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.”