Friday, July 22, 2011

Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) 

Here is an interesting example not only of Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), but of an institutional approach to it's provision. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) (United States) "is a national, non-profit organization whose mission is to expand learning opportunities for adults. CAEL works to remove policy and organizational barriers to learning opportunities, identifies and disseminates effective practices, and delivers value-added services." Scroll down to see their research and publications. Note the three tiered approach they take. I also find the CAEL's 10 standards for PLA assessment really interesting, and reproduce theme here in full:

Ten Standards for Assessing Learning
  1. Credit or its equivalent should be awarded only for learning, and not for experience.
  2. Assessment should be based on standards and criteria for the level of acceptable learning that are both agreed upon and made public.
  3. Assessment should be treated as an integral part of learning, not separate from it, and should be based on an understanding of learning processes.
  4. The determination of credit awards and competence levels must be made by appropriate subject matter and academic or credentialing experts.
  5. Credit or other credentialing should be appropriate to the context in which it is awarded and accepted.
  6. If awards are for credit, transcript entries should clearly describe what learning is being recognized and should be monitored to avoid giving credit twice for the same learning.
  7. Policies, procedures, and criteria applied to assessment, including provision for appeal, should be fully disclosed and prominently available to all parties involved in the assessment process.
  8. Fees charged for assessment should be based on the services performed in the process and not determined by the amount of credit awarded.
  9. All personnel involved in the assessment of learning should pursue and receive adequate training and continuing professional development for the functions they perform.
  10. Assessment programs should be regularly monitored, reviewed, evaluated, and revised as needed to reflect changes in the needs being served, the purposes being met, and the state of the assessment arts.
Note that in the Australian HE sector, charges cannot be made for RPL assessments (point 8 above). I have noticed that Charles Darwin University is now requiring students to enrol in a PLA-type subject to gain RPL, and perhaps this allows them to circumnavigate the no-fee problem.

I would however add others, particularly
  • The evidentiary requirements for granting PLA should not exceed the evidentiary requirements of a student enrolled in the subject acheiving a pass grade assessment.
  • The evidentiary requirements should be based on equivalence of content, theory and learning outcomes; not on sameness.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Is lifewide learning a new idea?
Although gaining currency as a term through Barnett's recent work, "lifewide learning" has been around for a very long time under a number of other names. Adult educators have been talking about informal and nonformal learning, experiential learning, experience-based learning, workplace and workbased learning, volunteer and service learning, and authentic learning for decades, and questioning the ways in which formal educational institutions respond to (or largely exclude and ignore) learning conducted by potential students through incidental, accidental and self-directed learning processes in their own time and on their own terms. The whole debate about "what is learning" that took place in the 1970s and 1980s in the adult education field lead, for example, to educators like Brookfield, JarvisKolb (amongst many) to write about experiential learning. Since then many authors have written about related issues - such as authentic learning, work-integrated learning, field placements, "the reflective practitioner" and so on. All attempting to understand, in one way or another, the nexus between experience and learning.
Problems remain when this question enters the institution. Is experience (informal and nonformal learning) automatically of lesser value and quality that formal learning? Or is it simply different? Can experience be theorised by the person in the experience. Schon would argue "yes" - it is the whole point of the reflective practitioner. If experience can be reflected, reflective and informed, then what assessment mechanisms do institutions need to embrace this learning within a formal program of study?
Universities in Australia have remained remarkable resistant to valuing experiential, informal and nonformal learning designed by learners themselves, despite many debates of theoretical and practical work in this area. The growth of Open Education Resources, and high quality learning experiences on the web mean that adults now have increasing access to self-directed, student-centred learning, designed by the adult - yet Universities contrinue to struggle to develop a pedagogy responsive to this learning.

Blended and flexible learning through the recognition of lifewide and lifelong learning

What does "flexible learning" mean? There are many different answers to this question. Listen to my podcast exploring one approach to flexible learning - adding lifewide and lifelong learning into the mix through the recognition of prior informal and nonformal learning. To read the pdf version, click here.

Part 1
A/Prof Merilyn Childs talks about using recognition as a BFL strategy to encompass lifelong and lifewide learning (mp3)
Part 2
A/Prof Merilyn Childs talks about using recognition as a BFL strategy to encompass lifelong and lifewide learning (Part 2) (mp3)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Special Issue IRRODL - prior, experiential and informal learning

IROODL - the International review of Research in Open and Distance Education recently published a Special Issue: Prior, Experiential and Informal Learning in the Age of Information and Communication Technologies. This engaging and interesting special edition is worth the read, as it raises historic issues related to the recongition of prior learning in the context of the digital age.

The "not manufactured here" phenomenon

Prior to developing the UWS RPL Policy in 2003, I did a survey to try to understand the points of resistance amongst staff to recognising equivalent learning outcomes. (It's interesting and hopeful to see Paddy Forde engaged in a similar conversation at Curtin in 2010).

Here are some:
  • "not manufactured here" - many academics felt that if learning was not developed within their frame of reference, and within the codes of the subject or course, it was of lesser value. For learning to "count" it had to be developed in sight of the academic, on their "watch" so to speak
  • "not reflective enough" - many academics felt that informal or workplace learning was, by its very nature, unreflected
  • "not good enough" - many academics felt that the approach taken to the discipline or profession within their course was unique, different and better than any other approach at any other institution - so even prior accredited learning at another university was dismissed. The "not good enough" narrative relegated all learning gained outside a university as of lesser value; and RPL as a policy only of relevance to the vocational sector
  • "not my content" - many academics felt that the textbook they had chosen was an essential component of learning - if a student could not reference that textbook, or preferred theories, the learning was not good enough
As a result of these values, the few students who requested RPL for prior learning experienced the following:
  • flat refusal, regardless of policy
  • over-assesssment of prior learning (for example, a first year UG subject might have been assessed via 2 x 2,000 word essays and could achieve a 50% pass with fairly mediocre work - but a student seeking RPL could be asked to do the equivalent of a 10,000 word essay, plus an interview, plus a portfolio of evidence; and then refused recognition
  • lack of knowledge on the part of the academic, of alignment to Learning Outcomes. Students were assessed against content, and textbooks and theories and unstated academic values about both....and this means all students, not just those applying for RPL. The RPL applicant was simply penalised more heavily.
With these findings in mind, and as a policy activist for students, I developed an RPL and Accreditation policy - but I also determined that I needed to understand the way in which each of the 38 Australian Universities interpreted the AVCC Guidelines for RPL. I began a study to determine this. At the same time the Australian Qualification Advisory Board Research into RPL and accreditation commenced (Wheelan et al 2003) to which I contributed. I remember that at the time those of use who were policy and practice advocates of RPL felt the moment had come for a change. How wrong we were!

How do Australian Universities think about "RPL" (a restrospective reflection)

In 2002 at the University of Western Sydney I lead the first research project in Australia that investigated the way in which Australian Universities provided web-based information about the Recognition of Prior Learning for students (Childs et al 2002). The research grew out of my concern that post-compulsory education was only one place in which adults learn in their journey throughout life; yet Australian Universities appeared to be unresponsive to what was called at the time "experiential", "informal", "lifelong" and "workbased" learning. This lack of response could be contrasted to a vigorous discussion taking place in the UK and Europe about learning equivalence, fanned by the development of the Bologna Process.

I'd come to universities from the TAFE sector, where I had been part of, and lead, an emerging engagement with lifelong and workplace learning. The Division of Foundation Studies of which I was a part as a discipline expert in adult literacy, had long talked about adult learning, including what was originally called "real life learning" in the 1980s, but then renamed as authentic or workplace learning in the 1990s. Within that discourse, and as we worked with discipline experts and adult learners, it was obvious that learners could and did come to the educational table with prior learning.

Yet when I came to work in a university, no such "obviousness" existed. The only "students" who were granted recognition were those at the elite end of credentials - the Honorary Doctorate - and for marketing reasons to students entering MBAs. During my first few years teaching and coordinating a Bachelor of Adult Education at the University of Western Sydney, I arrived at some anecdotal insights about the views held by academic colleagues about learning developed outside the codification of their university, their discipline, or their subject. The news was not good.

It appeared to me that students were not perceived to be "adult learners" and universities did not seem to have heard about the past 100 years of debates and knowledge building that had taken place under the heading "adult education" (except perhaps a shallow take on adult learning styles and Maslow's since discredited hierarchy of needs). Faculties of Education seemed to teach social theories of learning, but not to apply this thinking to their approach to students in their classes. These were the early days in the development of learning pathways between TAFEs and Universities (or at least some regional and rural universities), and as a Professor of Education once told me "Universities are the fine wine of education, and TAFEs are the rough red". Having taught since 1979 at High Schools, and then at TAFE since 1985,  and having seen some outstanding curriculum innovation and teaching in both those institutions that well exceeded the conservative and out-of-date teaching I witnessed in Universities in the mid 1990s, I found this elitist attitude hard to take.

My journey from a coal-dust childhood in Newcastle to a Frierian future as an English teacher, had taught me that no person, nor set of knowledge, was more important than another. But some were, and remain, more powerful than others. Giroux helped me understand, and deconstruct, my role as a gatekeeper. Feminism more generally and educators like bell hooks helped me understand how education works to reproduce disadvantage and priviledge. But I'd also learnt that institutions and educators could exercise choice in terms of the relationships they formed to the knowledge, cultures, histories, biographies, identities and languages that students bring to the learning exchange.

But back to the story of "recognition".

The "fine wine" attitude I met when I first joined the HE sector was something I had to try to understand when a new era began at UWS and I was tasked with the development of the UWS Policy on the Recognition of Prior Learning by the then new DVC Professor Chris Duke, who was appointed to the first (and only) Chair of Lifelong Learning at UWS Nepean. As an adult educator, and an inspiring leader, Chris Duke intrinsically understood the need for "the university" to rethink itself within the lifelong learning discourse. Read this archival record of his thoughts in 1997. Note his reference to accredited prior and work-based learning which reflected the work that was being done at the time in the UK concerning APL (Accreditation of Prior Learning).

More in my next post!

Valuing professional practice and lifewide learning

In 2002, with Ingham and Wagner, I conducted research using secondary data, to understand the status quo of information about the Recognition of Prior Learning on the web in Australian Universities. As the abstract stated: Recognition of prior learning (RPL) information on 38 Australian universities' websites was analyzed, with the following results: (1) research on universities' use of technology for student-institution interaction was lacking; (2) terms and definitions used for RPL were inconsistent, hard to find, or required a high level of knowledge; and (3) usefulness varied widely. The study confirmed other research being conducted at the time that the recognition of prior learning in Higher Education was, by and large, poorly promoted to adult learners (Childs et al) and poorly offered to students (Whelan et al).

The rapidly growing "APL" (Accreditation of Prior Learning) agenda that was taking place Europe and the UK, simply did not exist in Australia. It still doesn't. Charles Darwin University is a marked exception to this statement, both in 2002, and in 2011.

Why is RPL important in the "blended and flexible learning" discourse? It is important for a number of reasons.
1. The "lifewide learning" discourse remains incomplete if it does not theorise and encompass student's lifewide learning beyond the institution.
2. The "lifelong learning" discourse remains incomplete if it does not theorise and encompass student's lifelong learning beyond the institution.
3. Institutions that argue that "professional practice" is a critical aspect of contemporary Higher Education continue to attempt to argue that professional practice gained outside a university course is of lesser value (and less critical) compared to "professional practice" developed inside a university subject. This is an elitist argument that falls well short of theorising criticality and disciplinarity within practice, on it's own terms. [Note however, at the honorary doctorate end of the qualification spectrum, universities do have ways of acknowledging lifelong and lifewide learning. These mechanisms are poorly deployed for students in undergraduate degrees].
4. The theoretical and practical processes that lead to the recognition and valuing of lifewide and lifelong learning takes the HE sector into a conversation about their purpose. That conversation includes the following conjecture "If we value what students learn outside the institution, and if we come to understand and identify criticality and knowledge production as a function and outcome of situated learning outside the institution, then what does this mean for what we do inside a university? How can we create a dynamic and flexible relationship with, and between, student's learning and journeys?" These, and many related questions, are a good thing.
5. RPL asks academics to think about learning outcomes, rather than focusing on content. If a student can present evidence of the learning outcomes, then an academic should be able to justify why that evidence does not count. We know from research that often such evidence is judged not to count because it was not developed using a specific textbook (which is not mentioned in the learning outcomes) or a specific assessment task (which is not mentioned in trhe learning outcomes). Or simply because the evidence was "not manufactured here" and therefore, by it's very nature, deemed to be of a lesser quality. I had a personal experience of this latter reaction when I once taught a casual class in "Program Development" in a Bachelor of Adult Education and VET at UTS. I referred a number of highly experience students to the Course Coordinator for RPL (they could have taught the subject every bit as easily as I could) but their requests were denied on the basis that they although they were doing program development, this was not the same as studying it. This comment, and the subsequent decision was made without any reference to evidence. Rather, it was an untested working theory of the Coordinator that relegated experience to the bin of uncriticality.

Childs M, Ingham V and Wagner R (2002). Recognition of Prior Learning on the Web--A Case of Australian Universities.Australian, Journal of Adult Learning, v42 n1 p39-56 Apr.

Dialogue about blended learning

Visit a project I built using Wix in 2010 where colleagues and I explore the meaning of "blended learning"