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6 Steps to Move Prior Learning Assessment Forward

A new report from Capella University shares ways institutions can grow their prior learning assessment (PLA) offerings. The PLA model is "the practice of documenting a learner's existing knowledge and skills through written assessments and portfolios of work" and providing students with college credit for those competencies, the institution explained in a news announcement.

Particularly now, with students and universities dealing with the economic turmoil of the current pandemic, PLA can provide a way for students to spend less money to obtain their degrees and accumulate credits at a faster rate, the university pointed out. Commented Dick Senese, university president, "Improving the effectiveness of practices such as PLA is one way that institutions can reduce barriers to access and affordability and offer educational experiences that are tightly coupled with the needs of the students we serve."

In "Unlocking the [Full] Potential of PLA," Capella outlines six steps for moving PLA programs forward:

1) Map out current practices. To start, institutions need to analyze where PLA credit is coming from and what programs that credit is mapping to; document whether credit is awarded toward degrees or toward electives; and establish who is responsible for making decisions (e.g., the registrar's office or individual academic departments), the report advised.

2) Communicate with students. Make sure students are provided information about PLA — build it into the standard enrollment and pathway advising process. "One of the biggest barriers to the expansion of prior learning assessment is that many students simply don't know about it," the report noted.

3) Track outcomes. It's important to collect data on which students use PLA and how it impacts their academic trajectory, the report asserted. Use data to make the case for PLA and to refine or redesign practices.

4) Change funding models. Lack of financial support and incentives for PLA is a barrier across higher ed. Funding models at the federal, state and institutional levels need to change so that students can receive credit for their prior learning and be eligible for financial aid for the associated fees.

5) Define competencies. If more institutions use competencies — clearly defined knowledge, skills, abilities and intellectual behaviors — as the measure of learning (rather than time and course completions), "it becomes much easier to assess the value of and apply outside learning to a program of study," the report said.

6) Develop interoperable learner records. The report defines these records as those that "contain verified information about a learner's formal education and credentials, informal learning, and work" that is shareable "across systems, devices, platforms, and applications." Though interoperable learner records are still in their infancy (drawing on distributed ledger technology like blockchain), they "may well be key to unlocking PLA's full potential," the report said.

"There is strong evidence that PLA can be an invaluable tool for decreasing time to completion and reducing college costs — all by recognizing and valuing the learning that students may bring from their work and life experiences," said Becky Klein-Collins, vice president of impact at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. "This report makes an important case for adult-serving institutions to redesign PLA for a new era — in a moment in our history when we need working adults to continue learning and acquiring the credentials that support our knowledge economy."

The full report is available on the Capella site.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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