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Expanding Prior Learning Assessment and the Changing Educational Landscape

The EvoLLLution | Expanding Prior Learning Assessment and the Changing Educational Landscape
The degree still bears incredible importance in supporting employability and, given the number of adults with work and past education experience but no degree, it’s critical to find ways to recognize their previous learning and accelerate their pathway to a credential.

I work at a community college and I am fiercely dedicated to its mission to meet learners where they are and provide them with access to lifelong learning and the support they need to be successful. Thirty odd years ago, I started my community college career evaluating college transcripts. This included reviewing documents that listed military experience and translating military occupational specialties into college credit. Occasionally, I’d encounter an adult student with lots of work experience who was pleading for a means for us to translate it into credit but the CLEP exams did not provide the right fit and the credit-by-portfolio program was too onerous to consider. Sometimes there was a credit-by-exam that a department would offer, but frequently, passing the exam would only exempt them from taking that particular class. They would still be required to take another course in its stead. The unspoken truth was learning outside the classroom was difficult to document unless someone had already blazed a similar trail. The strictures of higher education acknowledged that while one may be successfully engaged in the practice of a discipline, textbooks and lectures were still somehow superior to proving learning had taken place. Successfully providing evidence that one understood the theory provided the rub.

My experience in the Records Office proved invaluable in grounding me in in the basics of higher education norms as I moved on to other opportunities. The knowledge served me well too, as I started to interact with governmental agencies and business and industry. We talked about providing bridges from non-college learning experiences, such as the military or job training programs, to credit credentials. If left to our own devices, we can equate these experiences to the learning outcomes of a credit course or program. But a major component of the community college mission is to provide the first two years of a bachelor’s degree. If a student wants to earn a four-year degree, the work that we do to equate learning experiences into credit can go out the window. Transfer works seamlessly if you follow recommended course sequences and your life doesn’t detour from your two-plus-two plan. As the community college frequently serves students with diverse learning backgrounds, the work we do to equate learning outside the classroom throws the plan into turmoil, especially if their educational goal is to transfer. The receiving institution makes the decision about what transfer credits are accepted and the community college is not in the cat-bird seat.

To use another baseball analogy, I consider myself a utility player. So, when I found myself asked to advance prior learning assessment at my college, it was like finding my old groove. I am pleased that a national organization, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), has created standards for PLA and taken up the reigns to provide credentials for those engaged in the work. CAEL is fierce in their determination to make PLA more universally accepted and improve transfer outcomes. They have also expanded their work to include competency-based education (CBE) which is still a hard lift for many institutions, mine included. But the core of CBE is assessment and drilling down to measureable learning outcomes. CBE and PLA are engaged in the same dance and they fit together. CBE delivers the content and assesses it—PLA assesses past learning. I am surprised that PLA has not progressed further. We are still using the same tools from 30 years ago and debating with academic colleagues for legitimacy, but it might not matter too much longer.

The landscape for education is changing dramatically. While I work to convince deans and department chairs to expedite the process for students to earn credit for college-level learning that they have acquired outside the classroom, in reality the number of adult students breaking down our doors has decreased significantly in the last five years. There are so many ways for adults to acquire the knowledge and skills they need. We’ve done a great job in explaining that learning is a lifelong commitment if one wants to remain relevant in their profession. We are just not always the most relevant or convenient source of all learning anymore. One only has to go to to view the myriad of free learning opportunities. Adults need to keep their skills current or learn new ones. What matters is whether they can do the job, and what they know is the currency. We may have scoffed at MOOCs a few years ago, but many free online courses are very well designed and provide relevant content by experts in their fields. If you seek evidence of completion then you are charged a nominal fee. Some adults have the higher education credentials they need and seek additional knowledge to keep current in their field. Others are seeking minimal credentials to get a better job. This is not only an information technology phenomenon. Entry-level health professionals quickly earn certifications through our non-credit programs. They can stack these credentials and advance professionally. Frequently they recognize that the job to which they eventually aspire requires a degree. Then we circle back around to PLA.

Despite the changing landscape, many professions still require the degree. There is no doubt in my mind that the degree provides students with confidence in their own abilities. The general education courses taken on the path to a degree pay dividends in the long run in the ability to express ideas, think critically, communicate and work in team settings, which all contributes to success in the workplace. What the adult student is bringing to us is knowledge gained in a work setting and through educational venues that do not conform to our traditional credit structure.

Our folly is our slow realization that learning can be acquired in multiple settings and not being proactive in recognizing non-conventional certifications or finding ways to assess learning outcomes. This is the core of PLA. It is a very work-intensive process. It requires well articulated and measurable learning outcomes and reliable assessments. In this changing landscape we should be partners to help students take the knowledge they have acquired, translate it into credit and expedite the completion of a degree. As we come to terms with new ways to learn, it’s time once and for all to break down the barriers to awarding credit and making the journey smoother—all the way to the bachelor’s degree.

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