Integrating prior learning assessment principles and practices in a new rural capacity building framework

By: Gary McNeely
December 5, 2023

The Rural Development Institute’s (RDIs) research agenda has focused on several recurring themes, including regional economic development, rural immigration, rural infrastructure and services, rural innovation, and rural capacity building. [1,2,3,4] A key facet of these projects is the collaboration between the RDI team, other academic researchers, community service and non-governmental organizations, government agencies, and regional and community leaders. Many of these projects are community-based, where the project partners play an active role in the research agenda and research activities. [5,6,7] RDI is exploring opportunities to integrate this action-based, participatory methodology into its research program, as a rural capacity building framework. In this way, applied, experiential learning acquired through the research activities can build the capacity of the project partners that can be applied in future rural development. [8]

This project aims to advance this approach to applied learning by examining how rural development involves an intersection of a core set of elements. First and central is the idea of community development itself, which has been understood through various overarching concepts: resilience, vitality, sustainability, and well-being. [8, 9] Each concept measures improvement, described in terms of domains or goals and specific evidence-based indicators to substantiate the intended positive change to the community. This is the goal of rural development, but how to apply these concepts depends on the capacity of those involved.

The second element concerns the agents involved in community development. The literature highlights three main players:

  1. Individuals, active and engaged
  2. Organizations, local or regional, acting as services, professions, or business enterprises
  3. The community, the local council, its officers, and administrators.

    These agents have unique roles, attributes, and assets that are marshaled when initiating, planning, implementing, and evaluating the impact of rural development projects. RDI and other rural researchers have long identified the opportunities and challenges these agents encounter in local development projects. In many instances, RDIs research projects have used case studies to identify the collaborations, best practices, and toolkits to advance a development agenda and to highlight missteps and forewarnings. The case studies highlight lessons learned as one dimension in project reporting, but this does not explicitly address the learning attained by the various players involved in these projects.

This gap in recognizing the scope of learning acquired when engaged in rural development can be a significant impediment to building capacity if communities are hesitant to apply the lessons learned from past projects. Considering this gap, this project aims to explore how Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR), as a third element, can be used to build capacity in rural development. PLAR is usually used in the education sector as a way of recognizing knowledge, skills, attitudes (KSAs), and competencies that can be applied towards the completion of an academic credential and in the human resources sector to assess a candidate’s work experience and training expected for employment or job advancement. [10,11] However, PLAR can also provide a quality-assured process for recognizing the level of competency in the KSAs required by individuals, organizations, and communities to undertake development projects as well as for recognizing learning acquired while undertaking such initiatives. In this project, PLAR critical reflective processes literature will be used to identify learning required or acquired while engaged in rural development. This learning is usually attributed to individuals, but collective (group) decision-making by organizations and within communities provides opportunities for organizational/social learning. [12] Recognizing this informal learning through PLAR will help highlight that the actors in such projects have gained some measure of capacity in terms of their acquired KSAs. PLAR methods can also highlight the significant gaps in KSAs that hinder their capacity. Identifying these gaps will help detail what professional development or work-based training, or formal post-secondary programs or credentials are options for resolving this diminished capacity. [13,14,15]

This project will explore how organizations involved in community development may have different levels of capacity based on the KSAs they can utilize. This capacity level is explained in terms of organizational or management maturity and uses industry sectors such as IT, business, management, manufacturing, and healthcare. [16,17,18,19] This point of reference to industry sectors is useful as it clarifies that organizations that are new to rural development may not have significant capacity to undertake these projects compared to those more experienced in rural development. Applying competency-based management and organization maturity models in this rural capacity building framework will help identify what measures can be undertaken by organizations to build their capacity and maturity.

Communities are also critical in development projects regarding the various assets drawn upon to advance these initiatives. Community development often explains these assets in terms of a community capitals framework, which includes a complement of seven: Human, Social, Political, Cultural, Financial, Built, and Natural. [20,21, 22,23,24,25]  Each asset is used in realizing community wellbeing. There is a critical overlap between this community capitals framework and the management maturity model; both emphasize how human capital/resources, social and organizational culture, and financial assets are leveraged in community development projects. This rural capacity building framework using PLAR practices will help identify and recognize the KSAs that are applicable for applying each capital in rural development projects.

The overarching goal is to craft a comprehensive framework encompassing competent knowledge, skills, capacities, and capitals essential for rural development. By tailoring this framework to each community’s distinct realities and priorities, the project aspires to empower rural developers with the insights to navigate contemporary rural challenges successfully. This initiative aligns with RDIs commitment to community-based research poised to impact rural Manitoba’s future development. In this rural capacity building framework, PLAR plays several important roles:

  • Empowers individuals, organizations, and communities by recognizing the skills and knowledge that each has acquired through involvement in rural development, which helps foster a sense of ownership and pride in these accomplishments.
  • Identifies skills and knowledge gaps where additional training or education may be needed to design, implement, and evaluate the impacts of rural development projects.
  • Creates pathways for civic engagement by recognizing the skills and knowledge acquired through community development which can foster a more diverse and inclusive local workforce.
  • Builds social, human, and cultural capital by creating networks and connections between individuals and organizations within the community leading to increased collaboration and cooperation.
  • Supports lifelong learning by recognizing the value of non-formal and informal learning, which can help to create a culture of learning within the community and lead to a more educated and informed population.


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