Rediscovering the North American Legacy of Self-Initiated Learning in Prior Learning Assessments

Rediscovering the North American Legacy of Self-Initiated Learning in Prior Learning Assessments

Xenia Coulter (SUNY Empire State College, USA) and Alan Mandell (SUNY Empire State College, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8856-8.ch003
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Throughout history, particularly in the United States, adults have engaged in deliberate acts of learning so as to meet their particular needs or interests. Education has been viewed simply as an integral part of being alive and, until the professionalisation of adult education, adults were considered competent self-reliant learners. In this chapter, we will argue, firstly, that this legacy is continued when prior learning assessments of student-initiated learning do not match extant, already-established knowledge. Secondly, this chapter posits that the recognition of uniquely acquired knowledge is not only appropriate within the university setting, but that the process itself may begin to free the university from an unhealthy preoccupation with what is already known and open it up further to new and multiple ways of knowing.
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Higher education today increasingly regards “open-ness” as an inherent good. Although “open” is typically considered equivalent to “accessible,” in truth, being “open” is also closely associated with the idea of being “free.” Thus, open universities can be free of charge, or at least comparatively low cost, can have flexible schedules and learning formats, can offer multiple curricular choices, and can be democratic; that is, available to anyone who wishes to attend (e.g., Burge, Gibson, & Gibson, 2011; Peters, 2014). That some universities have come to view these characteristics as valuable can be attributed, at least in part, to the importance of these characteristics to adults, a relatively recent growing and attractive market of students. The award of college credit for knowledge acquired through “self-education,” also keenly valued by adults (Kett, 1994), is yet another way the formerly isolated ivory tower is opening its doors.

Assessments of such “prior knowledge” originally appeared on the American university landscape in the late 60’s, when demands for educational freedom were particularly strident (Gamson, 1989). The goal was to “open” the existing curriculum to skills and knowledge acquired in settings other than the university and to recognise them as potentially “creditable” – as worthy of inclusion in the curriculum as any course taught by a university professor. While this assessment process was by no means universally accepted, the resulting knowledge, when carefully scrutinised by experienced educators, stimulated serious reflection about the meaning of college-level learning (e.g., Coulter, 2002; Travers, 2012). A successful actress, a published author, a composer with works performed by well known orchestras – all without benefit of college study – seemed to know not only what naïve undergraduates might be taught in class but considerably more than could possibly be learned in a standard 15-week term, let alone after many years of formal study.1 Whether these artists could or could not pass a conventional exam in the subject area seemed irrelevant compared to the range and depth of what they actually knew.

It soon became evident that public validation in itself was not a necessary condition for creditable knowledge. As Lindeman commented decades earlier, “...people who perform productive tasks [are] themselves creating the experience out of which education might emerge” (1926, p. xv). Years before universities began offering courses on welfare policy, social workers or administrators of social agencies requested (and obtained) credit for the knowledge of policy that they not only executed but, in many cases, created and sometimes sought to change. A steel worker inventing new types of steel rolling methods, a beer manufacturer overseeing intricate brewing processes, a computer technician in charge of complex information systems, each brought to the table knowledge that was not part of any existing university curriculum but which, epistemologically, was complex and theoretical enough to be easily characterised as college learning. Even parenting, a skill typically denigrated by academics, upon closer examination (Coulter, 2001; Klinger & Pisaneschi, 1994) revealed degrees of breadth, depth, and critical understanding not ordinarily expected in other practical but unquestioningly credit-bearing courses, such as in physical education, construction management, or music performance.

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