Published on 2013/11/19
Raising the Profile of Experiential Learning
Prior learning can be as valuable for an adult’s workforce advance and success as a credential, but more effort must be made by higher education and government leaders to more closely integrate the two elements.

The following interview is with Amy Sherman, associate vice president for policy and strategic alliances, and Becky Klein-Collins, senior director of research and policy development, at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL). Sherman and Klein-Collins have been instrumental in creating greater awareness and acceptance of credit for prior learning at higher-education institutes. In this interview, they share their thoughts on the value of prior and experiential learning, and its place in meeting the 60 percent degree completion goal.

Click here to read key takeaways

1. How does on-the-job learning compare with formal, classroom instruction in terms of one’s education?

Amy Sherman (AS): On-the-job learning is quite valuable. You’re getting immediate, relevant learning tied to one’s particular position that can help somebody get the edge in the workplace. However, it’s also important to recognize that on-the-job learning — particularly without any training surrounding the experiential learning — may miss some of the context of the field. So it is usually valuable for a learner to also engage in some kind of more formal learning in addition to on-the-job learning. Formal learning can help to build foundational skills, connections to theoretical knowledge and understanding about the broader field.

2. Are there any specific benefits to in-class learning that cannot be attained through on-the-job education?

Becky Klein-Collins (BKC): As Amy mentioned, classroom instruction — or other formal learning experiences — can provide a way for someone to gain more understanding about how on-the-job learning relates to the larger context of a field or a subject. It can also provide an opportunity for peer learning from other people who are in their field as well as faculty members with expertise in a particular discipline. So there definitely can be benefits to classroom learning as well.

AS: It also depends what we’re talking about when we say on-the-job learning. If it’s informal, experiential learning that learners gain just from doing their job, that’s one thing. This learning can be made to be more meaningful when it is combined with more formal training. Many employers have developed training programs that leverage the informal learning gained on the job but also include theoretical grounding and information on the latest developments in the field. However, without a credential, it is hard for individuals to make that learning portable as other employers may not recognize its value.

3. When it comes to career advancement, what is the value of prior and experiential learning when compared with academic credentials?

BKC: Right now, both are so critical when it comes to being successful in a workplace. You need to have formal training in order to get your foot in the door with a job. But having the ability to apply learning in a real-world setting and having experience and accomplishments in the workplace are also very important.

We’re in a global economy where jobs are changing all the time, so we’re constantly going to have to be drawing on experience but also adding new knowledge to that. We’re talking about a lifelong learning model where your experience and accomplishments in the workplace matter, but always need to be supplemented with additional learning through a variety of sources; whether it’s credentialed learning, formal instruction, informal learning through professional networks or online resources. There’s a whole array of learning resources out there that need to be integrated into someone’s professional experience and work experience.

AS: For employers, many still look at academic credentials as a proxy for learning. It may be that the academic credential is not enough in-and-of itself, but it’s still something that employers often have on their checklist.

What’s important is to recognize that you have to have some way to substantiate the learning. As a nation, we are looking at alternative ways to prove people’s knowledge and skills. That’s where you’re seeing the interest in prior learning assessment (PLA) and competency-based education, to look at new models for recognizing learning, particularly for adult learners.

Raising the Profile of Experiential Learning
Academic credentials are commonly seen as a proxy for learning, but it is not the only pathway to knowledge and understanding of subject matter.

4. How can informal learning be integrated into the degree completion process?

AS: Prior learning assessment is a reliable, proven method for accepting informal learning. It provides a process for examining the learning and knowledge and skills gained outside the traditional classroom and evaluating whether it rises to the level of the learning that is presumed to take place in a college course – and whether that learning should be recognized with an award of college credit. PLA can make it possible to integrate informal learning into the degree completion process and it can save adult learners time and money; which we all know are big barriers for adults going back to formal education. The PLA process is also done in a way that allows individuals to really reflect and identify their own knowledge and skills. It can be an educational process in and of itself.

5. Who needs to take the lead in spearheading this move to bringing PLA to the forefront; government bodies, institutions, accreditors or someone else?

AS: All of the stakeholders need to be engaged for PLA to become a part of a robust system. CAEL’s been working with policy leaders, higher education leaders, systems and institutions, including faculty.

PLA requires a bigger recognition that we need to look at non-traditional students in a different way and recognize what they bring to the table, and remove barriers to them earning meaningful credentials.

6. Ultimately, when looking at an individual’s opportunity for career advancement and growth in knowledge, is it better to earn a higher education credential, move into the world of work, or pursue a combination of the two?

AS: It’s not an either-or proposition. We would hope that everyone has an opportunity to get higher education, including industry-recognized certificates. I think the strongest candidates, according to employers, will have both and will continue to engage in learning throughout their career; from experiential learning and from more formal education and training.

In my view, higher education needs to do a better job of integrating experiential learning and recognizing college-level learning for credit. That is happening, but we have a ways to go.

7. Is there anything you would like to add about the value of experiential learning and its role to play when it comes to meeting the degree completion target?

BKC: We did a landmark study in 2010 looking at data from 48 colleges and universities across the country. We found that students who had prior learning assessment credit were 2.5 times more likely to graduate, over a seven-year period, compared to a student without PLA credit. For students who do have significant college-level learning that they have acquired outside of the classroom, PLA can be a very important degree-completion tool. Institutions are beginning to recognize it; in fact, President Obama mentioned prior learning assessment in his speech on higher education.

It definitely has a role to play for students who have significant college-level learning outside the classroom. It is a key tool for many of them.

And yet, many institutions have come to recognize that they may not have the internal capacity to provide a full range of PLA options, portfolio assessment in particular. CAEL is helping these institutions by through our national online portfolio assessment service, LearningCounts.org. Through services like this, we hope to see PLA offered at a much greater scale. We are pleased to see the growing interest in PLA as part of the degree completion agenda and the greater value being placed on adult learners.

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Key Takeaways

  • Classroom instruction is great for providing theory and wider context to one’s knowledge, but on-the-job learning is ideal for gaining skills and competencies

  • Without recognizing skills and competencies, and creating more pathways to credits for students with a wide range of prior learning, the graduation rate will not reflect the strength of the labor market

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Readers Comments

Will Wright 2013/11/19 at 9:53 am

I thought the findings of the study reference by Becky at the end of the interview were really interesting. Assuming PL can also reference things like AP, though, was this study restricted just to adults? Because I would think that students coming in with AP credits are more likely to graduate simply because they strike me as more driven to earn a postsecondary credential.

Cindy Lauer 2013/11/19 at 12:18 pm

I think PLA is a big step towards a more flexible credentialing system than the one we have now, and MOOCs are moving us in that direction. If we can start recognizing students’ prior learning from MOOCs, why not their prior learning from the office, or from a volunteer experience?

Education is about more than the time you spent in a chair, and colleges and universities are starting to figure that out.

Eric Csergo 2013/11/19 at 7:59 pm

I would say prior learning and experience are more valuable to an employer than theory picked up in a classroom. I would definitely hire someone who knew how to do the job over someone who understands the value and concepts of what the job is about.

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