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:


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


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


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.


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:

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, RMIT

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: 

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.

This Is Not About Beer

Thanks to riebschlager on Flickr for allowing use of this photo!

Tap,tap, tap.

Last week this article about our PLA students was published:

A look at students who have earned credit for prior learning (Inside Higher Ed)

The comments are interesting, and frankly not at all surprising to me. Most higher ed faculty likely won’t “get it” until they GET IT. I actually suspect that lot of faculty don’t have much experience with adults in their classrooms or offices; maybe they really don’t know the depth and breadth of knowledge and expertise — and commitment, and focus, and intention — that adults can bring with them to higher education.

Still, I know that some folks will never get it, because getting it would require a major shift in thinking (dare I say in perspective) about how and where legitimate learning happens. If we continue to operate from a delivery / teaching / pour my knowledge out of my full head into their empty heads paradigm of education, then of course PLA doesn’t make sense, and it won’t ever make sense.

Until the paradigm changes. Until we move from a “pour it out and in” model to a “tap into it” model of learning.

What was rewarding about this piece being published, despite the critiques (some of which were just mean, by the way), is that I heard from several people who thanked me for helping spread the word about what good PLA can look like. Of course I didn’t do much: it was our students who did the work and who were willing to tell it like it is — like they experienced it. Nonetheless, many thanks to Paul Fain (you can follow him) who heard my call to tell their side of the story.

Now it seems like the higher ed conversation is all about these amazing things called MOOCs — including this great post about The March of the MOOCs that my colleague Jesse over at Hybrid Pedagogy wrote. Next week (starting August 12th) he’s offering a MOOC on MOOCs. I hope that in this course we will interrogate the educational paradigms that different MOOC forms seem to be informed by. To what extent are MOOCs reinforcing the delivery / teaching / pour my knowledge into their empty heads paradigm?  To what extent might they challenge this paradigm, or create a new paradigm? To what extent can something like this support deep, meaningful learning? To what extent can MOOCs tap into people’s prior knowledge, pull it out, challenge it if appropriate, build on it, and make it better?

I hope MOOCs will eventually tap, and not pour, so I am keeping an open and hopeful mind about MOOCs, and I am willing to learn and to have my own perspectives challenged and changed. I’d certainly hope that people slamming PLA might be willing to learn and have their perspectives changed, too — or at least to consider the possibility of learning that happens a different way.

Tap, tap, tap.

Thanks to Matt Peoples on Flickr for making this image available.


Prior Learning + New Learning = Deepening Existing Knowledge

Donna Gentry, a Communications major, completed her Prior Learning Assessment Portfolio, earning 36 credits for college-level knowledge that she gained through her professional and personal experiences. She wrote for the following courses that focused on her major and greatly enhanced her professional work in teaching adults and designing corporate trainings:

  • CCM 320 Public Presentations
  • CCM 321 Small Group Communication
  • CCM 322 Interpersonal Communication
  • CCM 323 Effective Listening: From Comprehension to Critical Evaluation
  • CCM 324 Nonverbal Communication
  • CCM 328 The Communication of Affirmation
  • CCM 329 Healing Communication
  • CCM 336 Humor and Communication
  • COL 432 Leadership Communication
  • COL 426 Team Building: Managing Work Groups
  • CTD 440 Principles of Instructional Design
  • CTD 446 Helping Adults Learn

In Donna’s final reflection she wrote, in part:

I feel a great sense of pride every time I complete an essay.  When I reflect on my career my accomplishments and experiences I think to myself, “I really did a lot.  I really know a lot.”  And I learn something new about myself with each essay.  I am reminded to use good listening skills, I am reminded to make the conscience effort good interpersonal communication requires and the patience and self-awareness it takes to be a better communicator.  PLA reminds me of all these things and more.  My self-worth has never been so solid.

Donna talks about her PLA journey filled with benefits and tips for success here:

So! Much! More! Than Credit

I’ve been publicly prattling a lot about Prior Learning Assessment lately. For example:


Here, and


But I fear that the important things about PLA are not getting enough attention. So let me say it loudly and in a bright font here:

PLA is about earning credit – and it is about so! much! more! than earning credit.

Many thanks to cogdogblog on Flickr for allowing this image to be used.

I could go on and on about the so! much! more!, but instead, let some of our students tell you. Below is a list of students who share their experiences with the PLA program at Marylhurst University. Some are videos, some are written testimonials, and all tell great stories about the ways in which PLA challenged them, benefited them, and changed their perspectives on their experiences and themselves!

That’s right: the process of doing PLA — the process of reflecting critically on their experiences, making new meaning from those experiences, articulating those experiences in new ways — changed them. In some cases, the process resulted in pretty significant transformative learning.

Thanks to all of our PLA students who are willing to reflect on their experiences, one more time.

Life Is A Legitimate Classroom

Life is a legitimate classroom.

Earl’s Library of Universal Knowledge. Thanks to roberthuffstutter on Flikr for making this image available.

OH. MY. GOSH. THIS. IS. GOOD! Read this: A Letter From a Hybrid Student

Then think about these two points that Teo makes:

1) “…it takes courage to assert that one’s life is a legitimate classroom.”

2) “Our lives are our source material; our histories, a text worthy of exploring in community.”

Then consider that Prior Learning Assessment allows this assertion to gain ground and to have higher educational value – that is, that students can articulate their life-as-classroom learning and earn college credit for it.

We could say: “Good for you, you know a lot! You are learned! You are intelligent! You are knowledgeable!” Which is all true.  But the message that often comes with that (mostly from employers) is also, “…but you don’t have a degree.”

PLA addresses this issue – it helps students claim and earn credit for their knowledge (some say it legitimizes knowledge that adult learners come to college with, but I don’t believe that this knowledge is illegitimate prior to a credit or two being associated with it).

Just watch these student videos – hear their perspectives, their voices. Did they get credit for their experience? NOPE – for their learning!

Life is a legitimate classroom.

Here is a recent article that speaks to PLA, and a quote from me about how it can have quality and integrity:

College Credit Without College

Sleazy prior learning practices still exist, says Melanie Booth, dean of learning and assessment at Marylhurst University.

“There are some PLA programs out there that look like credit laundering,” she says. For it to hold water, “you’ve got to translate your experience to academic knowledge.”

Translate your experience to academic knowledge. Because Teo said it:
Life is a legitimate classroom.