Experiential credit for degree awards, with particular reference to the nontraditional movement in the USA

The topic of experiential credit lies at the cutting edge of modern education and represents one of the principal challenges to the status quo within the mainstream educational establishment. This article will endeavour to define the concept of experiential credit, to give examples of where and how it may be found and evidenced, and to discuss its use in innovative degree programmes within the USA and elsewhere.

The idea of credit being given for learning that takes place off-campus or outside an academic setting, or that has taken place before a student’s enrollment on a given course of study, remains controversial within mainstream universities, but has made considerable headway within the past twenty years. Such success is testament to the development of institutions initially outside the mainstream (principally within the USA) that have shown that these processes can be carried out in a way that preserves academic integrity, empowers the student and provides a qualification that is regarded by employers as worthwhile and focussed towards the discipline in question. Usually experiential learning can be assessed either through face-to-face methods at a campus or (and these days more popularly) via distance learning, requiring no campus attendance and enabling a degree programme to be integrated with the demands of employment and family.

It is self-evident that learning outcomes that arise outside a purely academic setting may well account for a considerable proportion of what a mid-career adult knows and can do. Within the nontraditional movement in education, the context in which learning has taken place is regarded as unimportant compared with the outcome of that learning. It does not matter, for example, whether one has acquired fluency in the German language through attending classes at one’s local university, or whether, having a father or mother who is German, one has been brought up to be bilingual in that language along with English via instruction in the home. If the latter person can demonstrate that they have attained the same level of proficiency through learning outside an academic setting as their fellow linguist who gained that proficiency within that setting, they should receive the same academic credit. Throughout, the concern is with learning outcomes that can be demonstrated, not merely with time served undertaking a given activity.

This idea, which seems at first sight logical and natural, arouses a good deal of opposition from those who privilege the “time-serving” and process-oriented aspects of higher education over the learning outcomes in question. However, such establishment arguments are inherently flawed because they displace the acquisition of knowledge and competencies from their central roles in any meaningful scheme of education, and in many cases consequently require students to sit through classes on subjects with which they may already have developed significant familiarity in the workplace, thus failing to tailor education appropriately to the individual needs of the learner and wasting their time and money. The nontraditional movement seeks instead to establish what the student already knows and can do, and to match this against an applicable method of awarding credit towards the competencies of an academic degree.

These days, there are few universities in the USA that have not evolved some method of evaluating experiential credit, but the amount that such credit is permitted to count towards a given degree level varies widely and depends on a wide range of opinion-based yardsticks. Several mainstream institutions will now award a bachelor’s degree wholly based on prior experiential credit (using learning experience from within and beyond the workplace). There have been at least one workplace competency-based MBA programme, and certain other institutions will award limited experiential credit at the graduate level, but generally there is a barrier towards such graduate credit that is the outcome of entrenchment on the part of universities and accreditation agencies rather than any meaningful academic argument against its acceptance. Again, it is defence of process rather than outcome that is at the root of this problem. On the process side, we find the American Council of Graduate Schools, which has been implacably opposed to graduate experiential credit, whilst on the outcome side is the American Council on Education, which advocates the award of credit for “independent study, original research, critical analysis and the scholarly and professional application of the specialized knowledge or discipline.”

Perhaps inevitably, it has been schools outside the mainstream that have blazed the trail for graduate experiential credit that is now being taken up with alacrity by a few. The mentored project-based approach to the doctorate was developed in nontraditional, unaccredited schools in the 1970s and 1980s, and as a result of their success is now being taken up by the mainstream.

How is experiential learning evaluated by an institution? Firstly, the learning must be documented or otherwise appropriately evidenced in a permanent format. The natural outcome of this in terms of an evaluation tool is the portfolio, which is in essence a lengthy annotated curriculum vitæ with supporting documentation. It is even possible at some institutions to earn credit for taking a course in how to prepare a life-experience portfolio. Alongside the portfolio, equivalency examinations are increasingly popular (“testing out”), in which the student sits a paper or sometimes an oral examination to determine the extent of their knowledge in a given area; some of the most popular written examinations in the USA are offered by CLEPDANTES and Excelsior College. The work of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has been vital in developing guidelines for the presentation of portfolios; until recent years they even offered sample portfolios for sale.

Materials that one might expect to admit to an experiential learning portfolio would usually include such as official job descriptions, bills of sale, letters of commendation, awards, copies of references, testimonials and endorsements, newspaper articles, interviews with others, programmes for exhibitions, photographs and films, audio and video materials. It should be stressed that substantial documentation will usually be required to award credit, although institutions vary a good deal as to what they require and indeed as to how much credit they will award for a given learning experience. In addition, certain experiences will be accepted by some institutions but not others. Much depends on the way in which the given experience has been approached by the learner and the extent to which they can make a case for what they have learned from it. There are many disparate learning experiences that are worthy of academic credit. Not only this, but each piece of evidence may well serve as fulfilment of several disparate course criteria at once; thus an employee handbook could be used by its author to gain credit for such areas as law, personnel management and business writing. Nor should textual sources be seen as the only acceptable learning resources; in practise the range of such resources is virtually limitless, ranging from video and audio to the internet, from learning through travel to talking in depth with knowledgeable people.

In most American institutions the student will need to begin by finding in university catalogues those courses which he or she wishes to challenge by experiential credit, and establish from the course descriptions the competencies that they will need to evidence in order to be successful in their bid for the award. Given the tremendous variety of courses on offer from thousands of institutions in the USA, finding a given outlet for a competency may be time-consuming, but is likely to be a successful process for the vast majority of learning experiences.

If it serves to do anything, this process reminds us of how natural learning is to the human condition, and how difficult it would actually be to go through any meaningful life without learning a significant amount about diverse matters that in other contexts are commonly taught in mainstream American colleges and universities. Thus the learner can gain considerable self-empowerment from reflecting on their learning achievements and the barriers between the university and the public whom it serves are further broken down. Once these concepts are accepted, it will become very clear that for an adult with significant career and life experience, earning a degree in whole or in part through experiential learning credit can accelerate the process from one usually taking years to one occupying merely months if not less. One website devoted to these methods of credit has a descriptive title that reflects the genuine achievement of a number of individuals: BA in 4 Weeks. The learner learns or demonstrates learning at their own pace, in their own order, in their own time and place, and at any age, without those constraints being imposed by the institution for the sake of its own convenience. What is more, their eventual qualification will have a great deal more application to their given industry or field of practice through the use of experiential learning credit than would be the case within a traditional curriculum that  must necessarily be planned considerably in advance of its delivery. The nontraditional learner will not just have learned, they will have learned how they can learn for themselves and consequently opened the door to a future of intellectual and professional development.

It may be said that one will not learn much during the process of gaining a degree wholly or substantially by experiential learning credit other than how the university system in the USA operates, but that should not act as a deterrent. Those who claim merely that “such programmes require little work” ignore the fact that the work in question has been done before the programme commenced, and usually represents a number of years of significant effort that is not just worth assessing, but that is the proper right of the student to submit for  assessment. If the university does its job of validating experiential learning properly, it should ensure that the graduate leaves with a qualification that fairly and truthfully represents the level of their knowledge and competence to an employer or to the wider world.

In 2002, France, surely at least in part influenced by these American developments, introduced a law allowing validation des acquis par l’expérience or credit by experiential learning for degree and diploma programmes in all state and private universities in French-speaking territories. VAE works not by requiring the challenging of specific courses but instead  through the candidate providing evidence of their skills, knowledge, experience and competences in the given area via a holistic dossier of documents and other sources. The jury of examiners then examines the dossier and asks the candidate for any further information necessary to test their competence. A site visit to see the candidate in their place of work may be arranged as part of the examination process. VAE is now in place throughout Francophone higher education.

Traditional universities that accept the principles of experiential learning credit understand that through doing so their role within society is changing fundamentally. No longer is the university the citadel from which knowledge is dispensed; rather it is becoming a public validator of knowledge that can come from many different sources. These changes are seen by some as threatening what is otherwise a comfortable and entrenched way of doing things, and of course of impacting significantly upon the livelihoods of a large number of those who depend on university teaching for their employment. However, each decade has seen these concepts work their way further and further into the mainstream, so that now even in the predominantly conservative world of British academia we are seeing Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) taking an increasing part in university life, having already grown out of the somewhat circumscribed experiential methods used for the assessment of vocational qualifications such as NVQs. What we see happening is a revolution of sorts, a revolution of common sense on one level, a revolution for the individual, whose degree is directly personalised, and also a social revolution in which we see the reclaiming of “valid learning” from an institutional setting to its proper place at the heart of any life and career that is lived to the full.