CAEL Explains Competency-Based Education and PLA

I was thrilled to see that someone has finally taken up the challenge of trying to illustrate the relationship between prior learning assessment (PLA) and competency-based education (CBE).  Both terms have a long history in the field of higher education, and many people use them in ways that I find problematic (see Obstacles for Competency-Based Education Programs of the Future and What the DOE doesn’t understand about PLA and CBE.)  Luckily, CAEL is on hand with a helpful explainer that will at least start the conversation over this contentious issue.

Overall, I think CAEL did a wonderful job trying to articulate the interplay between these concepts.  They define both approaches pretty effectively, and digress into a discussion of the ways in which both PLA and CBE share a common understanding of what learning is, and how it should be valued and accredited (e.g. “that higher education needs to value and reward what a student knows and is able to do, regardless of how the student learned, where the student learned, and how long it took the student to learn—as long as the learning is at the college level.”)

Where this article falls apart for me, however, is with their idea of a continuum, and the conception of PLA and CBE as separate entities.

CAEL Continuum

CAEL has attempted to describe the intersection of PLA and CBE by describing programs that embody different configurations of both concepts, and lining those programs up against one another.  Further, they use the methods of assessment to differentiate what goes into the CBE bucket, vs what goes into the PLA bucket (Portfolio, Program Evaluations, Credit-by-Exam programs are all PLA, while Direct Assessment programs are squarely CBE).  While it may be useful to see how these concepts are deployed on the ground, it doesn’t help us to come to a better understanding about the relationship between the concepts themselves.

At its core, prior learning assessment is the measure of college-level learning that a student has acquired, but for which they have not received a formal credential.  Competency-based education is the measurement of student learning against a set of standards, without regard for time or location.  Assuming that students come to college not as empty vessels waiting to be filled, but as actors with their own set of unique experiences, any effort to measure learning in a competency-based format will also essentially be an assessment of prior learning.  As such, the two concepts cannot be easily separated by the modalities with which we assess them.

I imagine that the main reason for CAEL’s differentiation here goes back to the Department of Education and their flawed understanding of the relationship between CBE and PLA.  The federal government offers no financial aid for prior learning assessment.  Therefore, Direct Assessment programs must distance themselves from anything that appears to resemble the traditional methods of assessing prior learning, if they hope to access Title IV funding.  However, as CAEL aptly notes “… in these [direct assessment] programs, the assessment of prior learning is incorporated into the overall design of the program.”  In doing so, they artificially delay the progress of student to create the illusion that they have learned everything necessary to demonstrate mastery from the college’s instruction.  This pretense prevents CBE from ever reaching its full and logical potential as an alternative system to the traditional credit hour model.

That is why this is such a vital conversation, and why it’s critical that we strive for nuance in our interpretations of these concepts.  In discussing the relationship between CBE and PLA, we must continually point out the artificial distinction that the DOE has made between the two.  Otherwise, we help to perpetuate the Department’s flawed understanding, to the detriment of students everywhere.


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