In keeping with my previous post on the changing nature of higher education (apparently in a pragmatic mood this holiday season), I present in this post an initiative that presents a direct challenge to (or an attempt to challenge) the supremacy of higher education in one particular arena: credentialing. The more I was thinking about this initiative and this post, the more I began to realize how much of the economic foundation of higher education is built on this credentialing supremacy. Universities exist to for learning, for exploration and discovery, to be sure, but the flow of capital through them is primarily based on credentialing. Acknowledging formally that this work equates to this degree equals the bearer of this degree is credentialed, bona fide. The transparency and predictability of the credential is respected and this process of acquiring credentials becomes lucrative, or at least financially generative. Without the formalized credentials, money wouldn’t flow through the system as readily as it does. Without credentials, universities would be quite different structures.
I am getting ahead of myself. First, the initiative.
Degreed: Jailbreaking the Degree
Degreed is an attempt to provide credentialing primarily for lifelong learning, activities taken from a myriad of places that reflect learning. Acknowledging, perhaps with a mechanism a bit more systematic than Open Badges (open for debate there), that learning takes place everywhere and that higher education is an environment in which some, but not all, learning takes place. That is a simplistic definition, but this is a Saturday so go easy on me. From their own language:
Learning has never been more available and inexpensive, yet the cost of (formal) education continues to rise at 3x the rate of inflation. Universities do not have a monopoly on learning – only credentialing. Degreed will create the world’s first Digital Lifelong Diploma, which will ‘jailbreak‘ the degree and enable learners to reflect everything they’ve learned, from any source, throughout their lives.
Degreed is creating the world’s first digital diploma, that scores and validates your lifelong education from any source, both formal (e.g. Harvard) and informal (e.g. Khan Academy, iTunesU, Coursera, conferences, certificates, assessments, and media). The digital diploma enables a best-of model of education. Fast Company writes, “Why can’t we take robotics at Carnegie Mellon, linear algebra at MIT, law at Stanford? And why can’t we put 130 of these together and make it a degree?” With the Digital Lifelong Diploma you can.
It is one of the first attempts (that I have seen at least) to systematically acknowledge learning at both ends of the formal/informal spectrum. It attempts to cobble together degrees from participation in open and closed learning ‘marketplaces’. It broadens the credentialing discussion to include the inside/outside academia spectrum. It attempts to do many things that are educationally sound, especially in light of open learning. But that is not necessarily why it captures my attention.
Universities as Credentialing Agencies: Limitations and Opportunity
I suspect that why it captures my attention is that it is a direct alternative (assault?) on the supremacy of higher education in terms of credentialing. It attempts to provide alternatives to this closed ‘marketplace’. It liberalizes the conferring of legitimacy on learners (alliteration!). It goes straight to the heart of the economic structure of higher education. It goes after the monetizable element of credentialing.
Will it work? More than likely, no. That isn’t because the idea isn’t sound, necessarily; it is more than likely that the environment isn’t ripe. It is a timing issue as much as a legitimacy issue. In the interim, however, as the marketplace expands and processes are redefined, there is a legitimate opportunity here for universities to leverage their existing place as credentialing agent, expand their market identity, and develop an alternative revenue stream. Does that sound horribly commercial? I think it should. Initiatives like this are sirens that should be heard and that require some agile repositioning from higher education.
So my proposal is this and it is borrowed directly from the playbook of Degreed. Why doesn’t a university charge for credentialing academic work, both inside and outside their institution? What is to stop University X from credentialing a student who has completed coursework at University Y and Z and from MOOC W and Open Course V (I am running out of letters). Why not credential doctoral students who have gone off and created research agendas, posed research questions, collected, analyzed, and articulated data? Why not the presentation of prior research as work commiserate with issuing a degree? Why not charge an amount for such a service?
I see this all as messy, chaotic, and highly problematic for all parties involved. Degreed has an uphill battle here (not so much in credentialing, but rather through acknowledgement of that credential) but I wish them well and I would like to see a broadening of the marketplace as a result of their efforts. So more power to them. Higher education, I understand this is even more problematic for you with legacy issues, oversight committees, government reports and standards, and just the general drudgery of minutiae. I know it is hard for you to pivot like this when presented with opportunity. And I respect the unease/revulsion you might feel at engaging in this process. It can be highly commercial, can undercut the more egalitarian aspects of your organizational construction/projection. But it is an opportunity, one that rewards the agile, enthusiastic learner. That sounds like the stuff of credentialing to me, acknowledging the worthiness of that kind of behavior.