By Dr. Patricia Campbell and Kimberly Watson
Dr. Campbell is the Assistant Provost at American Public University.
Kimberly Watson is an Alternative Learning Specialist at APUS.
Universities across the nation are striving to create or expand current offerings aimed at helping students attain their degree in an expedited format. Certainly cost concerns have helped drive some of these innovations and expansions, but also underlying these approaches has been a reevaluation of just what it means to possess a college or graduate level degree.
For many years the Carnegie hour has been the foundation for how we calculate college learning. This “time in seat” approach has been called into question as many college graduates emerge from our institutions lacking critical skills, including basic reading, writing, and critical thinking. Additionally, universities realize that they do not possess a monopoly on knowledge or its dissemination and that learning can occur outside their halls.
Enter the increased focus on quasi-new approaches to higher education. From competency-based learning to accelerated bachelor’s and master’s degrees to prior learning assessment models, universities are advancing alternative approaches to college level learning. Although most of these approaches are not new, universities are creating, reviving, or expanding these alternative learning initiatives.
One of the more established approaches, prior learning assessment (PLA), has seen resurgence across the university, in large part because the demographic of the student population is changing. Once 18-22 year olds made up the majority of the student population; those not fitting this age group were referred to as non-traditional learners. Today, most undergraduate students are 25 years and older–leading some to suggest we have entered a post-traditional era (“Post-Traditional Learners and the Transformation of Postsecondary Education: A Manifesto for College Leaders”). We have an increasing number of students who have years of work and life experience; acknowledging this is at the heart of the PLA approach.
Prior learning refers to “learning gained outside a traditional academic environment.” It is learning and knowledge students acquire while working, participating in employer training programs, serving in the military, studying independently, volunteering or doing community service, and studying open source courseware” (CAEL).
Samples of PLA include:
- workplace training
- military training and service
- independent study
- professional certifications
- examinations (national exams such as AP, IB, CLEP, DSST, Excelsior College, and UExcel exams;
- civic activities
- volunteer service (ACE)
Perhaps also driving this push to embrace PLA is the data. According to Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), “graduation rates are two and a half times higher for students with PLA credit. PLA students also had higher persistence rates and a faster time to degree completion” (CAEL).
At American Public University (APU), we follow the ten standards set forth by CAEL when evaluating prior learning. We offer both undergraduate and graduate PLA programs. For our undergraduate students, they are required to complete a three credit hour course (COLL 200) during which they develop their first portfolio. The COLL200 course instructs students how to evaluate their learning through experience and prove mastery of that learning.
Upon successful completion of the COLL200 course, the student will have earned three elective credit hours for the course and have completed their first portfolio to submit to an evaluator to possibly earn three credit hours for the petitioned course at no additional cost to the student. The portfolio contains key components to provide the evaluator with background of the student (autobiography, resume, narrative, etc.) and how and when they acquired the learning. Portfolios submitted thereafter are at a nominal cost to the student, saving time and money.
Graduate students are afforded the same opportunities in PLA as the undergraduates. However, the graduate PLA is a no cost and no credit four week workshop which provides the same content as the COLL200 course but in an accelerated format. The workshop offers optional assignments that help the student evaluate their learning and mandatory assignments which are components of the portfolio whereby allowing feedback from the PLA team member monitoring the workshop for a successful portfolio. Once the student has completed the portfolio and is ready to submit to an evaluator, a nominal fee is charged for the portfolio submission.
PLA is also in pilot stages of allowing students to bundle portfolios. The bundle submission will allow the student who can demonstrate mastery of learning for multiple courses within the same discipline an opportunity to develop one portfolio while petitioning several courses for credit versus a separate portfolio for each course. This is another way students can save time and money.
PLA is also an acknowledgement that students come to our institutions with a wealth of experience and knowledge. While PLA is not new, we have seen its renaissance in large part because it offers students an expedited and more cost effective time to earn their degree. Recognizing prior learning is one way institutions can help students attain their goal of degree completion.
About the Author
Dr. Campbell has numerous publications in academic journals including Journal of Political Science Education, International Feminist Journal of Politics, African Studies Quarterly, Politics and Policy; and Africa Today. Her co-authored textbook on Global Studies was published in 2010 (Wiley-Blackwell). She has been active serving on various committees of the American Political Science Association (APSA), and she was elected to the APSA’s Committee on Teaching and Learning.
Kimberly Watson began with American Public University System in 2010 as the PLA Coordinator when the University began the pilot of the Prior Learning Assessment Program (PLA). She remained in the same role within the University until recently where she has become an Alternative Learning Specialist which includes all forms of non-traditional learning.