In Defense of More “Extreme” Higher Education Policy Changes from the US Department of Education

In a March 30, 2018 article written by Jared Cameron Bass, Amy Laitinen, and Clare McCann; they offer a critique of what they clearly see as unnecessary and extreme moves toward deregulation from the current US Department of Education administration. In particular, they focus upon four policy areas of import for higher education: state authorization, the credit hour, accreditation, and the current definition of “regular and substantive interaction” in distance education programs. In each case, the authors point out their concerns about the direction that the US Department of Education is going, calling for a less extreme tweak or refinement of current policy instead of completely removing a policy and/or starting from scratch.

I encourage you to read this initial article for yourself, as the following remarks are, at least in part, an alternative view on key themes from that article. As I read it, I found myself trying to document what seemed to be the stated or underlying assumptions in the article. While I welcome clarification or correction, here are nine themes that seemed to emerge from my reading.

  1. Too extreme of policy changes can open the door for abuses and fraud that none of us want. In fact, this quickly turns into an access and equity issue.
  2. If institutions are finding a way to comply or survive with a current policy in one of these three areas, then the policy can’t be too bad. As such, minor revisions are better than starting from scratch. We should respect the work of those who’ve been addressing issues over the last decade.
  3. The amount of time and money devoted by higher education institutions is not a significant concern.
  4. We should base our policies upon the feedback of the current higher education “winners”, namely those with the resources or privilege to have more of a voice at the table in shaping current policy and practice.
  5. We want to push beyond the status quo, but not in a way that might risk major disruptions, changes, or innovations that challenge our preconceived beliefs about what higher education should or should not be.
  6. IHEs are managing to comply with current state authorization policies and they are protecting against some abuses, so why get rid of it?
  7. The current definition of the credit hour has worked for many CBE programs, so it can’t be too bad.
  8. Accreditors need to be tougher on higher education institutions, and the DOE leverage on accreditation agencies should encourage that.
  9. There is important history to the current “regular and substantive interaction” requirement for distance education, and that should be taken into consideration before completely removing the requirement or starting from scratch.

This is one person’s framing and understanding of the positions in the article, but regardless, I use these nine statements as a launchpad for my reflection on the the need for more significant, even extreme, policy changes.

1. Too extreme of policy changes can open the door for abuses and fraud that none of us want. In fact, this quickly turns into an access and equity issue.

This is always a good and important caution when it comes to policy reform. As I often write, there are always affordances and limitations to policies. With each policy there are winners and losers. It just seems like the authors of the article are representing a view that the current policies do not have serious enough limitations or they are not flawed enough to warrant more extreme interventions. If we were talking about a home remodel, they seem to be arguing for painting the walls and rearranging the furniture a bit, but not going to the extreme of taking out walls, addressing structural issues, adding new flooring, and getting brand new furniture. Only some of us have been living in that house and we know that there is a termite infestation, the furniture is filthy, there are concerns about how long the roof will last, and it is preventing us from the quality of life that we seek. As such, there is a genuine difference of opinion about the status of the current policies. I am well aware of abuses that the credit hour policy prevents, as well as the “regular and substantive interaction” stipulation for distance education programs. They are protecting against abuse, but at the same time, they are holding us back from countless promising practices and innovations. They are also putting higher education institutions at a disadvantage against those non-regulated providers of emerging education.

2. If institutions are finding a way to comply or survive with a current policy in one of these three areas, then the policy can’t be too bad. As such, minor revisions are better than starting from scratch. We should respect the work of those who’ve been addressing issues over the last decade.

Again, it is good to caution us about mindless changes or not considering the background and context. However, that does not mean that we should disregard the potential benefit of starting from scratch. The history also reveals a great deal of baggage and people harmed by current policies. Even more, there is an opportunity loss that has come from the extreme and narrow parameters of countless currrent policies.

3. The amount of time and money devoted by higher education institutions is not a significant concern.

To be fair, the authors did not explicitly state this. They just didn’t recognize it as a factor either. When you are a smaller higher education institution, it is no small factor when you find yourself having to devote multiple FTEs year round or during certain times of the year just to comply with the countless policies. That takes money away from other more immediate needs. In fact, the current policy landscape has been a boon for companies and consultants who are using the complexities to essentially scare institutions into paying for their help and participation. More accurately, these companies don’t do the scaring. They just offer to help protect people from the fears and threats associated with what some external entity might define as a regulatory infraction.

4. We should base our policies upon the feedback of the current higher education “winners”, namely those with the resources or privilege to have more of a voice at the table in shaping current policy and practice.

I can’t imagine that the authors would agree with this as stated, but I worry that this sentiment is present in their proposed approach.

At one point, the article references a letter that allegedly represented the collective voice and viewpoint of “the distance education community.” I’ve been involved with distance education for well over a decade, and that letter does not represent me. This is a growing frustration for me, in fact. The current “winners” are the ones who get consulted the most and those who have secured the public voice and place of influence. Then they invite a few others that the winners deem worthy of including, or they do so to argue that they are being more inclusive. This is coming from a person who has indeed been privileged to work and interact with thought leaders and leading organizations throughout the United States and the world, and yet I consistently find that my input and that of institutions like the one that I serve have not been a welcome part of past policy decisions. Over the past decade, at least from my vantage point, they have a handful of their favorite thinkers and voices, and they certainly did not represent the larger higher education ecosystem or the breadth of philosophies and ideals represented in that ecosystem.

5. We want to push beyond the status quo, but not in a way that might risk major disruptions, changes, or innovations that challenge our preconceived beliefs about what higher education should or should not be.

Here is my greatest concern with the proposal that we be content simply tweaking the current system. Just spend one day researching the breadth of educational innovations today. Then consider how many potentially beneficial efforts are inhibited by the current policies. Apart from some of the largely narrow innovative practices in CBE, much of distance education has been stagnant for almost 25 years. That is policy induced stagnation. Those in distance education are persistently forced into a narrow set of practices that comply with the given policies, thus abandoning or never fully pursuing practices that have promise. The policies have become dictators of “best practice” that don’t even allow for efforts that might reveal new promising practices. Even worse, the policies are created to prevent certain abuses without adequate or even reasonable consideration for the realities and opportunities of 21st century learning…or 17th-20th century learning for that matter.

6. IHEs are managing to comply with current state authorization policies and they are protecting against some abuses, so why get rid of it?

Yes, we are managing to comply, but it has taken a ton of money and human resources from institutions that are working hard to keep costs down for students while providing a great learning experience. In addition, it took a massive and expensive national consortium effort to help mitigate the incredibly problematic regulations from state to state. When it takes that large of an effort to just figure out a way that institutions can “manage to comply”, that is a sign of poorly defined policy. As it stands, there is a membership fee to be pat of the National Council for State Authorization and Reciprocity Agreements, and then, individual states can charge extra as well. This might seem like small money to massive institutions, but there are plenty of IHEs that are only talking about serving a few (yes, literally 2 or 3) students in a given state. Yet, that state might charge the institution as much as $5000 or $10,000 to do so. My point is simply that institutions are managing, but it is not without opportunity, time, and money lost.

7. The current definition of the credit hour has worked for many CBE programs, so it can’t be too bad.

I happen to serve at an institution that was one of the first 20 welcomed into the Competency-based Education Network. I quickly discovered that an immense amount of the effort was focused upon how to structure things so that we could be in compliance. That is a horrible way to produce the best results, at least when the policy is so mis-informed in the first place. So yes, the CBE programs that have a voice at the table are finding ways to work within the current policies. That is just because all the other voices are not at the table, they have been silenced or ignored (even if at the table), or they represent promising approaches to CBE that never launched because of regulatory challenges. I do not write on behalf of my institution, but I can say that I am keenly aware of institutions that went through two or more years of confused external regulatory exchanges, only to end the conversations with a decision to back off on even trying, or a lack of clarity about what was even expected or required from external agencies. This is fertile soil for mediocrity and a lack of innovation.

8. Accreditors need to be tougher on higher education institutions, and the DOE leverage on accreditation agencies should encourage that.

Turning accreditors into police will only create more winners and losers in the higher education space. There is already mass inequity. I’ve spoken to people at elite institutions where some faculty do not even create syllabi with learning objectives for their courses, and they go through accreditation with flying colors. These are sometimes the very institutions from which influencers on education policies graduate or teach/research. Some of the leading voices in education policy, higher education scholars, are the first to demand almost complete autonomy in how and what they teach, and yet they publish about the need to be tougher on those “other” institutions. It is a deeply flawed system.

One colleague explained it this way. At some Universities, we put on ties and suits for accreditors. In other institutions, the accreditors put on suits and ties to visit (yes, a bit of a male-centric way of describing it, but you get the idea). Regional accreditation is a peer review process that, at its best, provides a venue for higher education institutions to give useful insights and feedback on how to grow and improve. Only it can quickly turn into a policing toward the status quo and the dominant or preferred practices of the day. There are better ways to do this that allow more leeway for true innovation (even of the disruptive sort) while also keeping egregious abuses in check. Only we are wise to consider that an “abuse” to one person could be an incredible innovation to another. The current standards used to offer feedback by various regional accreditors are often too narrow, honoring a rather narrow set of beliefs and philosophies of education. Yet, only certain institutions feel especially bound by these agencies.

Yet, the greater problem is that the DOE justification for getting involved with regional accreditors is because they need to protect their financial investments. It has everything to do with money and very little to do with the best interest of the students. It has led to a spiraling debate and drive toward increasingly narrow definitions of what is defined as a good higher education experience. This entire relationship between the DOE and accreditors (and accreditors to individual IHEs) could benefit from a complete overhaul.

9. There is important history to the current “regular and substantive interaction” requirement for distance education, and that should be taken into consideration before completely removing the requirement or starting from scratch.

Yes, there is an important history, and that history is part of what calls us to consider completely new policies. The current wording doesn’t even reflect the reality of many face-to-face programs today. Consider a PhD student doing largely independent research for years, maybe only meeting with her advisor for 15-20 minutes a week. That is outside the philosophical boundaries of the current policy. The UK doctorate or degree by research is excluded in the US on the basis of this current policy. Student internships could be arguably outside of this policy. There are countless other teaching and learning approaches that we would have to stretch to fit into the expectations of this and other policies. I contend that this justifies a more fundamental rewriting of policy, not just a tweak to the current system.

As a reminder, this is largely a response and reflection to the New America article called The Department of Deregulation. As much as I critique it here, I am grateful that it was written and published. There are important cautions about considering affordances and limitations, looking at history and context, and not being too quick to start deregulating. These are all good and important points. We must move with wisdom and careful consideration, but we must move, and that is my argument. I am not satisfied with the “just paint the walls a new color” approach to higher education policy remodels. The problems of current policies are too significant for that.

Eradicate Digital Advertising in Higher Education to Better Serve Students

I”m concerned about higher education advertising. In fact, it might even be hurting students and prospective students. Perhaps you don’t know this, but marketing budgets have been on the rise in higher education institutions around the United States for quite some time. When you look at Universities offering online programs, we see this even more. To “complete” for adult learners, evening students, and online students, the cost is quite surprising to many. It is not unheard of for an institution to spend thousands to recruit one new online MBA student. MBA is an especially competitive and pricey search term for higher education advertisers who are bidding against one another to have their ad show up first.

In business, we sometimes talk about the cost per acquisition or cost per conversion. This is how much money a business needs to spend on marketing and sales to convert someone to become a paying customer. As long as the business gets an adequate return on that marketing and sales investment, it is often considered a wise financial investment. This is now the mindset of a growing number of people in higher education.

When online learning started to take off, we saw a large initial growth in for-profit companies that brought with them this business mindset. They were more than ready to invest greater amounts of money to draw the attention of prospective students away from other schools and to them. Being new to the market and not having a trusted brand, they had to buy the attention, and companies like Google and countless other digital advertising services were happy to assist in the effort…at a cost, of course. Now it is not just the for-profit companies. I’m simplifying it, but this is part of what sparked and all out “spending war” in higher education today. We are talking about a multi-billion dollar digital advertising industry, and higher education is contributing more than ever to that pool of money. This 2009 article reported the University of Phoenix spending over 100 million on advertising annual. While there are not many with that large of a budget, we’re witnessing some massive dollars invested in recruiting students. Schools with very large online programs might not be spending as much as the for-profits, but many of them are still investing significant amounts to online advertising and related recruitment efforts. It is a competition among schools that is driving the costs of recruiting students upward each year.

When many traditional Universities sought to grow their online programs, some did it in-house, but most needed to up their marketing investment significantly to do that. That is why Universities were willing to hire outside companies to do the recruiting for them. The companies bring the upfront capital and do the big advertising investment, but then they get to keep a big part of the tuition. I’ve spoken directly to many of these external groups, and they can get anywhere from 15% to over 60% of the tuition depending upon the services that they provide. As I’ve already stated, all of this is generating a true spending war for the attention of prospective students.

It does nothing to help students.

  • It doesn’t help them find the best fit school.
  • It doesn’t provide them better information to consider their options.
  • It doesn’t promote a more thoughtful deliberation process.
  • It potentially draws money away from Universities that could be used to improve the student experience, the academic programming, or even to reduce tuition or provide academic scholarships.

At the same time, this “war” is driving greater University expenditures on digital ads, even as there is still a debate about whether they really work. Having a well-known and recognized University brands is almost certainly a stronger asset. Yet, when a locally known or regionally known school wants to compete for attention, they start spending precious University money to do so, money that quite often comes from student tuition.

For these and other reasons, we need to disrupt this current higher education advertising system, and I believe that educational entrepreneurs and other social entrepreneurs can help. If we can create a robust ecosystem of student/college matchmaking technologies, then I believe that we can reduce the need for and impact of digital advertising. We can create “go to” sources to help students find the best schools for their needs, and they can do it without clicking on a single ad that chases them around the web. They can get good, detailed, substantive information and guidance from neutral sources.

In this end, this can be good for students and for colleges. It might hurt Google, Facebook, Instagram, or others who are looking for a chunk of the higher education marketing purse, but something tells me that they will be just fine.

So, here is my dream in this regard. I would love to see a convening of educational entrepreneurs, foundations, investors, policymakers, students, and University leaders, join in this common cause, a cause to eradicate obscene higher education advertising spends while creating better ways to connect students and higher education institutions. A coalition of organizations can make a difference here. Matchmaking companies like Admitted.ly have the right idea. So do groups like QuestBridge that help make connections in a different way, but these are each too small and too niche to disrupt the entire system. If we can build a strong and diverse enough ecosystem of such providers that addresses diverse needs, I believe that we can do some real good.

The Rise (and Reign?) of Outsider Higher Education

You might know outsider art, but what about outsider higher education? This is not new, but it is growing quickly in the fertile soil of the connected age.We are now decades into a growing and increasingly accepted form of higher education that functions largely separate from established academia. I call it outsider higher education. Those who create and lead it do not necessarily consider what they are doing to be higher education (although some do). At the same time, the many affordances of life in a connected age are extending the influence and expanding the impact of these forms of higher education.

Outsider art, as people explain it to me, is a term used to represent art created by those who are outside of the broader art community. While some use the term in reference to any self-taught artist, others argue that such a broad use is simply self-taught art, and that outsider art is something distinct. It is art created separate from the standard influences in art. One example might be a person in a mental health facility with no formal training in art who begins to express ideas and experiment through painting, drawing, or sculpting. Some outsider artists see their work as art and even seek to make a living on the basis of this work. Others are so separate from the art community and the cultural discourse about art that they do not even identify what they are doing as art.

While the first references to outsider art emerged in the second half of the twentieth century, something began to emerge over time. Outsider art started to be talked about within it the art community. Events like New York’s Outsider Art Fair started in the early 1990s and continues today. Academic journals began that focus upon the study of outsider art (See Elsewhere: The International Journal of Self-Taught and Outsider Art and RawVision). Outsider art started appearing in studios, even with dedicated exhibits. A market for purchasing and collecting outsider art also developed. As such, outsider art became part of the larger art community.

While far from a perfect comparison, something similar is happening in higher education, hence my calling it outsider higher education. I am referring to a variety of expressions. Consider the following four.

altMBA

Seth Godin is a marketing expert, entrepreneur, and author. He is also the founder the the altMBA, a learning experience that does not confer a degree, but offers knowledge and skill development that one might often seek from a formal MBA.

RheingoldU

Howard Rheingold is an author, writer, and thought-leader about the implications of the modern connected world. While he has lectured at Stanford and UC Berkeley, he is also the founder and sold teacher at RheingoldU, a set of online courses that he leads/facilitates. In fact, I took his Literacy of Cooperation course several years ago.

Draper University

Draper University, founded by the Silicon Valley Tim Draper, does not offer formal degrees. What it offers is a real-world, substantive higher education learning experience that equips people to pursue their entrepreneurial endeavors.

Singularity University

Singularity University’s “mission is to educate, inspire, and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” It does not offer formal degrees or credentials either, but like Draper, it draws from world class talent to create a robust learning community.

None of these are recognized higher education institution by the US Department of Education. None of them are regionally accredited. None of them have many trappings of the traditional University experience. Yet, all of them offer higher education learning experiences. They are not bound by many regulations.

At the same time, many go to one of these after experiences after a more traditional college degree. Most people see these as supplements and not replacements for what you might get from an traditional University. Others see them as viable alternatives to gaining knowledge and skill that they might have otherwise sought through a University course or degree.

I expect that, just as outsider art eventually became a part of the larger art community, the same think is already happening with outsider higher education, and this will expand. Look at the list of “faculty” at Draper University and you will see an impressive list, one that includes entrepreneurs and scholars from places like Stanford University. Also consider that Draper has partnerships with both Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. This is one example of where the outsiders and insiders are mixing, just as the founders of these others have plenty of connections to the insider world of higher education.

These are only four examples. There are countless others. The business of creating learning communities, mentoring and coaching, seminars and workshops, and the like is not new, but it is growing, with new ones appearing all the time. In fact, if you look back on my blog, as others talked about how they expect to seek many higher education institutions close, I disagreed, contending that we will indeed see a significant growth in the number of higher education providers. What people might not have understood is that I extended my definition of higher education far beyond accredited and degree-granting institutions. While I did not call it that at the time, my response represented an emerging way of looking at what is happening, what I am now giving the game of outsider higher education.

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What is a Professor Versus an Educator?

What is a professor versus an educator? In a recent conversation with colleagues at my University, we had a wonderful (at least from my perspective) conversation about a single statement in a text, “A professor is an educator.” While several in the group had thoughts about this statement, I simply posed the question. “To what extent do you think this statement is true?” One colleague noted that, in some Universities, professors strive to teach as little as possible. From that perspective, the role of a professor is certainly not synonymous with that of an educator.

When discussing a single statement like this, there are many ways to frame our thoughts and perspectives. For better or worse, my formal training often draws me first to the etymology, second to the modern day usage of the terms, and third to the dominant discourses associated with each word. Let’s briefly consider these two words from at least two of those three categories.

Professor

It doesn’t take much to see the root of “profess” in the word, and while I’m not a Latin scholar, that certainly appears to be a fundamental aspect of its meaning. A professor is indeed a person who professes, namely one who either professes to be an expert in a given domain or professes a given body of knowledge. The word is one that draws our attention to the action of that professor. At least etymologically, it includes a limited allusion to a student or learner, although a study of the usage in context throughout history certainly assumes that the professor is, at least in many contexts, professing to students. Yet, the action is on that which is spoken or written by the professor. What happens after the fact is not included in the word’s origin.

And it is this very concept that allows us to find the humor in the words of W.H. Auden when he writes, “A professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep.” Being a professor is independent of what happens as a result of the professing. A class of sleeping students? You are still a professor. As such, for some today, the word professor still conjures images of one who lectures. Even among faculty, I’ve heard their work sometimes described as “delivering content” to the students, a postal worker for ideas.

Of course, there is more to the word. The discourse around professor entails one who works as a faculty member in a University setting. They might teach classes (or students in classes). They might engage in service on committees and sometimes service beyond the University. They assess student work. They mentor. They advise. They curate content and guide students toward growing levels of mastery. Yet, not all of these have equal weight among those who hold the title “professor.” Depending upon the University where you are a professor, the community has different values and priorities among the items in the list.

Educator (and educate)

This has an altogether different etymology and discourse associated with it. Consider the following from Etymology.com.

educator (n.) 1560s, “one who nourishes or rears;” 1670s, “one who trains or instructs,” from Latin educator (in classical Latin, “a foster father,” then also “a tutor”), agent noun from past participle stem of educare (see educate). Latin educatrix meant “a nurse.”

educate (v.) mid-15c., “bring up (children), to train,” from Latin educatus, past participle of educare “bring up, rear, educate” (source also of Italian educare, Spanisheducar, French éduquer), which is a frequentative of or otherwise related to educere “bring out, lead forth,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + ducere “to lead” (seeduke (n.)). Meaning “provide schooling” is first attested 1580s. Related: Educated; educating.

Notice the metaphors associated with child-rearing, nurturing, as well as the concept of “leading out.” In other words, where the etymology of the word “professor” has no strong connection with the learner or student, there is a relationship that is inherent in the etymology of the word “educator.” I suppose that, technically, one could be a professor without students (and that is indeed the case for some professors who are focused exclusively on research), but the etymology of the word “educator” leaves little space for such a possibility. It is a word that draws our attention to what one does with, for or to another.

This might seem like esoteric musings to some people, but I share it because these distinctions point to modern debates and confusion. From the perspective of some, the role of a professor has lost value while that of educator tends to be spoken of with greater admiration. They parallel debates about professors who focus mostly on the content versus those who give greater attention what students do or do not learn. They parallel debates about teaching versus learning. They parallel complaints by some professors about the modern focus upon “spoon-feeding” students or even on the heavy focus on student learning outcomes. They parallel disagreements about how the quality and contribution of a professor should be assessed.

In short, the distinction between these two words illustrates the modern conflict in the public about the role and value of the modern University. As such (and I know that I persistently return to this theme in my writing), we will not make significant gains in the public discourse unless we acknowledge these differences; collectively develop a much deeper knowledge of their roles, distinctions, affordances, and limitations; and then have a broad and candid debate about our priorities…although I tend to think that this is mostly important to address on the University level, not mandated by some accrediting body or government agency.

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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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Should Everyone Go to College?

Should everyone go to college? I’ve discussed this question with several people recently and many were quick to note that not everyone should go to college. Some people are just not cut out for a college education, they explain. I could not agree more, but maybe in a way different than you might think. In most of these conversations or interactions, people are attempting to point out that some people just don’t have the academic prowess or the disposition for a 4-year college education and that they are better off going the route of a skilled trade or something similar.

I’m agreeing because I recognize that there are many pathways to personal growth and development, education, discovery, building meaningful connections and relationships, success, impact, the self-examined life, well-being, good citizenship, and/or discovering our callings in life. The traditional 4-year college degree path serves as a valuable part of that journey for some people, but not for the majority of people in the world or even the United States. Far less than half of the people in the US have a 4-year degree and the numbers are even lower when we look at global statistics.

Consider the people in the picture at the top of this article. These people have at least two things in common. One is that they made their mark in the world, and a second is that they did it without a 4-year college degree. They took the dominant pathway, the non-4-year degree pathway, and it arguably paid off for them.

This is not an advertisement for skipping or dropping out of college. I’m just recognizing that there are many good and valuable paths in life, and that going to college is not a guarantee of the good life, a life of meaning and purpose, vocational clarity and calling, wealth, success, the self-examined life, a good paying job, or any other such aspirations. This is also an opportunity for me to honor the choices other than college.

Some might protest that pointing this out is irresponsible, that the 4-year degree is a much better assurance of this list of grand aspirations than dropping out or skipping college. There are even statistics to support as much, people might point out. In response, I don’t challenge the favorable statistics. It is just important to note that college attendance and graduation is not the direct and only cause of many of these outcomes. I don’t think it is irresponsible to point out as much. I agree that college is still a good route for many. I do not agree with confusing the facts by suggesting that college is the sure or only way to have a positive outcome in one’s life.

college is a great place for learning but not the only place for great learningGoing to college doesn’t directly solve problems of meaning, success, citizenship or employment. Colleges do not have a corner on the personal growth and development market. College is a great place for learning but it is inaccurate and maybe even irresponsible to claim that it is the only place of great learning.

Others might add that my line of thinking is the sort of advice that we might share for other kids but not our own. My response is simply that I am not giving this as advice. If I’m giving advice, then I tell people to explore their options, weigh the benefits and limitations, seek wise counsel and make a decision. Even then, realize that this decision can influence some of your future and opportunities, but it rarely gives you a life sentence to a certain life situation. So, devote the time and thought to choose wisely but find solace in the fact that there are many forms of learning that can contribute to a good, happy, meaningful successful, and impactful life.

Still others will read this and point out that the people in the image at the beginning of this article are the exceptions. They are anomalies. Following in their footsteps with the hope of equivalent success or impact would be no different than every child disregarding all other options because they aspire to be a professional athlete. The odds are slim, so plan accordingly. Many of the people in that list would likely agree that there was a measure of chance in their situation. This is another good and important point.

Yet, there are countless faces that I didn’t put in the image because you would not recognize their names. They are people without degrees who are incredibly happy, living wonderfully rich and meaningful lives, deeply educated albeit not credentialed, thoughtful and engaged citizens. These other faces are people who are highly successful in one or more domains of life. It might be in one or more areas like family, personal well-being, strong and positive relationships, or impact in their local communities and beyond. I used the faces that I did because they are quickly recognizable but there are many others out there too.

At the beginning of the article, I referenced people who pointed out that not everyone should go to college, that not every person is cut out for college. I agree, but I prefer to use that statement by reversing the order of two words. I prefer to point out that college is not cut out for every person. By that I open the door to the conversation that college is not one pathway. Some colleges are better fits than others. At the same time, this recognizes the validity of alternatives to the college choice.

As long as we confuse and equate college with the anecdote to curing some social ill, we risk going down a dangerous path with unexpected negative consequences. College is not the anecdote as much as the learning and connections that can happen in college. Yet, this learning and these connections can happen in other ways as well. When we miss that point, we risk isolating even more people. We also risk losing the chance of contributing to a much larger and even more empowering learning ecosystem in societies that has great promise to increase access and opportunity, and to empower agency.

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10 Steps to Disrupting a College Degree Monopoly

You find what looks like a dream job that perfectly aligns with your experience, and you are excited to apply. You know the field inside and out, so you are disappointed after three weeks when you don’t hear from the company. In itself, this is not that unusual. Maybe there was a strong internal candidate. Maybe they decided not to move forward with the position. Or, perhaps they just had an especially talented group of applicants. After a month, you receive a letter thanking you for applying, but explaining that you would not be considered for the job. You called the human resources office with the hope of learning from this experience. It turns out that your application was never passed on to the search team because you didn’t have the “minimum of a master’s degree” listed in the job posting.

This happens every day. People who are otherwise qualified get passed over because they lack a formal credential. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way, which is why I (a strong advocate for the benefit of college degrees), also argue for the social good of disrupting the college degree monopoly, a sort of gatekeeping system that impacts access and opportunity to sometimes highly qualified job candidates.

While respecting the college degree route as one valid and socially trusted pathway, it is time to further disrupt the college degree monopoly. After reviewing the literature, experimenting with and studying various past and current models, I am convinced that it is quite possible to accomplish this. One of the more promising ways is to not to focus on the degree at large, but start with one specific degree in a given field. Here is one (of many) ten-step methods to doing that.

1. Identify the prime field for the first disruption, and start with something that is more easily disrupt-able.

This needs to be an area that has little to no regulation. It does not have outside bodies that carefully control employment through licensure, accreditation, or other gate-keeping strategies. That leaves out teacher training programs and many health care tracks. In time, these can be tackled as well, but they requires more policy work and negotiation with agencies largely interested in protecting traditional credentials and slower evolution of those credentials. IT positions are a logical starting point, but the disruption is already underway in the form of code academies and the like.

2. Design an online/blended, self-paced, competency-based learning experience that consistently produces completers who are more competent, confident and effective than graduates of a “comparable degree” from the top ten ranked degree programs in the nation. This program will not lead toward a formal degree. It will not have credits. It will not be part of a regionally accredited organization. Or, if it is, this is part of the continuing education unit, separate from the review most external oversight and ineligible for federal financial aid. Ensure that the competencies reached through this learning experience are persistently current, aligned with the best research in the field, and benchmarked with the skills of the highest performers in that field.

3. Build this experience around micro-credentials that each display different areas of competence. Even if you did not go through the entire experience, you would have “leveled up” in at least a few areas.

4. Abandon the instructor/class model of instruction in place of a self-paced, online (or blended), competency-based format. There will be no professors or course instructors. Instead, provide every learner with access to a live, online, personal coach / mentor / achievement reviewer from 6:00 AM to 11:59 PM in that person’s local time zone. Every coach / mentor / achievement reviewer must have completed a rigorous assessment to demonstrate high levels of expertise in the areas of coaching / mentoring / reviewing. In addition, each of these people will be trained and assessed on their excellence in mentoring, coaching, reviewing, providing excellent formative feedback, and unswervingly upholding the highest possible standards when reviewing evidence of competence submitted by learners.

5. Price this experience at a maximum of 1/10th the cost of tuition for the average of the ten most affordable “comparable degrees.”

6. People who complete the program will be issued an official title, something like [Name of Organization] + [Name of Field] + Fellow. A date is attached to this title and it expires after five years.

7. Design a subscription system for graduates / fellows to engage in ongoing professional development that verifies maintaining competence, staying current with emerging developments, etc. A full review of the fellow’s portfolio occurs every 3-5 years and the date of the title issued to the learner is updated. Charge for this should be less than one-third what they paid for the initial program.

8. Establish a bold (perhaps even a bit aggressive) marketing campaign that puts completers of this program alongside the top in the field, showing without question the incredible effectiveness of every graduate and the extensive impact they have in their domain (whether it be benefit to the employer, the community, or elsewhere).

9. Protect the brand and industry perception by upholding the highest possible standards for learners. No one will be able to legitimately critique this program for lacking rigor or producing sub-par graduates.

10. Establish a network of completers and organizations seeking or needing such people. If you start with a program that is entry level, employers seeking first access to most recent graduates pay a fee to participate in the network and gain first access to these carefully vetted and highly qualified people. If you start with a non-entry program (like an alternative to a professional graduate degree), companies can avoid the subscription fee by paying a percentage of the fees for the employees pursuing the training. These graduates and organizations also serve in an advisory capacity to continue to review, refine and uphold the highest standard for the program. This part, while listed as step 9, can and probably should be pursued throughout the process, starting right away at step 1.

11. Choose another field and repeat.

This doesn’t apply for every college degree, but it can (and will) work for some, especially those that are more applied and focused on professional studies. I’ve done the math a few times and if you pick the right fields, the financials work.  They don’t work as well in areas where there are already very inexpensive technical or community college options, although building the value and brand of the program still has potential to combat such a limitation.

Is There a Dark Side of On-Time Graduation?

“On-time graduation.” The United States Department of Education wants it. Outside agencies monitor it. Countless higher education institutions strive to make it happen for their students. Who would possibly argue against it?

There are several arguments for on-time graduation. People who work through their program faster are usually more likely to graduate. Extending your program can sometimes cost more money in tuition, living expenses and other costs. Plus, people who graduate are less likely to default on their loans. As such, the time to graduation is a key metric used by Universities and reported to outside agencies.

Graduate, get a job, and pay off your loans. That is how it is supposed to work. At the same time, there is a dark side to the persistent push for people to complete “on-time.” As with all policies and practices, there are benefits, but there are also limitations. I’ll mention two.

The first relates to personalized time and pace for individual learners. On-time graduation works for the standard student with the standard circumstances, but as we strive to increase access and opportunity for higher education, a growing number of student are what might be considered non-standard. Some students would benefit from taking longer while others might benefit from a shortened program or faster pace to completion. There are dozens of possible factors to consider, but when on-time graduation is a key metric, it drives schools to push some students to work through the program more quickly that would be ideal for them.

80% of traditional, full-time undergraduate students are working. The number that works full-time has consistently increased over the past decades, and there is no sign that this increase is reversing. This is in addition to the large number of non-traditional students who balance school with work, family and other responsibilities. Given such conditions, is a push to completion in a set timeframe always the best for optimal learning?

Second, too much of a focus on graduating in a set time risks nurturing a culture of earning over learning. “Hurry up and finish” is competing with “Pursue deep and substantive learning.” I’ve written about how a culture of earning (the grade, diploma, etc.) over a culture where learning is valued and prioritized is problematic. A culture of learning nurtures more competent and confident graduates. A culture of earning, on the other hand, places the focus upon jumping through academic hoops. It diminishes student perceived value for things like academic rigor and achievement. Logically, this also increases the likelihood of academic integrity issues. After all, if it is just about getting the credential, it matters less what you know or the hard work. Just do what it takes to get finished.

I have led and supported countless accelerated undergraduate and graduate programs. Some have students working through three credit classes in as few and six weeks, while many others are working through in eight weeks, half the time of most three credit graduate courses ten years ago. This is a trend in many Universities for many reasons. It sometimes meets the needs of adult learners better than full-term courses. Second, it allows more credits sold for a University, increasing the tuition revenue in a given year. Third, it increases the number of students who persist and graduate. These are all realities and reasonable considerations for contemporary higher education. They are part of the new normal in many institutions. At the same time, these changes are not without losses. It just isn’t possible for most students to read as much, reflect as much, or go on as deep of a dive into certain topics as happened when courses where fifteen or sixteen weeks long.

I’m one of the first to challenge the need to maintain a traditional 15-week semester or the use of the existing credit hour system. At the same time, a commitment to consider both the affordances and limitations of given changes in higher education forces me to look at such changes candidly. Time and pace matter when it comes to learning. Changing either will impact on learners, not to mention what it taught and how it is taught.

There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with the concept of on-time graduation. In fact, it has many benefits. For example, there are sometimes impressive results that come from cohort approaches to education where groups of learners progress through a program together, at a reasonable pace and time-frame. In addition, I’ve yet to see solid research indicating that condensing programs or pushing students through programs more quickly results in decreased competence or post-graduation work performance. At the same time, it is not without risks and we want to make sure that our policies and processes do not unnecessarily decrease access and opportunity to the people who need “non-standard” time and pace. The more we mitigate against these risks, considering the value of a culture of learning as well as opportunity for personalized time and pace of learning, the more we increase access and opportunity for a broader spectrum of students.

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The University of Nidge: An Inspiring Model for the Future of Higher Education

The University of Nidge (not to be confused with Nigde University in Turkey) is unlike any school that you have ever seen. It is small, distinct, deeply committed to both the liberal arts and social impact, and it specializes in nurturing human agency and a sense of purpose and drive in life. It is strictly an undergraduate school, doesn’t take part in the federal financial aid program, and never pursued regional accreditation. Yet, it has a waiting list every year, current students and graduates are delighted with their experience, graduates have no problem getting their unaccredited degree accepted by top graduate schools, and the list of alumni would be the envy of some of the most known and respected Universities in the world.

In the words of the first and current President and CNO (Chief Nudgeon Officer), Dr. Franklin Tesla Edison (his parents had high hopes for him, didn’t they) explained, “We are not about courses, credits, degrees, credentials and programs with persnickety policies and overbearing professorial platitudes. We are not about compliance, bean counting, and inside politics. We are not about imitating what a thousand other colleges have done. We are a haven for the intellectual life married to social good and impact; creativity and innovation; competence combined with convictions, courage, and character; people who want to discover, create and share truth, beauty, goodness, and unity with the world. We are about helping people discover and nurture the gifts, talents, passions, and interests that will allow them to flourish and make a unique and valuable contribution to the world. And while we recognize that there are significant challenges and problems in the world, our motto comes from a quote often attributed to Dr. Martin Luther, ‘Everything that is done in this world is done by hope.’ We are a community of hopeful and engaged intellectuals with a bent toward curiosity, a love of learning, creation, action and impact.

In contrast to schools that boast 100+ undergraduate majors, Nudge sticks with eight plus a twist.

Their eight core majors are:

  • Bachelor of Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship,
  • Bachelor of Global & International Studies,
  • Bachelor of Humanities in Action (with a focus upon digital culture),
  • Bachelor of Computer Engineering & Design Thinking,
  • Bachelor of Biomedical Science & Human-Centered Design,
  • Bachelor of Space & Future Studies,
  • Bachelor in Economics (with a focus on econometrics) & Analytics
  • Bachelor of Heuristics, Design & Technology (with a fascinating partial focus on biomimicry).

Each major consists of three parts:

  1. Socratic Seminars – These are rich, small group discussion around critical “texts”, facilitated by a tutor/professor whose primary task is Socratic questioning, helping them to extract as much meaning as possible from the texts.
  2. Core Competency Challenges – This involves a series 8-10 competency-based digital badges that each identify a core area of knowledge or skill in that major. Students earn the badges by solving some sort of authentic problem or completing a project or challenge related to that competency. A variety of tutorials and guided resources are available to students but there are no formal lectures or class sessions for this part of the major. Students gather twice a week with a cohort of others who are working on the same challenges to collaborate with one another, and there is a dedicated tutor/professor for each competency-badge, available as a guide and resource.
  3. Experiential Learning Labs & Internships – Every program includes a series of intense hand-on experiences ranging from novel lab experiences to work and service in the “real world.” As part of this, all students participate in extended, hands-on, applied work in their areas of interest. Unlike some internships, students are connected with organizations that agree to engage them in core work (not just filing papers) and they experience being an integrated part of different organizations. Finding suitable partners can be a challenge, but Nidge found its niche in getting their students engaged with some of the most exciting, innovative and socially minded startups doing work in everything from international humanitarian efforts to privatized space travel, sociopolitical gamification to personalized medicine, medical research on aging to technology startups focusing on online identity management.

Now for the twist. Every student at Nudge finishes with two majors, one from the list above and a second that is certainly unlike anything that you’ve seen at another University. Technically, it isn’t a major, it is a “mission.” When students apply the The University of Nudge, they must include a proposal for a 4-year mission (although they can appeal to finish a mission after year two and pursue a second one). This starts with a few simple words, “I am on a mission to…” The students must frame a statement that describes an area where their passion and interests meet a real need in the world. Then the students propose how they will:

  • develop the knowledge, skill and experience to pursue (and hopefully complete) that mission,
  • their intent and plan to build an international personal network of connections with people and organizations who can help them with that mission,
  • a series of initial action steps, and
  • a statement of how they will monitor their progress along with the intent to form a personal board of directors by the end of their first year at Nidge (They must secure at least 2 of 4-5 board members as an admission requirement).

Many prospective students take part in a summer mission design camp that helps them frame such a mission/major, and the camp draws many who don’t even intend to apply. For those who go to Nidge, students will pursue this mission, provide a monthly update/written report to their board of directors, and meet with their personal board of directors quarterly. At the end of each year, there is a mission festival where students display and share about their mission to others in the University and the surrounding community. This event is open to the public and is well worth a visit, even if you need to fly around the world to get there. It is truly incredible to witness so many thoughtful and mission-minded young people tackling some of the largest problems in the world.

The other brilliant part is that mission/majors lead to careers for over 90% of the graduates (not including those who go straight to graduate school), some through innovative startups, and others through businesses that want people who show this sort of self-direction, unconventional thinking, skill and commitment. Then there is the case of students who get so caught up in their mission that it takes a life of its own, turns into a business or life calling, and leads them to drop out of school to pursue it full-time. Instead of labeling such students as drop-outs, the student’s Board of Directors reviews their work and they are issued a single major diploma from the University of Nidge. Such people are not considered “drop-outs” they are “dive ins” and the community celebrates their achievement as much (or sometimes more) than those who go the standard four years.

The University of Nidge is not for everyone. In fact, they only accept a maximum of 50 ( out of about 150 applicants) into each major annually. If you get accepted, there is a healthy endowment to make tuition reasonable for everyone, and some of the experiential portions of the majors come with salaries/stipends that also help students cover costs.

By the way, don’t think The University of Nidge is all about only accepting people with the highest GPAs and test scores. They accepted wonderfully lopsided students, students who display wildly different types of genius. Ask anyone at Nidge about this and you are likely to hear they reference Einstein’s alleged quote: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” They are looking for curious, committed young people who ware willing to do good and work hard, to embrace this outside-the-box form of higher education, and who truly do have a compelling mission.

For those who don’t get accepted, Nidge Open University just launched online, which essentially guides people through the process of designing their personal mission/major and pursuing it independently. If a person successfully completes a mission, meeting all the requirements at the University of Nidge, that person is eligible for a University of Nudge diploma designating their mission and accomplishment. So, regardless of your background or context, you too can become a Nidgeon!

Before you start turning to Google to look up this amazing school, I should probably explain that “nidge” is Russian for “nowhere.” Yes, unfortunately this school doesn’t really exist, at least not yet. 

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – Buckminster Fuller

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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