I’m just back from Indianapolis where I attended a Lumina Foundation convening on prior learning assessment (PLA). Prior to going, I have to be honest, I didn’t know much about PLA. Having been a traditional undergraduate student myself and working at a university that did very little PLA I just didn’t have a lot of personal, tangible experiences with it. But now that I’m big and important and working at a state higher education coordinating body, I need to know about such things.
First off, I learned that PLA is really a generic term for lots and lots of different kinds of things, ranging from AP exams to Portfolio Evaluations. But the basic premise is that the student can show up at a higher education institution and say “I already know everything you’re teaching in this or that class and I’d like the opportunity to prove it to you in exchange for credit in that class without actually having to take said class.”And I surmise that the impetus behind the push for more institutions to begin offering PLA is in attempt to reach President Obama’s 60% goal as it provides incentives for working adults to go back to school and reduces the time to degree.
I think PLA makes sense theoretically. If the objective of a class is to teach you how to solve a quadratic equation, for example, and you already know how to solve a quadratic equation, well your taking that class is going to be a huge waste of time for both you and the professor (and a huge waste of taxpayer money if you receive fedreally backed student loans).
But this theory begins to fall apart when a) classes do not have clearly defined learning objectives or they have many learning objectives and the student can demonstrate say 5 out 8 of them; and b) schools have financial disincentives for offering PLA.
I don’t know about you, but when I was in college very few of my classes had syllabi that methodically laid out learning objectives. I think institutions are getting better at requiring these things but we’re still a long way from having clear learning objectives for every course in our catlog. And, if students are able to demonstrate competency in a number of but not all of the learning objectives of a class, should we award partial credit for the course? As long as we are shackled to the “3 credit course” model, we’ll continue to struggle with these kinds of issues. A fellow Lumina convenee from Texas highlighted a promising program being developed in his state to address this issue. As I type, very smart people in the Lone Star State are “hacking” classes into small modules, developing online content for each module and putting them online. Slowly but surely they are breaking down college courses into distinct, seperate learning modules based upon the various learning objectives for each course. Something like that definitely holds promise for the future of PLA.
In addition, we have to face the fact that the funding models at some institutions do not incentivize awarding PLA credit, or better said, they disincentivize awarding them. Many funding formulas are driven by student credit hours (SCH’s) and PLA credit is not part of the SCH count. And, because most four-year institutions rely upon the SCH dollars generated by large freshmen and sophmore classes to subsidize smaller upperclasses, PLA credit, which is most often awarded for general education courses, hurts the bottom line. We can’t expect schools to give away the farm, especially when state appropriations continue to dwindle.
PLA programs also run into problems when we account for “the swirl”(the term given to the recently realized phenonmena that students rarely enroll and stay at one institution but rather bounce, or swirl, between many institutions). When students receive PLA credit at one institution through departmental challenge exams, for example, and then try to transfer to another institution the second institution is often under no requirement to accept the PLA credit awarded by the former institution. At the Lumina convening I attended this was highlighted as a major challenge to statewide PLA programs (not to mention the even greater challenge presented by students who move from state to state). Any kind of statewide PLA policy would have to address this issue of transferability. This would of course require institutions to trust in the quality of assessment done at the institution down the street- no easy task!
Overall though, I have great hopes for PLA. I feel its based on solid theory. We just have to work hard to iron out the wrinkles in application. We’re embarking on some pretty interesting stuff in regards to PLA in my state this coming year. So…more to come…..