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This blog really is about the meeting of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning that I attended recently, which is very much a forum for the advancement of Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR), and how the academy can be better linked to the workplace and the community.

But if I called the blog “PLAR”, some would gloss over it, some would be put off by the jargon, and we too often pigeon-hole parts of our operation for administrative convenience so we don’t have to worry about everything all the time. It’s all about learning in the end.

PLAR has a bad rap. Some see it as flaky, some as a threat to faculty work and academic control, some institutions do not do much of it, and KPU is behind many. So, here is my pitch, having seen again what people are doing across North America, and how powerful this can be.

Learning starts the moment you are born (some say before that), and continues until the final revelation at the moment of death (there is a revelation, isn’t there?). Then there is the learning acquired in school and beyond, which, in many parts of the developed world, lasts anywhere from a few years to (in my case) 27 years before I got a full time job. This is­ our formal learning, which is always documented, and is easily transportable and recognized; although those with foreign credentials coming to Canada might disagree.

Pretty well the rest of our learning throughout our lives is informal, almost always not documented and rarely recognised, but where would you be without it?

You wouldn’t have a job, for one thing. Almost all hiring involves assessing who you are in terms of both your formal and informal learning. Think about it. We sort resumes into those who have the stated formal credential and those who don’t. For those who do, we started looking at experiences, knowledge, skills and attributes that are developed informally. i.e., we do a lot of subjective assessment of informal learning as we make very large dollar decisions.

Likewise, the most important roles we play in life are as parents, partners and friends, but there is no formal education for those, and no official recognition of what you have achieved.

PLAR is a set of principles and processes that are commonly used to assess and document any informal or experiential learning for credit that can be applied to a college or university degree, sometimes even for high school equivalency. This can be done by offering challenge exams that align with existing curriculum, or by interviews, or by examination of work previously done, or by a portfolio that documents and reflects on experience to identify the learning achieved, or any combination of the above.

It was once targeted for special funding and we all got excited about PLAR, then the money left and so did the enthusiasm. The BC Educational Credit Bank, now at Thompson Rivers University Open Learning is still plodding along, and some of our neighbouring institutions do far more of it than KPU does). And in the digital age, with free and open learning opportunities available at a click, the use of PLAR to bridge the informal and formal is taking on a whole new life.

So, here are a few thoughts:

  • People coming to KPU or anywhere else should not have to learn again something they already know.
  • Assessing learning of any sort is tricky, but always needs to be done well and carefully and with integrity, whether for formal or informal learning.
  • A defining feature of KPU is its engagement with the community in multiple ways: experiential learning opportunities for our students, applied research, and (I would argue) bring learning from the community into the University.
  • As we expand our offerings to adults in our community, which we must surely do, incorporating their learning from their work and community life is essential.
  • We need to build degrees and diplomas that leave open the room for such assessed credit: for instance creating “executive” paths in the BBA for those who can demonstrate learning from running, or already being in, business. Others have done this successfully, and we should explore options.
  • For the student, PLAR can be hard: you need good thinking and communication skills to interpret your informal learning to the formal (try it for yourself), and they need support, and we must be fair to them: it should not be more difficult than attending regular classes.
  • PLAR aligns well with the paradigm that it is ­what you learn that matters, not so much how, although we all appreciate the transferable skills that our students learn on campus: how to collaborate and to debate and discuss and to research etc., and having a set of outcomes for the KPU graduate, adapted for each program would help us align our curriculum and teaching methods to those competencies.
  • As open education in its many forms starts to take root, the institutions who adopt and implement modern approaches to PLAR will be doing the right thing for their learners, and benefitting immensely themselves.

I am glad I got that off my chest.

I’ll close with a quote from Randy Bass at Georgetown University, who talks about the “post-course era”, (and the importance of experiential learning and the potential for e-portfolios: it is a great article to download: for free of course Educause Review March/April 2012).

“What I am arguing is that we have reached the end of the era of assuming that the formal curriculum—composed of bounded, self-contained courses—is the primary place where the most significant learning takes place.”

 

 

 

11 Responses

  1. Elaine Bridger says:

    I agree, making a University education more easily available to the adult community is very important. I agree that life experience, and job experience, should be taken into account as we navigate through the post-secondary system.

    As a mature adult learner at KPU, I have until this moment believed that my University would support me to be successful. I have now come across many brickwalls, policies and form requirements, that have made my learning experience overwhelmingly stressful. I am wondering what I should say to my fellow single mature mothers when they ask me if they to should attend Kwantlen.

    Our life skills, management skills, and experience are not considered to be of quality when entering the post secondary world. This frustrates me, I agree Dr. Davis, that open learning, and accreditation for life experience would be of benefit. Not only to future students but also to the present ones as well

    • Alan Davis says:

      Thansk for this Elaine. Sorry for ths low response my end. We intend to improve on all this. Stay tuned.

    • Rosa says:

      I agree, making a University eiocatdun more easily available to the adult community is very important. I agree that life experience, and job experience, should be taken into account as we navigate through the post-secondary system.As a mature adult learner at KPU, I have until this moment believed that my University would support me to be successful. I have now come across many brickwalls, policies and form requirements, that have made my learning experience overwhelmingly stressful. I am wondering what I should say to my fellow single mature mothers when they ask me if they to should attend Kwantlen.Our life skills, management skills, and experience are not considered to be of quality when entering the post secondary world. This frustrates me, I agree Dr. Davis, that open learning, and accreditation for life experience would be of benefit. Not only to future students but also to the present ones as well

  2. Wayne Mackintosh says:

    Hi Alan. Good reflection — thanks for that.

    I think you’re right. As open education approaches start taking root, institutions with robust and flexible PLAR systems combined with degrees and diplomas which cater for alternate forms of assessment will be able to better serve their learners.

    Of interest – we have just started drafting scenarios to explore institutional implementation options for integrating OERu courses within mainstream operations. See for example: http://goo.gl/O7WfP .

    Fascinating to see how the use of OER to unbundle traditional services generates new opportunities for serving our learners in cost-effective and scalable ways.

  3. Arzo Ansary says:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/?single_page=true

    I think this article very boldly highlights everything wrong with living in a world where education becomes increasingly less of an option.

    Elaine, I’m saddened to say that you aren’t the only one facing this situation. Many of us come across the same frustrations you do and increasingly, year after year, the quality of education a person feels they are getting seems to lessen as a result of stresses that are not made any easier by archaic societal norms.

    • Elaine Bridger says:

      I would agree that I have had plenty of frustrated students speak with me over the last two weeks of registration, young and mature students alike. Although the process is stressful, and takes away from my study/writing/reading time, in no way do I feel that it reflects the quality of my education. It only reflects the quality of the policies guiding the institutional processes.

      The three years that I have spent at KPU have been excellent, challenging, worrisome, stressful, and fulfilling. That said, I believe that any student would be able to identify with some or all of those feelings. The instructors at KPU are one of the strongest assets that we have. In addition, our class sizes enable students and instructors to fully engage in the curriculum and discussions.

      Perhaps with a new KSA, new President, new Faculty, and new approach, future Kwantlen students will be able to navigate the system with more ease than what seems to be presently happening.

      I would like to add one more comment.
      Thank you to the most amazing staff & faculty that have helped me, and supported me, through the last two weeks. Although the policies at times may act as brickwalls, there are amazing people here at Kwantlen that want to see us succeed. I am grateful. It is the human factor that makes me proud to say that I am a Kwantlen student. I hope that in a year, these same people will be there to see me achieve my degree!

    • Scott Jacobsen says:

      Hi Arzo.

      I don’t consider the prospects too grim. For instance, “The instructors at KPU are one of the strongest assets that we have”, as Elaine put it.
      To me, it matches some points of consideration here:
      http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Why-Are-Finlands-Schools-Successful.html
      … And here:
      http://www.globalnews.ca/Pages/Story.aspx?id=6442710049

      As reported by the Global News and stated by Dr. Ungerleider at UBC, “Canada, generally speaking, has well-prepared and well-educated teachers. And if you had to put your finger on a single thing that makes a difference in the lives of students, teachers and teacher quality is pivotally important”.
      In light of this, based on OECD and PISA assessment for backing, it seems less to me a commentary on one problem, and then honing too deeply on it – not to discount the problem. To me, it is likely more beneficial to look at the whole system, and then ask, ‘How are we doing?’ Answer: We seem to have done extremely well. With this insight, the next important questions, ‘What are we doing really well? How do we keep doing that (and better)?’ It seems two-fold depending on the referent: Instructor and Instructed. On the one hand, how do we assist these “assets”(instructors & professors) in extending their already large positive influence? On the other hand, how do we reach those looking for said influence? PLAR seems one way. Yet, it depends on the success of that outreach. Additionally, it depends on the ease with which it can be improved, if it needs improvement.

      http://www.globalnews.ca/Pages/Story.aspx?id=6442710163
      http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/topics/education/ (This link does highlight the inequality of men and women, which is why I specified not to discount the problem. Clearly, a factor to be considered in the final calculation, but not the core one. )

  4. Leona Kustra says:

    Thank you for supporting the Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition strategy. For a mature student like myself reading this article was very encouraging.

    Does Kwantlen have a PLAR liason that would be able to work with me to interview me for experience and/or review my portfolio?

    I am a mature student wishing to pursue a degree but have had difficulty obtaining transfer credits from my 1983-1986 education.

  5. Alan Davis says:

    Leona, sorry for the slow response. It has been hectic recently. I’ll pass your name on to those involve din PLAR here. e-mail your contact info at alan.davis@kwantlen.ca

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