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A Sector–Wide Scan of the Current PLAR Landscape at Ontario Colleges

March 2, 2022 Authors: Lindsay McRae

As Ontario colleges and postsecondary institutions work towards building a more equitable, seamless, and efficient credit transfer and articulation system, PLAR should be part of the discussion. PLAR and Credit Transfer can easily be conceptualized as two sides of the same coin ⁠— “both processes aim to help learners achieve credit for prior learning” (Harrison, 2018). The outcome of both processes is the same: receiving postsecondary credit.

To better understand the current landscape of PLAR at Ontario colleges, ONCAT conducted a formal scan of available information found on each of the 24 publicly-funded colleges in the province in 2021. The scan resulted in a report Prior Learning Assessment in Ontario: An Online Scan of PLAR Information for Ontario’s 24 Publicly Funded Colleges. The purpose of this blog is to outline where PLAR is serving Ontario students well, and where it could do better based on ONCAT’s findings.

Whether you’re a college admissions or transfer advisor, a postsecondary policy decision maker, or a government official interested in where funding priorities should fall within the realm of PLAR and Credit Transfer, this outline will surely be valuable in helping to improve PLAR policies to create better outcomes for Ontario students.

A Sector - Wide Scan of the PLAR Landscape at Ontario Colleges

5 Areas of PLAR Success in Ontario

  1. Multiple pathways for validating “informal” learning experiences: Across the board, Ontario colleges seem to be providing multiple ways for PLAR applicants to validate their learning — from the presence of learning portfolios to written or oral tests and interviews.
  2. Basic information on PLAR is easily accessible on most college webpages: A majority (18 out of 24) of Ontario’s colleges have their own designated PLAR webpages.
  3. Application processes are well-documented: A majority of the 24 Ontario colleges (18 out of 24) clearly outline the steps required for PLAR applications.
  4. Programs are making a large percentage of courses eligible for PLAR: Most institutions allow for up to 50 to 75% of program credits to undergo the PLAR process.
  5. Encouraging trends in the world of PLAR:
    • Credit Recognition and Acceptance Between Institutions: 42% (10 out of 24) of institutions reported assigning letter grades for PLAR credit in the same way they record credits for non-PLAR credits.
    • Movement towards standardization of communication of key features of the PLAR process: While the availability of information about key features of the PLAR process have yet to be standardized across Ontario colleges (ex. Application process, fees, supports, assessment procedures, and method of credit recognition), we did see some consistency. For example, 20 out of 24 colleges provide information about credit award limits pertaining to PLAR. Additionally, most institutions also report the cost of PLAR per credit.

4 Areas for PLAR Improvement in Ontario

  1. Lack of consistency about how PLAR relates to Credit Transfer: PLAR credits are transferable in theory, but our scan returned no available information about the transferability of PLAR credits in practice. None of Ontario’s colleges provide online information about how and whether PLAR credits from other institutions are accepted.
    • While there have been recent calls to better integrate PLAR with Credit Transfer (Harrison, 2018), there seems to be a lack of clarity with regards to what this integration may look like.
    • In fact, 6 out of 24 institutions’ PLAR websites include information which frame PLAR as distinct from credit transfer.
    • This variegated way of conceptualizing PLAR may make it more difficult for the sector to achieve clarity on how these two processes can and do complement one another.
  2. Gaps in available information about PLAR: Information for block assessment seems limited, as most institutions provide only information about course-specific PLAR. And 6 out of 24 colleges did not have a designated PLAR webpage, instead offering policy documents, a few of which were dated and not easily accessible.
  3. Lengthy process: The PLAR process appears lengthy and complicated. It could take up to 6 to 8 weeks for a decision, which could be problematic when students are required to withdraw from the course and potentially not be granted a credit if unsuccessful.
  4. Impact on OSAP funding: PLAR courses have the potential to compromise funding that students receive from the government, which can impact students in need of financial support while attending post-secondary.

Areas For Future Research

More research is needed to better understand the scope of PLAR in Ontario and specifically, how it can be better aligned with the Credit Transfer system. ONCAT hopes to complement our 2021 online scan of Ontario colleges PLAR information with interviews with PLAR practitioners at the institutions to understand more about how these online representations are carried out in practice.

  • Are PLAR supports as readily available as they appear online?
  • How seamless is the process for students?
  • Are there many students who opt for PLAR?
  • How is support for PLAR students funded?
  • If a student successfully completes a course through PLAR, how do receiving institutions recognize those credits?
  • What is the experience of students who later apply for credit transfer at another institution?

These questions are better answered through qualitative work that can probe more deeply and expand the surface impressions which are available through content analysis.

Where to Learn More About PLAR in Ontario

CLICK HERE to read our 2021 report Prior Learning Assessment in Ontario: An Online Scan of PLAR Information for Ontario’s 24 Publicly Funded College

Thanks to Rod Missaghian, Senior Researcher, ONCAT for his support in editing this blog