Published on 2014/04/03

The Prior Learning Pathway to a Credential

AUDIO | The Prior Learning Pathway to a Credential
As increasing numbers of colleges and universities look for ways to make use of MOOCs, one institution has recognized that they could drive interest in a pre-existing degree program while meeting its mission of credentialing prior learning.

The following interview is with Marc Singer, vice provost of the Center for the Assessment of Learning at Thomas Edison State College (TESC). The college recently developed an associate’s degree program allowing students to earn a credential after taking a selection of pre-selected Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and having their knowledge assessed by TESC. In this interview, Singer discusses the pathway to a credential and shares his thoughts on the wider movement toward credentialing for prior learning and competencies.

1. Why are so many institutions now accepting MOOCs for academic credit?

MOOCs are being accepted by institutions for college credit … when they’re really able to show an alignment between the content of what’s in a MOOC and the college curriculum. We’re seeing that more and more with the offerings from a number of providers. Organizations like American Council of Education and NCCRS [National College Credit Recommendation Service] … have been going into these organizations that are MOOC providers, reviewing their processes for developing these online courses, looking at … the assessments and the ways these MOOCs can provide verification [of student identity and competencies]. …

They’re seeing this as something that really strengthens a student’s college career and really allows a student to demonstrate that he or she does know the same kinds of things you would have learned in the classroom at a school like ours.

2. TESC opened access to its Associate’s in Business Administration for students who complete a specific set of MOOCs from the Saylor Foundation. Why were these particular MOOCs chosen?

We looked at a number of their courses, their MOOCs, their open offerings and determined, first of all, that a number of them covered the same content, addressed the same learning objectives and outcomes as some of the courses we offer here, and that they fit into — in this case — a particular degree program. …

What was nice about what Saylor offered was not only did it seem to meet our standards for curriculum development, but in many cases, their courses aligned with assessments we already have. While we respect the work of the Saylor Foundation — we like those folks and we know their work is high quality — we found it necessary, as we always do, to assess student learning ourselves.

What we’ve done essentially with the Saylor Foundation is we’ve made them aware and made their students aware that if they’ve completed one of those offerings, one of those courses in business that Saylor offers, it’s very likely they’re prepared to pass a college-level assessment we ourselves administer.

3. What impact will the creation of this program have on the wider recognition of prior learning and student competency, especially when it comes to earning academic credit and degrees?

We really see this as the seamlessness of a lifelong learning approach. For us, whether it’s something that fits very neatly into the old category of prior learning assessment — ‘experiential learning’ is what they used to describe that as — or whether it’s something you just acquired recently, that’s not really our concern. … What really matters is: do you know it, can you demonstrate that you know it and, if so, the next step then is to figure out where that knowledge you’re bringing to us from the outside fits into the overall curriculum.

Now one of the things we’ve noticed as we’ve been thinking about this is there’s a real problem with the way we had previously structured prior learning assessment, which is that we’ve been forcing students not only to bring this knowledge from the outside, but then to fit it into the course structure that almost every college in this country offers. …  Students will know a lot, but can’t really find how it aligns with the 40-courses-toward-a -degree kind of structure most colleges have. Because of that, we started thinking about … how to break down these courses into more basic elements; into modules, into competencies, in many cases. This kind of a thing — MOOCs, Saylor Foundation courses, anything else that’s out there like that — is really driving our move away from credits, toward competencies or at least to a parallel structure of competencies.

4. Is the rising popularity of these programs indicative of an industry shift toward a new higher education model?

It’s really pushing us toward this idea of competency-based learning as being a measure of, “Do you have what it takes to earn a credential?” … Can I then, as a representative of this institution, certify that you have this knowledge that’s equivalent to what somebody else would get somewhere else with a degree?

I’d say there’s one other real benefit of these kinds of programs that Saylor and others are offering, which is that, whether or not you agree with the idea of MOOCs or the backlash against MOOCs, whether you think they’re going to be here to stay or not, what MOOCs have really done is open the door to increasing the credibility of distance learning, online learning. Even if we take away nothing else from MOOCs … what we have learned is that online learning can be just as effective as learning that goes on in the classroom. It can be measured just as effectively, it can be applied just as effectively, and it’s meaningful in a way that [it wasn’t just two or three years ago].

5. Reflecting on your experience, what were the biggest roadblocks you and your colleagues encountered in the process of setting this program up?

It challenges what a typical institution’s financial model would be. The first thing people perceive is [granting credit for prior learning is] costing us money. That was an important obstacle for us to address. As it turns out, that’s not the case; I think that particularly as a state institution, where our state (New Jersey) subsidizes some of what we do, we’re not really losing money from this in the way people would expect. I’d also point people through the studies that have been done of students who come to a college, any college, whose credits they’ve acquired through prior learning. Those students tend to be more motivated, more focused on their goals, more self-directed. Because of that, we’ve seen measurable differences in the number of credits they take at an institution like this — they actually take more credits in college, not fewer, because they’re more invested in the process and we’ve validated what they’re bringing to us from outside. Not only that [but] their rates of completion … are much higher than students who don’t bring anything from the outside. …

The final thing I would say was a road block was developing assessments for those pieces that did not already have assessments on our end. While our TECEP  (Thomas Edison State College Examination Program) has about 30 courses that can be addressed through credit-by-exam, and while we have a pretty robust portfolio assessment program, there was still a good bit of work for us to do to develop assessments that really measured this knowledge people were bringing from the outside as effectively as possible. That’s not just simply sitting down and getting people to write tests; we really had to think about what we wanted our students to get out of it and how could we demonstrate to others — like our accreditors, for instance — that these folks know just as much as somebody who went through a traditional program.

Other than that, though, it was a bit more seamless than I would have expected. One good thing about Thomas Edison State College is because we were set up as a very different kind of institution from a traditional bricks-and-mortar institution … we had much more buy-in here than I think any other school I’ve consulted with might have in a similar situation. So I wish I could tell a story of overcoming great obstacles and pushing a rock up the hill with my nose, but it really wasn’t as bad as that.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the capacity for programs such as this to help evolve higher education from the Carnegie seat-time model toward one that’s based more on competencies and student knowledge?

This is really just the first step for us, and that’s why we proposed this as a transition. It still does rely on seat-time and college credits, in a way, in that we have to map all of this back to college credits. However, the direct-assessment model is much more a force in this particular degree program. It’s really not about how long you spend in the classroom, it’s, “Can you show us what you know?”

We think that in most cases, somebody [who has] done this approach we’ve outlined here will not have taken less time to get here. They will have taken more time in some ways, because a lot of the time they’ve spent learning this will have come through on-the-job experience or training or wherever they’re bringing their knowledge from. Something might accumulate experientially, over a longer period of time. This is not a shortcut by any means and that’s something important for us to focus on. If we can show from the results of these students that they have what it takes to succeed coming forward …  I think all of us in higher ed have to move away from this idea that, “It’s not valid unless I personally hand it to the students.” …

We’re not trying to breed people who go forth having been trained by us. We’re assessing people who train themselves; we need to acknowledge much more of that then we do currently.

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Key Takeaways

  • Students who pursue prior learning credits are more likely to be self-driven and motivated to earn a credential from an institution that grants them those credits.
  • Institutions must recognize that the location and time spent learning a competency or skill is irrelevant when considering the question of whether a student has the knowledge necessary for college credit.
  • It’s easier to implement highly innovative programming when your institution has an innovative spirit and culture.

Readers Comments

Brian Bloom 2014/04/03 at 8:33 am

I think Singer’s experience shows it can be time-consuming and difficult to set up this kind of program and conduct the proper assessments for credit, but ultimately it’s worth the effort because it shaves time and money off the cost of education. This makes your institution more attractive for adult students, who likely have a limited amount of time and a finite amount of money to put toward a postsecondary credential. MOOCs should just be the first step in greater acceptance of alternative credentials/learning.

Ian Hollis 2014/04/03 at 4:30 pm

I think accepting MOOCs for credit is an important first step in acknowledging what students bring into their programs rather than invalidating them. This move signals a culture change at institutions that I hope will only grow as more adults enroll, who bring (sometimes) years of outside experience to the classroom.

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