Sunday, April 17, 2005

Credit for Experiential Learning

Credentialing is a major divide between formal learning and informal learning. Formal learning often ends with some sort of recognition: a certificate, a degree, a sheepskin, academic units, a report card, a merit badge, a professional license, or a plaque to hang on the wall. These tokens don't signify learning so much as having gone through an official process.

Years ago, a colleague and I gave a presentation on corporate universities at the annual Training conference. We explained how we were not talking about college or formal education or enriching the mind. The university we had founded was extremely pragmatic. We taught subjects to enable people to be more effective in their work. A hand shot up. "How do you award Continuing Education Units if you don't know how long they spent on their studies?" The CEU or "Continuing Education Unit," measures little beyond having filled a seat for a given number of hours.

We said we didn't care. The less time spent, the better. Our distance-learning specialist could not fathom such an idea. You are supposed to be rewarded for learning, not time-in-seat. Of course, having progressed through primary and secondary school at a fixed rate, unrelated to accomplishment, it's easy to miss the distinction.

This brought back a flood of memories from the late seventies. John Sperling, the founder of the University of Phoenix, believes the source of one's knowledge is value-neutral. Whether you learned things by extensive reading at sea (as he had) or by attending the doctoral program at Oxford (as he also had done) makes no difference, because the measure of learning is what you know, not how you came to know it.

A typical student in the BSBA degree program administered by Sperling's Insitute for Professional Development (IPD) for the Univesity of San Francisco was a thirty-two year-old businessperson with a two-year degree from a California junior college. Who knew more about business, an adult with a dozen years experience in the workforce or an inexperienced 21-year old with an undergraduate business degree? No contest. But the adult students needed recognition of their prior learning.

USF's College of Continuing Education set up a Center for the Assessment of Prior Learning. New adult students would document things they had learned out of school and how they learned them. As an adjunct member of the faculty of USF's McLaren School of Business, I evaluated applicants' background in marketing. I recommended that an experienced sales manager receive credit equivalent to a course on sales management. A product manager for Pacific Telephone received credit for Marketing 101. A bagpiper received three units of music. Was the system perfect? Certainly not. Most applicants deserved a lot more credit than they received; I imagine a few inflated their experience and received more than was warranted. But it's difficult to argue with the logic of the system. One of our students was manager of balance sheet accounting for a Fortune 50 firm; another was Senior Vice President of the world's largest bank. Shouldn't their learning be recognized?

Stephen Wolfram, a polymath physicist and programmer, attended one day of first-year graduate classes at Oxford and didn't learn enough to justify going back for more. He then attended a day of second-year classes and again found scant reason to return. He never went to another class at Oxford. Come exam time, his faculty and peers expected Wolfram to get his comeuppance. He turned in the highest score in his class. He didn't learn in the traditional manner either (no CEUs!) but he earned the same sheepskin as everyone else.

The Western Association of Schools and Colleges accredits college programs as legitimate. If your institution on the West Coast is not accredited by WASC, it's either a technical school or a diploma mill. One morning the WASC accreditation team was meeting with a group of us in the conference room in IPD's offices in San Jose. The honcho from WASC threw down the gaunlet, saying that if someone had a degree from Stanford, he knew what it meant, but if a police officer had a degree from an IPD program, he had no idea what it meant.

Sperling seized on this. "How do you know the Stanford grad knows anything at all?" Indeed, I've since heard the hypothesis that if you took the entire entering class of Stanford and plopped them down in some giant motel in the Midwest, they'd know about as much after four years as they'd have learned on campus.

Our current system favors the credentialed over the uncredentialed, regardless of what they know. It's convenient and easy for hiring managers to put a hurdle of being certified by Cisco or Microsoft than to do one's own testing, even when a certificate is no proof of the street smarts required to get things done. This comes back to haunt them when the certificate, say a Cisco CCNA, gives one the right to demand a $10,000 raise.

Similarly, if a firm only recruits graduates of the top colleges, they pay more but screen out people with low SAT scores or the inability to convince admissions officers to take a risk on them. I've been privileged to attend several elite universities. Take it from me, there are lots of Princeton grads you do not want to work with.

Old joke: What do you call the person who graduated last in their class at medical school? Answer: Doctor.

To keep me honest while I was developing the curriculum and faculty guides for the USF BSBA program, I led a group of sixteen students at what was then called the National BankAmericard Center. VISA was born during our nine months together. My students included a branch manager, business development officers, a data center manager, a product manager, and a number of techies.

At graduation, my bankers donned caps and gowns to file across the stage when their names were called. The sheepskin they were handed looked just like the sheepskins given to the grads who had spent four years on campus. The traditional grads could not have been more joyous than my group with broad smiles, cheering relatives, bouquets of flowers, and renewed sense of confidence. Recognition of learning is empowering.

An individual emailed me from Australia, describing evaluating experiential learning, much as I had done at USF.

I am reminded of people who approach me to 'RPL' (get recognition of prior learning) for various qualifications - in particular what is called here a Cert IV in Workplace Training & Assessment. The idea is that if these people are already doing the work and can prove they are doing it ''competently'' (according to a specified standard), they can get their qual without attending the program. Often they struggle to provide evidence of their competence. I then interview them and get them to tell me HOW they think they learned what they know and do. There are the usual short courses they may have attended that contributed, but there is also a lot they have gained through informal learning - and sometimes this is not on the job - sometimes it is out in the community doing volunteer work - such as for their kid's school, or sporting club or church group or some other community group. It is interesting that these people had not thought of their informal learning events as part of their 'portfolio of evidence'. What is also interesting is that higher ed qualifications don't often provide much evidence of their competence - because the qualification I am awarding them is about what they can DO, not just what they know.

When people are asked to put together a portfolio of prior learning, they tend to overlook experiential learning altogether. Jean-Claude speaks French because his parents spoke French at home. Sally taught herself HTML and Perl by examining code. ...

[exercise: what's on your learning portfolio?]

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