Learning businesses can play a critical role in creating learning pathways for adults that account for the realities of their work and life. Christine Carpenter, senior vice president of engagement at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), has spent years working with diverse stakeholders to establish such pathways and supporting on- and off-ramps to education for adult learners.
CAEL is a nonprofit membership organization and leader in the field of adult learning on a mission to build a transformative, equitable culture of lifelong learning and economic empowerment for all adult learners.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, co-host Celisa Steele talks with Christine about CAEL’s focus on supporting the learner/worker and the related role of credit for prior learning (CPL), competency-based education (CBE), and microcredentials. They also discuss CAEL’s “Adult Learner Leaders for Institutional Effectiveness” (ALLIES) framework and why our collective success is ultimately determined by the individual adult learner’s success.
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[00:00] – Intro
CAEL’s Mission to Improve Learners’ Economic Mobility
[01:54] – Tell us about CAEL what does and your role.
CAEL is rooted in a social justice movement focused on improving economic mobility for traditionally underserved learners. Specifically, their goal was to improve the education and career pathways for adult learners. And to do this but working with others from organizations that together could support adult learners, helping them navigate the on- and off-ramps of education and employment.
CAEL has close to 4,000 individual members, representing post-secondary institutions, workforce development organizations, and employers, who all support the vision that “every adult can navigate lifelong learning and career pathways that fuel social mobility and community prosperity.”
CAEL strives to provide services that support not just their members but also the stakeholders and partners they work to build a transformative and equitable culture of lifelong learning and economic empowerment for all adult learners.
In Christine’s many years at CAEL, she’s been working to cultivate strategic relationships that bring industry and education together. Those partnerships inform how employers, labor, workforce development organizations, and post-secondary institutions can work together to reimagine how education, work-based learning, and employment fit together in a lifelong pathway that integrates learning and work. In fact, CAEL’s tagline is “linking learning and work.”
Defining Adult Learners
[04:13] – How do you define or describe the adult learners that CAEL serves?
Adult learners traditionally have been categorized as 25 years and older, but CAEL believes in a more inclusive understanding, and CAEL tries to view adult learners as they view themselves. That’s key to how CAEL works with its members and partners.
Primarily, adult learners don’t actually identify themselves as a student first. It’s long down in the list. First, they’re parents; they’re veterans; they’re workers. And so what we try to do is help broaden that perspective of adult learners in thinking of it as someone who is trying to basically get education to fit in their lifestyle versus the opposite.Christine Carpenter
Education costs time and money, and adult learners have split their resources among many responsibilities with work and family.
[06:06] – What socioeconomic or key demographics beyond age factor into how CAEL thinks about the adult learners it serves?
There are a lot of first-generation college-level learners. There are also underserved learners who’ve faced economic barriers because they haven’t known how to look for and connect to financial aid.
CAEL wants to help everyone understand that the possibilities in helping adult learners with education or along career pathway. But everyone has to understand that these adult learners look at education as only one of their many responsibilities and not as the top one.
Supporting the Learner/Worker
[07:26] – CAEL focuses adult learners supports them indirectly, by working with partners—post-secondary education providers, employers, industry groups, workforce development organizations, etc. How do you balance the needs of CAEL’s members and the needs of the adult learners themselves—are they ever at odds?
CAEL’s mission is to help diverse stakeholders find alignment. CAEL operates a the intersection of learning and work.
You can see that if the learner, and, in some cases, you can say learner/worker is at the center, then, how are education providers, employers, industry, and workforce development supporting the adult learner at the center? Because we put that learner/worker at the center of everything we do.Christine Carpenter
Learning and work are part of the same ecosystem, and the learner/worker should be at the center of that ecosystem.
What the employers needs has to be supported by what the learning provider can offer. Adult learners spend their lives at that intersection of learning and work. When we support the learner/worker, we support the broader community and economic mobility. And then all the stakeholders—employers, post-secondary institutions, and the learner/worker—benefit.
Employers will continue to have upskilling and reskilling needs, and learner/works will need those skills. So there’s not much need to balance competing demands from different stakeholders; it’s more a matter of having the stakeholders see their collection role today and in the future.
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Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) and Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)
[12:22] – CAEL has deep experience with credit for prior learning, or CPL (previously referred to as prior learning assessment, or PLA). What is CPL, and how does it work?
CPL is a term for various methods that post-secondary and other education and training providers use to evaluate learning that has occurred outside of the traditional academic environment. Sometimes, it’s still referred to as PLA. Credit for prior learningCPL is a term for various methods that post-secondary and other education and training providers use to evaluate learning that has occurred outside of the traditional academic environment. Sometimes, it’s still referred to as PLA.
CAEL changed the term from CPL to PLA in 2022 because it wants learner/workers to understand that their previous experience can help them get credit, and the term assessment can be confusing to learner/workers.
To learn more about this change in terminology, check out “Using the Right Terms: Announcing CAEL’s Switch from PLA to CPL.”
Credit for prior learning is used to grant college credit, certification, or advanced standing towards furthering an individual’s education or training. CPL is very important in supporting adult learners. Returning to education after having started and left in the past can be very difficult for adults.
Research has shown that students who participate in CPL are more likely to complete college and that they save time and money while earning a degree. CAEL has set up processes, policies, and ways that learning providers and post-secondary institutions can embed CPL in their systems.
The sad truth is only about 10 percent of adult college students participate in CPL. CAEL wants to increase usage because research shows that CPL drives completion for all student demographics. CAEL wants to bring more structure to CPL because it knows the benefits of CPL for adult learners.
The Connection Between Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) and Competency-Based Education (CBE)
[15:53] – What’s the connection between CPL and competency-based education (CBE)?
CPL and CBE complement each other, but they’re distinct. Both approaches prioritize positive learning outcomes over seat time and can save students time and money.
CPL values student experiences by awarding credit for those that demonstrate adequate college-level learning.
CBE focuses on student learning and the application of that learning—what they know and what they can do. A key component of CBE is understanding what the learner already knows in order to provide the most valuable skills and create a personalized path to a credential.
CBE also focuses on prior learning, allowing students to fit it into their personalized path.
CPL is embedded in a trusted methodology of how to translate knowledge and skills.
The combination of recognizing what someone already knows and can do along with a more flexible, personalized learning journey allows learners to gain value immediately and then progress towards a credential. This increases completion and can also increase employability rates because learners can then meet certain skill sets required by employers.
Both CPL and CBE are critical to individual mobility and the health of our economy.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE) and Credit for Prior Learning (CPL)
[18:23] – CPL diversity, equity, and inclusion. Saving time and money broadens the pool of who can participate in a particular experience. What else would you say about the relationship between DEI and CPL?
Increasing CPL usage among underserved students represents a big opportunity. In one of CAEL’s research studies, adult Pell Grant recipients demonstrated greater than average completion boosts from using PLA/CPL programs, particularly Black adult Pell recipients.
Unfortunately, Black and lower-income adult students were least likely to receive CPL credit.
We have the research. We know that we can use this in a DEI role to lift barriers for lower-income students. We collectively have to do a better job of providing this upfront as an opportunity.Christine Carpenter
The Role of Microcredentialing in Supporting Adult Learners
[20:21] – How can microcredentialing support adult learners and potentially further DEI goals?
Microcredentialing is a great opportunity for learners to dip their toe in the education. Adult learners have growing concerns about the value of education.
They are concerned not only about the cost of a traditional degree program but also misalignment with the realities of work. It’s not surprising that adult learners favor flexibility and multiple access points.
Stackable credentials offer solutions in several ways:
- Stackable credentials can be aligned with employer needs.
- They don’t lock learners into a linear all-or-nothing trajectory.
- Learners can complete courses and earn a digital badge that indicates their mastery of a specific skill.
CAEL has worked with employers who have embedded certain competencies and skills into the definition of the badge; then, when an individual who has that badge wants to work, the employer knows what she brings to the table.
Learners might focus on earning a certificate that then can be applied to finishing a bachelor’s degree—they look to stack credentials.
Microcredentialing works well with stackable credential and paves a way forward. Microcredentials give adult learner/workers educational on- and off-ramps. Employers will look for microcredentials that showcase a skill set because sometimes the skill sets underlying a full degrees aren’t as obvious.
Check out our related episode “Talking Digital Credentials with 1EdTech.”
[23:22] – What would you recommend to a learning business that wants to really support adult learners?
CAEL has research called the “Adult Learner Leaders for Institutional Effectiveness” (ALLIES) framework.
There are five primary themes inherent in maintaining a learning environment in which adult learners can flourish:
- Career connections and relevance
- Academic empowerment
- Student support
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion
Opportunities and Challenges on the Horizon
[26:47] – When thinking about CAEL’s work, what major opportunities and what major challenges do you see on the horizon?
Moving from this either/or to a both/and mindset, it’s a challenge, but yet it’s an opportunity. This can relate to a formal degree program versus the microcredential we talked about, STEM versus soft skills, workplace learning versus classroom learning. It really goes back to understanding that our collective success is ultimately determined by the individual adult learner’s success.Christine Carpenter
There are huge opportunities for industry to engage more closely with post-secondary education providers and create credentials that today’s adult learners and employers need and desire. There’s a growing need for training that’s attractive to learners because of the likelihood of a future career payoff and flexible enough to let them complete their programs of study while balancing other life responsibilities.
Christine feels honored to work at the crossroads where stakeholders intersect and cooperate to support today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities.
Lifelong Learning Habits
[28:56] – What are some of habits, sources, and practices for your own lifelong learning?
One of the reasons Christine enjoys her work at CAEL is the organization operates on a philosophy that lifelong learning is important. Learning doesn’t end with one’s formal education. Learning is the core of what CAEL does and part of its DNA.
Christine embraces being a lifelong learner. She wants to improve her knowledge but also wants to improve her quality of life and sense of self-worth. The world is changing so rapidly that you have to consistently upskill to keep up with the latest knowledge.
It’s important to have a practice of learning, but Christine believes it’s most important to know why learning is important.
[34:12] – Wrap-up
Christine Carpenter is senior vice president of engagement at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. CAEL offers a variety of resources relevant to learning businesses, including a free newsletter and the ALLIES framework.
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