With more than two decades of experience in postsecondary education policy and practice, Louis Soares, Chief Learning and Innovation Officer for the American Council on Education (ACE), is a true innovator and thought leader on emerging trends in higher education.
He has also published a number of important papers while at ACE, including The Post-traditional Learners Manifesto Revisited: Aligning Postsecondary Education with Real Life for Adult Student Success and Evolving Higher Education Business Models: Leading with Data to Deliver Results.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, Jeff talks with Louis about his perspective on the emerging lifelong learning landscape and the concept of credit for prior learning, an ACE initiative which awards credit for college-level knowledge and skills acquired outside of the classroom. They also discuss how ACE is meeting the evolving needs of its members, particularly through their thoughtfully designed peer-to-peer learning platform, ACE Engage.
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[00:18] – Before we dive into the interview, we want to make sure that listeners know we offer a range of resources beyond the podcasts.
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[02:22] – You might consider the reflections questions below on your own after listening to an episode, and/or you might pull the team together, using part or all of the podcast episode for a group discussion.
- We talk in detail about the concept of “credit for prior learning.” As you are listening, consider how this concept could potentially apply in your own learning business. Would there be value in offering credit for prior learning, and how might it help you attract your learners to new learning opportunities?
- Louis talks about ACE’s Engage learning community and the principles that guide it. As you are listening to that segment, think about how intentionally you are in using community and social learning as part of your learning business strategy and ask, “What are the principles that drive our learning community?”
[03:27] – Introduction to Louis and some additional background about ACE and his work as a Chief Learning and Innovation Officer.
Louis shares that ACE is a member organization of colleges and universities with 1,700 members. They do advocacy and lobbying (with regard to public policy) for their members. And they also do a lot of professional development and learning for their members with a variety of offerings that allow them to help people develop their skills at different points in their career. In the last year they’ve also launched a new peer-to-peer learning platform called Engage.
Louis also discusses how ACE has been around about a hundred years and that when they started they were called the Emergency Council on Education. They were initially created to help solve the problem of WWI veterans who went into the military before completing high school and had difficulty trying to figure out how they fit into the educational system. One of the outgrowths of that problem was the GED test, which ACE created (and they owned it up until about ten years ago).
They’ve also been very involved over the years in all kinds of public policy (for example, the GI Bill with regard to adult learners). But the other part of the work that grew from there was the credit for prior learning work.
Credit for Prior Learning
[07:23] – Tell us a little bit more about what credit for prior learning means.
Louis explains how the way it actually started was after WWII. When veterans returned from war and were going to use the GI Bill to go back to college, there was recognition that they learned useful skills that could be worth college credits and they – or the GI Bill – could pay less for college.
So they started something called the Military Evaluation Service where they review military training for different levels of college credit—and they’ve been doing that for about 70 years.
But in the mid 1970’s, when a lot more adults started going to/back to college, Louis says they started reviewing corporate and workplace training. Some of their current clients include Jet Blue, KFC, and Jiffy Lube. So they review that corporate workplace training now and assign college equivalence to it, then make a transcript for it.
The Learning Landscape
[09:29] – I’ve been struck a number of times lately—I’m thinking for example, I had a conversation with Bill Draves of LERN where he pointed out the shift that we experienced towards the beginning of the 20th century with the automobile. And there’s a lot in the shift that we’re experiencing right now that’s similar and is creating a new set of demands on learning.
There’s a parallel between WWI and there being this sort of dislocation, WWII and a dislocation, and the economics of the 70’s. And now in this (global) learning landscape, people are also finding themselves dislocated or facing new demands as adults out in the workplace and having to continually retool, upskill, etc. I’d love to get your perspective on whether this resonates with you and how you are seeing/how you have seen the adult learning landscape change during your time with ACE.
What’s gradually happened since the mid 80’s is the increase in learning intensity that happens in daily life. So across all of our domains of life—as a community member, a parent, an employee, an entrepreneur, as a citizen—we’re having to learn faster and learn more than we had to before.
The other trends lines that have followed this is that technology is allowing us to both deliver that education but also track how people learn better. So slowly but surely, our understanding of learning at a granular level is ramping up and the ability to understand what people know at a given point in time has also increased dramatically since the 80’s.
The third part – which Louis thinks has always been with us but we’re actually pivoting to now – is how to blend technology with real-world experience to build competency. This kind of blended learning solution (what people in the corporate world have called “learning in the flow of work”). He says this is coming (and specifically at ACE) there is an evolution that this is coming to higher education in two ways: 1) in the work they do, which is educating students, and 2) looking at how to develop the skills of campus leaders and executives in real time.
Louis also explains that traditional credentials have been a proxy for learning outcomes and as technology is coming up from the bottom, we’re seeing more granular level things like badges to measure what people know. But we still have issues with understanding the quality of all those items, and to him, it makes it a frenetic time for learning professionals, but also an exciting time.
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Alternate Forms of Tracking and Validation
[14:54] – What are you hearing from the corporate world at this point? When a Jet Blue or a KFC comes to you, are you dealing with a Chief Learning Officer (or who are you dealing with?) and are they saying we have to have these alternate paths to tracking, measuring, and validating learning in order to operate the way we really need to in today’s economy?
Louis says there’s both an understanding of talent on folks who find them and are interested in the work they do, and also how much they connect talent development and learning to their business goals. If an organization believes in investing in talent/their employees, they may want to encourage them, for example, with tax benefits to continue their formal education. And ACE offers a way to help optimize the tuition assistance benefits that companies get.
The other aspect of this is that in a time where companies are competing for talent, they are looking at how to optimize the learning of the people with them such that looking across all the different ways they’re learning and how to understand what they may know and are able to do—and then repositioning them internally. Louis says he’s seeing more global companies understanding that if they want to be an employer of choice, they have to facilitate learning regardless of where they go after—particularly for Millennials and Gen Z.
Ways Higher Education is Innovating
[17:36] – You mentioned that you feel this is coming to higher education (which has traditionally been about degree programs mostly). How prepared is higher education for this, where are we in transitioning to maybe thinking a little differently about how learning happens, how it’s measured, how it’s validated?
Louis points out that like all things, (like there’s a continuum in the corporate world that he just described), there’s a continuum and that part of it is driven by demographics, which effects different colleges differently around the country.
But part of the most innovation we’re seeing is with adult-serving institutions—colleges that have robust continuing education programs or have a mission of serving working adults and helping them finish their credentials. What we’re seeing there is the emergence of things like stackable credentials, or what other non-degree credentials that someone has and if you can stack them and then award credit (if they don’t already have credit associated with it) to build towards that degree. So essentially the building blocks up to finishing that credential.
Louis says the reality is that among the greatest innovators of certificates and shorter-term trainings are at the continuing ed shops at colleges. They see market needs in their regional markets, and they adapt to them and create new certificate programs. He notes a hot one is cyber security certificates.
So, the way they are innovating is closer into their comfort level but there are folks that are starting to look at how to combine the credentials. But it’s still very emergent for higher ed. One of the things that we need to work on better with corporate partners is how to build those connections.
Louis notes they do happen at the local and regional level, but what they’ve seen over the years is there are a lot of one-off collaborations. However, we haven’t developed a common language/common set of tools to be able to scale how we connect workplace learning with more formal college education. And he says, that’s just an evolution we are on together.
Role of Badging
[21:03] – Unlike certificate programs, less has happened with other types of microcredentials like badging, which haven’t gotten as much traction. How essential is that for the evolution and the scaling that we need and what’s standing in the way right now?
Louis discusses how both on the corporate side and the higher ed side, we still need more data to support the quality of the learning outcomes. There’s research on badges that shows that badging as a motivator to go to the next level of learning works well. But our ability to link competency and assessment to a badge is still very emergent in both worlds—and he thinks this is an issue of scale.
However, he shares an example of an interesting hybrid – GitHub – which has a combination of reputational affirmation that shows you can do the work (in this case code), with a more structured sense of what you demonstrated you’re competent at. Louis thinks this is a place to look for where badges are going to take off and why they’re likely to take off in the software industry.
Going back to the GED, Louis explains that it’s the high school equivalency exam, which he equates to the first badge. It’s a platform agnostic assessment of whether or not someone has a high school level of skills. And he talks about how we still don’t know exactly or specifically what the GED measures. So, when you’re trying to measure learning agnostic of context, it’s challenging and he notes this isn’t bad, it’s just where we are together.
He adds that there’s a lot of competing points of view that go into whether a credential means a certain thing. And that applies to associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees, and the GED—and it’s also going to apply to badges. We just need to understand that and actually grow from there.
Collaboration Opportunities and ACE Engage
[25:30] – Many of our listeners are from the association world, different types of membership organizations, or institutes or non-profits focused on a particular trade/profession/niche. It seems to me that this whole area of equivalency, establishing competency based on experience and being able to measure that (or just alternative forms of validating people in whatever field or industry they’re in) is a tremendous opportunity for those sorts of organization (and some of them are realizing that and stepping up to that).
It also seems to me that there’s probably some really fertile ground for collaboration between academia and this kind of trade/professional world. I wonder if you’re seeing any of that or if you see those opportunities as well?
Louis shares that what they learned at ACE is that the same kind of disruptions (technology, demographics, speeding up of the global economy) that are affecting all other industries, are also affecting higher ed. He says professionals on their campuses (deans, provosts, associate provosts) are also needing to build their skills kind of in real time. They have to look at how they get access to learning that helps them build their skills and apply it say, within 24 hours—this is what’s happening in the rest of the economy and it’s also happening in higher ed.
Louis discusses ACE Engage, their peer-to-peer learning platform, and it’s two core tools:
- The ability to form both high level and small groups for discussions at different levels of intensity and different levels of privacy.
- A library of content that is multimedia content designed to be short and digestible (their version of microlearning). There’s no course that’s longer than 20 minutes. Louis shares an example of how a provost might use this.
Louis also talks about how he thinks fundamentals of adult learning matter deeply to whether or not we’re helping people learn. The two assumptions they had when building ACE Engage were:
- In a fast-changing world new, easily digestible knowledge is critical to being an effective leader on a college campus.
- Harnessing community intelligence is absolutely critical.
The four design principles of ACE Engage are:
- Foster community – in a digital environment if you can’t develop the bonds of trust in exchange that make a community, people won’t learn in that setting.
- Build knowledge – ACE has an emerging competency model, which is being built organically. And they’ve had some initial conversations about credentialing and microcredentialing.
- Catalyze learning – they’ve done their best to use social learning theory, digital learning theory, and basic adult learning theory to craft the experience.
- Enable Action – the action checklist—their members don’t just want to come and learn; they want to be able to do something the next day at the office.
Louis says they believe that those assumptions and principles are helping them create an environment where the campus leaders can be peers and in fact, help teach each other.
[34:16] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education?
Louis shares about his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Romania and how staying present helped him learn a new culture and really listen to others who communicate differently. The experience really changed him as a person in terms of how he believes he can learn from people in real time. It changed how he is as a learner, not just that he learned something—and this was one of the most moving and powerful experiences in his life.
[38:18] – How to learn more about ACE:
- ACE Website: https://www.acenet.edu/Pages/default.aspx
- ACE Engage (Learning Community): https://www2.acenet.edu/engage/
[39:10] – Wrap-Up
- How could the concept of “credit for prior learning” apply in your learning business? Would there be value in offering credit for prior learning, and how might it help you attract your learners to new learning opportunities?
- How intentionally you are using community and social learning as part of your learning business strategy, and what are the principles driving your learning community?
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[41:25] – Sign off