PLA 20/20 – Reflections from the National Institute on the Assessment of Adult Learning

This year’s National Institute on the Assessment of Adult Learning convened adult learning experts, practitioners, and enthusiasts in Philadelphia for a deep dive into Prior Learning Assessment (PLA). As a first time attendee, it was fascinating to learn about the many different ways institutions are leveraging PLA to attract, retain, and graduate adult students. Below are two key takeaways from my time surrounded by PLA experts (though it should be noted these were limited by my inability to attend all of the concurrent sessions).

Collaboration is Key for Expanding Access to PLA – Implementing PLA at the institutional level is no easy task, from building consensus among faculty and administrators about how to assess college-level learning to identifying and marketing PLA to promising candidates, the process is complex and time consuming. However, several initiatives aimed at pooling resources and sharing expertise have launched in an effort to remove some of the institutional barriers to PLA implementation. By building strong relationships, thoughtfully exploring participants’ needs and capacity, and seeking to benefit from economies of scale, each of these efforts is expanding student access to PLA through inter-institutional collaboration. Three such efforts highlighted at the Institute are described below.

  • New Jersey Prior Learning Assessment Network (NJ PLAN) - launched in July 2014, this consortium offers all students who attend member schools access to PLA. Participation is voluntary and “New Jersey-centered,” meaning they’re open to participation from nearby schools. Currently, NJ PLAN includes Essex County College, New Jersey City University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University, Rutgers University, Salem Community College, Stockton University, and Thomas Edison State College.  Putting comparative advantage to good use, PLA pioneer Thomas Edison State College provides assessment services (including introductory one- and two-credit courses for PLA and Portfolio Development respectively) and consultation to other members, while faculty from partner institutions provide subject matter expertise. Working closely with faculty across institutions, NJ PLAN has already compiled a database detailing the learning outcomes of over 4,000 courses at member institutions, which prospective PLA users can explore to determine their potential eligibility.
  • College Credit Fast Track – Another statewide initiative (which we’ve blogged about in the past), this collaboration allows all of Pennsylvania’s community colleges to offer PLA through portfolio assessment via a shared website and e-portfolio platform. The 14 institutions came together to identify common standards and develop a uniform process for PLA portfolio development, submission, and evaluation.  The website and e-portfolio platform were developed by a vendor with funds from a Department of Labor TAACCCT grant, and funds from the grant are also supporting a statewide marketing campaign to drive users to the site. The site’s initial launch in the early 2015 generated significant interest –particularly in western, more rural areas of the state—and approximately 500 students submitted inquiries. Many users ultimately opted not to submit portfolios for PLA once they fully understood the process, but rather to pursue tests or coursework. Nonetheless, representatives from participating institutions agreed that the site was introducing a new audience to the concept of PLA, as well as building a growing understanding of the rigor associated with demonstrating college-level learning for all users (students, faculty, etc.).
  • Consortium for the Assessment of College Equivalency (CACE) – this new partnership between long-time PLA practitioners Charter Oak State College, SUNY Empire State College, Thomas Edison State College, Granite State College, Excelsior College, and the Community College of Vermont* is focused on developing rigorous common standards for PLA so that institutions can accept PLA from other member institutions as credit – not transfer credit, but direct credit. The group is currently working to develop common standards and best practices for evaluating local professional learning options (local training programs which would likely not pursue American Council on Education [ACE] or National College Credit Recommendation Service [NCCRS] credit recommendations). Ultimately, the project aims to increase the transparency and consistency of PLA credit awards. The group plans to release the standards under a Creative Commons license when they are complete, and hopes they might serve as a model for other regional collaborations.

New Directions in PLA – The methodology for assessing prior learning seems to have been relatively consistent over time. While particulars might differ, most institutions offering PLA choose from a fairly standard menu of options for students to demonstrate that they have mastered the learning outcomes of particular courses. This menu consists of: credit-by-exam (CLEP, faculty developed challenge exams, etc.), portfolio assessment (students develop a portfolio of work demonstrating their prior learning and faculty evaluators determine what credit to award), and/or accepting credit recommendations for past training or licensure (for example, ACE or NCCRS recommendations). The Institute, however, showcased some exciting new models for assessing prior learning as well as some forward thinking considerations for future PLA use.

  • Intersections with Competency-based Education (CBE): Likely not a surprise to those in the adult learning field, competency-based methods of PLA were a hot topic. Competency-based approaches were featured in multiple sessions and popped up in remarks and discussions throughout the Institute. In one particularly interesting example, representatives from Nashville’s Lipscomb University presented on their CORE Competency Assessment Center, which offers adult degree students the opportunity to participate in a one-day behavioral assessment for PLA credit. Incoming students can earn up to 30 credits towards the university’s adult degree offerings by demonstrating mastery of skills—such as active listening and conflict management—during workplace simulations evaluated by trained assessors. In one of the most seamless PLA/CBE combinations I’ve seen, the center goes on to offer personalized coaching to students in competency areas where assessors indicated that they hadn’t yet achieved mastery. In addition to PLA credit, the center also uses digital badges to signify varying levels of competency.
  • Expanding Views of College-level Learning:  On a more conceptual level, a number of Institute speakers urged attendees to think more deeply about how we define college-level learning. Non-cognitive assessment expert Rich Roberts spoke about the groundswell of interest in non-cognitive skills (things like conscientiousness, agreeableness, and the newly ubiquitous grit) from K-12 to the workforce. He discussed the assessment field’s advances in measuring non-cognitive skills and the development of evidence-based interventions to improve these skills, sparking a lively debate among participants as to the possible role of non-cognitive skill development in adult education.
  • Promoting Equity in PLA Implementation: Presenters from SUNY Empire State College shared their work in developing a more inclusive PLA process that seeks to more effectively engage underserved minorities. The program’s developers were inspired by research from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, which showed minority students saw significant reduction in time to degree with PLA use, but that their uptake of PLA tended to be proportionally low. Faculty from Empire State went on to create a series of workshops designed to help women of color identify the value of their past experiential learning. The speakers also challenged the audience to think about how the broader PLA community can do a better job of promoting equity and ensuring that PLA’s benefits are available to all students.

Overall it was an interesting and informative few days, and a great introduction to the diversity of the PLA field. I’m looking forward to following the development of each of the initiatives described above, and watching as the practice of PLA continues to grow and evolve at institutions around the country. 

*Correction: A previous version of this post did not include the Community College of Vermont, a Vermont State College, as a member of the Consortium for the Assessment of College Equivalency.


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