This post has nothing to do with educational technology but everything to do with the kind of humane and truly personal education that we should be talking about when we throw around phrases like “personalized education.” Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs) go hand-in-glove with the trendy Competency-Based Education (CBE). The basic idea is that you test students on what they have learned in their own lives and give them credit toward their degrees based on what they already know. But it is often executed in a fairly mechanical way. Students are tested against the precise curriculum or competencies that a particular school has chosen for a particular class. Not too long ago, I heard somebody say, “We don’t need more college-ready students; we need more student-ready colleges.” In a logical and just world, we would start with what the student knows, rather than the with what one professor or group of professors decided one semester would be “the curriculum,” and we would give the student credit for whatever college-level knowledge she has.
It turns out that’s exactly what Empire State College (ESC) does. When we visited the college for an e-Literate TV case study, we learned quite a bit about this program and, in particular, about their PLA program for women of color.
But before we get into that, it’s worth backing up and looking at the larger context of ESC as an institution. Founded in 1971, the school was focused from the very beginning on “personalized learning”—but personalized in a sense that liberal intellectuals from the 1960s and 1970s would recognize and celebrate. Here’s Alan Mandell, who was one of the pioneering members of the faculty at ESC, on why the school has “mentors” rather than “professors”:
Alan Mandell: Every single person is called a mentor.
It’s valuable because of an assumption that is pretty much a kind of critique of the hierarchical model of teaching and learning that was the norm and remains the norm where there is a very, very clear sense of a professor professing to a student who is kind of taking in what one has to say.
Part of the idea of Empire State, and other institutions, more and more, is that there was something radically wrong with that. A, that students had something to teach us, as faculty, and that faculty had to learn to engage students in a more meaningful way to respond to their personal, academic, professional interests. It was part of the time. It was a notion of a kind of equality.
This was really interesting to me actually because I came here, and I was 25 years old. Every single student was older than I was, so the idea of learning from somebody else was actually not very difficult at all. It was just taken for granted. People would come with long professional lives, doing really interesting things, and I was a graduate student.
I feel, after many years, that this is still very much the case—that this is a more equal situation of faculty serving as guides to students who bring in much to the teaching and learning situation.
Unlike some of the recent adoptions of PLA, which are tied to CBE and the idea of getting students through their degree programs quickly, Empire State College approaches prior learning assessment in very much the spirit that Alan describes above. Here’s Associate Dean Cathy Leaker talking about their approach:
Cathy Leaker What makes Empire State College unique, even in the prior learning assessment field, is that many institutions that do prior learning assessment do what’s called a “course match.” In other words, a student would have to demonstrate—for example, if they wanted to claim credit for Introduction to Psychology, they would look at the learning objectives of the Introduction to Psychology course, and they would match their learning to that. We are much more open-ended, and as an institution, we really believe that learning happens everywhere, all the time. So, we try to look at learning organically, and we don’t assume that we already know exactly what might be required.
One of my colleagues, Elana Michelson, works on prior learning assessment. She started working in South Africa where they were—there it’s called “recognition for prior learning.” And she gives the example of some of the people who were involved in bringing down Apartheid, and how they, sort of as an institution working with the government, thought it might be ridiculous to ask those students to demonstrate problem solving skills, right? How the institution might look at problem-solving skills, and then if there was a strict match, they would say, “Well, wait a second. You don’t have it,” and yet, they’re activists that brought down the government and changed the world.
Those are some examples of why we really think we need to look at learning organically.
Students like Melinda come to us, talk about their learning, and then we try to help them identify it, come up with a name for it, and determine an amount of credit before submitting it for evaluation.
This is not personalized in the sense trying to figure out which institution-defined competencies you can check off on you way to an institution-defined collection of competencies that they call a “degree.” Rather, it’s an effort to have credentialed experts look at what you’ve done and what you know to find existing strengths that deserve to be recognized and credentialed. The Apartheid example is a particularly great one because it shows that traditional academic institutions may be poorly equipped to recognized and certify real-world demonstrations of competencies, particularly among people who come from disadvantaged or “marked” backgrounds. Here’s ESC faculty member Frances Boyce talking about why the school recognized a need to develop a particular PLA program for women of color:
Frances Boyce: Our project, Women of Color and Prior Learning Assessment, is based on a 2010 study done by Rebecca Klein-Collins and Richard Olson, “Fueling the Race to Success.” That found that students who do prior learning assessments are two and a half times more likely to graduate. When you start to unpack that data and you look at the graduation rates for students of color, for African American students the graduation rate increases fourfold. For Latino students it increases eightfold. Then, when you look at it in terms of gender, a woman who gets one to six credits in prior learning assessment will graduate more quickly than her male counterpart given the same amount of credit.
That seemed very important to us, and we decided, “Well, let’s see what we could do to improve the uptake rate for women of color.” So, we designed four workshops to help women of color, not only identify their learning—the value of their learning—but identify what they bring with them to the institution.
What’s going on here? Why is PLA more impactful than average for women and people of color? In addition to the fact that our institutions are not always prepared to recognize real-world knowledge and skills, as in the Apartheid example, people in non-privileged positions in our society are tacitly taught that college is not “for them.” That they don’t have what it takes to succeed there. By recognizing that they have, in fact, already acquired college-level skills and knowledge, PLA helps them get past the insults to their self-image and dignity and helps them to envision themselves as successful college graduates. Listen to ESC student Melinda Wills-Stallings’ story:
Michael Feldstein: I’m wondering if you can tell me, do you remember a particular moment, early on, when the lightbulb went off and you said to yourself, “Oh, that thing that’s part of my life counts”?
Melinda Wills-Stallings: I think when I was talking to my sons about the importance of their college education and how they couldn’t be successful without it and them saying to me, “But, Mom, you are successful. You run a school. You run a business.” To be told on days that I wasn’t there, the business wasn’t running properly or to be told by parents, “Oh, my, God. We’re so glad you’re back because we couldn’t get a bill, we couldn’t get a statement,” or, “No one knew how to get the payroll done.”
That’s when I knew, OK, but being told by an employer who said I wasn’t needed and I wasn’t relied on, I came to realize that it flipped on me. And I realized that’s what I had been told to keep me in my place, to keep me from aspiring to do the things that I knew that I was doing or I could do.
The lightbulb for me was when we were doing the interviews and Women of Color PLA, and Frances said to me, “That’s your navigational capital.” We would do these roundtables where you would interview with one mentor, and then you would go to another table. Then I went to another table, and she said, “Well, what do you hope to do with your college degree?” And I said, “I hope to pay it forward: to go continue doing what I love to do, but to come back to other women with like circumstances and inspire them and encourage them and support them to also getting their college degrees and always to be better today than I was yesterday, so that’s your aspirational capital.” And I went, “Oh, OK.” So, I have aspirational capital also, and then go to the next table and then I was like, I couldn’t wait to get to the next table because every table I went to, I walked away with one or two prior learning assessments.
And then to go home and to be able to put it into four- or five-page papers to submit that essay and to have it recognized as learning.
I was scared an awful lot of times from coming back to school because I felt, after I graduated high school and started college and decided I wanted to get married and have a family, I had missed the window to come back and get my college education. The light bulb was, “It’s never too late,” and that’s what I tell women who ask me, and I talk to them all the time about our school and our program. Like, “It’s never too late. You can always come back and get it done.”
Goals and dreams don’t have caps on them even though where I was, my employer had put a cap on where I could go on my salary and my position. Your goals and dreams don’t have a cap on it, so I think that was the light bulb for me—that it wasn’t too late.
It’s impossible to hear Melinda speak about her journey and not feel inspired. She built up the courage to walk into the doors of the college, despite being told repeatedly by her employer that she was not worthy. The PLA process quickly affirmed for her that she had done the right thing. At the same time, I recognize that traditionalists may feel uncomfortable with all this talk of “navigational capital” and “aspirational capital” and so on. Is there a danger of giving away degrees like candy and thus devaluing them? First, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving a person degree certification if they have become genuine experts in a college-appropriate subject through their life experience. In some ways, we are all the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, or the Cowardly Lion, waiting for some wizard to magically convey upon us a symbol that confers legitimacy upon our hard-won skills and attributes and thus somehow making them more real. But also, a funny thing happens when you treat a formal education as a tool for helping an individual reach her goals rather than a set of boxes that must be checked. Students start thinking about the work that education entails as something that is integral to them achieving those goals rather than a set of obstacles they have to get around in order to get the piece of paper that is the “real” value of college. Listen to ESC student Jessi Colón, a professional dancer who chose not to get all the credits she could have gotten for her dance knowledge because she wanted to focus on what she needed to learn for her next career working in animal welfare:
Jessi Colón: It was little bit tricky especially because I had really come here with the intention of maximizing and capitalizing on all this experience that I had. Part of the prior learning assessment and degree planning process is looking at other schools that may have somewhat relevant programs and trying to match what your learning is to those. As I was looking at other programs outside of New York or at other small, rural schools that do these little animal programs, I found that there were a lot of classes that I really wanted to take.
One of the really amazing things about Empire State is that they can also give you individualized courses, and I did a lot of those. So, once I saw these at other schools, I was like, “Man, I really want to take a class in animal-assisted therapy, and would I like to really, really indulge myself and do that or should I write another essay on jazz dance composition?” I knew that one would be more of a walk in the park than the other, but I was really excited about my degree and having this really personal degree allowed me to get excited about it. So, it made sense, though hard to let go of that prior learning in order to opt for the classes.
I could’ve written 20 different dance essays, but I wanted to really take a lot of classes. So, I filled that with taking more classes relevant to my degree, and then ended up only writing, I think, one or two dance-relevant essays.
It turns out that if you start from the assumption that the education they are coming for—not the certification, but the learning process itself—can and should have intrinsic value to them as tools toward pursuing their own ambitions, then people step up. They aspire to be more. They take on the work. If the education is designed to help them by recognizing how far they have come before they walk in the door and focusing on what they need to learn in order to do whatever it is they aspire to do after they leave, then students often come to see that gaming the system is just cheating themselves.
There are many ways to make schooling more personal but, in my opinion, what we see here is one of the deepest and most profound. This is what a student-ready college looks like. And in order to achieve it, there must be an institutional commitment to it that precedes the adoption of any educational technology. The software is just an enabler. If college community collectively commits to true personalization, then technology can help with that. If the community does not make such a commitment, then “personalized learning” software might help achieve other educational ends, but it will not personalize education in the sense that we see here.
I’m going to write a follow-up post how ESC is using that personalized learning software in their context, but you don’t have to wait to find out; you can just watch the second episode of the case study. While you’re at it, you should go back and watch the full ETV episode from which the above clips were excerpted. In addition to watching more great interview content, you can find a bunch of great related links to content that will let you dig deeper into many of the topics covered in the discussions.
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