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For almost fifty years, I have viewed the assessment of prior experiential and other personal learning to be a powerful educational practice. It was fair, it saved the learner time and money, and it led to significantly improved success rates in college and life for those who did it. As a founding board member of the Council of Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) back in the dark ages, I was committed philosophically and operationally to assessing this learning, even though it was considered a marginal, even “backwater” practice in higher education.

As I interviewed learners for my recently published book, Free-Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career, and Education (SelectBooks, NYC, June, 2018), however, I came to understand these assessments as being even more significant than before. And that is why a CAEL-Portfolium relationship has such great potential and significance.

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Think about it this way: historically, with fewer than 10% of the population, usually white men and always the upper class, having degrees, the things that we learned informally, or away from school, were more easily accounted for in our social, civic, and economic lives. Degrees did not dominate.

As the number of degree and certificate holders has approached 50% in the years after the GI Bill, however, this discrimination against personal and experiential learning, I call it “knowledge discrimination”, became more significant. Most colleges and employers valued where you learned something more highly than how well you knew it and could apply it. This practice enhanced their perceived value by the general society.

With this discrimination in mind, there are two disruptive factors that are critical to consider.

1. Assessment at Scale With New Technologies

First, the emerging, technologically supported and enhanced learning revolution that I describe in my book gives us the capacity to assess this learning, draw academic and employment equivalents, and give advanced standing while also drawing a direct connection to the economic, social or civic objectives that the learner brings with her.  And, equally importantly, we can do it at scale, for tens of thousands of people at a time. We can train faculty and assessors nationally, evaluate the quality of their work, separate assessment from portfolio development, and move or store millions of pieces of evidence with the push of a button. Validation will, as well, become more consistent and confidence inspiring for employers who need to be sure that their employees are ready for the job, or the other challenges at hand. Successful scaling is a reality.

2. Knowledge Discrimination and Economic Impact

Second, I have come to understand the knowledge gained from experience and personal learning as a wasted national treasure because it reflects talent and capacity which, while ready for use in our economy and communities, are largely ignored. So, knowledge discrimination not only hurts the individual and perpetuates economic and social divisions in our country, it also hurts the country, depriving it of discretionary income and tax revenue. So, wasted talent = wasted treasure.

Consider it this way.

  • Approximately 90 million Americans have high school diplomas, but no college certificates or degrees.
  • The average APL process yields a little more than a semester’s worth of credit. (call it 12 credits)
  • The average American spends more than 700 hours each year learning informally, away from college.
  • And a certificate or degree holder earns substantially more, on average, than a high school graduate. Let’s say $5000/year.

Admittedly, this is conjecture, not research, but bear with me. If we were able to perform assessments on just 20% of those high school graduates, 18 million people, they would yield 216,000,000 credits in time and money savings. Now the credit award is a one-time deal. But the economic return to the individual and the country would be ongoing. Using my “conjectural” numbers of $5000 per person, the return would be about $90,000,000,000 each year that would feed families and boost tax revenue.

So, when I argue that it is time to bring assessment of all prior learning into the mainstream, I am confident that doing so is a winner all the way around; for learners, earners, families, employers, and the nation’s economy.

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