Democratize

to make (a country or organization) more democratic

: to make (something) available to all people : to make it possible for all people to understand (something)

Follow my blog long enough and you will see a few phrase that show up often. “Democratize” is one of them. When I use the term, I am referring to increasing access and opportunity to education in the broadest sense. It is a concept that has a long and rich history, but it has more recently been amplified by the affordances of an increasingly connected world. As I see it, there are five areas of education that are becoming increasingly democratized in the digital world, with a sixth one on the way, one that truly does have the potential to hold its own alongside traditional forms of education.

Democratizing Information & Knowledge

This one doesn’t require much explanation or evidence. Just look at GoogleWikipediaPinterestGoogle BooksProject Gutenberg, or a site like Forgotton Books (an online library that gives access to over 480,000 free books). If you have a device with Internet access today, then you information and knowledge about an immense number of topics. This democratizes education by providing the self-directed learner with content to study and from which to learn.

Democratizing Learning Resources

Sites like OER CommonsMIT Open CourseWareiTunes UYouTube, and Academic Earth, have gone a step further. They have democratized access to organized learning resources in the form of lectures, course content, and learning activities. This garnered significant attention starting in first ten years of the second millennium.

Democratizing Learning Networks

Then we have the increases in access to learning networks, people leveraging the power of the web to connect with other people and communities around the world. In fact, this goes back to the earliest days of the web. We have communities like Cafe Mocha, free language instruction by interacting with people around the world. More recently, we’ve seen the development of Google Helpouts, further democratizing access to experts and learning coaches from around the globe. Of course, we also have a three-decade history of largely accessible online groups, communities and networks that people use to learn about everything from cooking to computer programming, home repair to getting a job. As such, we have access to not only content and resources, but connections with people from whom we learn. Today we see this thriving in social media outlets like Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Democratizing Feedback for Learning

Within those communities, people have free access to interactive learning…gaining feedback, one of the most critical aspects of high-impact learning experiences. In addition to the communities, we also see the democratizing of learning feedback through initiatives like Khan AcademyCodeAcademy, and language apps like DuoLingo. It isn’t just content, but it is also detailed feedback on one’s learning progress.

Democratizing Courses

From all these, it is natural that we would see people blending these democratizing features into full courses. That is where we see the emergence of open courses, with the most recognizable ones being the many MOOCs on the web today (See the list of providers at the bottom of this post.).

Democratizing Credentials

These all contribute to the growing democratization of education. We have access to high quality content, learning communities, feedback on learning, even organized and facilitated online courses…free to anyone with a device, Internet access, and the skill to leverage them for one’s personal learning goals. Yet, there is another part to education that remains largely closed and controlled by more traditional learning and professional organizations, the credentialing of one’s learning. The democratization of learning credentials may well be a tipping point. As it stands, much of contemporary society uses diplomas, transcripts, and certifications as evidence of one’s learning. It is not a perfect system, and while there remains widespread social trust in these credentials, there are plenty of critics as well.

Now consider the emergence of democratizing credentials. Consider the possibility of open badges becoming increasingly accepted evidence of one’s learning through the other democratized elements above. Think about efforts like Degreed.com, resources that allow you to provide evidence of your learning and share it with others. Consider the tracking and documentation of learning in some of the resources already mentioned like Khan Academy and Code Academy.

We do not live in a time when the public widely recognizes credentials from Code Academy, Coursera, or self-study through Academy Earth as having the same value as a degree from an accredited University, but we do see alternative credentials gaining recognition. People are earning new jobs, gaining access to Universities, even procuring social recognition and influence by using alternate evidence of learning from democratized resources. And as the number of such people grows, so will the perceived value of alternates to traditional credentials. I do not expect to see these alternates as necessarily replacing traditional credentials, but I do envision a time in the near future where democratized credentials become a from of academic currency that holds significant value in society. I see a day when democratized credentials will allow more people to gain admission to careers and social groups that are currently only open to those with an A.A., B.A., or M.A. Or, we are likely to see a growing number of alternative credentialing system that can lead to obtaining a degree (as we already see in competency-base education and prior learning assessments).

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is Assistant Vice President of Academics for Continuing and Distance Education & Associate Professor of Education at Concordia University Wisconsin.

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