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The Future Is Here: New Brief Examines Enhanced Role of Learning Recognition

Posted by CAEL

Topics: Prior Learning Assessments (PLA), Social justice, WICHE, COVID-19

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) has published the latest in a series of briefs that are part of a landscape analysis made possible by funding from Strada Education Network and Lumina Foundation. The studies focus on policy and practice issues related to the recognition of prior learning. 

In the new research brief, “Learning Recognition and the Future of Higher Education – a Vision for a Post-Pandemic Learning Ecosystem,” Rebecca Klein-Collins, associate vice president for strategic communication and collaboration at CAEL, and Nan Travers, Ph.D., who is director, Center for Leadership in Credentialing Learning, at SUNY Empire State College discuss the future of postsecondary education and what that future means for prior learning assessment (PLA) and other strategies that recognize learning, regardless of how or where that learning is acquired. The brief discusses how strategies to recognize learning will need to change to support a new learning ecosystem, but the authors also note that the recognition of learning is what will help to bring this new ecosystem to reality.

Both authors’ organizations have traditions deeply steeped in supporting adult learners. CAEL and SUNY-Empire State College have advocated for and promoted the use of prior learning assessment in higher education since the early 1970s. Throughout the brief, there are references to the historic role of the recognition of learning in terms of adult learning theory and social justice -- while keeping a sharp focus on where postsecondary education is headed and how the focus on learning in all of its forms is going to be critical as we move to this new phase. 

This brief also comes at an interesting time -- during the COVID-19 pandemic -- when postsecondary education (along with many other systems) has been turned somewhat upside down. The authors acknowledge this current reality while also noting that the pandemic is accelerating the pace of many changes in the workplace and in education that were already underway. The resulting circumstances are forcing institutions to adopt new solutions and flexibility in delivery systems, and, as we consider our economic recovery, alignment between the postsecondary world and employers will be more critical than ever before. The authors note that recognition of learning is going to be a part of how we can create that better alignment between learning and work. 

With an eye toward the learning environments of the future, the brief underscores postsecondary ed’s growing obligation to prepare learners for success in ever-evolving workplaces. Today, as lines between learning and working blur, educators must serve students within the context of lifetime learning, helping them build work-relevant skills upon a foundation of existing knowledge as they seek to sustain career growth. As a result, the brief argues, learning ecosystems must continue evolving toward a model that allows individuals to seamlessly transition between learning and work as they upskill and reskill through multiple career changes. Within this context, the brief positions the recognition of learning as a mutually beneficial link between education and work. In recognizing prior learning, curricula are shaped by it. As students cycle between the roles of worker and learner, their industry experience injects fresh perspectives within academic curricula. 

The authors confirm recognition of learning’s continued importance in solving challenges related to equity and inclusion. Disregarding an individual’s knowledge is a form of disregarding the individual his/herself. Recognizing learning from diverse sources is a way of valuing the lived experiences of students with diverse backgrounds.

As learning recognition makes curricula more flexible and accessible for diverse learners, higher education will need to prioritize personalized learning, the brief continues, noting that this will require a centralized way to capture and preserve students’ learning records – a “universal transcript” or “skills passport.” Bolstered by a common-language approach, these universal records could offer portable but permanent documentation that reflects validated learning as it accrues across a lifetime. These might include “classroom learning, extra-curricular activities, work experiences, military training and occupations, caregiving and other family experiences, self-study, and every other context in which an individual may acquire skills.”

Learning recognition may be imperative in centering education around individual learning and competencies and strengthening links between learning and work. But the brief cautions that realizing the full potential of this expanded role will require resources and effective strategy. Although methods today often challenge staff budgets and bandwidth, the brief notes the promise of technology for increasing efficiency and affordability. 

To ensure learning recognition captures the myriad ways knowledge can be acquired, the authors call for assessments to be woven within the fabric of the learning process rather than conducted as periodic snapshots. This, the brief maintains, will elevate learning recognition from a transactional routine to a process-oriented mainstay that encourages and supports lifelong learning. 

The brief concludes by offering ways forward for creating a seamless educational experience that values learning recognition and its role in dissolving barriers that have traditionally bifurcated the worlds of learning and work. It calls for public policy to enable new funding models that recognize and value learning from diverse sources. The authors acknowledge that this future vision of postsecondary education and the recognition of learning will not be easy. There will need to be investments in new technologies, changes throughout postsecondary institutions, and strong partnerships between postsecondary institutions and employers to support workers as they cycle back and forth between learning and work. 

Finally, the brief cites the need for strong leadership to effect the systemic change that will be required for diverse learning to occupy a meaningful place within curricula. An examination of policies, strategies, and practices will be necessary if higher ed is to create greater equity for all learning and opportunity for all learners. After all, barring ways of learning is just another barrier to access.

The complete brief can be downloaded from the CAEL website.