Revolutionary Movements? On MOOCs, PLA, and College-Level Learning

Thanks to stargardener on Flickr for allowing use of this image.

I am a part-time, behind-the-scenes participant in the MOOC on MOOCs happening this week (@MOOCMOOC). I wish I had the time to fully participate but I do not (ironic, given that I am on a short sabbatical right now, but my sabbatical has some externally imposed deadlines that I must hit … so alas, I prioritize).

But here’s a question I’ve had rattling around in my head for quite a while now, and in some ways it’s part of a larger question posed for Thursday’s agenda of the MOOC on MOOCs:

To what extent should Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) have a place in the world of MOOCs?

This question emerges because most MOOCs right now may not have a great way to assess learning of each individual participant, and may not be credit-bearing. The idea is that they’re “open” to some extent, right? So if a person “takes” a MOOC, how might they earn credit for it? In this article, I said I thought PLA could be such a process (not should, per se, but could). In my mind, a MOOC might be one source of learning for the student in the same way that any other non-credit or informal course or workshop would be (and it may be the only source of learning for some students). If the student can demonstrate that he or she has met college-level learning outcomes as a result of taking a MOOC by itself and or in combination with other sources of learning (oh, say by reading books, mentoring by an expert, etc.), then why couldn’t PLA be used as a way for the student who has taken a MOOC to earn college credit?

But let me back up, because I know there is a lot of mis-information about PLA. So let me be clear:

Prior Learning Assessment is the awarding of college credit for appropriately documented and demonstrated college-level learning typically gained from outside-of-college sources. A lot of folks call is credit-for-experience, which is totally incorrect. PLA awards credit for learning – specifically, college-level learning. There is a big difference between experience and learning, and then again, between learning and college-level learning. In our PLA courses, we walk our students through the conceptual differences to move themselves across the spectrum accordingly:


PLA requires students to demonstrate their learning at the final point on this continuum, the translation into college-level learning.

So what’s “college-level learning,” then? PLA has coped with this question for years, and now I suspect MOOCers might need to consider it too. So let me offer some guidance from the PLA literature.

In our PLA program, we help students understand college-level learning by using McCormick’s (1993) definition:

1) College-level learning is conceptual — it has a published base of knowledge; students must be able to describe their knowledge in ways that are more than just describing their own processes or key ideas. They must link their learning — synthesize and integrate their learning, in fact — to the academic theory of the particular content area and discipline.

2) College-level learning is generalizable — the knowledge is applicable beyond one specific situation or context. What are the general principles at play? In general, what are the causes, the effects, the challenges, the opportunities, the differences, the similarities, etc? These are questions PLA students often grapple with when translating their personal learning into college-level learning.

3) College-level learning resides in a recognized field, or body of knowledge. This means that what students earn credit for should be taught in college; it may be lower division or upper division (I don’t know of any PLA programs that are available at the graduate-level); it should be a recognized and legitimate content area and if it’s a course-equivalency PLA program, then what students earn credit for should be the equivalent of what they’d earn credit for if they took the course.

Our PLA students “challenge” college courses by using the course description from the catalog and the course syllabus as guidelines for their submissions, and by documenting their college-level learning per the intended student learning outcomes of the course. Faculty are our PLA evaluators; textbooks and academic articles are students’ referenced sources for considering the academic content; and demonstrating course learning outcomes — regardless of the sources of that learning — is key.

Steve Krause took a pretty good stab with the question about MOOCs and PLA in this post — and he’s posed some interesting points worthy of consideration, except that he got the PLA part totally wrong. PLA — theoretically and in good practice — is not about awarding credit for experience at all. If a student takes a MOOC, and demonstrates that he or she has taken and maybe even completed a MOOC, I am not just going to say, “Great! Here’s 3 credits for ya!” I want to see evidence of learning, at the college-level! As I said in this interview:

A good example of the difference is that a student cannot earn credit for courses called “How Sheila Raised Her Kids,” or “How Larry Manages Employees,” because there aren’t such college courses. However, students can reflect on their own parenting or management experiences (what worked, what didn’t, how that compared to other experiences they had, causes and effects, pros and cons, etc.), what they learned from reading books, workshops or trainings, talking to other people, observations, etc., and then can do PLA for academic courses like Theories of Parenting or Child Development, or Theories of Management or Principles of Supervision [courses that many institutions offer]. The student needs to be able to say “here are my experiences and here’s what I’ve learned from them, AND … here’s how they connect to and demonstrate the learning that is addressed in this course.” They put their expertise and knowledge on the table and enter the conversation with the “academic experts.”

The deal with MOOCs is that they’re totally new and we’re all trying to wrap our heads around what they are, what we’d like them to be, and more significantly, what they as a movement — potentially a revolution — could mean for higher education. Are they courses? Are they college-level? Yes, maybe, and no, maybe. And maybe these are not even the right questions! I think the folks participating in the MOOC on MOOCs are doing a great job wrestling with all of this and I am grateful to be able to plop in and out and see what the conversation is like.

PLA, however, is not new– PLA has been around for more than 40 years; there is a thorough body of literature and research associated with PLA (such as PLAIO, a peer-reviewed journal on theory, research, and practice in PLA, for which I am a peer reviewer; or here is a slightly out of date bibliography that I put together, for example), and standards, and organizations, and (dare I say it?) experts in the theory and practice of PLA. Today, MOOCs are disruptive, loudly and grandly; PLA has been disruptive for a long time (in the US and more so in other countries), but quietly and softly. Thomas (2000) called PLA a “quiet revolution” —  a movement that challenges formal educational systems, which  define knowledge and also define how knowledge should be learned and assessed. PLA says, “Hey – taking your course at your college is not the only way someone could learn that stuff.”

MOOCs and PLA as “revolutionary movements” may have a lot in common despite the differences in volume and approach, and PLA may very well have a place in the MOOC landscape as a way to assess learning that students gain from taking and participating in MOOCs. However, I also see some major liabilities to this idea too — for PLA (with its own history and theoretical and epistemological stance), for MOOCs becoming whatever they shall become, for higher education, and most importantly, for learners. I’ll address my thoughts about these limitations in Part II of this post … after I attempt figure them all out. (Afterall, I don’t call this blog PrattleNog for nothing!)


McCormick, D. (1993). College-level learning and prior experiential learning assessment. Adult Learning. Jan-Feb 1993, 20-22.

Thomas, A. (2000). Prior learning assessment: The quiet revolution. In A.Wilson & E. Hayes (Eds.). Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education. (pp. 508-522). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


2 thoughts on “Revolutionary Movements? On MOOCs, PLA, and College-Level Learning

  1. Beautifully articulated, supported, and persuasive, Melanie — even for someone like me who’s already a seasoned sailor on the Good Ship PLA. MOOCs are just another port ‘o call to explore!

  2. Pingback: Convergence Zone: Heutagogy « PrattleNog

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