Posted on: November 20th, 2012 by
Dr. Alan Davis
President and Vice-Chancellor of Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU)
Posted at: http://blogs.kwantlen.ca/president/

Reprinted with permission

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 recognized, 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 “postcourse 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.”

Kwantlen Polytechnic University

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