Expanding Prior Learning Assessment and the Changing Educational LandscapeFrances Turcott | Director of Special Projects, Anne Arundel Community College
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 desires 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 class-central.com 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 MOOC’s 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 all contributing 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.