The higher education learning landscape is changing with the rapid development of more diversified and flexible learning opportunities – including blended learning, new forms of open online learning, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Open Educational Resources (OER), work-based learning, self-directed learning, individual learning pathways, continuing professional development (see ECTS programme design). A growing number of learners follow ‘stand-alone’ educational units or courses, without pursuing a specific qualification. Higher education institutions are faced with the need to satisfy a diversified student group and provide opportunities for individual learning pathways and different modes of learning. Consequently, many are diversifying and offering educational components with innovative modes of learning and teaching for all, through new technologies and Open Educational Resources.
The strength of ECTS is that it can be used in all these lifelong learning contexts, applying the same principles for credit allocation, award, accumulation and transfer. In the same way as credits are allocated to component parts of programmes, credits allocated for open learning and other modes of lifelong learning are based on the workload typically needed to achieve the defined learning outcomes.
Providers of all ‘formally’ (i.e. in the same way and meeting the same standards as conventional higher education institutions) quality assured higher education such as open learning are encouraged to use ECTS with the same transparent mechanisms as described in this Guide. This will greatly facilitate transition between different modes of learning, recognition and transfer, while increasing learner and stakeholder confidence in the outcomes of open learning.
Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is increasingly recognised to be essential for those working in regulated professions. This is particularly true in the healthcare professions. CPD has a cross-border dimension which is increasingly significant. Whether voluntary or mandatory, it is perceived by professionals and providers alike as a mode of lifelong learning. It embraces formal, non-formal and informal learning. While elements of CPD may be converted into second cycle (Master) qualifications or into professional doctorates (depending on the national jurisdiction), CPD as a purely professional practice has a specific character: it may be self-managed and evaluated by peer-reviewed self-evaluation. Considerations of employability, continued right to practice, safeguarding standards of professional practice, protecting the public and, in the healthcare professions, patient safety nevertheless mean that its attainment must be measurable, verifiable and certified by a recognised/authorised authority.
How this is to be achieved remains a matter of debate within the CPD community. Both the European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET) and ECTS are perceived to be relevant, since CPD may be located at any of the eight EQF levels. However, the interface between the two systems is not yet sufficiently permeable and the different professions have differing cultures and national sub-cultures. Discussion on relations between the European credit systems is on-going and it is hoped, will lead to greater clarity on the use of credits for CPD. Meanwhile CPD providers at levels five to eight of the EQF are encouraged to consider the appropriateness of ECTS credits for purposes of transparency, recognition, accumulation and transfer, using the methodology outlined in this Guide.
Credits awarded for all forms of higher education including continuing and professional education may be recognised and accumulated towards a qualification or not, depending on the desire of the student and/or the requirements for the award of the qualification. Some independent learners may only be interested in following an educational component without wishing to obtain a qualification, but the allocation and recording of credits may allow them to use these in the future if they wish.
Documenting all learning achievements and awarding an appropriate number of ECTS credits at the level of the learning makes it possible for this learning to be recognised in a transparent, authenticated way so that the credits may contribute to a future qualification. Validation and recognition instruments in formal education should adapt to the developing of more diversified, flexible education environment, acknowledging new forms of open learning made possible by technology. The correct use of ECTS will greatly improve and facilitate this process.