5 Predictions About Educational Credentialing in 2024

I am doing a bit of consulting later in the week, and one of my tasks is to make a few predictions about education in 2024. My part of the day is focused upon alternate and micro-credentialing. With that in mind, here are five predictions. I don’t necessarily like all these outcomes, but based upon the trends, I see many of them as highly likely, especially as they relate to adult and continuing education; and education for trades and regulated professions. What do you think? As you read this short list, you may be surprised about how much does not seem to be directly tied to credentialing. That is because, at least in much of American higher education, credentials and assessments tend to shape and direct much education practice.

I’ve always seen assessment as a bit boring until I started to recognize how it has become the most powerful aspect of many education environments. Change or add a given assessment or evaluation practice and you can quickly see a transformation in an entire system. Look at the conversations about Common Core in K-12 education. It was when the use of assessments started to take root that the debates become most intense.

Do you have any predictions of your own?

1. Unbundled Education – Education will become increasingly unbundled and aggregated across networks and contexts. This will give way to increased grass-roots educational initiatives, the capacity for learners to self-blend learning experiences from multiple sources and organizations, and cross-organizational credentials. Highly regulated sectors and those with strong centralized professional organizations and standards will be most insulated from some of this. It will lead to significant turmoil and disruption in many higher education institutions.

2. Networked Learning will become a fundamental life and work skill. While the most regulated industries will be more insulated, there will be significant conflict between democratizing and authoritarian models of education and training. Regardless, a fundamental aspect of lifelong learning will be the development, maintenance and ongoing expansion of a personal learning network. Related to this, we will see massive formal learning networks within geographic areas, specific fields and professions, and other distinct physical or virtual communities.

3. For many professions and trades, competency-based education and assessment will largely replace assessment of readiness through traditional letter grade systems, GPAs and similar measures. Systems like traditional letter grades will be phased out with the emergence of more accurate and granular measures of learner progress and competence. This will impact both initial training and continuing education.

4. Depending upon the context, alternate and micro-credentialing systems will replace or supplement letter grades, course, credits, and degrees (but the most regulated industries will be more insulated from this disruption). These emerging credentialing systems will have features like expiration dates and detailed information about the criteria met to earn the credential.

5. Educational experiences will provide significant learner control and/or learner-specific adjustments of time, place, pace and learning pathway. As part of this, adaptive learning and robust learning progression designs will replace many industrial or one-size-fits all models of education and training. For better or worse, with the maturity of adaptive learning tools, there will be a renewed and invigorated battle between the  “science of teaching and learning” and the “art of teaching and learning.” Learning analytics and big data will drive the design of high-impact, competency-based individualized learning experiences.

6 Design Experiments in a Mildly Massive Open Online Course

A little over a year ago, I led my first MOOC, Understanding Cheating in Online Courses. It got a fair amount of media attention, likely because it made for provocative article titles…things like, “MOOC Teaches How to Cheat in Online Courses With an Eye Toward Prevention.” There were also articles in the BBC News, Venture Beat and the New York Times. Those articles tell a bit about the what and why of the MOOC, but they don’t really get into the design side of things, giving you a glimpse into the design decisions that shaped this experiment. I shared a few of these thoughts at conference earlier this year, but I thought I others might be interested, so here you go.

First I should explain the goals of the MOOC. There were six of them.

  1. 1.Increase attention to academic honesty issues and have a great conversation with people about a topic that is important to me. Yes, I created a MOOC to build a community around this topic, so that I could learn more about the subject.
  2. 2.Equip people to mitigate against academic cheating, but in a way that was not all about policing and punishing.
  3. 3.Add depth to the current discussion by looking at it from an interdisciplinary perspective (the philosophy of cheating, psychology of cheating, from the perspective of the cheater, etc.).
  4. 4.Challenge existing beliefs and myths. Many talk about cheating as a simple moral issue. I tried to broaden the conversation to think of it also as a design issue.
  5. 5.Promote a design approach to academic honesty.
  6. 6.Experiment and play with the affordances of open learning.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 10.37.46 PMAfter meeting a number of times with my design team (a few instructional designers, a digital media specialist, and our director of online technology), we decided upon six features: collective knowledge generation, a mix of public and private spaces, live events, a design that welcomed and encouraged self-blending, pre-established but emerging schedule, and whimsical but meaningful digital badges. Each of these were selected to build community, foster a highly personalized experience and self-directed, and to honor the unique affordances of a MOOC…doing things that can’t be done with other courses as easily (like collective knowledge generation).

Collective Knowledge Generation – This is one of the affordances of a MOOC. If you have hundreds or thousands of people gathered together around a topic of shared interest, you can actually leverage that group to generate meaningful content that benefits the entire community and beyond. That is what we did. For example, we started the course with an online discussion, where participants shared cheating stories that they’ve experienced. In a matter of a week, we had probably one of the largest collections of informal cheating case studies in existence. And we learned about how students are cheating through those stories. There is no way that I or any other single instructor could have created a better and more varied collection of examples.

Then we followed that activity by making it even more personal. We had a “cheating confessional.” People had a chance to anonymously share a time when they cheated, why they, and how they cheated. It personalized the topic, reminding us that the proclivity for cheating is closer than we like to think. It didn’t condone cheating, but it did make it a bit more personal. This activity added even more cheating case studies from which to learn.

Throughout the class, we also created a cheating lexicon in Google Docs. At any point in the class, participants could add a new term that they learned in the course, also adding a definition and source. The group edited one another’s work and we developed an ever-growing lexicon of terms.

Then at the end of the class, students had the option of doing a “final project” where they came up with a proposed project or plan for mitigating against cheating in their learning organization. Those got posted to the class so we could learn from the wonderful ideas and how plans varied from one context to another.

A Blended of Private and Public

This was an open course in that anyone was welcome to join. However, it was not entirely open. First, we capped enrollment at 1000, so not everyone who wanted to attend was able. This was mostly just a limit put in place by the provider that I used. Beyond that we also elected to host some course discussions in the password-protected learning management system, where only other registered participants could read them. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, this was done to give people the freedom to share and be a bit more candid than they might want to be on the public web.

Alongside that, we had plenty of openness. There was a Twitter stream (#cheatmooc), public weekly content and live events that anyone could access…whether they were registered or not. We also made some of the collective knowledge resources public to the world (like the Cheating Lexicon).

Live Events – As a way to build rapport and to collect great lectures on the topic, we offered weekly lectures on the topic for the week, open to the world. We recorded all these and made them public to the world (in fact, all the course resources are still freely and publicly available at http://online.cuw.edu/programs/open-courses/understanding-cheating-in-online-courses .  Most of these were done using Google OnAir along with a Q & A through a simple chat tool. We encouraged the presenters to be personal…even a bit informal in the live events. They were rich with amazing content, but we tried to run them a bit more live a great living room conversation.

Now here is an amazing part of the live events. I initially planned on presenting all these myself. Then, with the great media attention, a number of amazing scholars reached out and offered to help. So, we had leading thinkers and companies in the field giving these talks (James Lang presenting on what was at the time his forthcoming book called Cheating Lesson; Tricia Bertram Galant, Teddy Fishman, Proctor U, Software Secure, TurnitIn, etc. It was a wonderful and impressive collection of people who gave us a rich and diverse look at the topic.

Plan for Self-Blending

A core affordance of a MOOC is that students don’t need to do what the instructor tells them. They are in charge of their learning. They choose what is valuable and what is now, whether to persist, when to pay attention and when to take a break, which resources to read or watch, which activities seem valuable, and when to go find or create a new resource. We designed the MOOC to honor all this, treating it as a distinct affordance of a MOOC.

As such, we took a lesson from Howard Rheingold and used co-learner language. I described myself as a co-learner and tour guide, not an instructor who calls all the shots. Resources were offered, not required. It was a buffet instead of a prepared meal. They choose what goes on their plate and what does not.

To help provide structure, each week had a provocative driving question, content that explored that question, and suggested activities/experiments that helped participants grapple with and explore that question. Amid this, we added enough resources and activity options that there were many paths to answering and exploring the driving question. The learner got to choose how to explore the question, how deep to go, etc. We also included learner contributions to these resources. So, if a learner went out and found a great resource, we edited the course to include those treasures.

A Pre-Established but Emerging Schedule

This course was a learning community, not an instructor-led dictatorship. So, we wanted the shape of the course to be informed by the interests and needs of the participants. We had pre-developed weekly learning objectives and driving questions. We had pre-developed weekly readings and resources. We had pre-developed weekly suggested learning missions and events. Yet, we revised, added, and removed based upon what students wanted. For example, two of the live events were not even planned beforehand. Students requested a topic, so I went out and found the best people I could to speak to it. Fortunately, they were willing to help us out. I also adjusted many resources and added new suggested activities by watching and listening to the learners. In a sense, this was an adaptive design.

Digital Badges

This course was my first time implementing a digital badge system. With the wonderful help of Credly.com, it was pretty easy to do. We did a ton of reading and research on the concept of digital badges and then we just gave it a try. Our badges were not competency-based. They were meant to recognize contribution to the community and conversation around a given weekly driving question. We assigned points to each suggested activity. If a learner earned 100 or more activity points in a week, they got the badge for the week. Each badge represented a “role” for the week, as students were invited to approach each week by trying on roles like philosopher, psychologist, instructional designer or cheater. We had badges like the research assistant, the cheating psychologist, the cheating philosopher, the cheating investigator, the teacher, the instructional designer, and the cheater (which had a sub-title…”this badge was not earned honestly). We tried to be whimsical but substantive in this design, and a number of people were able to use them as evidence of professional development for their employers.

As another experiment, we had an “exemplary contribution” badge that was distributed to 1-3 people each week, as surprise recognition for their wonderful addition to the community for that week.

Note that the entire badge design was about recognizing and encouraging contribution to he community. They were less about recognizing learning and more about celebrating an individual’s commitment to building knowledge from which others could benefit.

This was a wonderfully rewarding experiment in creative instructional design, digital age communities of practice, and how to leverage the affordances of open learning to give voice to important issues in society. It was far from perfect, but I consider the items above to be largely a success. It was a joy to see the great media attention to this important topic, countless blog posts written about it by participants, and dozens of academic integrity projects implemented in k-12 schools and Universities based on participant work in the MOOC.

Notes & Quotes from The Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know Were in BB Learn #BbWorld14

I attended “The Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know Were in Blackboard Learn” this morning, led by Jim Chalex (Senior Director of product Management for BB Learn). For those who have been using Learn for quite some time, perhaps much of this is familiar. For people newer to the LMS (like me), it was an impressive and helpful overview of new features and enhancements of existing features. Everything below is part of the “Learning Core” package.

10 – Date Management

When you are teaching a course for the second time, what do you do to get ready? One thing is to adjust the dates for the new term/section. Date management automates much of this process. It gives you a list of dates to review and adjust from the last term. This is much faster than if you had to recreate dates for everything.

9 – Student Preview

You know what the course looks like as a teacher. What will it look like for the students? Student Preview helps you answer that question, including a preview of what grades will look like. You can do anything that a typical student would do. You can even take a test, add discussion posts, etc. When you exit the student view, it gives you an option to keep that student data. So, if you took a test in student view, you could keep the data from it and then see how the score shows up in the teacher view.

8 – Blackboard Store

Students need materials…easily and in a timely manner. This feature integrates the text and resource purchasing process right within the context of Blackboard Learn. The student can see the required materials, and BB promises competitive pricing.

7 – Delegated Assignment Grading

What if you need more than one person to be involved in the grading of the course. What if there are teaching aids, or you want to set up peer graders, or even bring in other guests to grade or give feedback on student submissions? This tool allows you to explicitly define who will be the graders for each assignment. You can even specify which submissions they can grade (like the entire class, select students, or select groups). In addition, you have the option of making the submissions look anonymous to the graders. After all this, you have the choice of reconciling the final grade, like if you had multiple graders for the same assignment. You can even add a grader mid-stream.

6 – SafeAssign Integration

BB has had a built-in plagiarism detection tool. Now it is much more integrated in the workflow. As you create assignments, you can build in SafeAssign review as part of the submission workflow. Now rubrics and multiple assignment attempts, for example, work right in SafeAssign. In other words, SafeAssign is now a fully built-in plagiarism detection solution.

5 – Inline Grading

How do we make grading faster? Word documents and PDFs now show up right in the submission itself…no need to download (although you can still do that if you want). You can annotate the documents right in the browser, and your other feedback options show up right on the side of the submission. This sidebar works for grading pretty much anything in Learn.

4 – Test Power Features

For STEM fields, you can now develop calculated/formula questions with significant figures…important for chemistry and related disciplines. Another enhancement is test exceptions. Maybe you have a timed test. What if you need to make an exception for a single student who needs a special accommodation? Now it is extremely easy to do this. You can make feature exceptions for people or select groups.

For high stakes tests (midterms, finals, etc.), there is often a proctored environment. To support that, they added IP address filtering. You can define where a test can be taken…like only at a computer in a specific lab on campus.

Access logs are also enhanced. What if a student is taking a test and has Internet problems? The logs let you know exactly what a student did or did not do, allowing you to validate a student claim about what happened.

3 – Portfolio Assessment

Portfolio capabilities are already built-in Learn. However, the way students created the portfolio was clunky and not aesthetically pleasing.  It was also not integrated into the environment. They have redone the portfolio to make it aesthetic, easy to use, and integrated with the grading and other features. Students can also pull assignments out of a course and put them into the portfolio with ease, working well for a more program-wide portfolio instead of one just tied to a single course. In addition to this, they created a feature in assignments where you can require students to submit their portfolio in the course! All this is part of the learning core.

2 – Learn Outcome and Activity Reporting

You now have the option to define learning outcomes on a program level and align them to most anything. This can drive curriculum mapping and performance reports, reports like how students in a given class are doing in terms of meeting the program level outcomes.

There is detailed activity reporting to track group activity and drilled down student-specific activity on pretty much everything in the course.

1- The Retention Center

Everyone is taking about retention and persistence. It is a critical part of what we do. The retention center provides a straightforward way to figure out which students are struggling and need a potential intervention (or just a little nudge). It lets you see patterns of behavior (like missing due dates, not logging in, poor performance on a grade, inactivity in the course, etc.). There are default settings, but you can also adjust it to determine risks levels of different students. And when you find an at-risk student, you can also connect with the student right from the same screen.

0 – Publisher Integration

Learn is working hard to make it really easy to integrate resources from publishers like Wiley, Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw Hill…all deeply integrated with single sign-on.


15+ Resources: Learn the Why, What & How of Teaching Digital Collaboration

Tony Wagner identified “collaboration across networks” as one of the seven survival skills for this age. How do we help learners embrace the power and possibility of collaboration, cooperating and networking in an increasingly connected world? The following 15+ resources offer insights into the why, what and how of teaching encouraging and nurturing digital age collaboration.

How Technology Can Encourage Student Collaboration – This essay is a great starting point for exploring the topic of digital age collaboration. It provides a compelling reason for it along with practical examples.

Using Wikis for Collaborative Learning – This article provides a solid introduction to the idea of digital age collaboration, focusing especially upon the idea of wikis. While it is an older article, the concepts continue to apply today.

Using Wikis for Learning and Collaboration – This article also gives a good introduction to wiki-based collaboration. It includes a helpful list of suggested tools and books for further study/reading.

Teaching Students to Collaborate Using Google Docs (video) – This short video provides a practical example of how one teacher helps students learn how to use technology to collaborate.

Randy Nelson on Learning and Working in the Collaborative Age (video)- This video provides important advice on what sort of collaborative skills (and attitudes) we want to cultivate in our learners.

Teacher’s Guide to International Collaboration on the Internet – Helping students learn how to collaborate with diverse people across networks is a critical 21st and 22nd century skill. This web page provides a collection of some of the best resources for building international collaborations in your classroom using technology.

Free Tools to Collaborate, Hold Discussions, and Backchannel with Students – These two sites provides a long list of collaboration tools and technologies (20+ on one site and 101 on the other). Some of these tools may not be the best or most current, but they illustrate what is possible.

The Online Collective Essay – This blog post provides several specific ideas on how to leverage collaborative writing projects with students.

Reflections on Digital Age Collbaoration (video) – This short video introduces the idea of collective knoweldge generation in the digital age. It also briefly introduces the dark side of digital collaboration.

Peeragogy Leraning Handbook – This electronic text (with multimedia) represents an approach to teaching and learning known as peeragogy (sometimes paragogy), leveraging peer-to-peer interactions for learning. It includes a large number of essays. Consider at least reviewing the article on technologies, services and platforms (http://peeragogy.org/resources/technologies/ ). However, you will find short articles on motivation, assessment and resources for further reading. Note tha the site include a link to a Google+ community where you can interact with the authors and others interested in this topic. -

Group Essays – this guide from Duke University provides tips to students when working on a group essay. It also serves as a helpful guide for teachers who are considering creating a group essay assignment. This deals more with the process and pedagogy and not the technology. Combine the ideas from this resource with some of the ideas from the more technology-oriented resources to great a digital collaboration idea. -

What is collaboration? – This short blog post and table show the differences and features of four related but distinct terms: networking, coordinating, cooperation, and collaboration. You can use this as a guide to decide what sort of student-student interaction may be most useful for a given lesson or educational goal.

Collective Sharing and Generation of Knowledge – This is a helpful site in better understanding what we mean by “collective knoweldge generation.” The site includes background information, instructional videos, and a number of examples. Use the table of contents on the right side of the following page to navigate. Note that a number of the links to not work any longer, but those that do remain useful illustrations of how to leverage wikis for learning. -

Student Created Wikis – This page includes links to a number of student-created wikis, providing helpful examples of how wikis are used for student learning and collaboration.

 Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age – In this 2004 essay, Dr. George Siemens proposes a new learning theory that he calls connectivism. It is built upon the idea of collaboration and collective knowledge in the digital age.

Helping Students Develop Personal Learning Networks – Collaboration is not just about completing an assignment together. It is about developing a network of people who students can use to help them learning over and extended period. This is where the idea of a personal leaning network can be helpful. These articles provide tips and background on student personal learning networks, and how to help students develop such networks. – http://www.pearsonschoolsystems.com/blog/?p=2050#sthash.NNZ62uSL.dpbs , http://etale.org/main/2013/11/22/helping-students-develop-personal-learning-networks/ , http://whatedsaid.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/10-ways-to-help-students-develop-a-pln/ ,

Notes, Quotes, & Reflections from Jay Bhatt’s Keynote at #BbWorld14

One of the keynotes at Blackboard World 2014 was CEO Jay Bhatt. I’ve not always resonated with the vision of top leadership at Blackboard and Jay is new. Regardless, I resolved to go into the session hopeful and with an open mind. Here is what I heard, thought and concluded.

Jay started with a series of statistics to describing the changing state of education.

  • In a study conducted in Project Tomorrow, Blackboard learned that one out of every four students reported being motivated to learn because the like their school/classroom environment.
  • 75% of young people are using mobile devices.
  • One out of three feel education is preparing them well for jobs.
  • Our education system is not producing enough graduates with the right skills.
  • 57% of employers say they can’t find enough entry-level employees.
  • 100 million more learners worldwide are coming into our higher education institutions. We have a capacity problem.

In view of these things, Blackboard is committed to reimagining education, putting the learner in the center, and redesigning to embrace education in a more holistic way.

So, what does this mean in practical terms? What is Blackboard doing that was not done before? They are doing plenty, but I was most interested to hear about their commitment to corporate citizenship, to being an active participant in the global education community, conversation and challenge. With that in mind here are the ten activities caught my attention.

1. This means contributing to the education sector with a social good in mind. A specific example is their investment in MoodleRooms products, but contributing much of their work back to the Moodle open source community. Embracing the culture of open is an important part of reimagining education.

2. They are founding members of the Badge Alliance, a movement dedicated to exploring the promise and possibilities of micro-credentials. If you read my blog, you probably know my own interest and involvement with this group. I look forward to the good work that we can do together in this area.

3. They acquired MyEDU and are integrating it with Blackboard Learn. This tool demonstrates Blackboard’s commitment to putting the student at the center. This acquisition creates a space for students to display their work, showcase their skills, add new work experiences and associated competencies, and share this with prospective employers. When students leave the University, they still have their MyEDU account. This is a very different type of acquisition motive than some that I’ve experienced in the past. These strike me as smart and missional moves to expand their influence and impact in the education sector. These are the sort of acquisitions that I support and commend.

4. Blackboard is partnering with the American Council on Education to explore new models of learning around competency-based education.

5. The are working with Project Tomorrow and the Chronicle of Higher Education to better understand learnings in higher education.

6. The are being active and intentional about having BB team members writing, publishing and speaking about reimagining education.

7. They are intentionally using their industry position and voice to help give voice to or amplify the voice of promising practices among Blackboard clients.

8. They are offering TipTxT, an anti-bullying tool for free to k-12 schools.

9. They are investing in thought leaders and innovative programs that benefit education, everything from support for Sugata Mitra’s work to the ACE Fellows program. Yes, these are good decision from a relationship marketing standpoint, but these sorts of choices are also signs of a company that recognizes the distinct responsibilities of functioning in the education sector.

10. They are boldly and persistently chanting a commitment to student-centered education. This is not popular in all parts of education. What this tells me is that Blackboard stands for something educationally. It is a company with an educational mission and educational convictions.

Yes, Blackboard continues to develop a fine selection of technologies and services, but that is not enough for me. As a person committed to the social mission of education, I want to invest in and partner with companies that share such a mission. As I’ve noted in other articles, educational businesses are part of the education sector…a sector that has a social responsibility, not just a financial end. I am delighted to see the emphasis of a Blackboard that agrees with such sentiments.

As I briefly said to Jay Bhatt a few hours ago, “I am one of your most challenging converts to Blackboard, but what you are doing, what you are talking about, what you are emphasizing. That is what is winning me over.” I see a Blackboard that I can be proud to partner with in this good and important work of reimagining education. I see a Blackboard that is willing to support and help amplify my work and my organization’s work to reimagine education, to help build networks and communities toward this end, and to provide leadership in developing next generation products and services that will allow us to prepare students for high-impact life and learning.

8 Resources for a Mind-Brain Education Primer

Brains. We all have them, and they play a rather significant role in learning and education. The last two decades of research on the brain has created countless awakenings in the field of education (not to mention dozens of other fields), awakenings to the resilience of the human brain, how our understanding of the brain can inform teaching and learning, what motivates us, bores us, engages us, and helps us remember. Mind-brain education has become a means of connecting diverse learning theories from the past several hundred years, dispelling myths, affirming age-old convictions about learning, and providing fascinating explanations about why and how we learn. There is still much that we do not know, but there is now a substantive enough body of neuroscience literature that a growing number of scholars are confident using some of this research to help inform educational practice. With this in mind, I cultivated the following eight resources as a short primer on the topic.

The most important lesson from 83,000 brain scans – This 15 minute video by Daniel Amen provides a helpful introduction to how research on the human brain offers us lessons and insights about life and learning.

What does every educator need to know about the brain? by Eric Jensen – Eric Jensen is a seminal figure in the area of brain-based learning (which is technically distinct from mind-brain education). This short video will introduce you to Eric Jense and provide a few foundational brain-based ideas that Jensen considers important for educators.  –

Neuroplasticity and Education – For a long time, most people believed the brain worked like a machine, with each part playing distinct and unrelated roles. More recent research shows how resilient we are as humans, and how our brain can adapt and change through learning and new experiences. This short video introduces us to this idea called neuroplasticity, and why it is important for education.

Mind, Brain and Education: The Impact of Educational Neuroscience on the Science of Teaching by David A. Sousa (pp. 37 – 43) – David Sousa is another seminal scholar in the field of mind-brain education. The following link is to a text with a collection of essays about the subject. However, pp. 37-43 provides a helpful summary and introduction for educators.

Brain Rules Schools: What School Would Look Like if we Listened to Research – Education can sometimes be shaped by trends and fads more than research. What would schools look like if we tried to build them based more upon the principles that we can extract from mind-brain research? This resource explores that question and offers some possibilities.

Mind, Brain and Education Journal – This online journal includes a collection of some of the best and most current research in mind-brain education. Many of the articles can be viewed for free on the web site, but others will require a bit of detective work on your part, namely using a local library.

Why Mind, Brain Education? – This article is named after the central question for the essay. It provides a simple and straightforward rationale for the importance of mind-brain research in education. -

Why Mind, Brain and Education Science is the “New” Brain-Based Education – This article is an excellent introduction to the idea of mind-brain education, why it is important, and the implications for education.

7 Modern Mutations of Universal Free Higher Education: It is Coming to the US Sooner Than you Think

Even as costs of higher education continue to rise faster than the rate of inflation, a several-century old educational innovation is taking new forms and threatening or promising to disrupt (or at least shake up) the existing educational ecosystem. I am referring to the concept of universal free education, an idea that transformed the Western world. We see this idea’s the incubation in the 16th century with a Moravian Brethren, Johan Amos Comenius, designer of the predecessor to the Rosetta Stone with his Orbis Pictus (World of Pictures), a text that taught Latin using simple drawings and related text. Comenius was also an early champion for universal access to education for men and women, and across different classes. From there we see the idea emerge with vigor and financial backing as we trace the growth of free public education systems around the world.

Past strands of this innovation focused largely on formal primary and secondary education, but it has also spread to higher education in parts of the world. Looking at the landscape in the United States primarily (but also beyond), I see a number of new mutations of this idea that have a direct impact on the future of higher education. It is difficult to discern which ones will survive and spread, and which our cultural vaccinations will kill off, but it is becoming increasingly clear that one or more of these strands will survive and thrive in the near future. The spirit of universal free education is an innovation that adapts and persists in the contemporary world.

Formal education is never free. Students may not be required to pay tuition, but there are still expenses: teachers, resources, time… Even in the world of open education, access to learning is often free and open, but someone is paying for the infrastructure that supports these efforts. Did you take a free MOOC through Coursera or EdX? It might not cost you money (except for the expense of the computer, Internet connection and whatever value you place on your time), but it costs plenty of money to design, develop and facilitate each of those courses.

Of course, when we talk about free education, we are referring to the direct financial expense incurred by the learner. By free education, we usually mean that it is funded through taxes and/or charitable given instead of tuition. The United States already has a massive free K-12 public education system, as to do many other countries. In addition, over 40 countries around the world offer free University education, some even offering stipends to students or extending the free education through graduate study. Others, like Denmark, are so committed to free education, that even foreign students can pursue their undergraduate and graduate studies at no personal cost (apart from the cost of living).

What are these new mutations of the age-old innovation of free and universal education? More of these are being identified every year, but following are seven, some of which are already well established, and others that have notable and exponential rates of attention and/or expansion.

Education as a Human Right 

With the vision for universal free education has been around for centuries, it was only more recently that people started to refer to it as a human right. Such perspectives place access to education alongside other current debates about the extend to which things like healthcare should also be considered a human right. If we don’t want this to turn into a highly politicized rhetorical battle,

It would be useful to clarify terms a bit, but framing education as a human right, as is done in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, leads to some intriguing questions. For example, the UDHR not only describes foundational education as a human right, but alongside that, it states that parents should have the right to choose the type of education for their children. This suggests not just a single common accessible education system, but a menu of accessible education options. Consider how many countries fund faith-based schools as well as public schools, which some could interpret as supporting the position of education rights in the UDHR. Regardless of this nuance in the broader conversation, the human rights perspective on education seems to drive us to think about how we can make it as accessible as possible…without the burden of massive personal debt.

Low-cost Competency-based Higher Education 

Not all efforts in competency-based education incorporate the plan to reduce the cost of education, but some clearly do, like Western Governor’s University and the University of Wisconsin Flex program. These are not free, but they are leveraging a more bare-bones model of education to cut costs and tuition. Further supplement these efforts with a tax base and we have a potentially workable model for universal free higher education. It does not mean that everyone will opt for this model, but competency-based education has enough of a research base now to show that it is a practical and effective form of educating.

Dual Credit Programs

This one is not on everyone’s radar, but it is already having an impact on the higher education system. For prepared students, there are many state-mandated (and sometimes state-funded) initiatives to give students remarkable head starts on higher education. For example, the State of Michigan pays for the tuition of high school students (in public and private secondary schools) who want to start earning college credit through dual credit classes (classes that count toward high school graduation but are also transcript-ed college credits from a given University). Some programs around the country are so generous that it is possible for hard-working high school student to graduate high school with 60 college credits or even an associate’s degree. While many do not think of it in such terms, this is essentially an existing model for free higher education in the United States. It does not seem like a massive step to simply extend things by another two years to pay for a full bachelor’s degree. And this is not new.

Open Course Experiments

Up until now, I have not been willing to join the conversation about MOOCs in comparison to traditional college. My reason for resisting was (and is) because doing so was too sudden and extreme. The merit of MOOCs does not depend upon this one possibility. They have value for self-directed learners even if they never result in a degree. And this is where I am willing to enter the conversation about MOOCs as a part of expanded higher education. MOOCs are currently primarily about learning and not credentialing. Where the existing higher education system is sometimes overly occupied with the piece of paper handed out at the end, MOOCs are currently drawing people who want and/or need to learn something. As such, they do play an important role in the conversation about universal free education, especially if we see education as being most importantly about learning, what I frequently talk and write about as a culture of learning over a culture of earning. From this perspective, MOOCs are visible reminders that the Internet and ubiquitous access that that Internet makes free learning available to all.

Existing Free Higher Education Models in the United States

There are already schools that offer free higher education to students in the United States. Some of them are among the most selective in the country, but if you can get accepted, they find ways to make sure that cost does not prevent you from studying there (see some of the schools in this list as an example – http://www.thebestschools.org/blog/2012/12/10/20-colleges-providing-free-tuition/ ). Schools are using work study, charitable donations, and other models as well (http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/slideshows/12-tuition-free-colleges).

The Tennessee Promise 

This 2014 initiative, approved in April, is a promise to provide a free community college education to any high school graduate. This is currently the only state in the US that offers a free community college education to its entire young people. We will be watching to see how this works, financially and academically. How will it impact enrollment and viability of private and other 4-year institutions in the state and region? While this is nothing new to other countries that already have universal free higher education, this is trail blazing in the United States, and I except to see other states propose similar plans in the near future.

Alternative Credentials

Professional certificates, digital badges, nano-degrees, and other emerging forms of credentialing also seem to represent the spirit of universal free education. After all, the “right” to education is not about the right to a particular abstraction known as a traditional diploma. If that were the main goal, then we should welcome diploma mills or just invest in the postage necessary to mail everyone in the country a new and “official” diploma. It is what the diploma represents that matters. As such, alternative credentials have a voice in the conversation. To they extent that they represent and are perceived as representing true knowledge and skill acquisition, they also contribute to more widespread access to education. Open digital badge are no small part of this effort.

7+1 – The Learning Network

I know that I titled this article “7 Modern Mutations”, but there is an eighth that permeates many of the others, one arguable deserves a spot of its own. With the rapid expansion of the Internet (and the knowledge sharing, resources, connections and communities made possible by it), there is another important contributor to free and universal access to higher education. That is represented by the concept of the personal learning network. Through a PLN, each of us are capable of acquiring much of the knowledge and skill that others garner through a college degree. As K-12 schools pay more attention to their role in helping young people develop their PLN, they are also contributing the the cause of free universal lifelong learning.

Each of these seven strands are evidence that the century-old innovation called universal free education continues to spread. It is mutating to do so, but in remarkable ways that still seem to push toward the goal of increased access and opportunity through education. If I were in a leadership position at a higher education institution (Oh. Wait a second…), I would be having serious and extended conversation about these trends, preparing for the revolution of free higher education in the United States.