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Report: Alternative Credentials Still Mostly a Hit-and-Miss Process

Just how do institutions work with the alternative credentials that their adult learners have earned through personal and professional development experiences? SUNY Empire State College in New York runs an "individualized prior learning assessment" process, by which students can explain and document their college-level learning and be assessed by an expert evaluator. Excelsior College, also in New York, offers "UExcel Exams," which let students earn college-level credit by passing proficiency tests, which they can take at Pearson VUE testing centers. And Rio Salado College in Arizona relies on American Council on Education (ACE) credit recommendations; national exams; and Straighterline, an online course company from which it accepts transfer credit. The school is also piloting the use of CAEL Learning Counts for portfolio evaluation.

These are three of the six institutions profiled in a new report researched and written by Jill Buban, Online Learning Consortium's senior director of research and innovation, and supported by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) and the Presidents' Forum. DEAC is a private nonprofit organization that operates as an institutional accreditor of distance education institutions. The Presidents' Forum is a collaboration of institutions that promote online education.

The objective of "Alternative Credentials: Prior Learning 2.0" is to explore how colleges and universities define alternative credentials and work with their incoming students to issue credit for their prior learning. The report defined alternative credentials as those earned in learning experiences such as MOOCs, training that issues badges, and coding or boot camps. Several themes emerged from the research:

  • All of the institutions have processes in place for internal and external evaluations of credit. The internal evaluations are conducted through a portfolio process that involves faculty or subject-matter experts — which, several of the schools noted, requires a lot of time. Therefore, the colleges and universities have tended to outsource most of their portfolio review to the CAEL program.
  • Every school profiled uses ACE and four also use the services of the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) for credit recommendations. Three are working with a new credit recommendation service, the Consortium for College Equivalency (CACE), a project of the Presidents' Forum. CACE members (of which there are currently six) agree to accept pre-evaluated credit from the other members.
  • The six profiled institutions have "various levels and ways of evaluating MOOCs," the report stated. Two of the institutions — Charter Oak State College and Thomas Edison State College — will pre-evaluate MOOCs for college credit, but that isn't "clearly evident" on their websites, which means students may not know about this aspect of prior learning assessment.
  • Two of the institutions — Thomas Edison and American Public University System — are both currently working out how to incorporate badges into their curriculum to enable students to "provide direct evidence of knowledge to employees."
  • A challenge for all the schools is data management and data reporting. Oftentimes the data for a given student is maintained by multiple departments within the institution, which makes decision-making tougher. Other times, the data required to prove prior expertise comes with an insufficient level of detail or documentation for the school to evaluate prior learning.
  • Problems tied to data are also generating a lot of "gray areas" related to the impact of alternative credentials on graduation. "This availability, or lack of availability, of reliable data leads to mostly suppositions made surrounding time to degree completion," the report pointed out. "We know that prior learning evaluation processes increase time towards degree completion and can be a cost savings for students, however, without accurate data there aren't identifiable percentages around specific types of credentials increasing time to degree completion."

More research on alternative credentialing needs to be done, the report concluded. Buban recommended examining a "wider variety of institutions" as well as documenting best practices in doing quality evaluations of alternative credentials.

The research findings will be presented by Buban during DEAC's annual conference taking place April 23-25 in San Antonio.

The report is available for download on the OLC Research Center website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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