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Research on Prior Learning Assessment and
Abstract:PLAR (Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition) is a process of assessing informal learning that is widely used today in the field of international higher education for adults. This paper presents an empirical study of PLAR based on experiential learning theory, using the education system of the Open University of China. The subjects for the study are 92 adults who have work experience and are receiving higher distance education. This study reveals three major findings: both practitioners and students have different understandings of the assessment criteria; there is no time set aside for releasing and explaining the results of PLAR; the assessment and supervision system for the entire PLAR process is not strong enough. It is hoped that such empirical research will help in-service adults gain recognition for their informally learned knowledge and skills, and boost the development of a promotion system comprising credential education, in-service adult education and lifelong education.
Keywords: PLAR; informal learning; empirical research; adult education
In order to better understand informal learning, it is necessary to first understand what formal learning is. Generally speaking, formal learning refers to learning in a school setting using a regular syllabus and specific assessment criteria. The assessment is usually carried out by the institution offering the opportunity for such learning. Informal learning, however, usually refers to knowledge and skills acquired at work or in daily life, including in-service training, skill training or self-study. The way of assessing informal learning is PLAR. PLAR is widely used today in the field of the international adult higher education. It improves access to education, training and the obtainment of academic, vocational and professional qualifications by recognising that learning is continuous, taking place at work, home and at leisure, as well as in the classroom. The PLAR process provides a mechanism for recognising informal learning achievements and allows those achievements to contribute towards a qualification, a single module of study or a whole programme of study.
PLAR got its start in the 1980's. Currently, it is universally applied in adult higher education in America, Canada, France, Australia and elsewhere, and is considered an effective measure to encourage in-service staff to pursue further higher education. According to partial statistics, all community colleges in Canada have already adopted PLAR and all universities in Australia are required to use PLAR. It is also an essential research and development project at universities such as the University of Cambridge, University of Leeds and Open University Malaysia. In addition, some companies in America and South Africa also employ such way of assessment; they convert the knowledge and skills acquired from work into credits recognized by higher education institutions so as to inspire their employees.
The full name of PLAR is “Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition”, also called “Prior Learning Assessment” (PLA for short) in some countries and generally “Assessment of Prior Learning” (APL for short) in European countries such as the UK. Although different in expression as well as abbreviation, the connotations are roughly the same, that is, they are all used to appraise the knowledge, abilities or techniques acquired by adult learners through informal learning.
It is well known that most people who receive distance higher education do so not as a hobby but in pursuit of a better job or career development, and they are eager for recognition of their previous experience and learning. Therefore, the subjects of this PLAR study, based on experiential learning theory, are adult learners who obtain distance higher education and have work experience. Furthermore, the study makes use of the education system of the Open University of China and enlists front-line teachers from Baodi Radio and TV University in Tianjin (because of their familiarity with the local students' circumstances) to conduct the empirical research.
A. Experiential learning theory
Experiential learning is a significant focus of humanistic education; it is dependent on one's firsthand experience or hands-on practice. It can be traced back to the 1930's in America, taking shape under the influence of “progressive education” theory advocated by Dewey and others. It refers to the reflection of concrete behavior and problem solving in routine work. Experiential knowledge can be acquired not only from informal learning such as in daily life and work but also from formal, purposeful learning. Obviously, there are certain differences between experiential learning with a clear purpose and that obtained from work.
Work and life experiences are essential for experiential learning. PLAR assesses the knowledge, abilities or techniques acquired from work and life and then offers qualifications equivalent to those from formal learning. Its main aim is to inspire learners to combine the experiential learning from everyday work with purposeful learning so as to stimulate thinking and reflection.
B. Selecting participants
The participants in this study are 92 undergraduate students from the educational technology programme of the Open University of China. All of them are in-service teachers from primary and secondary schools of Baodi district, Tianjin, engaged in informational and technological education, computer education, campus network management, management of audio-visual educational facilities, teaching and so on. They have accumulated a wealth of experience in education and teaching from their hands-on practice.
C. Designing assessment criteria based on ability
The educational technology programme sets forth specific targets for the learner in terms of abilities that should be cultivated. For this study, such targets are categorized into three parts with specific techniques and concrete, assessable performances for each technique given (shown in Table 1). Performance mainly involves two major tasks: the first is to design a teaching plan; the second is to give a verbal description of the teaching resources and strategies adopted in the teaching plan.
Next, an evaluation table for the teaching plan and verbal description is formulated, based on further analysis of the specific techniques and performances, and factoring in the educational technology programme's targets.
There are 6 first-level indices in the evaluation table, each weighted differently. In line with the specific ability targets, they are broken up into 18 second-level indices and marking criteria are also provided.
The development of such assessment criteria is the most important, and most time-consuming component of PLAR.