The Open Badges movement has grown and evolved in sometimes tumultuous ways over the last five years. And we’re beginning to see ideological light in places where previously there was only questioning shadow. For example, there have been inklings in the professional world that despite—or perhaps because of—creeping degree inflation, the long-term infatuation with the degree may be fading. Indeed, some rather large employers, like Penguin Random House and Ernst & Young (EY), are venturing into relatively unknown territory by dispensing with degree requirements altogether. While it might seem disorienting, this is a good thing for both the learner and for the traditional degree granting institution.
The Credentialing Club
Too much has been asked of degrees as representational communication objects. Our assumptions about them have grown to be enormous and consequently, virtually impossible to fill. Additionally, the degree granting system has perpetuated the degree-granting system: discussions about any learning experience after high school are typically had by people who have attended higher ed—and more than likely possess an advanced degree. In a feedback loop such as this, how can we guarantee that new ideas will be appreciated and promoted?
While graduates of four year degree programs are the majority in any discussion about post-secondary education, a little less than half of the individuals who pursue some form of education after high school attend community colleges or technical schools, among other educational environments. The power, impact, and usefulness of these educational opportunities should not be underestimated. And here’s a surprise: that 44% percent also includes people with higher ed degrees. It seems that a healthy minority of folks who attend some learning institution after high school go to a community college at one time or another. Yet somehow when we talk about post-secondary education, our conversation defaults to four year colleges and universities. This must stop.
And stop it shall, particularly as our society moves toward embracing different forms of credentials. On a related note, I’ve ceased using the term alternative credentials in my discussions about these new initiatives. Why? Because that word introduces an adversarial quality to the conversation. It suggests that the new forms of credentialing might be alien or less dependable or less robust or less valuable than a degree. Horsefeathers!
I’ll take time in another essay to distinguish among the new credentialing forms (there are more similarities than differences) but for a second, let’s just consider some of these new representational possibilities:
- online degrees
- course certificates
And the best part? They’ve been developed already and they’re here, operating in the real world, right now. The credentialing club is about to start accepting new members.
Interrogating the new world of credentialing
From the consumption perspective, this impressive burgeoning might indicate that right now and for the foreseeable future, there are too many forms of credentials. On the one hand, isn’t that wonderful? It means that many more people have many more ways to represent their abilities, competencies, experiences, and skills. On the other hand, it means that potential consumers of those credentials now have to sift through hundreds and thousands of different permutations of learning representations. If we’re concerned that degrees have become an unfortunate elision of abilities, a surfeit of new credentials can prove equally problematic. Happily, there are initiatives (more on these in future posts) looking at the many and varied aspects of what constitutes a good credential—and not just from the credential issuer standpoint, but also from the other stakeholders in this process, e.g., the credential earner and the credential consumer.
Educational map ≠ learning territory
This discussion brings to mind Clay Shirky’s cognitive surplus hypothesis: the massive collective power released by shifting from a social construct based on consumption to one based on creation. To me, the credentialing boom is just one of the reverberating results of the big bang of the internet. The web’s continuing expansion seems to indicate that our current system just isn’t broad enough or powerful enough to adequately address the experiential, social, professional, and personal representation requirements that it has engendered. A quick test: for those of you who hold a degree, would you feel comfortable saying that it accurately represents all of your capabilities? And for those of you who hold multiple degrees, why wasn’t the first one enough?
These challenging questions help us to understand that the educational map is not the learning territory—that our abilities are so much broader and more nuanced than anything a degree imparts or a transcript indicates. We’re capable of so much more than what any one credential says we are. And that’s where badges, microcredentials, nanodegrees, etc. come in.
I’m glad that the credentialing club is beginning to accept new members. It’s about time.
Much more soon.
Talk to me at cmcasilli [at] gmail [dot] com