Canada’s engagement in the recognition of prior learning (RPL is also known as prior learning assessment and recognition – PLAR) has occurred in various sectors, institutions and government-sponsored programs at the federal, provincial/ territorial and community levels since the 1970’s. Early advocates and current champions continue to be attracted to RPL for a variety of reasons. Many see it as a way of recognizing and respecting different ways of knowing, especially among traditionally disadvantaged groups. Others see RPL as an opportunity to develop rigorous and reliable ways of evaluating non-classroom learning for the purpose of facilitating certification, meeting job requirements, creating bridging programs, acquiring a license to practice or achieving academic credit or transfer. All points of view are associated with improving access, broadening perceptions of learning to include informal, non-formal and formal learning achievements and accepting the importance of verifying what someone knows and can do in order to promote social inclusion and enhance learning and/or employment opportunities.
Challenges and opportunities
Challenges and opportunities are numerable. Canada has ten provinces and three territories and covers a geographic area slightly bigger than the United States. All three levels of government (municipal-provincial/territorial-federal) have legislative responsibility for providing services but in some cases, the responsibility is shared among jurisdictions. For example, education is considered a provincial/territorial responsibility, yet skills development and employment are seen as a joint federal-provincial/territorial responsibility.
Despite the absence of a national RPL strategy or sustained government funding, efforts to promote RPL within some organizations have been significant. RPL, along with the increased development and use of standards, learning outcomes and competencies, has spread from its beginnings within post-secondary education, to other sectors. For example, some of Canada’s national sector councils and professional associations are actively maintaining standards and providing certification opportunities. (e.g. www.cthrc.ca; www.fitt.ca; www.eco.ca; www.nsboats.com; www.csmls.org; www.alliancept.org; www.engineerscanada.ca)
Canada’s per-capita immigration rate is one of the highest in the world (www.cic.ca) and with roughly 250,000 immigrants arriving each year, the need to provide effective and reliable ways of assessing their prior knowledge, skills and abilities is acute. Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada have programs that support immigrant settlement and labour market integration. In particular, ESDC’s foreign credential recognition program is involved with activities associated with assessment and recognition of learning.
Because of the jurisdictional considerations mentioned earlier, Canada does not have a national department of education. The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (www.cmec.ca) has responsibility for, among other things, the Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials (www.cicic.ca) which provides information on formal credential assessment services, provincial/territorial education systems, post-secondary institutions, regulated and unregulated occupations and how to connect with provincial/territorial regulatory bodies that have responsibility for issuing licences to practice in each jurisdiction.
High demand for RPL services by Canadian-born adult learners looking for recognition by academic institutions to reduce time to credential completion, has not materialized. This may be explained by lack of awareness among potential PLAR candidates, the complexities of RPL implementation, as well as the reluctance of colleges and universities to actively promote and accommodate it. Currently the drivers for change are associated with improving ways of evaluating immigrant learning and to a lesser extent, providing recognition services for unemployed older Canadians (see Targeted Initiative for Older Workers at www.actionplan.gc.ca) or non-credentialed individuals (see Second Career at www.tcu.gov.on.ca/eng/secondcareer) who are facing retirement with little or no pension and few savings. Clarifying and proving skills and competencies to employers is seen as a way of leveraging transferable skills for workers in transition, while at the same time, helping to close the skills gap (jobs go unfilled yet people are unemployed).
Other challenges associated with RPL involve, but are not limited to: confusing terminology (employers assess prior learning but don’t call it RPL or PLAR); project-based funding (when support is withdrawn, the project cannot be sustained); return-on-investment (statistics to measure the effectiveness of RPL as a successful intervention are difficult to find); institutional inertia (there are few incentives for traditional organizations to change their culture and practice); distrust in the rigour of PLAR (credit award is perceived as a giveaway and therefore diminishes the value of diplomas and degrees); assessment excess (the tendency to over-assess PLAR candidates as compared to traditional learners) and the absence of a Canadian vision and policy framework for the recognition of prior learning.
National standards, policy and framework activity
National standards, policy and framework activity began in 1997. Canada’s first efforts to establish national RPL standards occurred when the Government of Canada funded projects leading to the development of fourteen PLAR Standards through the Canadian Labour Force Development Board (1990-1999). The Canadian Association for Prior Learning Assessment (www.capla.ca) expanded on this work in 1999 with the development of practitioner benchmarks and later, on assessor, advisor and facilitator competencies. Currently CAPLA has begun work in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders to develop quality assurance guidelines for the field of practice. The Canadian Council on Learning (www.ccl-cca.ca) sponsored several PLAR research projects (2004-2012) some of which contained policy and framework recommendations. Many of Canada’s provinces/territories have established PLAR policies within their education ministries and some have developed RPL frameworks. A Pan-Canadian Framework for the Assessment and Recognition of Foreign Qualifications was developed in 2009 by Canada’s Forum of Labour Market Ministers (www.flmm-fmmt.ca) and the Foreign Qualifications Recognition Working Group continues to guide and support the implementation of the Framework.
Stakeholder engagement at the national level includes CAPLA’s yearly conference that attracts a wide range of RPL stakeholders from across Canada and abroad. Collaboration, information-sharing and networking among participants and presenters with diverse RPL interests have succeeded in breaking down some of the traditional silos to enable cross-fertilization of ideas, programs, resources and tools. The Canadian Network of National Associations of Regulators (www.cnnar.ca) hosts events for regulatory authorities that have responsibility for protection of the public and competency assessment is discussed frequently. The Canadian Commission for UNESCO has integrated PLAR into its Declaration on Adult Learning (2011) and succeeds in bringing stakeholders together from literacy, adult education, civil society and government, to collaborate on matters of mutual concern. Colleges and Institutes Canada (www.collegesinstitutes.ca) has integrated PLAR into some of its activities such as the Transfer, Articulation and Pathways (TAP) pan-Canadian initiative. A Strategic Advisory Panel on RPL, involving representatives from Canada’s provinces and territories, has been hosted by CAPLA since 2009 for the purpose of sharing innovative ideas and initiatives.
At the provincial/territorial level, cross-discipline RPL events have taken place through such groups as the Manitoba PLA Network. Other active PLAR networks exist in New Brunswick and British Columbia (www.bcplan.ca). In terms of training, there are RPL certificate programs for practitioners available in Canada, along with career development certification programs into which RPL and portfolio development have been embedded.
The social and economic benefits of any RPL strategy that acknowledges and values lifelong learning are obvious. It is the cornerstone of career development practice, human resources management and labour force development. In addition, it supports individuals in their personal and professional growth. For example, Canada’s indigenous people were among the first to embrace RPL and the holistic portfolio process continues to be an important tool for First Nations to explore their learning in terms of family, community, culture, tradition and healing.
Many of Canada’s provinces and territories see the benefits of RPL and support local activities by investing in their own PLAR priorities, through education, employment and/or immigrant settlement and integration programs. Examples can be found at www.capla.ca under past conference proceeding.
There are no immediate plans to systematize RPL in Canada, although RVA practice will be informed and enriched by the quality assurance project ‘Ensuring Quality Assessment through Training and Collaboration’ currently underway through CAPLA and its partners.
Canadian Association for Prior Learning Assessment (CAPLA)
CAPLA has been Canada’s national voice for PLAR since 1994.