Proactive on Prior Learning

April 15, 2014

Florida’s public institutions are anxiously watching this spring’s legislative session, which rounded the halfway point last week. Regardless of what dies on the floor or is signed into law, the universities are still waiting for clarification on the fallout of last year’s session.

House Bill 7029 took a turbulent path to reach Governor Rick Scott’s desk last June. The original bill would have circumvented the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits Florida’s public institutions, by authorizing courses accredited only by state officials. The United Faculty of Florida, the state’s main faculty union, reacted with outrage, saying the plan would compromise the quality of education, and after months of lobbying, Scott signed a much narrower bill into law.

What remains in the bill are vague directives on massive open online courses and credit for outside learning. According to the law, the Florida Board of Governors and the State Board of Education “shall adopt rules that enable students to earn academic credit for online courses, including massive open online courses, prior to initial enrollment at a postsecondary institution.” Supporters of that idea say it will give students a wider range of options from which to learn the same material, which could potentially lower the cost of higher education.

Almost 10 months later, and less than a year and a half before the statute is scheduled to go into effect, some faculty members say they have yet to hear anything about what those rules might look like.

“We have to get the State Board of Education to approve a rulemaking process, which they have not even started yet,” said Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida. “Until they do that, there’s nothing else that we can do.”

Some universities aren’t waiting around. Florida International University is in the early stages of creating a pilot for prior learning assessment, which could be used to determine if students have learned enough from an outside course -- whether of the high school, online or massive open online variety -- to qualify for credit. The experiment will begin in in the university's introduction to psychology course, and if the intended spring 2015 pilot is a success, the model may expand to other disciplines, said Kristin Nichols-Lopez, associate chair of the department.

The university’s plan -- which faculty will vote on during an April 24 meeting -- involves creating a challenge exam that tests students on a series of core psychology concepts to be determined by the department. Students who know the material can take the test for a small fee and earn three credits, or they can pay about $150 for an accompanying MOOC, also in the works, which uses adaptive course material to guide them through those concepts. The face-to-face class, by comparison, costs $610.77.

Offering more than one path to earn credit for the introductory psychology course is something the university already does, said Nichols-Lopez, listing Advanced Placement tests, dual enrollment and transfer credits. Last year, the course enrolled 2,703 students across all its face-to-face and online sections.

“I don’t anticipate that offering intro to psych as a MOOC would mean that we would never offer intro to psych again,” Nichols-Lopez said. “If anything, it could lower our class sizes and make our environment more intimate.”

The university’s model would in other words create a safeguard, making students prove that outside learning meets the standards of quality set by faculty members.

“We’re saying, ‘O.K., learn it from whoever is offering it,’ but we get to have a say about whether we think you learned it or not,” said Kathleen Wilson, a faculty fellow in the provost’s office and professor of voice.

Without any official instructions, “we decided to be proactive,” said Wilson, who chairs a task force on online learning. But even if it sticks to the current timeline, the university will be nowhere near assessing outside learning in every discipline by the 2015-16 academic year.

“I don’t even know if there’s enough time to do this before 2015, but that’s frequently what happens between legislators and educators,” said Nichols-Lopez, referring to the psychology pilot. “Basically, they tell you something, and you have to figure it out.”

The Board of Governors did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Should the pilot prove successful, Wilson said, the university may take its results to the board and legislature. “The legislature will modify the bill if they see the value in it. We’re hoping we can pilot this and make the case for why this is a great idea.”

Neither Nichols-Lopez nor Wilson said they had heard of similar compliance initiatives in the works at other institutions in Florida. Once the rules become clearer, Auxter said the faculty union will once again organize to ensure the new guidelines don’t compromise the quality of instruction.

“This entire issue is a threat to the quality of the curriculum,” Auxter said. “The accreditation rules of SACS include having universities themselves determine and take responsibility for the curriculum they’re offering. It’s not some formula -- that’s not the way you do things.”

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