to unpack a training package and it is DLA’s view that this is the job of the assessor, not the candidate. Therefore the basis upon which traditional modes have been structured is flawed. One of the differences between traditional models of RPL and DLA’s approach is that DLA employs a skills audit approach based on workplace requirements and job roles where the workplace and job roles take centre stage.

The previous situation at the Guwardi Ngadu Frail Aged Facility
The situation with regard to RPL at Guwardi Ngadu prior to the commencement of the project was that all training for care workers was conducted face-to-face and by supervisor sign-off. Such an approach works well for those needing training for their work roles and there was a high level of motivation in the community to learn. This motivation was evidenced through employment and training wait-lists, and from observations and discussions with management and care workers during a recent visit to Fitzroy Crossing. Whilst this represented a great deal of success and achievement for the facility, there was a noticeable gap in those who were being recognised formally.

Key personnel
The key personnel involved were:
• Director/CEO, DLA
• IT Manager, DLA
• Information Technologist, DLA
• Manager, Guwardi Ngadu Frail Aged Facility
• Education and training co-ordinator, Guwardi Ngadu Frail Aged Facility
• HACC coordinator, NCHS (HACC)
• Registered Nurse, Guwardi Ngadu Frail Aged Facility
• Care workers, Guwardi Ngadu Frail Aged Facility
• Trainers and Assessors, DLA

Project development
As the project developed, several factors were identified that needed to be taken into account.
i. Staff seeing caring as something care workers are culturally obligated to do and not a skill that needs to be legally acquired.
ii. Timeframes relating to job function and management commitments.
iii. The fit between job roles and training package requirements.
iv. Medical and language terminology differences, for example pad = kimbie.
v. Making computers accessible.
vi. Transient staff – of both management and care workers.
vii. Remoteness - for the RTO.
These factors are discussed in more detail below.

i) Staff seeing caring as a thing care workers are culturally obligated to do and not a skill to be legally acquired.
The relevance of a qualification to Aboriginal carers of the elders was identified. This is a role people are obligated to undertake anyway under Aboriginal law. The outcome needed to be sensitive and respectful towards Aboriginal law. By way of example, the following is a care worker’s perspective on caring, translated by Jeffery Shelley, Facility Manager.
“Hello my name is Jake, I am an Aboriginal carer working at GNFAH. I have lived my whole life in Fitzroy Crossing. This is my country, we
have many different people and languages with all different stories culture and law. We learnt from a little one to look out for our old people. We go fishing and hunting to make sure the old ones’ stomachs are full, gee they like their bush tucker.
We help our old people make sure they have clean clothes and somewhere good to sleep, sometimes you have to watch them at night so they don’t wander off, this makes me tired. Some of our old people make goomboo (incontinent) in their pants. I have to say to that old person let me change you. Some times that old man gets sick and that Gaudia (doctors) gives them medicine to make that old person feel right. We have to watch them and make sure they take their medicine. The old people think that Gaudia is a silly man, he is not a mupan man (witch doctor). They say that Gaudia can’t fix them only my country medicine can. That old man stopped walking at home and he had to go into a care place - they look after him 24 hours a day. I missed that old man - it was my job to look after that silly old man.
So I went to see that Gaudia at that care place and asked for a job. Fair enough I got that job with my experience caring for the elders at home, the way they want to be cared for. A few weeks later, the Gaudia boss came and talked to me and said to work here Jake you need to complete your Certificate III in Aged Care. This is a course that shows you how to look after the elders. Gee I thought, that Gaudia boss was a silly man. I have been looking out for my old people before that Gaudia boss was even crawling and now he is going to tell me the Gaudia way of doing it"

ii) Timeframes relating to job function and management commitments.
There were several factors that required flexibility as to when a person could devote their time to the process. Two examples of the need for flexibility are below:
a) ‘Sorry’ business results in absence of staff due to cultural commitments. It is a widely accepted practice that a person is given time off on compassionate grounds for the death of a loved one. However, the issues for the community are exacerbated. A coffin may need to be ordered and transported and mourners, previously dislocated from their clan and territory, need to travel long distances to attend the funeral. This may take a long time. ‘Sorry’ time must be practiced until the person is put at rest by a smoking ceremony.
b) If you live in Sydney you are likely to catch a train to work. If you, or the train is late, you phone your employer using your mobile phone. If the train is really late, you might catch a cab. Most care workers do not have cars, let alone access to trains or mobile phones. There is a community approach to travel, you walk, you ferry a lift from anyone who has a car or the employer picks you up. Often a community is many kilometres away from the workplace. The logistics of time management is different.

iii) The fit between job roles and training package requirements.
Given differences in culture and laws, the complexity of an Indigenous carer’s role and how that related to the training package standards was not always transparent. It was not a comfortable role for the assessor to make a judgment and map the role to a unit of competency. For example there is the need for male elders to be looked after by male staff, and female elders to be looked after by female staff under Aboriginal law. In terms of cultural specificity, this raises questions such as who is doing the assessing, who is making the judgment and how does a competency standard relate to the person carrying out the task.

iv) Medical and language terminology differences, for example pad = kimbie.
In the Certificate III and IV in Aged Care a significant amount of medical terminology is used. Clearly there were different words used for the same function, eg pad = kimbie. Expert knowledge was needed to interpret these terms.
In addition to the type of terminology described above, other issues arose relating to what non-Aboriginal and some Aboriginal people might term politically incorrect. For example, most carers use the term ’oldies‘. The term ’elders‘ may be considered more ’correct‘ but this term also cannot quite be resolved as culturally this may not always be appropriate. For the purposes of the RPL tool and documentation, we needed to address these terms for several audiences.

v) Making computers accessible.
Computer access was only available in the in the office, as carers do not have computers at home. The number of terminals available meant that a computer needed to be made available in the office around normal duties. Given timeframes and isolation of care workers, it was more likely that RPL would be made available to a carer when the opportunity arose on a minute-by-minute basis with the guidance of a supervisor.

vi) Transient staff – of both management and care workers.
There is a high turnover of management and administration staff, as managers are normally only contracted for periods of three months or a year. It was apparent that an RPL process could only be successful if the manager provided a vehicle of trust between the RTO requirements and the individual worker.

vii) Remoteness - for the RTO.
The Guwardi Ngadu Frail Aged Facility is remote. To travel to the facility is expensive and time consuming. From Broome to the facility you have the choice of a small plane, a private helicopter or a hire car (as long as it is not the wet season when the facility is isolated by flooding). Given all the issues above, it is evident that an RPL process that includes an assessor making a face-to-face visit and expecting their needs to be met has a high probability of failure.


This project comes from a non-Indigenous law need; the need to issue formal qualifications to carers in order for the facility to prove that their carers are qualified to do their jobs. The extension of this concept is that it is management’s responsibility to keep the Guwardi Ngadu Frail Aged Facility in operation by passing an audit.
In our search for solutions, our first port of call was the Framework’s RPL Guide. This was evaluated at a face-to-face meeting, and whilst we agreed that it was a valuable tool in some situations, we were unable to apply it to the situation at hand, or apply customisation, due to the underpinning conceptual structure. The language created immediate resistance and the emphasis on training package language and structure was puzzling to our users. If carers and their supervisors were to be given an opportunity to take responsibility and provide culturally appropriate responses to gathering evidence of their existing skills, we needed to approach RPL in a different way.
The next step in the process was to go back to the drawing board. The project team carefully identified job roles, tasks and current training conducted at the facility. This required high level knowledge and skills in education, human resources, language, culture, and subject matter expertise by all core members of the project.
This investigation resulted in an overall picture of an ideal care worker and what they would do to arrive at their current positions. From this picture, a mapping activity was then completed with a view to blending it with training package specifications. It involved demystifying and matching language and culture in order to match current practice at the facility to the stand points, language and culture of training packages. Core units were addressed only, as this was more manageable than attempting all units at once. No gaps were found between job role and training package.

Questioning is widely accepted as a necessary aspect to elicit the evidence required to issue a certificate qualification or statement of attainment under RPL. In western culture, questioning forms the basis of much of our society. We ask questions all the time. This traditional notion of questioning cannot be applied to Aboriginal culture at Fitzroy Crossing. It is upsetting for the receiver and culturally rude for a number of reasons. Eye contact should be avoided under certain circumstances. Therefore, the very concept of questioning and interviewing became problematic.
We did write questions though. The questions we wrote were evaluated and modified many times. In order for the process to be clearly understood and accessible, these questions had to be accessible to management, supervisors and care workers; they needed to be direct and culturally appropriate. Probing questions were not appropriate, so we accompanied the basic questions, such as ’do you work in aged care‘, and ’do you look after the elders‘ with videos of stories and explanations of aspects of job roles from those working intimately with the carers, and the carers themselves.
This was used in the online tool framework with a view to the main responsibility for 'interviewing' being taken by supervisors or management of the facility where an environment of trust had already been established.

Facility documentation was reviewed and some changed to suit the RPL process with a view to efficiency and to avoid duplication of paperwork. The requirements of two auditing bodies, education and training, and aged care accrediting bodies were in some cases not dissimilar. Documentation could be customised by either party to suit both purposes.

Information technology
DLA’s IT programmers visited the facility to work in the physical environment of users. It was important for the bridge between technology and user to be strengthened and safe. The RPL tool needed to be developed specific to organisational needs.

Vision for the RPL tool
An outline of how an online RPL tool would look was developed and distributed. The layout needed to:
• be user friendly and non threatening
• improve staff self esteem
• promote appropriate community and culture
• address language differences
• be easy and beneficial for management to encourage staff to use it
• store progress securely
• record results
• have uploading facilities
• have a facility for snail mail if chosen
• be flexible to adapt to different electives and questions
• be database driven and technically robust
• promote assessor availability
• be efficient for all stakeholders
• be adaptable to other organisations
• be seen as a process and evidence generating, rather than evidence collecting.
A test site was built to enable evaluation of the above criteria and distributed online. The test site was evaluated by management and care workers, resulting in a number of modifications. Most of these modifications involved specific terminology and cultural issues.
After several reviews of the test site, three carers worked through the online RPL tool and these carers’ evidence, at the time of writing, is being assessed.


The main beneficiaries of this project were the management of Guwardi Nadu Frail Aged Facility. The ability to upload documents and view reports on each individual carer will assist the organisation to keep and reference documentary evidence of the current competency of staff. The other beneficiary is the RTO who, once the RPL tool is developed, will have developed a flexible tool that is organised for assessors to enable them to liaise and judge a carer’s competence towards units or a full qualification.
There is also no doubt that this project has increased the opportunity for care workers to achieve a qualification and increased their access to e-learning through a user friendly RPL process. This process:
• has a simple format
• is customised, with organisational images and verbal recordings
• includes evidence mapping (in organisational language and processes)
• includes evidence upload and postal options
• is customised to the workplace.

Benefits to the organisations
Guwardi Ngadu Frail Aged Facility
The facility was the beneficiary of a culturally appropriate, customised, organisational RPL tool that is:
• culturally appropriate eg men’s and female’s business etc
• literacy accessible
• supporting the improvement of accreditation standards
• accessible 24/7
• reducing the cost of education
• fast tracking the opportunity for a number of competent trainees
• enabling cross cultural interaction
• improving the self esteem of staff
• supporting an appropriate skill mix
• allowing an organisation to maintain its community development philosophy
• maintaining employment opportunities for Indigenous people.

The DLA benefited from:
• cross cultural interaction
• supporting the only remaining Aboriginal controlled facility in the Kimberly
• improving the RPL Guide
• industry exposure
• supporting Indigenous community development
• new customised delivery methods.


The sustainability of this RPL tool relies on the resources of the RTO to maintain an ongoing relationship with the facility and facilitate further promotion. Given the high turnover of management staff, due to the transient nature of work, this requires ongoing individual promotion and attention to their needs. A major factor in future success is a continued relationship of trust with management, and trust between management and staff. Future collaboration is needed to sustain the work done on this project and to facilitate a conduit between the necessity of Aboriginal law and the necessity of Australian qualifications as specified by the Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.
The following has been achieved through this project:
• a change in culture toward RPL as an integral aspect of assessment processes
• a refined process/methodology
• a streamlined, simplified process
• an acceptable, accessible, affordable and accelerated process
• a high degree of industry acceptance and confidence
• a culture that recognises that RPL is a core component of life long learning.


This is a WA E-learning Innovations project output, developed by DLA, with seed funding from the Framework.

For more information

For more information on this case study:
Christine Jarrett
CEO/Director, Distance Learning Australia Pty Ltd
Ph: (02) 6257 1030

For more information on the Australian Flexible Learning Framework:
Phone: (07) 3307 4700