The Community College
The future of prior learning assessment
within the college system in Canada
Because of their mandates to serve communities
and industry within that, community colleges have historically been delivering
educational programs which are for the most part, closely linked to the
world of work. This has positively influenced two elements which facilitate
the integration of PLAR concepts within their systems. These are:
In seeking a national perspective on PLAR
issues, the following represents synthesis of feedback received from five
provincial jurisdictions, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan
and New Brunswick.
The learning outcomes and the language with
which they are expressed - Community college programs are designed to meet
workplace needs with much focus being placed on behaviors and they are
expected to achieve very concrete, measurable and often obvious results.
As such, program and course objectives tend to be expressed in more tangible
and measurable terms.
When the condition in (A) is met, the development
of assessment tools is fairly straightforward and evidence of competencies
usually does not require complex evaluation processes, consequently, there
appears to be less apprehension on the part of faculty to assessing prior
learning. This factor may be that which influences the variance in the
willingness to respond to requests for PLAR between community colleges
and the universities.
A FUTURE VISION OF PLAR
The following are elements mentioned as
integral to a healthy vision of Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition
in the community college system.
PLAR needs to be integrated into the day-to-day
academic activities of the institution. Its availability must be well-known
throughout the college community and conducted as a matter of course. It
should be incorporated into all training projects and contract training
PLAR needs to be treated by the institution
as an individual standing item on a ll internal administrative agendas
- the college budget planning process, the professional development agenda,
the college marketing strategy, the governing body's annual meeting agenda,
the college research agenda.
Assessments should be conducted by the institutions
for external organizations (including the workplace ) on contract and thus
PLAR is a service provided quite apart from delivery of training but obviously
linked to training in that those assessed, would seek further training.
For example, a provincial licensing body could purchase the assessment
services of the college for their own purposes, not just academic credit.
PLAR should offer credible flexible assessment
practices for all learners -a system that will allow learners the opportunity
for assessment of learning no matter when, where or how it was acquired.
It should incorporate best practices which includes fair, equitable and
transparent access such as identified in the Canadian Labour Force Development
Board standards for PLAR.
In order for PLAR to be more cost-effective,
it should be marketed more extensively to and developed for group assessments.
This provides a much more cost-recoverable option for institutions.
In order for PLAR services to be valuable,
the ensuing "top up" training required as a result of the assessment must
be available in a flexible manner, on an "as needed" basis and in module
sizes that avoid duplication of learning already undertaken.
The list of benefits offered by PLAR services
are numerous and some of these are well documented in the CLFDB's brochure
dealing with this topic. For the purpose of this overview, those attributes
which were identified as paramount to PLAR success are described below.
The learner: PLAR's greatest
strength has been to increase learner's confidence in their own learning
capacities and to motivate them to continue learning. As well, it avoids
the need to unnecessarily repeat learning that has already taken place.
This can accelerate the process of obtaining credentials which the learner
might need to enter the workforce or to be promoted.
Unfortunately this is most often achieved
through costly, one-on-one processes that are not saleable in this age
of education-cost cutting. We need to do research and experimentation to
find better ways to provide PLAR at less cost and share findings with other
jurisdictions. We also need to convince governments that it is a worthy
The institution: PLAR provides
institutions with opportunity to attract a significant number of new learners.
The attractiveness of having prior learning recognized and credited towards
formal learning can be an inviting feature for the "lifelong learner" which
now characterizes a large proportion of our workforce.
A great deal of focus is being placed on the
immediate cost benefits of offering PLAR services versus that of offering
the corresponding course. The resulting benefit, if any, is likely minimal
and perhaps one needs to look at PLAR as the institutions' short term investment
for the longer term benefit of an increasing and a returning client base
enroled in programs.
One of the main challenges with this approach
is the short sighted vision which usually accompanies annual budgets and
the expectation of immediate revenue generation.
If PLAR is appropriately positioned within
institutions' contracted services, and ensuing training plans are well
coordinated, access to flexible training can be augmented as some training
seats are freed up by successful PLAR candidates. This would allow more
efficient use of existing training and education capacities within our
There are a number of unresolved issues
and concerns regarding the use of PLAR in our community colleges. The following
identifies those appearing to be the most critical within the community
With the recent "hypes" about PLAR and its
value, there is always a danger that it be perceived as a panacea for all
the woes in the educational system. This leads to false expectations and
subsequently a potential failure to demonstrate its true value. We need
to communicate reasonable expectation about the potential benefits of this
approach to both students and employers and this needs to be accompanied
by solid evidence of success.
One such questionable message is that if PLAR
was in place, there would be thousands of people who would access it. There
is a sense now that the numbers are not as great as anticipated in the
early 1990's and our failure to reach these numbers now could make implementation
look like a failure.
As with the implementation of any new approach
which requires significant change from current practice, resources need
to be dedicated to the establishment and development of the concepts and
appropriate -supports. Inadequate funding could lead to PLAR being put
in place without credible policies, procedures and quality assessment practices
based on sound adult learning principles.
Another significant danger at this point,
is that PLAR not be accepted by business and industry. We need to develop,
maintain and ensure a "valid and reliable process" for the assessment.
Until PLAR is well accepted or until it has been understood and witnessed
that credits earned through PLAR are indeed equivalent to credits earned
through more formal learning, experiences, it is critical that the focus
be on the very high standards required in granting these credit. If the
credibility is lost and the general public and employers have the impression
that you can "buy your credits or diploma", it will be very difficult to
restore the confidence and lost credibility.
As one reviews the issues surrounding the
successful establishment of Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition concepts
in our community college system, one condition that surfaces throughout
this document is the need to include all of the stakeholders as we develop
solutions to the challenges presented to us. This strongly confirms the
need for a national champion for the cause who can rally the troupes to
guide, coordinate, support and advocate for progress.
If we force this acceptance too quickly, without
having "demonstrated" that graduates with PLAR credits are highly qualified
and that we have not compromised standards, we may experience a backlash
and the employers will start to recognize only training and education from
very specific institutions, namely those that they know do not accept PLAR.
Many of the administrative structures in our
educational institutions as well as those governing student support such
as student loans have not adjusted to officially include PLAR as an educational
activity, therefore successful outcomes in PLAR are often a disincentive
to students - eligibility status for student loans, for example, could
be jeopardized as a result of successful PLAR and offer candidate less
financial support that anticipated and required.