New Paths Being Forged to Higher Education
With demand for talented workers rising exponentially while state and federal budgets continue to shrink, the race is on to find new ways to impart more credentials and degrees with less money. In particular, two emerging trends have received a fair share of attention lately: open source online courses and prior learning assessments. Recent articles by the Chronicle of Higher Education  and Inside Higher Ed  shine a light these promising practices.
Last month, MIT and Harvard announced a $60 million initiative called “edX” to host free online learning courses. While students can earn certificates through edX, the program does not intend to offer degrees or university credit through the program. Similarly, Capella Education Company last month unveiled 25,000 free tutorials through their Sophia online learning platform. Unlike edX, Capella intends to introduce a new program, “Sophia Pathways to College Credit” to provide students with a low cost pathway to a degree.
Both edX and Sophia are being described by their creators as a means for studying how students learn. With edX, researchers intend to collect data on how much time students spend watching videos of specific lessons. Under Sophia, content is ranked and given an "academic seal" by experts, who are themselves ranked by students. The information collected under both programs could have a significant impact not just on online learning, but could also prove to inform and improve traditional modes of education delivery.
Meanwhile, an emerging trend towards prior learning assessments (PLAs) provides another low-cost way for students to earn a credential. PLAs seek to award students college-level credit for learning that takes place before enrollment. That learning could come from job or life experience, independent study, or even some of the free online courses from sources like the Khan Academy or edX. Rather than having to pay large sums of money to take courses that are unnecessary, students instead would take an exam that would certify that learning has already taken place. This practice isn’t necessarily new—the College Level Examination Program, for example, has been in place for decades now—but it’s receiving new found attention thanks to partnerships like the one between American Public University (APU) and WalMart.
Critics are skeptical of any program that offers college credit based on experiential learning that happens outside the walls of academia, and fairly so. It would theoretically be very easy to pump out certifications and degrees based on resumes without verifying that the student has the proper knowledge and competencies. Institutions themselves are quick to point out that prior learning credits are not merely handed out for time served. “People heard we were giving credit for college-level work,” says Karan Powell, the APU executive vice president and provost. “We’re not. We’re giving credit for college-level learning.”
Yet work being done by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and the American Council of Education in setting up a framework to essentially accredit these programs is going a long way towards quelling the fears of critics. That’s vital, since the existing accreditation framework is ill-equipped to handle this kind of innovation. Meanwhile, open source online programs like edX and Sophia are likewise pushing the envelope on traditional accreditation.
For these kinds of innovative ventures, the process of modernizing accreditation can’t come quickly enough, and will certainly play a role in their survival. It isn’t clear yet how either of the two models will become financially self-sustaining—similar initiatives have had to close their doors due to ballooning costs. And regulatory structures, such as the credit hour system, certainly pose significant barriers to the proliferation and long-term stability of these alternative higher education programs.
Yet for a nation that desperately needs to find new, low-cost ways of delivering education, prior learning assessments and open source online programs offer a glimmer of hope. These initiatives have the potential to change the face of higher education for the better, if encouraged to proliferate. More importantly, they could provide millions of Americans with a new pathway to prosperity.