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.”

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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!)

A Business Plan For Life’s Work

Me, facilitating a week-long faculty development workshop about adult learning and Prior Learning Assessment at Tangaza College in Nairobi, Kenya, in October 2012. A major piece of my life’s work …

During a day-long “priorities conference” for fundraising at my university today, the idea came about that we should help our students develop a business plan for enacting their life’s work. The idea is that income, vis-a-vis a job (presumably) is actually pretty important, but equally if not more important is ensuring that students can tap into work that has meaning, that they do well, and that energizes them.* This discussion was in part prompted by the news today that a University of Florida task force is recommending differential tuition for humanities courses, meaning that humanities courses would cost students more. (Side editorial comment: Worst Idea Ever.)

A second theme of the day seemed to be affordability — higher educational institutions are going to have to (correction: HAVE TO) find more affordable ways to deliver high quality learning experiences. And you know why? Because all of us are inadvertently (or in some cases, intentionally, I suppose) limiting access to people who could most use higher education. And why are we doing this?  Because it costs so darn much!

So how can we:

  • lower the costs of higher education while
  • increasing really good learning experiences while
  • offering these really good learning experiences to more people while
  • allowing for meaningful personalization while
  • connecting it all to employability?

(Hint: Though MOOCs are cool and interesting and are indicators of major change, they are probably not the answer to this question.)

I think stating this conundrum in this way has just helped me clarify the need to develop a business plan for my life’s work.

*An aside – this also reminded me of The Good Work Project.

Rearranging Our Sense of What’s Possible

In his recent post titled Napster, Udacity, and the Academy, Clay Shirky writes a few very important things about the future of higher education that I believe we need to pay attention to. This paragraph sums up why:

Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.

MOOCs, I believe, are currently a place-holder for Big Changes A’ Comin’. I actually don’t think MOOCs as we know them now (in all of their various forms) will BE the change; I think they are instead indicators that change is happening now. And Shirky says why:

The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system …

I, for one, do want change to come to higher education — I deeply want improved access to meaningful and significant learning experiences. But I don’t think of students as an “audience for education.” This implies a somewhat passive, receiving role for learners. (And thus the MOOCs that are recordings of superstar professors giving their lectures aren’t that exciting for me.)

Change – Thank you zacklur on Flickr for allowing this image to be used.

The change I want to see is focused not on how content is delivered because content delivery is not learning (though this will surely be part of it), but in how we engage learners in processing that content, integrating it with their own learning and experience and other ideas from other sources, and making some sense of it all. I want to see changes in how we help our learners and ourselves develop our capabilities to be able to work and communicate effectively with others, to be creative in solving our world’s significant social and environmental challenges, to deeply value diversity and experience and wisdom, and to excel at critical self-reflection and ongoing learning. As I’ve written before, enough with the ivory tower that privileges obtaining certain kinds of knowledge and privileges who gets to obtain it. More and more, our non-ivory towers are doing this same thing, and not even realizing it.

My biggest fear right now is actually not that higher education is changing;  I fear that if we’re not careful with how it’s changing — not careful and super-intentional as we lead these changes — that more people, not fewer, will be shut out of significant, meaningful, transformative learning experiences.  MOOCs might solve part of the access problem for delivering content and perhaps even being able to work through that content with others; MOOCs aren’t going to solve the access problem to significant, meaningful, transformative learning experiences. For one thing, MOOCs do not at all address the digital divide, which I believe is still an issue in our world.

Furthermore, problematically, we still are attached this construct called a degree that is supposed to represent learning and ability. This is evidenced in Shirky’s post:

In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as songs came unbundled from CDs.

I think it’s ok if learning becomes unbundled from the pursuit of a degree if by offering degrees we are really only aiming for students just getting degrees. Unless we can focus on ensuring meaningful, engaging processes and experiences of learning, then why bother? I am as compelled by the piece of paper as I am by the archaic representations of learning such as seat time. I am thus also compelled to lead change in particular ways — with learning and access to it at the center of decision-making and innovation and resourcing — because I  actually believe in the value of rearranging our sense of what’s possible. When we rearrange our sense of what’s possible, we can ensure that our students can, too.

And THAT changes everything.

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.”