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In my opinion

Why universities need to reinforce their recognition of prior learning

Savvy students understand that learning happens in multiple venues beyond the classroom.


In a recent discussion about the intended uses of The Manual on Quality Assurance for the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) in Canada, published last year by the Canadian Association for Prior Learning Assessment, a colleague asked if I thought the manual would lead to more RPL activity at Canadian universities. I quickly flashed back over the past 20 years that I’ve been involved with prior learning assessment and recognition, and answered that the time will never be better.

So much has changed in postsecondary education in the last decade. Even those most convinced that the decline in direct-entry high school grads would never affect them are now eating their words as, with few exceptions, the demographic shift is well under way across the country. But it is more than the demographics that have shifted, so have the learners.

Today’s savvy students are quickly learning to curate their own learning experiences. They are often out ahead of their institutions in their understanding that learning happens in multiple venues beyond the classroom. They understand that, if the face-to-face offerings on the bricks-and-mortar campus do not fit the complexity of their multiple commitments, there are options in the ether at their own university and beyond. Further, as more and more institutions begin to focus on learning outcomes, students come to see how these can be applied to their experiences of non-formal and informal learning.

Less aware of this possibility are the growing numbers of “returning to learning” applicants who want to complete a credential that they may have abandoned earlier for whatever reason. To recruit these students back to the fold, universities are developing mature-student centres and polishing up on their recognition-of-prior-learning rhetoric. Academic advisors are coaching applicants on how to document learning from their workplace, community service and volunteer experiences. Self-advocacy is a skill that nourishes a healthy sense of ownership of one’s own learning and choice of learning objects.

CAPLA’s quality assurance document demonstrates, clearly, that RPL practice can be supported by rigour, standards, and provable, duplicable assessment methods, tools and processes. For me, it is all about the three R’s: respect, responsiveness and relevance. Respect for the learner and the multiple gifts each brings through our literal or virtual doors; responsiveness to a rapidly changing climate where access to learning resources is no longer restricted to traditional paradigms of courses and assessment; and relevance in a just-in-time world where universities are less the custodian of knowledge and more the navigational guide to an exponentially expanded world of learning.

Dr. Donahoe is dean of the faculty of academic and career advancement at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

CAPLA’s 2016 Recognizing Learning 2016 boot camp is being held in Toronto October 14-15.

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  1. Karen Willy / September 27, 2016 at 16:37

    Well said!