From My Perspective – Prior Learning Assessment and Portfolio Development

I recently completed an undergrad course that was one of the most interesting and challenging courses I’ve done. It was also difficult and very time consuming – something I certainly did not expect. The course? Psyc205, Portfolio Development.

I took the course for two reasons. First, it comprises part of my Career Counselling certificate program. Second, I felt it would enhance my ability to assist other students with the portfolio development process. When I enrolled in the course, over a year ago, I was still heavily involved with the students’ union as the president, and in my role as student representative, I sat on the Prior Learning Assessment Steering Committee.

Prior to that time I was unaware that AU provided this type of service, at least in this particular format. When I first enrolled at AU in 1996, I had submitted two courses taken at NAIT (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology) for assessment for credit (at $50 each). The courses were part of a computer programming diploma, and very similar in content to several of the courses currently taught at AU, such as Comp200/210 Intro to Computing and Information Systems; or Comp314 Computer Organization. To my disappointment, the credits were denied, and I subsequently completed all 120 of my degree credits the “hard” way – by taking individual AU courses 3-credits at a time.

Of course, the assessment process has improved greatly since that time, and I learned from my participation on the PLAR Steering Committee that there are many other ways to achieve university credit at AU. In referring to completing my 120 credits the “hard way,” I’m speaking somewhat facetiously of course. I do believe students who earn university credits by actually completing all the individual courses have really accomplished something, since this is a difficult and challenging (and expensive) way to complete your university degree — particularly if you earn all of those credits at a distance. Credits earned in other ways seem “easier” because we earn them through life experience, or by taking post-secondary education in other formats. They are no less valid, however, and an important indicator of AU’s status as a progressive, open university, is AU’s comprehensive prior learning assessment for credit process.

There are critics of the prior learning assessment for credit process. Some feel that the accrediting of prior experiential learning that is based on life, work, community or volunteer experience, is not a particularly valid way to award university credit. It goes against traditional notions of ownership of knowledge, where universities are the sole possessors of knowledge, maintaining quality control by dispensing it in regulated segments under the supervision of professors, supported by institutional research. A shift in thinking is required, where experiential or vocational learning is placed on an equal weighting with academic, classroom-based learning.

To accept the PLAR process, one must see life long learning as belonging to the individual, where each of us learns to recognize, manage and assess our own experiential learning process. Many critics of prior learning accreditation believe that it is too difficult to properly evaluate learning that occurs outside of the formal structure, and that without a careful, comprehensive, systematic assessment process, credit may be awarded injudiciously. They see awarding significant quantities of prior learning credits as diminishing the value of a hard-earned university degree.

Having just completed my own portfolio in accordance with AU’s PLAR requirements, I’ve learned first-hand that these criticisms are unfounded. At Athabasca University, at least, the process for portfolio submission is a rigourous one, and any credits awarded are merited.

Psyc205 is an important aid in explaining the portfolio process. The first assignment in the course was the most interesting. It involved creating a timeline of my life, beginning with high school. I had to list every significant event that I had learned something important from, usually something lasting at least three months. It was an incredible trip back in time, and I found I had to revisit the assignment many times, since I would remember more and more as the weeks went by.

Along with the timeline, a short description of what was learned through the experience had to be written. As I worked through this, I was amazed at how many diverse and interesting experiences I’ve been through, and at the wealth of knowledge I had gained. Right from the time when I was 13 years old and teaching piano, I was operating my own business, learning important principles of management, organization and marketing.

Subsequent exercises made it even more clear just how much experiential prior learning I possessed. Next units involved identifying career goals and objectives, and what would specifically be needed to achieve these. Researching the degree program major was done at length, with a detailed listing of each course in the major. Courses were then broken down into learning clusters, the elements that comprised the course, the things you expect to know once the course is completed. This information provides the basis for your portfolio, since you have to prove that the things you’ve learned through experience are equivalent to university coursework.

At each step of the way, I found myself having to go back to the things I had learned experientially, comparing them to what the courses taught and thinking about how they could be described in learning terms. Because I have already graduated with my undergrad degree in a program, I prepared my portfolio without any intention of submitting it for assessment – simply doing it as part of my Career Development Certificate. But for purposes of the assignment, I chose a degree program that I might be interested in pursuing one day, that of health administration.

By the time I reached the actual part where I had to put my portfolio together, I had spent far more time on the course than I ever expected. The assembly of the portfolio took even more time – taking each experience from my past, describing what I had learned, translating it into a learning statement, and identifying individuals who would be able to write a letter of support to the university. I couldn’t believe how many things I was able to find that were highly relevant to the program. My work as a musician that had given me the ability to market and promote a service. My temporary office assignments that taught me multiple administrative functions. My ability to organize and complete a project, learned from doing extensive home renovations. My volunteer work with the Spanish association, where I worked with the board team to plan, organize and manage the distribution of meals for hundreds of thousands of people at Edmonton’s Heritage Days Festival, supervising the music and dance for an ethnic performance, acting as treasurer and completing financial statements once the event was done. Who knew at the time that this enjoyable activity would be the equivalent of a course in Administration, Organizational Behaviour or Finance?

For me, this was the most interesting part of the process, learning how to translate all these diverse life activities into tangible learning statements that fit specific university courses.

No credit is awarded for a portfolio without proof, whether it be documentation or letters of recommendation, and I eventually gathered a list of almost 30 individuals who I would need to approach if I were to have my statements verified, along with a detailed list for each that included the learning statements they would be qualified to speak about. The university requires that these individuals write directly to the PLAR department in a specific format, otherwise the references are discarded. Fortunately I did not have to actually go through the time and effort of approaching all these individuals and asking for letters, since I was not submitting my portfolio for assessment, because this part in itself would be incredibly time consuming. Digging up all my previous coursework also took some time and effort, since some of my computer courses date back many years – and it was highly satisfying to finally get all my paperwork together in one place!

As much as I enjoyed the whole process, I felt a huge sense of relief when I finally had my portfolio (all 50 plus pages!) printed and ready to go.

Although there is detailed information on the PLAR website describing how to go about preparing a portfolio, it’s far from a simple process, and I’m not sure I would recommend attempting it without taking Psyc205. On the other hand, at $578 for the course, plus a portfolio submission fee of $250, the combined expense is way too much for most students to do it this way.

When I participated on the PLAR Steering Committee, I recommended that students be given another alternative. I suggested a day-long seminar could be offered, perhaps in collaboration with AUSU, to help orient students to the portfolio process at a reduced cost. Including the portfolio assessment fee in the course cost would be another way of making it more manageable. The university argues that it is well worth the total cost of $800 plus, since the potential credits earned with a portfolio would cost significantly less than taking individual courses for credit. This may be true, but because the portfolio process is such an unknown and so overwhelming, most students may be unwilling to take the risk. The university also argues that you do get 3 credits for Psyc205, although these are junior credits and are not acceptable for many of the programs.

It’s a highly valuable process, however, and it would be nice if there were a more efficient way to do it. Not only are students given the opportunity to earn prior learning credits, I found the course invaluable as a learning experience in itself. I now look at every activity in a very different way, appreciating the experiential learning it affords. I’ve also gained a greater appreciation for the many things I’ve done in life. In some of my more negative moments I have been critical of the choices I’ve made, thinking that I could have had a better career or life path, wishing I had gone to university right out of high school.

Going through the portfolio preparation process in this course has made me realize that all my experiences and choices have provided me with a highly valuable education, one that I might not have gained had my life taken another direction. I’d strongly encourage every AU student to look into the portfolio process and take advantage of the life experience credits you may be entitled to. At the very least, you will find it to be an educational, insightful process that will enhance your personal growth.

[ed. for further reading on the PLAR process, see Teresa Neuman’s Prior Learning and Assessment in the Voice, v11 i52: http://www.ausu.org/voice/search/searchdisplay.php?ART=2428]

AU Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition:
http://prior-learning.athabascau.ca/PLA/html/overview.html
Psyc205: http://www.athabascau.ca/html/syllabi/psyc/psyc205.htm

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology.

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