Post-Traditional Learners and Prior Learning Assessment: The Practice of Learning

They used to be called “adult learners;” a recent report by the American Council on Education (written by Louis Soares) calls them post-traditional learners:

Post-traditional learners have been a growing presence in America’s postsecondary education institutions since the late 1970s. In fact, by many measures these “non-traditional” students have become the norm in postsecondary education. But post-traditional learners are a diverse group. The term encompasses individuals with a range of education needs from high school graduates to high school dropouts and those with limited literacy and English language skills. Post-traditional learn- ers also encompass many life stages and identities; they are single mothers, immigrants, veterans, and at-risk younger people looking for a second chance. (page 2)

No doubt the ACE report is a bit self-serving; ACE has a lot to gain in helping post-traditional learners complete degrees. Here’s what the report says about Prior Learning Assessment:

While the MOOC discussion is inspiring excitement and trepidation, the important element to consider is the emergence of a set of entities which are capable of evaluating different learning experiences for credit-worthiness. Thus far this competency has been largely used at the margins of postsecondary education, not surprisingly because it is closely associated with the characteristics of post-traditional learners. MOOC initiatives could be the accelerant that moves these organizations to scale in mainstream postsecondary education delivery.

The investment of $500 billion in education outside the academy, the rise of corporate universities, and the expanded interest in prior learning assessment are all pointing to the emergence of an ecosystem for validating learning that encompasses and supersedes the academy. (page 11)

In this post-traditional world, I would like to see PLA be an integrative force for past, present, and future learning experiences regardless of source, not just “prior” learning. I would like to see PLA less as a validating process and more of a “meaning-making” and “making learning visible” process. I would like to see PLA be a heutagogical practice (I believe many PLA programs already are), facilitating double-loop learning and self-determined learning, and supporting the development of capable and competent learners!

The combination of praxis and reflection on experience and learning is powerful and significant for post-traditional learners in a post-traditional world defined by constant change. In this vein, PLA wouldn’t even be called PLA — it would be simply be called “the practice of learning.”

Bookmark: Living In A World Of Motion

There were three notable chapters in my book this week, and I placed a bookmark on the page with the paragraph that wove them all together in a lovely way.

Chapter One: Last night I returned from an accreditation team training, and the theme of most of our discussion in the meeting (as well as the discussion on the airport shuttle bus) was “change in higher education.”  We watched this video to provoke our thinking:

Chapter Two: I have been collaborating with a new wonderful set of colleagues — Lisa Blaschke, Stewart Hase, and Chris Kenyon — to design and launch an international Community of Practice focusing on advancing the theory and practice of heutagogy. And if there’s one thing heutagogy is about, it’s about learning and change. (An aside: we’ve not launched yet, but when we do, here’s our Twitter handle: @HeutagogyCoP)

Chapter Three: I am teaching our PLA Seminar: From Experience to Learning this term. I’ve connected with wonderful, amazingly smart and caring adult learners, many of whom are starting to write about their own learning experiences and challenges with change in their PLA essays. (Have I mentioned that I really love teaching this course? I wish I could do so more often!)

book3dBookmark: I just finished devouring Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

These three chapters of my week converged when I read this paragraph from the book’s chapter titled, “Embracing Change:”

Change motivates and challenges. It makes clear when things are obsolete or have outlined their usefulness. Bot most of all, change forces us to learn differently. If the twentieth century was about creating a sense of stability to buttress again change and then trying to adapt to it, then the twenty-first century is about embracing change, not fighting it. Embracing change means looking forward to what will come next. It means viewing the future as a new set of possibilities, rather than something that forces us to adjust. It means making the most of living in a world of motion.

The book reflects a lot about learning in online community-based gaming – which I know next-to-nothing about. But now I think I’d better learn. (GULP! I never thought I’d say that!)

(Unless, of course, Pinterest provides the same experience, by any chance? Because I’m getting really good at learning with Pinterest!)

To Africa

Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya

Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya

In October, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Kenya to facilitate a week-long faculty and staff workshop about Prior Learning Assessment at Tangaza College in Nairobi.  I am grateful to my colleagues at the School for New Learning of DePaul University for inviting me to participate!

In a bookstore in Nairobi, I purchased Beryl Markham’s autobiographical account of her time in Africa titled West with the Night.  Here’s a particularly relevant and poignant paragraph that captured my attention:

“There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa — and as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime. Whoever writes a new one can afford a certain complacency in the knowledge that his is a new picture agreeing with no one else’s, but likely to be haughtily disagreed with by all those who believed in some other Africa. … Being thus all things to all authors, it follows, I suppose, that Africa must be all things to all readers. . . . Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. ”
― Beryl Markham, West with the Night

Read more about my trip here: Out to Africa

Scholars Of Their Learning

I’ve been attending this year’s IUPUI Assessment Institute and had the pleasure of attending Kathleen Yancy’s keynote about ePortfolios. Several tidbits that I hurriedly scribbled down have had this nog prattling, including this big whopper:

Learners’ reflection on their collection of artifacts — and the relationship among those artifacts (versus the artifacts as atomistic indicators of learning outcomes) — help our learners become scholars of their own learning.

And I thought:

Scholars of their own learning …

Scholars of their own learning!!!

Scholar’s Desk at Yu Garden, Shanghai – thanks to amy_mcgill on Flickr for making this image available!

HEY WAIT — THIS IS WHAT PRIOR LEARNING ASSESSMENT DOES!

(We just haven’t ever called it that!)

In PLA, students reflect on the collection of their learning experiences as well as evidence of these experiences (their collection of artifacts), as well as how these experiences and artifacts collectively and holistically their attainment of the learning outcomes of a course for which they are trying to earn credit. And during this process, they take perspective on their learning; they examine it; they question it; and they make new meaning from it. They become scholars of it!

And ya ya, they can earn credit too. And save money. And decrease their time to degree completion. And all that.

BUT what’s important is that they become scholars of their own learning!

Yancy also spoke of the three main activities in higher education:

  1. Curricular activities
  2. Co-curricular activities
  3. Extracurricular activities

And I thought there was one missing: lived-and-living curricular activities. You know — the stuff that has happened (or is happening) to us and our students external to our institutions. As Lindemann (1961) pointed out, “Experience is the adult learner’s living textbook.” Oh yes it is! (And of course this isn’t limited to adults; younger students have lived-and-living curriculums too.)

I don’t know why I never had this lightbulb moment before, but listen to our students and you’ll hear this over and over! They have become scholars of their own learning.

How. Awesome. Is. That?

Education: A Lifelong Process Of Self-Examination

Richard Seymour, an Organizational Communications  major, recently completed his 27-credit Prior Learning Assessment Portfolio!  In writing his essays,Richard dug deep and reflected on experiences from his personal and professional life that resulted in new meaning and learning for him.

His essay topics included:

  • Negotiation
  • Great Meetings
  • Managing Transitions
  • Organizational Cultures
  • HR for the Career-Minded Professional
  • Effective Listening
  • Small Group Communication
  • Team Building: Managing Work Groups
  • Intercultural Communication

In his Final Reflection Essay, Richard wrote: “Going forward, I hope that the entanglement I have between my prior learning and the new learning becomes even more intertwined. Because education is and should be a continuous and lifelong process of self-examination, as well as an investigation into the world around us.”

How You Know It

David Walker, an Interdisciplinary Studies major with concentrations in Cultural Studies and Text: Image, earned 36 credits through the Prior Learning Assessment program. With a solid background in writing, PLA was a comfortable fit for David, yet he says it was a challenging one. With rich personal and professional experiences, David wrote for the following topics:

  • Film Genre
  • Effective Listening
  • Minorities in the United States
  • The Graphic Novel
  • Film and Social Struggle in America
  • U.S. Ethnic and Immigration History
  • Text:Image
  • Topics in Major Directors: George Romero
  • Media and Society
  • World and Ethnic Literature
  • History of Film

In his reflection about the PLA process, David tells us, “PLA is not about what you know so much as it is about how you know it. Each essay is part of a personal narrative that defines who you are through the things you have learned.” Congratulations, David!

Convergence Zone: Heutagogy

I was a pop-in-and-out participant in last week’s MOOC MOOC, during which time I wrote this reflection about MOOCs, Prior Learning Assessment, and College-Level Learning. I read several tweets and posts from folks participating along the way that shaped and changed my thinking, and I gleaned a few interesting ideas and a whole lot of thoughtful questions about MOOCs, and even more thoughtful questions about teaching, learning, assessment, higher education, prior learning and assessment, pedagogy, technology, accreditation, adult learning, and the intersections of all of these topics.

Thanks to fabonthemoon on Flickr for making this image available for use!

This busy intersection is where I spend a lot of my time professionally and theoretically – smack dab in the middle of several noisy streets, trying to determine what way I might want to travel next before I get hit by oncoming traffic. It’s really not as terrifying as it might sound; in fact, the metaphor, for me, represents the complexity of higher education in a good way: its systems, its people, its opportunities and challenges. Traffic is moving here, and quickly, but then again, slowly. (It is higher education, after all.) 

One post that caught my attention was written by Dave Cormier titled Rhizomatic Learning and MOOCs – Assessment. Here’s a key point he made that’s been rattling in my nog since I read it:

IF

What we are learning is contextualized by each individual differently, according to their experiences, their understanding and purposes,

AND

The things that are learned are not definite, but flexible and complex

THEN

Assessing what someone ‘knows’ is an act of enforcement of a given point of view, not a(n apolotical) [sic] helpful guideline to learning

I want assessment to be a helpful guideline to learning (as reflected, for example, in my concerns with learning analytics). Period. With or without MOOCs, my personal vision of assessment’s main value is as a key part of an individual’s and group’s learning processes and cycles (assessment as an act of learning — for and as learning — versus of someone’s learning by someone else). I also think there is great value in assessment as and for learning for organizations. Otherwise, how would we know how we’re doing and how to improve?

Yet here’s where it gets messy:

When someone (presumably a person we call a “student”) wants to have their learning “certified” in some way and wants the currency of higher education — credits and degrees and whatnot — attached to that learning to “verify” that they have it, then these ideals of learning/assessment get messy and murky. (The same might be said of organizations: verification for higher educational organizations is just called “accountability” and is often conflated with “assessment” and “accreditation.”) For a student, passing a course somehow represents that he or she has learned something from it; adding up these courses to a degree presumes that he or she is qualified in particular ways. Somehow we have to “validate” all of this, for all sorts of reasons.

Prior Learning Assessment has been a way for students — typically adults with several years of life and professional experience under their belts — to have their learning “validated,” to earn credit for their prior college-level learning that they have obtained through non-college learning opportunities. By critically reflecting on their learning experiences, making meaning from these experiences, and connecting and integrating their own knowledge with that of the “academic experts,” students can demonstrate that they’ve met course learning outcomes through different sources other than the course. (GASP!) But perhaps the most meaningful aspect of PLA, in addition to acknowledging that people can learn all sorts of things in all sorts of ways from all sorts of sources, is that the process helps develop reflective thinking, awareness, problem-solving, and mindfulness about learning. In other words:

PLA helps learners be better learners!

So if PLA were to become a way to assess MOOC-based learning (which it could be) — if it were to be “re-branded,” as one person in my PLA LinkedIn group discussion forum suggested, to focus less on assessing prior, experiential learning for adults and to focus more on assessing college-level learning for all, then by all means, it could legitimately serve an assessment-of-MOOC-learning function (and frankly, it likely will).

But I keep coming back to what might be lost by using PLA in this way, for this purpose, and it comes down to my fear of losing the other 2 aspects of PLA: assessment for and as learning. Furthermore, I fear that there would be additional aspects to PLA that might be sacrificed or forgotten about. Here’s my quick and dirty laundry list:

  • The focus on the adult-as-learner specifically
  • Development of the critically reflective process required for turning experience into learning
  • The transformative (life-changing) outcomes of PLA as a learning process
  • The kind of thinking and problem-solving skills that folks develop when engage in PLA
  • The great sense of accomplishment that students feel and confidence that students gain when their learning is awarded college credit.

(See this PLA Bibliography for literature that reflects all of the above theoretically and in practice.)

I really don’t know much about MOOCs, or about rhizomatic learning, but I do know a few things about learning to learn, and I know a lot about PLA. I really would want to retain the kind of PLA that supports this metacognitive development in addition to validating someone’s experiential learning.

Now, this busy intersection is beginning to reveal a convergence zone for me: a focus on learning to learn, on developing capability as a learner — regardless of the topic or content area, the role or methods of assessment, who is teaching, or how or where one gains learning. This zone is called heutagogy, and I am working on creating a curation of resources and a community of practitioners to think together about its usefulness in this 21st century learning and higher educational landscape. I openly invite participation and perspectives: stayed tuned for more about Heutagogy In Action.

MORE ABOUT HEUTAGOGY

Blaschke, L.M. (2012). Heutagogy and lifelong learning: A review of heutagogical practice and self-determined learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(1), 56-71. Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1076/2113

Bhoyrub, J., Hurley, J., Neilson, G.R., Ramsay, M., & Smith, M. (2010). Heutagogy: An alternative practice based learning approachNurse Education in Practice19(6), 322-326.

Canning, N. &  Callan, S. (2010). Heutagogy: Spirals of reflection to empower learners in higher education. Reflective Practice, 11(1), pp. 71–82.

Canning, N. (2010). Playing with heutagogy: Exploring strategies to empower mature learners in higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 34(1), pp. 59–71.

Chapnick, S. & Meloy, J. (2005).  Renaissance eLearning: creating dramatic and unconventional learning experiences. Essential resources for training and HR professionals. Pfeiffer: San Francisco, CA. (See “From Andragogy to Heutagogy,” pp. 36–39.)

Hase, S, and Kenyon, C. (2000). From andragogy to heutagogy. Ultibase, RMIThttp://ultibase.rmit.edu.au/Articles/dec00/hase2.htm

Hase, S, & Kenyon, C. (2007). Heutagogy: a child of complexity theory. Complicity: an International Journal of Complexity and Education, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 111-118. “Heutagogy: A Child of Complexity Theory”

Hase, S, & Kenyon, C. (2001). Moving from Andragogy to Heutagogy in Vocational Education. Retrieved from: http://www.avetra.org.au/abstracts_and_papers_2001/Hase-Kenyon_full.pdf