Convergence of Abundant Content and Prior Learning Assessment

As I have been reading various blogs and participating on some discussion boards, some ideas about open learning and higher education credentialing have begun to come together. I see the promise in open learning as reducing significant financial and location barriers and allowing broad access to learning resources, but how such learning could be assessed and credentialed is still fuzzy.

This credentialing will need to be coupled with other services. Siemens recently opined, “What is valuable, however, is that which can’t be duplicated without additional input costs: personal feedback and assessment, contextualized and personalized navigation through complex topics, encouragement, questioning by a faculty member to promote deeper thinking, and a context and infrastructure of learning.” While Siemens’ defines broader services and I still want to track on that idea, for the moment I am just thinking about what is needed to assess learning so that it can count toward a degree.

Carnevale reports that degrees are still important currency in gaining employment and in earnings. Because learners still need credentials, a badge to show for what they know and can do, I want to focus a bit on credentials and assessment of learning. I’m sure I’ll be back around to the mentoring, which I agree is essential. For the moment I want to think about the role of higher education institutions will have a greater role in recognition of learning from its many sources. Learning is acquired outside of formal higher education; it is often equivalent to college learning but doesn’t carry credit. Colleges and institutions are the institutions that can assess validate and credential that learning. As Susan Huggins puts it “People learn outside the traditional classroom – and it should be valued.”

The Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) led the work in the US to create processes to assess learning gained outside of formal higher education and provides a broadly accepted definition of prior learning assessment:

Prior learning is a term used by educators to describe learning that a person acquires outside a traditional academic environment. This learning may have been acquired through work experience, employer training programs, independent study, non-credit courses, volunteer or community service, travel, or non-college courses or seminars.

Prior learning assessment (PLA) is a term used to describe the process by which an individual’s experiential learning is assessed and evaluated for purposes of granting college credit, certification, or advanced standing toward further education or training. There are four generally accepted approaches to PLA and, when properly conducted, all ensure academic quality: (1) national standardized exams in specified disciplines, e.g., Advanced Placement (AP) exams, College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests, Excelsior college exams, Dantes Subject Standardized Texts (DSST); (2) challenge exams for local courses; (3) evaluated noncollege programs, e.g., American Council on Education (ACE) evaluations of corporate training and military training; and (4) individualized assessments, particularly portfolio-based assessments.
Moving the Starting Line Through Prior Learning Assessment (PLA); CAEL August 2011

National standardized tests already reach broad audiences and are accepted by institutions across the US.  Some institution offer their own course challenge exams.  Although exams are efficient and readily scalable, they can’t be used for many emergent fields or for learning that does not fit the predefined boundaries of a specific topic or course. Evaluations of non-collegiate sponsored programs are also reasonably efficient ways to assess learning, but require the sponsoring entity to pay for the evaluation and for updates.  They require some individual work in matching documentation to recommended credit awards, but the evaluations are reliable and cataloged, so efficiencies are possible.

Much of what people learn falls in between and around what is currently assessed through standardized exams what evaluations of non-formal education programs.  Additionally, learners may have non-formal education coupled with finely honed expertise acquired through experience that provides yet another level of learning that should be recognized.  However, only a handful of institutions conduct prior learning assessment on a large scale and, even then, that credit is generally good only at the institution at which it was earned, perhaps born of distrust of PLA or institutional protectionism. Thomas Edison State College, Excelsior College and Charter Oak State College have long provided credit banking services, but need broader access is required.

The Council on Adult and Experiential Learning’ Learning Counts and KNEXT are two new efforts intended to ramp up scalable individualized PLA program that could address the need for individualized assessment. These services manage the individualized assessment and evaluation processes and provide trustworthy credit recommendations. ACE will serve as the “registrar” for CAEL recommendations and KNEXT is managing their own documentation. Both organizations are working on portability of these credit recommendations, forging agreements with higher education institutions. Portability is the next barrier that needs to be broken down.

While  I have argued that using the personal narrative in individualized prior learning assessment supports integration and coherence, I have not yet resolved assessing learning component-by-component, course-by-course or for that matter earning “credit” with my thinking that a college degree ought to be a coherent whole and still need to think about that.  Although I do see the idea of a degree qualifications profile as advanced by the Lumina Foundation (and other countries) as an element of what might be.

As this is just a start on one small piece of the puzzle, for which the edges are not all sorted, I will certainly need to think more about supporting students and granting degrees in the context of open learning and access that I hope will become ubiquitous.  Please share your thoughts and ideas.  



One thought on “Convergence of Abundant Content and Prior Learning Assessment

  1. Interesting and informative blog, Tai. I will definitely follow up on the work of CAEL n KNEXT regarding their PLAR work and portability. There remains a great deal of work to get universities to be more open to recognizing learning that occurs outside of their wallls!

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