As higher education evolves, so, too, do the paths to degrees. And attaining a degree often involves alternative credentials including MOOCs, micro-credentialing or badges, or non-credit certificate programs.

But as these options expand and evolve, higher-education institutions must meet the ever-present challenge of treating these experiential learning experiences as credit-bearing.

One question remains: How can institutions qualify alternative credentials as forms of knowledge and apply them to, or include them in, the curriculum for a quality degree program?

To explore these changes and implications, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) and The Presidents’ Forum partnered with the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) to conduct a study examining the state of alternative credentials at adult learning institutions.

The main research question is: How are alternative credentials defined and used at adult learning institutions in the United States?

OLC used a multiple case study approach offering in-depth information about the state of alternative credentials at six adult-friendly institutions in the U.S.

Through a cross-study analysis, five themes emerged, including: competency-based education (CBE), prior learning assessment (PLA), alternative credentials, the importance of reliable data, and traditional vs. non-traditional learning.

(Next page: One institution’s work with alternative credentials) 

The findings are presented in “Alternative Credentials in Higher Education: PLA 2.0,” a 30-page report authored by Dr. Jill Buban, senior director of research & innovation at OLC. The study offers insights into how alternative credentials are defined and used at adult learning institutions.

For example, the report’s analysis of SUNY Empire State College, one of the six participating institutions, includes discussions on data, prior learning assessment, and credentialing.

Data: Data collection and dissemination is a challenge for the college. The many systems the college uses to identify, track, and validate prior learning, combined with the number of functional offices that interact with student records during the degree program planning process, makes analysis of prior learning sources on a consistent basis problematic.

Prior Learning Assessment: Students can elect to have their knowledge of a subject area evaluated through the individualized prior learning assessment process, but they are not awarded credit simply by providing evidence of an experience; they must demonstrate that there is college-level learning contained within the experience.

Credentialing: Evidence of the college’s leadership in this area is demonstrated by its participation in the Connecting Credentials Initiative, which includes the Connecting Credentials Framework. Connecting Credentials aims to create a credentialing ecosystem that shows how all types of credentials from microcredentials to industry to post-secondary education to the badging of college degrees are verifiable, valid types of learning and can be compared, stacked and aligned through the common language of the framework competencies.

“Beyond the province of anecdotal accounts of student experiences, little is known about how institutions accept and document alternative learning opportunities and whether the opportunities result in meaningful progress toward degree completion,” said Leah K. Matthews, executive director, DEAC. “This report is intended to provide a better understanding of how adult learning institutions address students who possess alternative credentials and seek to apply these experiences to a degree.”

“Alternative credential opportunities offer convenience, flexibility and affordability – features that are valued by adult learners and that may propel adult learners toward degree attainment,” said Tina Goodyear, COO, The Presidents’ Forum, The Council of Experts, Excelsior College. “This report should serve as a useful tool for education planners, policy makers, administrators, researchers and government leaders to help shape future ideas about how to serve adult learners in their quest for degree attainment and student success.”

“In the interviews conducted, it was clear there is passion about serving adult learners,” said Kathleen Ives, CEO and executive director, OLC. “That passion will be well-served through thoughtful consideration of the role of alternative credentials in degree attainment.”

OLC’s Dr. Buban will present highlights from the research at the 91st Annual DEAC Conference, April 23-25, in San Antonio, Texas.

About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura http://twitter.com/eSN_Laura


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