When I Don’t Practice What I Preach About Credentialism

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m an idealist. I’m an idealist with a propensity to do and act, but I’m still an idealist. As such, there are plenty of times where the ideal in my mind doesn’t necessarily line up with where I am in practice. I’m in pursuit of that ideal, but I still live in the world of the present reality. Sometimes I work hard to recreate that reality through some new personal habit, innovation, or effort. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. Yet, a simple recent event reminded me about the inconsistency between at least one thing that I’ve been preaching and reality.

I started working on a new writing project recently and, unlike my rough draft (typos and all) candor on this blog, it was important for me to produce more polished final pieces. In such instances I often seek out an editor / proofreader to help me out. In fact, I have a few excellent editors that I’ve used in the past. Yet, for this new project, I decided to post in an online service to see if I might connect with some new talent as well (I find it good to have a few options for when timing or the nature of the task isn’t the right fit for someone).

I posted the job and watched the dozens or more applications come into my inbox. Now it was time to start reviewing these applications to decide who to reach out to for further discussion. If I’m hiring an illustrator or graphic designer, I usually turn right to their portfolio followed by reading their reviews and ratings from past clients. Then I look at their rate of completion (What percentage of client projects did they follow through to completion?). I rarely even glance at their formal education. If they can do the job well as shown by past performance and the quality of their work that I can view for myself, then I hire them.

I pride myself on reviewing talent for jobs. I’m certainly not perfect, but I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years and reviewed thousands of applications. I’ve learned to read resumes from the bottom up, to notice nuances in language, to ask questions that get to the heart of the matter, to notice patterns, to identify core convictions and character traits that are likely to help something struggle or thrive in a given job, and much more. In fact, I love this part of my full-time job, and I enjoy it just as much when I’m hiring part-time people to contribute their passion and talent to a project.

Then there is my work around credentials, access, and opportunity. If you frequent my blog (or my book on What Really Matters in Education), you know that I am a concerned critic of what some call credentialism. I wrote about this in a 2016 Chronicle of Higher Education article. I’ve written about it in my blog. I spoke about it in front of hundreds and rooms of thousands. A degree is not the only pathway to competence, but too many employers today just use the degree as shorthand for competence. That is at least part of my criticism.

So, when I post for an editor / proofreader and start reviewing applications, what did I do? The first thing that I did was read their cover letters to get a sense of whether they understood the job and might be a potential fit. There are subtleties in their writing that also hint at (but don’t definitively indicate) whether they might be a good match for the task at hand. Then where did I look? Unlike my search for an illustrator or graphic designer, I didn’t go straight to the portfolio of work. I didn’t do that because it would take me too much time to read their editing, and most portfolios didn’t really show me what they edited and what they didn’t. It was just a polished article or piece of writing. I did glance at their reviews from past projects and their completion rate.

Yet, I also found myself doing something else. I scrolled down to see where they went to college (yes, I paid special attention to those with a college degree) and their major in college. When I saw English, technical writing, or journalism; I paid special attention to that application. When I saw a degree in an unrelated field, I lost at least part of my interest in that application. Do you see what I just did? I used the name of the school and the major as a shortcut for sifting through a large number of applicants. Yet, who knows if they were actually the best fit and talent in the pool of applicants?

I caught myself doing this and, while school name and major still influenced me, I turned back to the portfolio and reviews for more information. I looked for past employers who seemed to have the same level of commitment to excellence that I had for this project, paying special attention to their reviews of the candidate. Yet, this job site didn’t always list the name of the employer in the reviews. As such, even when I tried not to pay attention, the name of the school attended and the major kept coming to mind for me. A well-ranked liberal arts school made a difference in my opinion of them because I knew the caliber of writing expected in those schools. When they went to certain other schools, I had far less trust because I was aware that standards for writing were not as high.

Endorsements from others mattered to me, but I just didn’t have enough to go on so I reverted to the credential and reputation of the school. This might seem mundane to some readers, but this was a humbling moment for me. I believe in working to overcome credentialism. I believe that a vision for access and opportunity in education calls for us to embrace multiple pathways to competence. I believe in promoting systems that allow people to build candid and useful online reputations, allowing them to connect with others (including employers). Yet, we are not there yet. We still have plenty of work to do before we get there.

Reality check confirmed. Now it is time for me to get back to work trying to change that reality.

If Only We Had a More Credentialed World

If only we had a more credentialed world. Perhaps we could credential our way to a more orderly, safe, clean, and efficient society. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. Consider the possibilities.

Orchestra Credentials

I was at a performance the other day and had a chance to speak to someone in the orchestra. I asked him about how he ended up here and I was quite troubled by the fact that he is allowed to play in a respected city orchestra as a grown man, and he has absolutely no formal credentials. He didn’t even earn a college degree in music. If only we limited access to the orchestra by formal credentials. Perhaps we could set up a national (even better, international) entity that would devise formal standards and create a universal set of assessments that people had to pass to get their orchestra license. Only then would they be eligible to apply for a position in a local orchestra. There is little doubt that our music would be better, but even if that were not true, at least we would have more order than we do with this embarrassingly open concept of letting anyone try out. Who knows, they might even have some entirely self-taught people in there.

Professional Basketball Players

Then I went to an NBA game recently. Did you know that some NBA players do not even have their college degree? These guys can be incredibly credential-less people. We have this absurd system right now where any young boy with a dream can start playing in the local park, community league, or wherever. He can develop his skills apart from any true expert, any official or nationally norm-referenced set of agreed upon standards, and work his way into the NBA. Unless we want to fall head first into anarchy, we are wise to put an end to such disorder.

Startup Founders

On top of that, in my line of work, I interact with quite a few founders of startup companies, especially those in the education sector. This is a serious problem. We have people starting businesses who have never taken a business course, let alone earned at least a bachelor’s of business administration. Shouldn’t we at least set up an entity like the place where you go to get a driver’s license, but do it for a startup founder’s license? We can make it illegal to start a business unless you’ve passed the founder test. Then maybe we wouldn’t have so many abysmal failures in the startup space.

Parenting License

Let me finish with the most appalling of them all. Did you know that people do not have to take a single parenting course before they become parents in the United States? They don’t even need to prove that they are up on the most current peer-reviewed literature on parenting. We let literally anyone who is physically able have children! It is about time that we change the world by establishing a mandatory parenting license. If you can’t verify that you have the knowledge and skill, then we can make it illegal to have children. Imagine how we could improve the state of society with such a much-needed credential.

I can’t say it any better than Jack Westman in this article from the 1990s:

Licensing parents would lay the foundation for dramatically reducing the need for costly and ineffective governmental welfare and correctional programs. It would affirm parental responsibility for child-rearing and reduce the need for governmental involvement in families. It would increase the general level of competent parenting and positively affect generations to come.

Everything Else

While I just chose these four examples, credentials could improve most any aspect of life today. Consider the workplace. Before you can apply to work at a fast food restaurant, what if we set up certifications in each of the tasks involved with the job. The higher the score on the tests, the better your job prospects. We could add licenses, certifications and related credentials for lawn care, road work, and much more. Then maybe we could also finally establish some licenses for voting in elections as well. Do we really want uninformed people picking our next community, state, and national leaders? Credentials can fix these problem and many others.

Reality Check

I’m hoping that you’ve continued reading long enough to get here, where I want to make it abundantly clear that I was not serious about any of the items above. In fact, I’m increasingly concerned about the credentialization and over-standardization of the world. Credentials are certainly not the solution to every societal issue and, even if we had the data to support improved benefits of adding more credentials and licenses in an area, there are important (even critical) values and ethical considerations for us. Life is not just about efficiency, outcomes and optimal performance. Those must be kept in check as servants to a greater set of missions, visions, and values. This is true in society as a whole, government, the workplace and our schools. Credentials have a valuable role and place, but if we are not careful, they can draw us away from the things that matter most to us.

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Can Badges Help Education (and Society) Recover from Credentialism?

I continue to wonder if open badges can help education and society recover from credentialism. When I first started writing about badges, it was because I saw possible futures where open badges could de-monopolize current credential issuing organizations. I saw the potential to increase access and opportunity for self-directed learners, those who took alternative learning pathways, and those who sought to design a personal learning pathway that mixed learning experiences across contexts and organizations. I saw it as a way to force the hand of more formal learning organizations to invest in the quality of their communities, learning experiences and their benefit to learners (not just employers). I looked at the education landscape and lamented instances where education institutions expected to keep their doors open by trusting that people would come to them with the promise of a quick-to-degree route or the hope of some sacred piece of paper that only these institutions had authorization to dispense.

With the growth of open badges as I saw it, these organizations could no longer depend upon people enduring archaic, subpar, and disempowering practices simply because the institution held the keys to the credential that the learner must have for her/his desired future. This was and is not prompted by a personal desire to hurt formal education. I wanted to help it find its way back to what has always been best about higher education; being a rich, immersive, intellectual, curious, transformational learning community and not a diploma-issuing factory. The best institutions today get that, but many do not believe it enough to have a financial model built around such a vision.

I saw badges as a means of helping to create a future where the increased percentage of college graduates was modest but the education “level” of communities was, nonetheless, greater than past eras. I looked to the example of open professions and intellectual communities in society and saw that many of the thriving communities are among the least enamored with credentialism (with the major exception of the health care industry that I will address momentarily). I saw this in entrepreneurial endeavors, many tech industries, sales and marketing, service industries, as well the tech-meets-social sector that continues to grow. In open professions, the high school diploma or college degree is still a common and respected pathway, but not at the exclusion of other, admittedly less traveled routes. I saw badges as a way to validate and expand these alternatives.

The same is true for those seeing the benefit in a broad and liberal arts education. As long as academia touts its pathway to the liberal arts as the only or superior one, we are hurting the expansion of the liberal arts in society. I’ve long contended that advocates of the liberal arts should be the first to promote informal learning, continuing education, and liberal arts learning beyond the classroom. The liberal arts is in full bloom when people value their books and music, they use their library cards, congregate for book clubs, participate in public lectures and gatherings to explore topics of personal and social import. It happens when museums and galleries are well-funded (due to the desire of the people and not just the lobbying of a small élite); these museums and galleries are valued and frequented places in communities; coffee shops, diners and pubs are robust places of idea exchange; when individuals self-organize groups for growth and learning; and when people value the intellectual life as an important part of their home and communities.

I worry that pushing the liberal arts credential as the only way to becoming a cultured and informed citizen limits the potential of the liberal arts. Yet, in a world of more open learning, the liberal arts college or curriculum doesn’t diminish. It plays a more valued role as one of many important institutions contributing to the humanities and the liberal arts in society. If the only noble place to study or experience Shakespeare is in the college classroom, Shakespeare is on life support and his prognosis does not look good.

As I’ve mused about the role of badges in shaping the future of learning and education (not just schooling), I’ve long recognized that training for healthcare is a major exception in that future. The regulation and oversight of training and credentials associated with these careers likely means that the monopoly on credentials leading to these healthcare jobs is secure well into the future. It is also possible that the model set forth in these programs is part of what is spreading to entire Universities and accrediting bodies, but I still see the open badge movement as a way to help prevent such a future.

My hope for these more open futures is fueled by the connected learning revolution. The digital age opened access to content, communities, open courses, human networks, personal learning tools and resources, and educational software. More people are using these elements to build learning communities, enhance their lives, and achieve personal learning goals. As connected learning expands, I have no doubt that value for this broader world of learning with expand with it. As that happens, open badges have a role in amplifying the effect of the connected learning revolution and de-monopolizing the issuing of valued credentials.

We are not there yet, and there is no certainty that such a possibly future will become reality. There are corporate influences at work that could either help or hijack the potential of open badges. Government and regulatory agencies have the power to create policies that limit or expand the influence of open badges. Lobbyists (many of whom would never see themselves as such) within formal education continue to have a strong voice in these matters (as I think they should), and an unwillingness to objectively assess the affordances and limitations of such a future is also a potential barrier. In addition, decisions about which direction to take with the future of the open badge infrastructure has the potential to speed or halt progress toward this future. As much as any of these, there is also the momentum of the existing system and framework in society that continues to be in favor of giving up power (even if unknowingly) to existing academic monopolies.

This does not need to be adversarial, but I am enough of a realist to know that it will be so. Such a broad change is painful. It creates new winners and losers. It challenges the agenda of desired future of influential people in government, business, and the education sector. It risks devaluing some existing credentials. It challenges people to a higher standard and level of learning. As it empowers more people, that means others will potentially lose some of their existing influence, and they are unlikely to do that without resistance. With such considerations involved, the future that first captured my interest in badges is less than certain, but I continue to see it as an interesting, if not promising possibility and path to recover from credentialism in society.

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The Future of Education Credentials: 5 Potential Influencers

What is the future of education credentials? Is the diploma worth the cost of college tuition? Why are certificates programs increasing in enrollment? Are nano-degrees the new associate’s degree or new pathway to career transitions? What, if any, role does the digital badge play as a form of recognizing learning? Are we experiencing “credential creep” and how might it be increasing or decreasing access and opportunity for people? Is the bachelor’s degree the new high school diploma? These are some of the many questions that people are posing, exploring and debating as we talk about modern education and credentials.

Education will always be about more than credentials, but many developments, innovations and experiments have the credential as an important aspect. Education is important independent of credentials, but credentials play a role in symbolizing, recognizing, and displaying educational experiences and achievements, new knowledge and skills acquired, and milestones.

What are the entities and developments that will influence the future of educational credentials? There are certainly dozens of key influences, but following are five that seem to be emerging as especially strong levers for credentialing innovation. Each of the five represent current conversations, existing innovations, or emerging ones. I offer them as ideas for more conversation and consideration.

Credential Review, Translation and Representation Services

With a growing collection of diplomas, certificates, badges, nano-degrees, and micro-credentials; how will people in the world understand their diverse and complex meanings? For better or worse, this question creates opportunities for new and emerging business ventures along with external regulatory agencies. We have many existing models from which we can explore this development.

If we look at continuing education processes in various health professions, we can find a myriad of examples. In some health professions there is a central professional organization that must review and approve any continuing education that counts toward maintaining one’s ability to continue to practice in a given health profession. Some provide the credentialing. Others just approve the training and the credential (if there is one) is issued by the provider of the training.  Still others provide a translation or transcription service that allows you to gather training from multiple sources, put it all together on a single transcript, and then submit it to another agency to verify that you meet the criteria for maintaining licensure.

These examples give us a glimpse into what we may expand beyond continuing education in the health professions. How else will employers keep track or make sense of the variety of credentials? They just want to know if the person is qualified and can do the job well. This may, in time, create a new set of startups as well as a new set of roles for units in Universities, professional organizations and other existing education organizations.

Credential Standards Organizations

As I’ve talked to different people working on open badges, non-credit boot camps and the growing space of education providers not directly tied to regionally accredited Universities, there is continued conversation about one or more entities developing or existing entities volunteering to take on the responsibility to help create standards for credentials and/or determine their validity, authenticity, or quality. Some suspect that this will be existing accrediting agencies. Other private sector partners also seem interested in helping with this. Still others argue that it could reside with existing education institutions.

The Rise of Portfolios and the Marriage with Analytics

A common critique of both micro-credentials and portfolios is that they offer too much information. What employer would sift through all that information to find the right candidate for a job? Yet, a portfolio is a way to provide a rich description of who you are, your experiences, your knowledge and skills, and more. Instead of just thinking about traditional portfolios used in learning organizations, consider the idea of LinkedIn as a sort of portfolio, a place where you can share and display as many artifacts and links as you like to represent to describe yourself. Add to that the growing means by which people can mine the rich data in such “portfolios” and you have ways for employers and others to quickly identify people on the basis of a small or large set of criteria. This development leaves room for badges, traditional credentials, narrative descriptions, testimonials, peer ratings and more. It is as easy to review as a résumé and as LinkedIn grows or other similar services emerge, we will see a shift in how people go about connecting (including employers and future employees). Other organizations like Degreed.com are contributing to this development as well.

The Rise of the Non-Higher Education Credentialing Organization

This almost seems like old news by now. There are more providers of training and educational opportunities than ever before, and new ones are starting up every week. Some offer credentials. Others just focus on knowledge transfer, coaching, or offering other forms of learning experiences. Yet, there is a trend toward them offering ways to recognize the learning and accomplishment, which means more and different types of credentials. Combine this with the previous developments and we begin to see how this future learning ecosystem may well develop.

The Marriage of Institutions of Higher Education & Education Companies

Where does all of this leave higher education institutions? We already see higher education institutions partnering with these other new education providers. The IHEs have the history and reputation, and these companies have the in-demand education and people to provide quality programming…at least in many applied and professional areas. As such, we see Universities offering credit and progress toward credentials based on the learning done through the offerings of a non higher education organization. These organizations are often willing to pursue a revenue share because it adds credibility to their training, provides a new pool of learners, or allows them to offer credentials that they could not do otherwise. The IHEs get revenue, benefit from the expertise of these agencies, and get to dabble in a new education space. Look for such partnership to grow rapidly in 2016 and 2017 as government regulations shift to empower this, even making financial aid available to learners through such partnership programming.

The more that I study the landscape, the more convinced I am that each of these these be five powerful influencers in the ongoing evolution of credentials.





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Who Cares What College You Attended?

You worked hard throughout high school to earn a spot in that top ranked college. Throughout your time there, you continued to work and learn, hoping that it will pay off after graduation. You graduate college and apply for that first full-time job, proud to have the name of that well-known school near the top of your resume, right beside, “Bachelor of Science.” It is a large company, but you are excited that going to that top school gives you an edge over the competition, at least you think that it will. To your surprise, you come across a news article explaining that the company for which you applied a job strips out the school names from all applications, leaving you to compete with others on the basis of your basic background, but even more so your demonstrated competence.

The value and perception of credentials and competence is expanding as we continue to see experiments that highlight a regard for competence as much (or even more than) affiliation with a given higher education brand. Consider this recent news about a Fortune 500’s adjustment to their hiring practices. We are seeing an interesting tension in societies around the world, where more people are realizing that the top talent comes from all over the place, and popularity heuristics for narrowing a large pool of applicants is also causing these companies to miss out on some of the best talent in that pool. They take the Stanford graduate for a marketing job over the genius who went to a state school and could have transformed their business. As business analytics continues to reach and reshape human resource departments around the world, more people are coming to discover this fact. As Willing Hunting said amid an altercation in a pub with a proud Ivy League student,

“See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fxxxxx education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.”

The quote isn’t factual, but it has proverbial truth. There is an unquestionable difference between going to a top college and having a library card. Yet, it is true in the sense that a motivated person can obtain a world-class education in alternative ways; whether through self-study or getting the most out of a less prestigious college. This is not to say that Ivy League and other élite schools lack value. Many of them continue to show themselves to be outstanding learning communities, providing students with unprecedented access to some brilliant and world-class thinkers, doers, and difference-makers. They also nurture a community where willing people can build some of the best lifelong networks available. At the same time, “some” is an important word. They don’t contain all or even the majority of the world-class thinkers, doers and difference-makers.

This is why we are seeing news headlines like this: “Professional services firm Deloitte has changed its selection process so recruiters do not know where candidates went to school or university.” As explained in one of my favorite talent management books, The Rare Find, people in all types of organizations who ultimately care about the highest level of performance are seeking new ways to review applicants, no longer leaning on a simple strategy like only hiring people from a certain school or set of schools. That might work relatively well in terms of hiring solid employees, but it is also a bit like only narrowly insisting upon only buying one brand of food or clothing because you know and trust the quality of their product. That meets your needs, but diminishes the possibility of you discovering and experiencing all the other amazing food and clothing in the world.

All this is happening just as we read and learn more about the value of not just nurturing or hiring well-rounded people; but understanding that some of the highest performers are not well-rounded. They are what some refer to as “spikey” or what I call wonderfully lopsided. They play to and build on their strengths instead of spending most of their time trying to round themselves perfectly by fixing all their flaws. Of course, some flaws hinder the ability to flourish and need addressing, but there is also a compelling case for focusing on what you do well. There is a place for the equivalent of the decathlete, but there is also plenty of room for the world-class sprinters, distance runners, or high-jumpers; and this is coming from a person who has a lifelong fascination with what it means to be a renaissance man.

This is not about diminishing one pathway. It is just about recognizing that there is more than one path to high-performance, excellence or competence. I recently learned about a large and well-known company that seeks to only hire from three or four schools that they trust. This probably makes their job easier. These schools have consistently produced good graduates who do well on the job. That is not the problem. The problem is that, in doing this, they might have missed out on a more diverse and even higher performing cohort of new hires who could set them apart from the competition and take their company to the next level. Heuristics are helpful, even necessary, as we only have so much time in the day. I understand the reason of the hiring unit that cuts down the people quickly by only accepting applicants with a certain credential or sifting by looking for people from certain schools. However, there is also value in evaluating our heuristics on occasion to see if there might be better ways to find the best and brightest. This is also a great way to address at least one workforce development problem today, namely wasted gifts, talents and abilities from willing people with uncommon backgrounds.

Why the Higher Learning Commission Has the Wrong Measure for “Qualified Faculty”?

If you are a higher education institution seeking to gain or keep up regional accreditation, one of the many expectations is that you have “qualified faculty.” What do people mean by that? I’m fascinated with this question because US regional accrediting agencies seem to be stuck in a past age and are answering that question in a way that risks undermining the goal of Universities as places with the “best” faculty (especially for more applied fields) while also adding a challenges in the competition higher education institutions get from education providers beyond traditional academia. Just as we start reading about news like the University of Microsoft, LinkedIn meets Lynda.com and alternative paths to expertise, regional accreditors are perhaps unknowingly making sure Universities are at a disadvantage.

Answers to the question give us insight into fundamental beliefs and values related to higher education. They help us understand whether certain stakeholders, like regional accreditors, are more interested in maintaining things as they are, or true educational innovation and determining the extent to which a person has adequate expertise to teach a given course on the college level.

Consider the follow excerpts from a 2014 Higher Learning Commission document on guidelines for determining qualified faculty:

Faculty teaching in higher education institutions should have completed a program of study in the discipline or subfield in which they will teach, and/or for which they will develop curricula, with coursework at least one level above that of the courses being taught or developed. Successful completion of a coherent degree better prepares a person than an unstructured collection of credit courses.

Qualified faculty are identified primarily by credentials, but other factors may be considered in addition to the degrees earned.

Elsewhere, they mention that alternatives to credentials should be the exception, not the norm. What does this mean? The document goes on to further explain that the largely non-negotiable or standard measure for faculty qualification comes down to credentials. If you teach a MBA finance course, then you should have substantive coursework completed in finance on the doctoral level. If you are teaching an undergraduate course in entrepreneurship, it is nice that you started a dozen successful businesses, but the standard should normally focus instead of whether you have a graduate degree or substantive graduate coursework completed in entrepreneurship. If you are teaching creative writing on the master’s level, show me your doctoral work in creative writing. Yes, maybe you’ve published several award-winning pieces of fiction or served as senior editor at one of the top publishing houses in the world, but the credentials are the non-negotiable part. This makes complete sense for many who live in academia and depend upon it for their livelihood. It doesn’t make nearly as much sense beyond the walls of higher education. Maybe doctoral work in finance is valuable for a CFO, but what we really want is hard evidence that a prospective CFO knows her stuff and can do the job. As Google started to publicize in 2013 after conducting a study, GPA and credentials don’t cut it when trying to find the best people.

A standard like this sets up Universities to maintain accreditation by having wonderfully credentialed people who may or may not provide evidence that they can use or apply their knowledge and skill in contexts beyond the ivory tower. This doesn’t do much when it comes to showing society the deep value and relevance of higher education. We do that partly by filling it with faculty/mentors who are deeply knowledgable and skilled in their various disciplines (and in teaching/mentoring), not by lifting up the value of credentialism, the notion of protecting a profession by having strict requirements for certain credentials…perhaps even over the value of having the most truly qualified people. Even as I interact with more employers who are realizing that the credential is less valuable than demonstrable knowledge and skill, higher education accreditors are pushing back, insisting that faculty not simply be deeply qualified, but that faculty prove their qualifications in a very narrow way (show me that piece of paper). Yes, even as paths to expertise widen and vary, accreditors narrow the path to professor.

While some argue this maintains a high academic standard and protects the students, it seems far more focused on protecting the beloved traditional role of the professorate from sometimes more qualified people. “If I had to jump through certain academic hoops to become a professor, then the next generation should have to do the same.” Yet, we are in a new generation, a connected world where there are more options for ongoing learning and professional development than ever before. And like past generations, it remains true that some of the most skilled and knowledgable people in many disciplines and areas of study do not have significant credentials.

We only need to look at the exceptions to see why the enforcement of a credential approach to faculty qualifications is inadequate in some fields of study. Consider people like Joseph Blatt, who is the Faculty Director of the Technology, Innovation and Education graduate program at Harvard Graduate School of Education, but only lists a master’s degree on his vitae. I have no doubt that he is superbly qualified for the job, but the regional accrediting guidelines say that the Jo Blatt’s should only be the exceptions. Why? Would graduates of Harvard Graduate School walk away with a sub-par degree if most or nearly all the faculty with whom they took courses demonstrated their competence in ways like Blatt? Of course not. Beyond this one instance, history and modern times are full of faculty who are remarkably qualified apart from meeting the credential standard set out above, and the connected world will continue to make these “exceptions” more commonplace. If we really want higher education institutions to be beacons of high-impact learning and the pinnacle of excellence in various ares of study, why would we limit the pool of potential faculty by credentials…unless our interest has more to do with protecting the status of credentials?

Answers to this question about how to decide if faculty are qualified also give us a glimpse into the extent to which higher education institutions are given a disadvantage in competition with the growing number of educational offerings outside of higher education, companies and organizations that are not bound by standards from regional accreditors or the U.S. Department of Education (at least in the United States). Consider open courses, online tutorials, online live tutors and mentors, training resources, education workshops and conferences, webinars, professional certifications, conferences, and similar learning opportunities. Few of these pay as much attention to the formal credentials of the teacher as they do to the quality of the learning experiences and the outcomes of the learner. While some of these, like MOOCs, do still often rely on traditionally credentialed people, many of the others do not. Their value and the demand for what they offer depends upon whether they deliver on what they offer. Do people get what they need and want out of it. Does the education work or truly help people learn what they need to learn? That is a far more direct measure than whether the person who designed the webinar or learning experience has certain letters behind her name. Especially when it comes to lifelong learning and graduate programming, these other forms of education have the upper hand. They have full access to the larger pool of deeply qualified content designers and facilitators, where higher education institutions are only limited to the highest credentialed people.

In fact, even academia doesn’t look at credentials when it comes to judging the quality of research in peer-reviewed publications and conferences. If a person produced great research, it is possible for a high school drop out to beat out a PhD for a presentation spot at a place like the American of Education Research Association conference. The measure is the quality of your work, not your collection of credentials.

Look ahead a decade. Which one do you think will win out in the competition for the time, investment and attention of 21st century lifelong learners, the unregulated education providers or the highly regulated higher education institutions? Even with new experiments and innovations like competency-based education programs, accreditors seem focused on the legacy approach to measuring faculty qualifications. It appears that higher education institutions are free to innovate as long as they do so in the nicely prescribed box outlined by aging standards and processes that put them at a disadvantage in the larger education landscape. My concern is that restrictions like this might leave more higher education institutions watching much of the education action on the sidelines, staring longingly behind unnecessary fences set by outside agencies and organizations.

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Re-imagining Learning & Credentialing in a Connected World

I’m playing with this idea of multiple pathways to learning and earning associated credentials. So, I wanted to get the following rough ideas out to you as a way to spark discussion and invite help; especially help creating better ways to illustrate the possibilities. I’m particularly interested in how all this relates to the promise and possibility of micro-credentials. As I was driving to work a few months ago, I had this ideo of a map that could represent what I’ve been thinking about with regard multiple pathways to learning. I describe it below and then end with a 5-minute rough visual intended to visually communicate some of these ideas.

I pictured three main road: Continuing Education Court, Self-Directed Street, and Degree Drive.

Continuing Education Court 

This street represents the many accelerated, non-credit, intensive and/or compacted learning experiences available to people today. There are experiences like weekend workshops on writing, how to start a business, managing your finances or anything else. This road also includes learning from the thousands of webinars that are free or fee-based on the web today, covering topics ranging from personal development to compliance issues at work. It also includes stops at other learning events: conferences, retreats, “boot camps”, etc. These are usually just-in-time learning experiences, and I put them in the class of semi-formal learning, as they don’t include all the trappings of a full formal schooling experience. They are usually discrete and disconnected, self-selected based on learner need and interest. Sometimes there are credentials associated with the experiences, but often not. They are a collection of experiences, often provided by multiple organizations; and there is less of an overall formal curriculum across all learning experiences. Instead, the learner opts in and out as she deems useful for her goals and interests.

Self-Directed Street

Like Continuing Education Court, the learner determines the curriculum / path on this street. Activities and learning experiences are largely designed or coordinated by the learner. Sometimes they are independent learning experiences. Other times learners come together to share and learn with or from one another. Learners not only choose what to do, but how much they will do. For example. note that I put MOOC Mountain on Self-Directed Street when it could also go on Continuing Education Court. I did this because of what the research tells us about how learners use MOOCs. Most do not sign up and complete the course as formally planned. They do it their way, on their timeline, and the extent do which they believe it useful or a high priority. Nonetheless, a case could be made that there are MOOC mountains on both roads. Over time and with focus and effort, people can become incredibly knowledgeable and skilled by traveling on Self-Directed Street, but there are few to no credentials to use of evidence of this learning.

Degree Drive

This is the most familiar road when people think about learning. It represents the formal programming of a student in a school (k-12, higher education). It is often course-based and a pre-determined curriculum (decided largely by others). This curriculum determines where learners stop along the way, what they do and how they do it. There can be sights and features that resemble what you see on Continuing Education Court and Self-Directed Street, but the formal structure and directedness is a common hallmark of this road. Also, the stops along the way can be carefully connected, with one stop preparing a person to get the most out of the next. Even as one progresses, there is careful documentation of what travelers completed and how they performed. Traveling on this road culminates in a credential that is intended to give evidence of one’s accomplishments and growing competence in some area of study.

Combining the Three

What happens when we don’t think of these as three disconnected and unrelated learning pathways? What if we see this as representative of a city or region in which one travels on a lifelong learning journey? What possibilities does that create for us? Consider a model where credentials can be provided as people demonstrate competence through any of these stops along the way, whether it is the weekend workshop, the self-guided tour, the self-study stop, or a formal course. This is one of the interesting and exciting possibilities of micro-credentials and digital badges. Their affordances give us a greater ability to imagine such contexts, as evidenced by the cities of learning initiatives.

What we imagine can be exciting and terrifying. Some worry about what this would mean for formal learning organizations if such an idea were to spread. Others point out that, in this age of democratized information, it may be even more dangerous if the idea does not spread, as it could turn schools into credentialing factories instead of rich, human, and collaborative learning communities…what they are when they are at their best.

Regardless, what I just described is already partly in place. This is not simply some vision of a possible future. This, apart from the credentialing element, is already what happens for many people. It is how we learn in a connected and increasingly digital world. Now we have the opportunity to let this current reality inform our thoughts and planning about 21st and 22nd century credentialing.

Below I’ve included an embarrassingly rough draft visual to help illustrate the idea that I just described. I would love to have partners in this effort, people who can take what I started and create a more robust and aesthetically appealing version of the visual. Please let me know if you are interested, or just create it, share it, and let the conversation spread. Even if there are no takers on that front, I look forward to continuing the conversation about how we might imagine and re-imagine learning and credentialing in a connected world.

Alternative Pathways to Credentials

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A New Breed of College Degree

“We’ve always done it that way.” Universities are rich with traditions and history, but it would be a mistake to think that what we see and experience in the Universities of the last 50 years mimic what came before them. Yes, perhaps certain teaching practices and structures have persisted. However, the curriculum has been in flux, adjusting to the broader changes in society.

Look at the history of higher education and it is a history of change. The first Universities in the world were in Morocco, Egypt and what is now Iran. Those were founded between 800 and 1100 AD.  The first Western Universities emerged near the end of the 11th century: the University of Bologna, the University of Paris and the University of Oxford. In the earliest Universities, areas of study were not nearly as extensive. Theology, medicine and law were among the dominant areas of study in these early years, and the modern concept of academic disciplines did not come along until the 1800s. They spread around much of the globe by the end of that century. Essentially, these disciplines emerged with the scientific revolution, with different disciplines eventually representing distinct methods and approaches to seeking and understanding “truth.” For example, we saw a shift from “natural historians” to physicists, biologists, and chemists. Early in the 20th century, we saw the growth of new disciplines in the social sciences, resulting in programs like psychology and sociology. It is not until the mid to late 1900s that we see saw rapid growth of modern programs like nursing, business, and a host of specializations in areas like gender and ethnic studies. As such, the modern idea of a University offering hundreds of majors is indeed a modern idea. Many of the largest disciplines in colleges today have a relatively short history.

It is no surprise to see yet another expansion of University degrees. The scientific revolution brought forth distinct majors in the hard and soft sciences. The industrial revolution brought about a myriad of professional and career track majors. Now, in the 21st century, we see another collection of degrees emerging in response to the broader trends in society. This time we see interdisciplinary programs addressing the nature of life in an increasingly digital world. Consider that none of the following degrees existed thirty years ago, some less than ten years.

  1. MA in Telecommunications with an emphasis in Digital Storytelling – Ball State University
  2. MA in New Literacies and Global Learning – North Carolina State
  3. PhD in Media Psychology – Fielding Graduate University
  4. MS in Game Design – Full Sail University
  5. Master of Internet Communications – Curtin University
  6. MA in Social Media – Birmingham City University
  7. MS in Digital Marketing – Sacred Heart University
  8. MA in Digital Humanities – King’s College London
  9. MFA in Digital Arts and New Media at the University of California Santa Cruz
  10. MS in CyberSecurity – University of Maryland University College
  11. MBA with a specialization in E-Business at Eastern Michigan University
  12. Master of Distance Education at University of Maryland University College
  13. MA in Digital Journalism at National University
  14. MS in Digital Forensics at the University of Central Florida
  15. Doctor of Ministry in Leadership in Emerging Culture at George Fox University

New degrees are emerging in response to the digital age. There are degrees ranging from education to business, criminal justice to psychology, literacy to theology, journalism to communication. Some look at such programs with concern that Universities are over-specializing, but this seems to be representative of a century-old trend in higher education. As new areas of need and interest emerge in society, higher education responds with new majors, degrees and specializations. Even as new fields emerge, some of those fields converge to create new, interdisciplinary areas. This is the case in an area like educational technology, which has roots in library science and audio visual studies, educational psychology, and even military training.

There is something different about some of these newer degrees. While some are still quite broad (like Internet studies or digital arts), others are very specialized. The scientific revolution produced physicists and biologists, those developed into distinct fields with unique methodologies. Many of these new majors are not fields as much as they represent distinct skill sets and competencies, or the ability to apply the core aspects of a field or area of study in a new or distinct context. These are also areas that seem to be far more fluid and fast-moving, leaving one to wonder whether University degrees are the most responsive and effective ways to prepare people in these areas.

While some Universities are creating such specializations with the hope of reaching and recruiting new students, it is uncertain whether these hyper-specialized degrees give the breadth necessary in a constantly changing digital world. It is no coincidence that the 15 degrees listed above are graduate degrees. Scan the workplace for people with these degrees and you are likely to see a massive number of them working outside the specialization represented in the degrees. Graduates of these programs who are working in the specialities are often working alongside peers with comparable ability, but who do not have such speciality degrees. As such, these are not gate-keeper degrees. While one might opt to pursue such a degree as a means of preparation, there are equally accepted alternatives, even simply demonstrating that you are competent to do the job. A person with 3-5 years experience as a successful marketer who has done so in digital spaces will probably beat out the recent graduate of a digital marketing degree who hasn’t actually done it. The degree doesn’t have greater value than comparable experience in the marketplace. This is different from past eras of new degree growth.

This leaves space for innovation and micro-disruptions. While I do not expect to see higher education institutions moving away from adding more such degrees in the near future, I expect these specific areas to be prime candidates for the trends toward nano-degrees, certificate programs, and more granular training programs recognized by digital badges and other such credentials.

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5 Impending Badge Battlegrounds

Are we beginning to see evidence of impending battles about digital badges? Some of them are quietly but already underway. Others are on the horizon. All of them seem to be about power and control. These are admittedly speculative and editorial, and I welcome comments, but I see the following five emerging battlegrounds.

1. Badge Authorities

We are starting to see people identified as authorities in the badge world. Notice that I am saying “authorities”, not “experts.” There is indeed plenty with growing expertise, which is valued. That alone is not a sign of a potential battle, but I do see evidence in the use of words (even in my word choice). I am starting to see “should” and “ought” language dominate conversations that start previously focused upon “could” and “possibility.” It is as if there is a desire to prescribe and  control the use of badges according to the standards and desired outcomes of the growing authorities. In some ways, this is a natural part of wanting to standardize things for sake of growth and expansion. Yet, with this comes more prescriptions and warnings, overshadowing the language of tips and suggestions.  This is in line with the professionalization that we’ve experienced in much of the western world over the last century. In Disabling Professions, Illich, Zola and McKnight write the following about the legal system: “…instead of creating a ‘self-service cafeteria; it has been the mistake of every legal system to insist upon ‘waiter service'” (Disabling Professions, p. 102). This quote is about professionalization that leads to new gatekeepers and ruling authorities. I am seeing such language start to appear more often within the badge world as well. There is this caution that if you don’t heed the warnings of the authorities then your badge design is doomed, or worse yet, just plain bad. I support expertise, but I hope for expertise with humility and a value for openness and democratization.

2. Badge Power Plays

The growing conversation about trust networks is an important one, but expect to see more efforts to monopolize through the use of a new credential system. In fact, I wonder if we will see praise from some of the emerging “authorities” when certain companies and/or organizations succeed in establishing trust networks through what is essentially a monopolization of a new credentialing system within a community. I would not be surprised to see badges moved forward through full monopolies and authoritative mandates within a given sector.

As an alternate to the monopoly concept, I wonder about the role of competition. I value the largely collaborative nature of many interested in badges, but I do wonder if some of the most expansive badge “success” stories will come through competitive forces more than collaborative ones. In Kaihan Krippendorff’s Out Think the Competition, he argues that a key in the competitive advantage around innovation is to slow the competitive efforts of others (p. 13). That leads me to #3.

3. Challenges to the Open Badge Infrastructure / Proprietary Supplements

Because of the power plays and monopolies, there is the possibility of these “winners” largely disregarding OBI, establishing their own infrastructure. However, I expect that much of this will be hybrid infrastructures, taking OBI and building beyond it. There are badging system offering features not built into OBI that are in high demand by target audiences. This makes room for more differentiators among badge issuing platforms. I contend that these enhancements and expansion have an important role in the increased adoption of badge systems. This will probably help push badge adoption forward, especially when done by organizations with the financial and human resources necessary to manage badges on a global scale.

4. The Credential Conspiracy

I’ve become increasingly troubled by the often wide gap between the perceived value of a credential and the extent to which that credential consistently represents true skill, expertise, competence, and the like. We’ve all witnessed this: people with high school diplomas who are functionally illiterate, medical practitioners who keep their license even after experiencing literally mind-altering health issues, people with degrees in disciplines where they can no longer demonstrate competence (and this is far beyond the so-called diploma mills), etc. At the same time, I often experience limited interest in scrutinizing our current credentialing systems, even as we use those systems as justification to disregard or devalue emerging and alternate credentialing systems.

The  most consistent credentials are those that make no claim at actual skill or competence. Instead, the credentials are only issued when certain objective criteria are met: hours clocked, age verified, access granted, attendance verified, etc. Yet, even with these credentials, the trust networks and perceived public value around them seem to grow separately from what they represent. As such, the success of building new trust networks can become more about PR, marketing or even propaganda than building trust based upon what the badge more objectively represents.

Allow me to give an example from teacher education. I hold a 6-12 history license from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. I have not taught high school history for 15 years, but all I need to keep up my license is to write a check every 5 years and take 6 relevant credit hours of coursework (This process has changed now in Wisconsin, but the model still exists all over the place, in many different fields.). How does taking 6 credit hours prove that I still meet the criteria established for being a licensed teacher in the state? It does not. I contend that I do meet or exceed those criteria, but renewing the license does not indicate as much. The ongoing teaching license only shows that I have complied with the regulations. Yet, this credential makes me a viable candidate for some jobs that are closed to others who are probably far more competent. Such limitations of the many current credentials gain little attention.

I expect this to change. In fact, many of my predictions about the impact of digital badges in education depend upon such a change. I expect it to change under the pressure and influence of:

  • the standards movement;
  • competency-based education;
  • increased advocacy for personalized and adaptive learning which also pushes forward mastery learning;
  • demands from some employers for pre-requisite skills not guaranteed by existing credentials;
  • the expansion of malpractice lawsuits;
  • the growth in big data, data-driven decision-making in education, and learning analytics;
  • the do-it-yourself movement’s emphasis upon competence over formal credentials; and
  • the influence of the Internet of Things upon lifelong learning.

The technology of open badges is not enough to result in the potential impact touted by myself and others. For our predictions (and sometimes hopes) to become reality, it depends upon growing scrutiny of existing credentials that leads to dissatisfaction and a willingness to invest in advocacy for an alternate. In a way, open badges are the alternative energy of the credentialing world. We don’t see gas-run cars as retaining dominance because they are the best of all options. The same can be said for the dominant credentialing systems.

5. Agility of Alternatives to Formal Education Institutions

Many promising educational experiments are happening outside of academia. While some educational institutions are using badges, they already have a long history of an established credentialing system. These emerging providers of education do not. These groups need to establish some way to communicate the accomplishments and document the evidence of learning among their users. This is fertile soil to grow new trust networks around alternate credentials. Their financial success and social impact partly depends upon the ability to build trust and gain credibility, and they will innovate their way to a working solution. Their investors expect as much, and they do not have the scrutiny of accrediting bodies and government oversight (because they don’t take part in federal funding of education) to slow them down.

As I stated at the beginning, these are speculative musings, and maybe even more rough draft than my typical writings on this blog. At the same time, I am interested in a broader conversation about these topics, and I hope that this post will help spark such dialogue.

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What is the purpose of a credential, diploma, license, or certificate?

What is the purpose of a credential, diploma, license, or certificate? There are obviously many answers to this question. There is not a single answer. However, I’m increasingly convinced that this a question worth asking, helping us to better understand the perceptions, value, and limitations of credentials as a social currency. Perhaps it will help us navigate the growing conversations around alternative credentials, micro-credentialing and debates about the value of a college degree.

I have a stack of credentials, but what do they say about my current competence? I have a 6th grade diploma, 8th grade diploma, high school diploma, undergraduate diploma, and three graduate diplomas. Then I have a fair share of certificates, not to mention transcripts with coursework in well over a dozen disciplines from many Universities. I don’t write this to boast. In fact, I am doing the opposite, illustrating how little they say about my current competence.

So, what do each of these credentials say about me today? Can I still recall the facts required to pass the classes that led to my 6th grade diploma? Check out “Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader” and you have your answer.Do I still have the knowledge to easily reference Spinoza or Descartes based on my philosophy of perception class ten years ago? What about the computer information system courses that I took in the 1990s? I was once skilled at repairing 1990s computers or building them from scratch, but you do not want me tinkering with your 2014 laptop. And I was also good with network management of anything using Novell NetWare 4.0 or earlier, which doesn’t do me much good navigating any modern network. Or how about my certificate in online teaching and learning from eight years ago? Has anything changed with online learning in the last eight years?

Without persistent practice, time has a way of eroding knowledge and skill in many of these areas. Yet, that original credential is what goes on the résumé. I could have permanent memory loss and I still get to own those credentials, post them on my wall (or store them in my closet…my location of choice at the moment), and use them as evidence of my competence for current and future work.

But some credentials expire. You have to keep doing something to show that you still “have it.” That is true, and the rigor of re-certification varies significantly from one credential to another. Some do require a person to prove that they are still current. Most have simple professional development requirements: design a professional development plan and show your progress, or complete a certain number of CEUs or graduate credits in an accepted area. To keep up my teaching license, all I need to do is complete a background check, write a check to the state, and take 6 graduate credits in education or history. Or, more recent graduates have to design a professional development plan with goals and a demonstration what they learned. Either option can be a nice learning experience, but neither verifies current knowledge and skill. They simply show that you are doing something in an area relevant to your certification. This same thing is true in many professions, including a number of health fields.

Time does make a difference in how credentials are viewed. If you had a counseling degree from 1965 but had not practiced as a counselor since that time, it would have less perceived value…at least for those who cared to investigate. But that is part of my concern. How many people look at credentials with that measure of scrutiny? Employers do, but credentials tend to serve as signals that a person belongs to a class of educated, qualified, competent, or maybe even just intelligent. Depending upon the nature of the credential, they offer prestige and an entry ticket into certain groups.

Some credentials, like a medical license or even a driver’s license can’t be maintained in the presence of some factor that results in a person being unable to perform the tasks required of that license. For example, if I can’t pass the vision test, I get a limited license (requiring corrective eyewear) or I can’t get a license. Certain conditions might even exclude me from being eligible to drive. The same it true for other certifications and licenses, but it is not true for other credentials like diplomas. One reason is simply that driving when not able is far more dangerous than keeping a diploma posted on one’s wall. So, we see that we have different types of credentials, each with different standards.

If all credentials were really about verifying competence (a shorthand way of telling society that, “This person is qualified or educated.”), why isn’t it standard for us to have to conduct re-assessments every 3-5 years to maintain a credential? Considering this question and the potential answers is an important part of understanding and addressing the affordances and limitations of credentials in contemporary society. It helps us recognize how they are being used, abused, misrepresented, and leveraged for good.

  • How much of the answer to such questions is financial?
  • How much of it reveals that credentials are often fundamentally about something different from current capabilities and competence?
  • How might the answer help us make progress toward a culture that values competence above credentials, and that avoids unhelpful practices verging on credentialism?
  • How might the concept of micro-credentials help, hinder, or perpetuate the current limitations of credentials in society?
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