After reading a blog post claiming that MOOCs are dead, dying or on the downturn, I sighed and typed “premature obituary” into Google. It brought me to the Wikipedia entry, which explains nine different types of premature obituaries ranging from a faked death to accidental publications, misidentified bodies to imposters, name confusion to brushes with death. For the next hour, I scanned the list of names and curious circumstances that led to premature obituaries about George W. Bush, Fidel Castro, Arthur Clark, Celine Dion, Madonna, Pele, Bertrand Russell and Neil Young. So don’t feel badly my dear MOOCs. You are in good company. I don’t know if it was the mystery, novelty or the joy of seeing major media outlets getting it wrong, but I relished in this short diversion only to remember why I just spent an hour reading about this obscure topic. MOOCs are not dead.

Austin Kleon wrote, “If your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.” Similarly, if you are an educational trend and you don’t make it in the headlines for a few weeks, people think you’re dead or dying. They suspect that you were a passing fad, one more educational trend to come and go with little impact, proof that we shouldn’t be so quick to jump on the educational innovation bandwagon.

When I defended my first master’s thesis in the 1990s on the promise and possibilities of online learning for high school students, one of the committee members asked me about this educational fad called e-learning. He asked, “How do you know this isn’t just one more trend that is soon to pass?” I didn’t know. I suggested that it didn’t matter. I explained the potential benefits of online learning for specific student populations. If you are wearing a sweater because it is good at keeping you warm, you don’t always have to worry about whether it is in style. It is getting the job done, so you use it until something better comes along. That seemed like a good enough answer to me. It worked for him too, so I passed. We also decided that we would just need to touch base again in ten or twenty years and see how it turned out. That one turned out pretty well, especially give that some are now predicting that half of all high school courses may be online by 2019.

MOOCs are not dead. They are not dying. They not even on the decline. They may not seem to be as flashy in the headlines, but maybe that is because headlines are about trends. Headlines are probably not the best measure of  what will stick. There was that small minority of MOOC evangelists who claimed that MOOCs were a sign that the University as we know it was dying, so maybe a few recent articles about the decline of MOOCs is a way for University evangelists to get back at them. Ignore the extreme claims about MOOCs and just look at what is happening.

Fan or skeptic, the MOOC movement is alive and well, with ongoing signs of innovation, experimentation, new methods and markets. Expect to see even more over the upcoming years. After all, MOOCs are really just a blend of two educational development that have a long history and evidence of a solid future: online learning and open learning.

Note: This article a assumes a basic understanding of CBE. For a primer, read this article.

Competency-based education is a promising practice in education, but it is not without risks. I am not one to argue that all good education should go the way of CBE. It is not the perfect fit for every educational purpose or learner. Even within CBE, there are different ways to approach it. With that in mind, here are six limitations (or at least risks) that I see with some current approaches.

Juggling One Ball

Have you ever seen someone juggle one ball. Stop reading for a moment, find an unbreakable item and try it. Or maybe you want to imagine it. It doesn’t take much to notice that there is something underwhelming about juggling a single item. The magic happens when you have three items. Pay close attention to a person juggling three and you will discover a secret. There is only one item in the air at a time, but it is far more interesting than juggling a single item. It takes multiple items being juggled at the same time before we see the magic.

This is sometimes true for learning something new. Some approaches to competency-based education focus upon breaking everything down into discrete elements. In doing so, the learning experience can feel like juggling one ball. It loses the magic. Mixing metaphors, it sometimes misses out on the chance to harmonize several ideas or new concepts. Sometimes it is best to master one discrete skill or idea at a time. At other times, putting them together in a learning experience is the better option.

CBE doesn’t have to be about juggling one ball. Thoughtful and creative instructional design can keep the magic.

 Academic Dictatorship / Limited Room for Self-Direction

CBE is usually about pre-established competencies upon which everything else is built. It is powerful in that there is space to personalize learning pathways. However, most CBE approaches have prescribed competencies and assessments. This has benefits, but there is a downside.

The best way I can think to explain it is through a recent experience. I was thinking about pursuing a MBA. I requested information from eight or nine schools. I contacted three schools about their executive MBA. I looked at a couple of the top ranked programs in the country. I also looked at a few online and low residency programs, including an MBA at one of the most well-known CBE online Universities in the United States. I read about the different schools and focused my interest on three of them, requesting a chance to talk to an admissions counselor. I explained that I wanted to pursue a MBA with the goal if deepening my knowledge and skill around social entrepreneurship. None of these top three programs has a specialization in that topic, but contacts from two of the three programs said there is flexibility within the courses that allow students to choose papers and projects to match their goals and interests. That wasn’t the case with the CBE school. They explained that all the assessments are pre-developed to align closely with the competencies. You don’t get flexibility with these assessments. In other words, I couldn’t focus on applyin my skills to social entrepreneurship if I were to pursue that program.

As with all these critiques, it doesn’t have to be with way. It is possible to design assessments in a competency model where students have choice on the context and focus of their work, especially when you blend competency-based education with student-directed project-based learning.

Culture of Earning

CBE programs are carefully planed and the pathway to learning something new of often flexible. Yet, there tends to be an emphasis upon proving that you met the competency. Without careful planning, students can feel like the program is about jumping through academic hoops. Complete the assessment at an adequate level and move on. This can help with clarity and motivation for students. It can also promote a culture of earning over a culture of learning, making the program almost exclusively about meeting targets and going on tot the next task. CBE doesn’t have to be this way, but watch out for it.

The Measurable Matters More

Humanities teachers are sometimes the first to point out this limitation. Some of the most important things learned are not easily measured. Yet, CBE has a way of dwelling on that which can be documented and measured. This takes away from messy learning, from unexpected “aha” moments, from the immeasurable, unexpected and serendipitous learning that takes place in some lessons that are less focused on competencies and assessments.

No Time for Critical Sinking

The first time I used the phrase “critical sinking” it was a typo. I meant to write thinking, but sinking showed up on the screen. Staring at that typo, I decided to leave it because it represents and important part of learning. Critical sinking is about reflection, meditating on an idea, letting it “sink” in, grappling with the same thing for days, weeks, or months. CBE can help with this because many programs allow for variable timeframes. One student spends a week before completing the assessment for a competency and another spends a month. There is also a limitation. First, showing your competence after a week doesn’t mean that you will remember it in a month or six months. Time, depth, even over-learning helps with that, and these can be bypassed in a “pass it and move on” approach to CBE. Second, some CBE programs charge by time. You can progress as quickly as you want, but you pay a subscription for three or six months at a time. That motivates you to move through the program as quickly as possible. There is a financial incentive to get done quickly. That means that it costs more to take your time, reflect on things for a few weeks, or to dig deeper into a topic of personal interest. CBE approaches can, if we are not careful, discourage the powerful practice of critical sinking.

As I said at the beginning, these are not true and universal limitations of CBE. They are just risk, risks that can be avoided with careful planning. Or maybe they don’t always have to be avoided. Maybe it is about acknowledging the limits, recognizing that CBE is not always the best fit for every situation or learner.

Is college worth the money? There is no shortage of opinions about that question. The blogosphere and corporate media outlets provide a long list of posts and columns about the subject. In the end, the answer will not come from a persuasive essay. It comes every day in the form of people’s decision about whether or not to pursue a traditional 4-year college degree, and we already know that it is not that traditional. The 4-year residential degree is already not the norm in the United States.

While the traditional degree plays a valued role in society, I contend that it is important to recognize the broader spectrum of paths that people take. For some, the traditional residential 4-year degree was never a strong consideration. However, the variety of options has never been greater for such people.

When I was in high school, I only remember hearing about three options: go to college, join the military, or get a full-time job that is open to people with a high school diploma. Those options remain, but there are plenty of others, some of which are relatively new while others have been around for decades…even centuries. As we look at the current landscape, who are the competitors to the traditional 4-year college degree? Or, put another way, what are the other alternatives available to people? Here are ten of them.

1. Self-Study and the Uncollege Experience – People like Dale Stephens (Hacking Your Education), Charles Hayes (Proving You’re Qualified), Blake Boles (Better Than College), Professor X (In the Basement of the Ivory Tower), and James Altucher (40 Alternatives to College) each give ideas about alternatives to the traditional college experience. While there are some professional tracks that don’t leave you much of an option but the 4-hour degree, self-study still works for certain people.

2. Trade School / Vocational School / Technical School – This is a long-standing option for those wanting a faster route into a specific career as well as those who want an inexpensive way to earn college credit before transferring to a 4-year program. In the end, it means fewer “credits sold” for schools that focus on the 4-year college degree.

3. Dual Credit and AP Courses – This is a fast growing area. For many, college starts in high school, and this also means that even those students planning on going to most 4-year colleges will need to take fewer classes while there.

4. The Nano Degree and Other Similar Models – These are inexpensive shorter certificate programs that lead to a potential opening at specific companies. Expect to see more such program appear, programs where companies can create an entirely new pool of potential employees, and the companies are active in establishing part of all the curriculum, evening being involved in the teaching and assessment. The difference with these new models is that the education is focused more upon what a specific company wants in an employee. I don’t expect this to replace the 4-year degree for most, but we may see at least a small number of people trying this track out first. We should see if it gains traction over the next 3-5 years.

5. The 3-Year Degree – This includes programs like Southern New Hampshire’s largely promoted route to a bachelor’s degree. It is still bachelor’s degree, but in a condensed format.

6. Competency-based Programs – At Western Governor’s and other emerging competency-based programs, students don’t progress by years or credits. Some might even be able to finish a bachelor’s degree in half the regular time. Keep in mind that 85% of those seeking college degree are already not traditional residency-based students, so this option might appeal to some of this 85%. In fact, based upon the enrollments in some of the early competency-based programs, we know that there is interest.

7. Online Degrees – Of course, some of the programs already mentioned are online, but online learning has a decade of consistent growth in enrollment. Add that to predictions that half of high school courses will be online by 2019 and we get a coming generation that is increasingly comfortable with blended and online learning. How might that impact their choices regarding higher education?

8. Professional Certifications – There are many certifications that are in high demand in the workplace. Getting those, even without a college degree, provides increased opportunity for new jobs or promotions in existing ones. Cisco and Microsoft certifications, for example, are largely well-regarded credentials.

9. Apprenticeships – While some sources suggest that they are in decline, there are still quite a few options available to industrious people. This article outlines some of the resources available.

10. Entrepreneurs and Artists – This is certainly not for most, but some set aside traditional college to feed their creative side, whether it is in music, acting, other performing arts, or a new business venture. These are not always mutually exclusive to the 4-year degree, but it remains a viable option for some. Browsing the web, there are a growing number of articles offering advice on how to start your first business in high school (or earlier). That means that some young people get a chance to try it out, while maintaining the option of heading off to college if things don’t work out (or if they do).

I don’t teach much these days, not since I moved into administration a number of years ago. However, I do still advise students for their thesis or capstone projects and I teach 2-3 courses a year, including a graduate research course. I run it as an applied course. They learn some basics about educational research, but they also get to put together simple drafts of a typical chapter 1, 2, and 3 in a thesis.

bryantAs we get started thinking about a chapter 1, I challenge them to also think about the “why” behind a potential research project. What is the question that you seek to answer/explore? What is the problem that you want to address (for those choosing a more applied project instead of a traditional thesis)? I find this to be a wonderful time to think about the reason for research and applied projects in education. In doing so, I agree with James Conant Bryant, past president of Harvard, when he stated that, “A scholar’s activities should have relevance to the immediate future of our civilization.” I resonate with the The Wisconsin Idea, which casts a vision of research that is useful, “to the the citizens in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities” (although I would prefer the focus on problems that are important to the citizens instead of the state, when there is difference between the two). I am intrigued by the vision of academic leaders like Frederick Terman, who was partly behind the Stanford Industrial Park, and he is sometimes referred to as a father of Silicon Valley, encouraging faculty to start businesses.

Since I am at a faith-based University, I take this a step further. I briefly introduce the graduate students to a historic teaching in the Lutheran tradition known as the doctrine of vocation (calling). I contend that our work can be understood as a calling to love our neighbors. Here is how I explain it to my educational research students:

I was only a boy scout for a short time, but one simple boy scout message stuck with me.  On our first camping trip, the scout master noted that we always want to leave the campground looking better than when we came.  In a sense, that is what this course is about.  Research in Educational  is really about leaving the field of education (and the educational organizations that we serve) better than when we first arrived.  In other words, we are looking for problems to solve, questions to answer, and needs to fill.  This is what we are going to explore during this course.  We are looking for problems, questions, and needs that we can help address, and we will be using the tools of research and/or scholarship to address them.

 Have you ever heard about people in the ivory tower publishing doctoral dissertations on esoteric topics?  You hear about it and possibility wonder, “What is the point?!” or “Did my tax dollars go to support that?!”  That can happen.  And there are certainly times when research that seems petty actually turns out to have a positive benefit for the world.  Whatever the case, I would like to take a moment to share or remind you of Concordia University Wisconsin’s mission statement. There is much involved in that statement, but one thing that is embedded in it is the Lutheran understanding of vocation…or calling.  Lutherans work from an understanding that we have a number of callings in our lives.  This includes things like mother, father, son, student, teacher, accountant, doctor, street sweeper, educator, researcher, scholar, etc.  And our mission is to serve our neighbors by serving faithfully within each calling.  Each calling gives us opportunity to engage in loving our neighbor.  While I’ve never found the original source, many claim that Martin Luther once said it this way: “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” So, how do we love our neighbors by doing educational research an applied projects? You will be challenged to answer that question as you identify a potential thesis or project at the end of your program, and you will get practice doing it in this class.”

 Are you an educational researcher? How do/can you love your neighbor through your work? Do you work in the more applied realm of education? I contend that the same question applies. Are you running an educational startup or exploring some new educational innovation? Are you a graduate student nearing the end of your program and looking ahead to that thesis or culminating project? What would happen if we framed all such efforts around a simple question about love for neighbor?

Amid my work and research on digital badges and credentials over the last couple of years, I’ve started to create a list of related terms. As you look at the list, you may sometimes find it hard to see the connections. That is because this list is autobiographical more than anything: representing the different paths, discourses and rabbit holes that I’ve followed over the past few years.

I am working on a lexicon (that I might finish some day), but I wanted to share some of the terms that I have so far. How many do you know? What other terms might you add to such a list about credentials? If you think of some, please consider sharing them in the comment section of this blog or as a comment right in the Google Doc.

These are not categorized right now, but they do represent the different strands of research that have emerged from my work so far. Many of them have significant discourses in the literature that can help us think about the affordances, limitations and distinctives of emerging credentialing systems. Others represent different types of credentials. I’ve found that comparing different credentials helps me build a much more nuanced understanding of the subject. How are driver’s licenses distinct or similar to passports, business titles to military ranks or diplomas to certificates? By comparing these different types, I find myself more able to notice the features, nuances and distinctions that exist among various credentials.

Take a look and let me know what you think. – Credentialing Vocabulary

I recently read a provocative little book from 1976 called Disabling Professions (Illich, Zola, McKnight, Caplan, and Shaiken). The authors caution us about the increased professionalization in American culture. In the chapter by McKnight, he suggests that professions thrive upon labeling other people as having needs that only the professional can meet. A dependence develops, one where a belief emerges that things are best left up to the professionals, that others will do best to have their needs cared for by these experts. One need not agree with all aspects of this text to accept the caution about professionalization or to muse about its implications for education. While professionals do indeed help other people, there is also the reality that professionalization sometimes has a way of defining others by their needs.

In the chapter on “Professionalized Service and Disabling Help,” John McKnight identified a series of assumptions that emerge from the professional and needy dichotomy. While not explicitly applied to education in the book, I will attempt to do so as I outline some of McKnight’s assumptions.

  1. Needs are turned into deficiencies, something that is lacking or missing in the other. As such, there is the risk of defining people by their deficiencies.
  2. This deficiency is then applied to the one who is being served by the professional, and it is often taken out of context. As such, the professional is seen as the one who is best positioned to address the deficiency, even to the point of creating new needs and deficiencies when the professional’s methods are ineffective. So, in the case of education, if a student’s learning deficiencies are not adequately addressed in the school context, then we are often more likely to label that person with a new deficiency and not to consider the possibility that the professionals and their system are ineffective for that learner. The deficiency is persistently placed in the needy one (the student) and not the professional or the system.
  3. Amid this complex situation, we find ourselves creating any number of specializations intended to address the different unmet deficiencies, or the problems that prevent the professional’s methods from being effective for some learners. In he end, McKnight notes that the professionals and their system consistently communicate that: “You are the deficient. You are the problem. You have a collection of problems” (p. 82).
  4. There is rarely the consideration that the needy or the needy’s peers are the answer to the problem. The solutions reside with the professional, securing that professionals authority and position.
  5. The professional is the one who should have the power to define the questions to be asked. In other words, the professional doesn’t just identify some objective need in the the learner. The professional defines and determines the need itself. So, in education, the professionals set the curriculum, set the agenda, decide what is and is not proper behavior of a learner, decides the best learning pathway, decides the assessments, decides what learning and other needs exist, etc.

McKnight summarizes some of these ideas by explaining what the professionals say:

“We are the solution to your problem. We know what problem you have. You can’t understand the problem or the solution. Only we can decide whether the solution has dealt with your problem” (p. 89).

Reading this text, I found myself thinking about the applications to education and modern schooling, but also thinking about the many movements that challenge such a system: open learning, collective knowledge generation, peeragogy, self-organized learning environments, self-directed learning, and other democratizing developments. These argue that solutions often reside in the learn and his/her peers. These do not necessarily discredit the role of a teacher, mentor, or facilitator. However, they do challenge us to reconsider the role of such people, not as ones who exist to define the deficiencies, set the agenda, and meet the needs of the deficient; but to guide and support the process of growing into people who have the competency, confidence and capacity to direct and manage their own learning.

There is education that seeks to meet the needs of learners. Then there is education that helps learners progress toward meeting their own needs. That is the difference between teacher-directed and self-directed learning (SDL). With the former, the teacher is the professional and the student’s role is to submit to the judgement of the professional. While there are times when it is wise and prudent to heed the wisdom of a professional, democratizing movements in education are less about the role of the professional teacher and more about helping students grow into what we might want to call professional learners.

This is not about devaluing the role of the teacher. Teachers most often remain valuable resources in these democratizing contexts. The difference is where we place the emphasis, responsibility and where the authority resides. In the professionalized education system approach, the teacher is the authority and has the primary responsibility for making sure that students are learning. In democratizing environments like the web, this begins to change.


What happens to a college or University when almost all the top applicants come to college with 30-60 college credits? Based upon the expansion of dual credit programs in the United States, that day seems to be coming sooner than some might expect. While general education faculty may have mixed opinions, they have limited influence on this broader change. Elite and exclusive colleges can simply refuse to accept such credits, but a very small minority of schools are in that position. For most, refusing dual credits means not welcoming some of the most academically prepared students. Others accept the credits but don’t offer dual credit themselves. That works well for some, but others want students to take those credits from their own school. If that is the case, it seems like the only option is to join the dual credit revolution and start offering quality dual credit courses. In other words, they need to expand their college offerings to high school students. Of course, there is a fourth option of ignoring the movement and/or shouting critiques from the sidelines without taking the time to carefully research the issue. We can be rather confident that this fourth option doesn’t end well.

The fact that college begins in high school has been true for over a decade, but more schools are offering dual credit and more students are taking these courses. A 2013 report from the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that 82% of public high schools had students enrolled in dual credit classes. We are in a context where many of the states in the US have programs to fund college courses for high school students, allowing students to meet the requirements for high school graduation while getting a head start on their college education. I expect to see this expand significantly, with many advanced high school students entering college as a sophomore or even a junior. Consider just a few of the many initiatives related to dual credit over the last fifteen years.

  • The State of Michigan has a 15-year old dual enrollment program that allows high school students to take college courses, and the state pays for it. That is free college credit for high school students.
  • The State of Wisconsin has the course options program, which allows students in Wisconsin public schools to take courses from other school districts as well as college courses from approved higher education institutions, and the state requires that the district pay for it.
  • Many states have free or very inexpensive college credits available to high school students, often trough their community or technical college system.
  • Early College Designs works with high schools across the country to design combined college / high school experiences, and they have a growing body of research to support their work.
  • Since 1990, Washington State has been active with the Running Start program, which allows high school students to take college courses tuition free while in high school, even to the point of earning an associate’s degree upon graduation of high school.

While some high schools are struggling to make it to school each day, others are graduating with associate’s degrees. We can look at this a greater division among students, but others choose to look at it as the expansion of individualized education, allowing students to progress at a pace that fits their distinct profile as a learner, namely starting their college career early. This allows even the smallest rural high school to expand course offerings, meeting the more diverse needs of the student population.

Of course, cost is a factor as well. In a time when more people are critiquing the cost and value of higher education, dual credit offers a partial solution. Come to college needing fewer credits and that means you pay less for the degree. Some can graduate early and start a career, while others may opt to continue with a graduate degree right away, as evidenced by programs like Concorida University Wisconsin’s business scholar’s program, an initiative that helps students graduate with a bachelor’s and MBA in four years.

What does this mean for you? If you are a high school student or parent, this is an invitation to look into your dual credit options. Whether you are homeschooling, in public school, or at a private school, you have choices. In fact, the place where I work, Concordia University Wisconsin / Ann Arbor, just launched what is being called the Concordia Promise. Homeschoolers and students in Christian schools can now take dual credit classes for $50 / credit, and they get that money back if they matriculate to Concordia for their undergraduate degree. If you are a high school administrator or teacher, check your own offerings. Are you taking advantage of the dual credit possibilities for your students? If you work at a University, this is an encouragement or wake-up call.

Yet, this growth also calls for other actions. While there is a growing body of research about the impact of dual credit on student learning, dual credit is an area that could still use greater attention. College does indeed start in high school for a growing number of students. There are concerns about academic rigor and the developmental readiness of high school students. These invite our careful attention and consideration. Yet, the answer is likely not a yes or no to dual credit, but instead an opportunity to find a better how.