Have We Got an Adult Education Model for PLAR? Paper presentation at the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education (CASE) Annual Conference, Vancouver, BC, May 31 - June 3, 2008
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Introduction and problem Having recently reviewed the edited collection by Per Anderson and Judy Harris Re-theorising the Recognition of Prior Learning (2006, Leicester, UK: NIACE) I was left wondering what specifically “adult education” has to offer in understanding the potential and practice of prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) in higher education in Canada. The edited collection was interesting and challenging but it was also wide-ranging and left open the more specific question of how and why we can apply PLAR as a form of advanced placement within university level education. As adult educators do we have any insights to offer in the use of PLAR in higher education? Can we go beyond the usual knee-jerk reaction “that it’s a good thing” and offer some guidance on the why, how, and when of PLAR – drawing on adult education literature, experiential learning as adult educators, and perhaps some insights from ‘critical cultural studies’ (an area of study which grew out adult education practice)? This paper will draw on some empirical research (essentially a case study), PLAR literature and other research results, and on direct experience of assessing PLAR portfolios. In addition to the commentary below I plan to examine equity issues and questions of ‘difference’ related to experiential learning. PLAR has become a worldwide “movement” encompassing Australasia, Southern Africa, Europe and North America with an established International Consortium for Experiential Learning. It attracts those who see PLAR as important for increasing access for previously disadvantaged groups but also attracts politicians and business leaders which suggests they may well view PLAR as a mechanism that will help them turn traditional higher education towards meeting the needs, priorities, and interests of the “real” world, as they see it. Adult educators have always valued student experience in the classroom and while there is broad support for PLAR for adult students there are concerns about processes, the transferability of knowledge, and the dilution of the social, emancipatory purposes of adult education. The process of PLAR is most often presented as theoretically unproblematic: the vast majority of research focuses on the technical questions of how to measure learning’s worth and also how to persuade traditional educational institutions, and “elitist” academics, to accept PLAR credits (Thomas, 1998; European Commission, 2002). The case for PLAR fits best with technical training programs that have identifiable skills and abilities as the course objectives. Behavioural learning theories that emphasize competencies or learning outcomes best fits with this instrumental approach to training. Students are encouraged to match their skills to the course outline and outcomes and claim the credits. PLAR can be useful for workers to demonstrate they have knowledge and skills that are needed for promotions or are applied to “laddered” skills-based job categories (for example in Australia). PLAR meets most opposition as a method of gaining credit within academic programs (particularly none professional or applied); most courses in traditional academic programs are presented as non-instrumental since the knowledge areas, theories, and learning processes of critical reading and writing they concentrate on are outside of common discourse/culture. Learning and Knowledge PLAR raises the question of whether all adult learning should be viewed in terms of what is measurable, exchangeable, and credit-worthy? For example Derek Briton has argued that the “use value” of certain knowledge is being confused with its “exchange value,” what is very useful in one situation may not be “exchangeable” into course credits. It also “undervalues” experiential learning that cannot be transferred (Briton et al., 1998). This is not to claim that one kind of knowledge is superior to the other but rather that it is different. This is not to deny that experiential learning can be useful when undertaking course-based learning, but it may be quite legitimate to argue that the prior learning is sufficiently different that it cannot be credited as if the applicant had undertaken the course of study. From a traditional adult education perspective some of the issues involved in considering the importance of prior learning are very familiar. If we take a broad sweep of adult education we find that credentialism has overtaken many formerly non-credential adult courses and programs. As noted in the first chapter traditionally adult education could be defined as outside of the “post-secondary system,” courses were offered to achieve a number of purposes including social and community building, for example Canadian adult education can historically be defined as “education for citizenship” (Selman, in Scott et al., 1998; Schugurensky, in Fenwick et al., 2006). The outcome of the course was not to be measured by a “grade” but by the reflections and social actions of its participants. The learning could be individual and social but it was not assessed for the purposes of credit. As adult educators adjusted non-credit courses to allow for awards of credit they had to face up to many of the same issues that are associated with PLAR. A major challenge was to retain the social purposes and collective learning of traditional adult education practice while ensuring that the course would pass any external examination of its credit-worthiness. This same shift in emphasis – from learning to credential – can be observed in PLAR processes. Some Conclusions While PLAR may emphasize access (dramatically illustrated in post-apartheid South Africa) there is little evidence from empirical studies conducted across Europe that it has benefited previously disadvantaged groups (European Commission, 2000). PLAR has the potential to shake up traditional teaching but the mainstream promotion of PLAR does little to resuscitate the democratic social purposes of adult education: it has the opposite tendency; it emphasizes the argument that learning is essentially about skills and competencies useful for employment. The challenge for progressive adult educators today is no different to that of past adult educators, it is to marry the critical experiential learning that working people do engage in to critical theoretical knowledge within the academy: to recognize experiential knowledge when it is appropriate and build on it when needed.