Published on 2016/07/29

Prior Learning: Understanding the Benefits and Overcoming the Obstacles

The EvoLLLution | Prior Learning: Understanding the Benefits and Overcoming the Obstacles
Credit transfer and prior learning are both widely cited as pathways to accelerated completion, but both these approaches are handled slightly differently in the competency-based model.

Prior learning pathways can serve as a possible solution to several current criticisms in the higher education space. These include the high debt for college, the need to personalize the higher education experience and the need for a more educated workforce. Colleges and universities need to address these concerns by implementing innovative processes.

As debt for higher education continues to rise, colleges and universities must find avenues to maintain credibility of their degrees, while at the same time creating a personalized experience that allows students to accelerate to degree completion. An approach that empowers students to move quickly through material they have already mastered enables students to save on tuition and time. The economic impact of this option is important. Not only is there less debt for the student, but the graduate also has increased income potential earlier than the traditional model would allow, increasing lifetime earning potential. Implementing new systems that include these options is one way higher education institutions can be part of the solution to the rising college debt problem and help people have a better career faster.

In this era of immediacy, personalization and having everything at your fingertips, it is important for colleges and universities to move to a student-centered environment. Students lack the patience of hoop jumping just for the sake of regulations and guidelines. Rather they thrive on independence and empowerment. Creating options for students to capitalize on their prior learning is one way to put the student in the driver’s seat, which can impact retention, cost and time to completion.

Additionally, as the demand for degreed citizens increases, providing pathways to credit for prior learning can accelerate the number of degrees earned in a shorter period of time in order to address workforce needs. Many chambers of commerce are establishing goals to increase the number of degrees earned in their region. When colleges and universities create pathways to credit they can then target more mature learners who might otherwise see a college degree as an investment that takes too long. Accelerating adults through programs by empowering them to prove prior learning can be key to making a degree possible. For example, WGU’s average time to a bachelor’s degree is 2 years and 4 months. Through the competency-based education model, students prove what they know and learn the rest at their own personalized pace with the support of a faculty mentor. This model coupled with WGU’s flat rate tuition of about $6,000 per year is resulting in faster degrees with less investment making it a worthwhile investment to go back to school.

Key Challenges to Applying Prior Learning

Of course, providing credits for prior learning is not as simple as just filling out a form. One key challenge to implementing prior learning pathways is validating the quality and depth of the knowledge the student possesses in alignment with the rigor of the actual course. Simply creating easy avenues to accelerate students to a degree only exacerbates the issue employers frequently site of graduates that are not prepared for the jobs. Higher education has a responsibility to create these pathways with rigor and integrity in order to ensure the quality of their graduates. After all, ultimately, a college or university is only as good as their alumni.

Awarding credit based on prior learning requires colleges and universities to develop a system for personalized determinations that the particular prior learning experiences of each student matches the course learning expectations. This involves more than looking at job titles or descriptons. WGU’s competency-based education model solves this problem by requiring every student to prove mastery of every competency. This can be accomplished by relying on prior learning or engaging with the learning resources provided in the WGU portal or their own other means. The consistent factor is that every student proves mastery at the equivalent of a B or higher on every competency effectively eliminating the guessing work of a students’ prior learning.

Competency for Credit: How WGU Assesses Prior (and all!) Learning

WGU’s competency-based education (CBE) model is different from what is typically referred to as a prior-learning pathway for credit. The only way to be awarded credit from WGU is to prove competency. Students can rely on prior knowledge to prove competency quickly resulting in acceleration to course completion. Through the CBE model, specific competencies are defined for each course, then assessments are aligned to define mastery of each competency. The WGU assessment team works to ensure validity and reliability of assessments with quarterly item analysis reviews of all assessments. Students can schedule online proctoring for objective-based assessments or can submit performance-based assessments at any time. Assessments are typically graded and returned within 3 days so that the student can keep moving through their program.

WGU students are encouraged to use the learning resources provided in the online portal; however, competency, as opposed to process, is the goal. Therefore, if a student already possesses knowledge that they can prove on the assessments, they are encouraged and empowered to prove it and move to the next competency in their program. This allows students to move quickly through materials for faster degree completion. In addition, by accelerating to their degree they are saving money with WGU’s flat rate tuition where students pay for 6 months of education for about $3,000.

By providing the opportunity to use prior knowledge at the individual competency level, students are more likely to accelerate because they do not need to prove an entire course of content from prior learning in order to gain credit. The rigor level is maintained for all students regardless of whether they used learning resources to gain competency or if they learned the information in another way. Competency level mastery ensures all WGU graduates possess the identified skills for each course they are awarded credit for, resulting in 98 percent of employers reporting WGU grads meet or exceed expectations. Furthermore, 100 percent of employers surveyed said that WGU graduates were prepared for their jobs according to a 2014 Harris Poll.

Accepting Transfer Credit at a Competency-Based Institution

The decision to accept transfer credit is important because ultimately the organization awarding the degree is reflected by the complete set of knowledge and skills of the graduate. Many factors must be considered in the transfer yet often the major consideration is the age of the previous credits and accreditation of the transfer institution. Additional considerations could include factors that take into consideration the pace of change across content areas. For example, some history courses may have less change while course content in technology changes frequently. WGU’s competency-based education model alleviates many of these problems.

In a competency-based model, transfer of credits for the general education courses can be more generous because when there are general knowledge competencies related to their degree they will need to possess the skill or relearn it in order to prove competency for courses in their major. WGU is more stringent in transfering credits related to the student’s major, however, if the student mastered the content previously, he or she may prove it quickly and move ahead. Through the competency-based model, a course can take a student as little as a week for completion. There is one exception to transferring degree-related credits, which relates to approved current certifications. For example, if an IT course was going to lead to certification in CompTIA and the student has that most current CompTIA certification, then WGU will award credit for that course. Through these options, the WGU model effectively eliminates the criticism of outdated information from old credits because it ensures graduates master the knowledge and skills needed for success in their chosen field.

Of course knowledge acquired in a traditional or competency-based model can become outdated. The world is changing rapidly which makes it necessary for colleges and universities to continually evaluate curriculum. At WGU, each degree program is developed by a council of experts in the field who are hiring for or working in pathway jobs for the specific degree. The council of experts works with our academic team to define competencies graduates should possess at graduation in order to be successful in the work environment.

These competencies form the curriculum. This combination of expertise in both industry knowledge and academics guarantees the degree will be relevant in the student’s chosen field. WGU strives to ensure degrees are relevant to the current employer expectations through regular meetings of the council of experts. This includes both in person and virtual meetings. The reliance on the council of experts is important to WGU’s commitment to relevant degrees that address workforce needs.

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