Monday, May 07, 2012

Prior Learning

If you haven’t seen Paul Fain’s piece in IHE about credit for prior learning, check it out.  It’s a great introduction to a topic that it ready to break big over the next couple of years.

The piece points out, correctly, that two major national organizations -- ACE and CAEL -- have established increasingly popular protocols for measuring prior learning and awarding appropriate academic credit.  Campuses have generally been circumspect about mentioning that, for reasons both valid and, well, not as much.  

A few thoughts on prior learning from a community college perspective:

1. We need to be absolutely clear on the difference between “prior learning” and “life experience.”  They are not remotely the same thing.  “Life experience” is the classic move of the diploma mill; it offers credit just for having walked the planet.  “Prior learning” refers to specific knowledge or skills that you can actually prove.  For example, in the pre-Nursing track at my college, we incorporate CNA training into the intro course, so students can earn while they learn and gain exposure to the realities of health care.  

But we’ve discovered that a fair number of our entering students are already practicing CNA’s; they’re looking to move up the career ladder.  So we break the intro course into two modules, and we give credit for one of them to the students who come in as CNA’s.  The idea is that the material is no different than what they’d learn elsewhere, and if they’ve already passed a nationally normed exam and had experience in the field, there’s little point in putting them through those paces again.  

Many colleges have similar practices with Cisco or Microsoft certifications in CIS programs.  And many colleges have longstanding habits of awarding course credit for CLEP exams.  So the concept that college-level learning can occur outside of college is not new.

2. Faculty resistance and conflicts of interest.  The folks on the non-credit/corporate training side of the college have been pushing “credit for non-credit learning” for years.  I’ve been reluctant to move too quickly on that for fear of setting off thermonuclear war with the faculty, who would likely respond to any hint of alternate routes for academic credit as an existential threat.

It’s a sticky area.  Community college faculty have long complained -- correctly -- that their students often get a raw deal upon transferring, because faculty at the receiving institutions don’t want to “give away” too many credits.  The same people who stand to lose work get to pass judgment, and the conflict of interest is just too powerful.

The same applies here.  On the faculty side, the incentive to be stingy with credits is powerful.  (One could also argue the opposite -- namely, that in a fiscal crunch, the incentive for administrators to be generous would be powerful.)  That’s the real appeal of a group like CAEL.  Whether their standards are “right” or not, at least they’re arms-length.  That matters.

3. Slippery slope.  There’s a reasonable and widespread fear that that the least objectionable applications of credit for prior learning would represent the camel’s nose under the tent.  Again, the appeal of the third party arbiter is that it offers a perspective immune to local pressures.

4. Transferability.  The article mentions that prior learning credits don’t always transfer.  That may not matter much for short term vocational programs, but it’s a real issue with fields that require a bachelor’s or higher.  The catch here is that many students change their minds along the way; telling a student who thought he had 30 credits when he decided to aim higher suddenly lost half of them is not a pleasant prospect.  Conceivably, if CAEL or something similar became widely accepted, this issue might start to fade.

5. Baumol’s cost disease.  Regular readers know that I’m no fan of the credit hour.  Even Western Governor’s University, apparently, has been unable to escape its withered clutches.  Part of the very real appeal of credit for prior learning is that it drives a stake through the cold heart of the credit hour.  If what matters is the learning you can demonstrate -- as opposed to the seat time you can document -- then it becomes possible to envision other ways to earn academic credit.  This strikes me as an unalloyed good.  Absent that, Baumol’s cost disease will continue to drive up costs inexorably.

6. Graduation and Funding.  The article notes, correctly, that much of the impetus for the recent interest in credit for prior learning stems from the desire to see graduation rates improve.  To the extent that states start moving from funding enrollment to funding completion, credits awarded for prior learning offer colleges a rare economic win.  They also offer students a way to take the edge off ever-increasing tuition costs, since they’ll be able to skip classes that wouldn’t teach them anything new.  

Honestly, credit for prior learning strikes me as potentially far more disruptive than distance education.  The latter, for all of its technical sheen, is still about faculty-student interaction.  The former potentially displaces the faculty.  That’s a fundamental change, and one that I’d expect would elicit polarized responses.  I have to admit dancing gingerly around the subject for a while now for exactly that reason.  It may be time to confront it more directly.