What Gives a Credential Value?

We have diplomas, badges, certificates, endorsements, licenses, IDs, awards, and titles. Each of these communicate something to others. What gives credentials value? What makes them sought after or admired? Amid my exploration of past, present and emerging credentials, I’m still learning the answers to these questions. When I think I understand it, I find yet another type of credential or a new way of understanding how or why different stakeholders attach value to them. As it stands, however, I see three commons reasons why a credential is valued.

1. Social Currency

This is the dominant answer to what gives a credential value. Some credentials make you look good, but the extent to which you look good depends upon the value assigned to the credential by an audience. My first degree is from a Lutheran (faith-based) liberal arts college. That has significant social currency with some audiences, but it is seen as a lesser degree to others. My terminal degree is from a state University, which leads some to assign it high value while others see it as a second-rate credential.  Similarly, there are some companies and firms that clearly value degrees from certain institutions more than others.

The social currency even trumps the competence of a person in some (perhaps most) cases. The assigned value is not necessarily based upon any objective facts about the diploma. It is perceived value and sometimes socially negotiated meaning around the credential. Nobel prizes are largely respected, but even such an award does not hold universal value. With some groups it is largely unknown and therefore a less valued social currency.

Social currency is complex, more complex that I first expected. I know an employer who is hesitant to consider hiring a person who graduated from the flagship state Universities or the liberal arts colleges. He explains that these schools train good generalists who know theory, but they can’t do the daily work that he needs completed. As a result, he is much more interested in people with more focused associates degrees who learned practical skills in the field. He is willing to pay top dollar to hire people who can do the work well, but is less interested in a generalist who will be dissatisfied with some of the more mundane tasks and will quite in 1-2 years. So, the person with an associate’s degree from a technical school has the more valued credential in such a context.

2. Mandate & Monopoly

Some credentials are established by authoritative individuals or institutions as mandatory for certain purposes. Without a driver’s license, it is illegal to drive a car. Without a medical license, you can’t legally practice medicine. As such, the license has value because it is established as the only means to a desired outcome, whether it is driving a car, practicing law or medicine, or checking out a library book. The credential is meant to represent that you met the established criteria established by the authoritative entity. If you lack the credential, you are denied access.

3. Practical Value / Perceived Competence or Quality

Still other credentials have value because they are closely connected to certain knowledge, skills or abilities. For example, a certified CPR credential is highly valued when someone needs CPR. Health care professions seek employees with very specific credentials because they represents readiness for a particular task. Even in less high-stakes situations, we see credentials as symbols of practical quality. We might want a certified massage therapist, even if there are no mandates by a community or state that practicing therapists have certifications. We assume that being certified means that you must be good (or qualified by some standard) at what you do. In fact, we even like our meat, eggs, and milk to have such credentials. The credential represents a quality standard that we value.

Sometimes the value of the credential is not as much for what other people think about it, but what it means for the person who holds the credential or very small group of people. My children went through swimming lessons where they earned certificates. Each certificate represented a level of skill from one to six. Level six is mean you are ready to swim independently, with less adult supervision. My children valued the credentials because each one represented their accomplishments and progress toward water independence. My wife and I valued them because they represented the readiness of our children to safely enjoy the water. We didn’t value them because of social currency or a mandate, but because that were closely connected to specific swimming skills.

There are plenty of other answers to the question about what gives a credential value, but these seem to be the three dominant ones. They become critical as we think about the growing discussions around alternate credentials, but they are also important as we look at changing views among different groups about existing credentials.

When the Toaster Doesn’t Work: 4 Tips for Addressing Educational Problems

My family and I ate a continental breakfast at a hotel the other day. I grabbed an English muffin, put it in the toaster and pressed down on the lever. Nothing happened so I tried again. When that didn’t work, I checked to make sure it was plugged into the outlet. It was, so I tried a different outlet. Still nothing. Oh well, I didn’t really need to toast my English muffin. I sat down and enjoyed the rest of my breakfast. A few minutes later I overheard a person talking to someone at the front desk, asking if there is a breaker that needs reset. That was the problem. In fact, the person at the desk explained that this happens all the time. As I listened to the conversation, I looked over at the toaster, broadened my view and noticed that the refrigerator, waffle iron, coffee maker and several other appliances were all powerless and in the dark. I was a bit embarrassed given that much of my work has to do with big picture thinking, strategic planning, educational innovation, ideation, etc. I spent the next twenty or thirty minutes playing with this experience as a way to think about how we address problems and issues in education. Here are four lessons that I gleaned from this little thought experiment.

2. Broaden Your View

Sometimes we get confused by a problem. It is often based upon a current want or need. Focusing on that problem alone, we miss that it is part of a larger or systemic issue. Until we broaden our view, we are not going to see the that larger issue. Anything we do to address it based upon our narrow viewpoint will fall short, So, when you experience a problem, find a way to step back and look at the bigger picture. Even if you can’t fix that larger problem, this perspective can help you manage your own work. Too often we just jump to the educational equivalent of buying a new toaster when the problem is in the wiring.

2. Think of the Next Person

When the toaster didn’t work, I tried a couple of things, but then decided that it wasn’t a big deal, so I let it be. The front desk was ten feet away, requiring minimal effort to tell someone about the problem. Instead, I ignored it, resulting in the next person still having a problem. In fact, since it turns out that the issue was a breaker and not the toaster, my decision not to let someone know delayed a solution. When you run into problems, at least tell people about it. You are helping everyone by doing that. You may prefer to just do without or ignore it, but it isn’t just about you. Think of the next person, and the twenty people after that. Great organizations want to know what is working and what is not so they can improve. Help them out (especially when you are one of them).

3. If There is a Persistent Problem, Do Something About It

The words of the person behind the desk keep coming back to me. “Oh, yes. This happens all the time.” If it happens all the time, why not do something about it. Too often, we get used to living with the problems in our organizations. Sometimes it is because we tried to solve it and it was too expensive or time consuming. Sometimes we convince ourselves that it is someone else’s issue. Other times we just don’t get around to it. Regardless, this has a way of building a culture of mediocrity. Even if you don’t have the resources for your luxury solution, help build a culture that identifies and promptly addresses educational problems.

4. Make it a Team Effort

We all get tunnel vision sometimes. Even if you consider yourself the best systems thinker or problem solver, there will still be moments when you miss the obvious. That is why we want to get different people involved in exploring the problems in our learning organizations. When possible, get the perspective of diverse stakeholders. Don’t just lean on the experts because expert bias can prevent you from some of the most exciting, innovative, or even obvious solutions. This is not just about getting different perspectives at the table, however. It is also about having the ears to hear, and the humility to accept that another person’s perspective is sometimes more helpful.

What are the “broken toasters” in the education sector today? What about in your organization or your personal approach to teaching and/or learning? Maybe one of these four tips will help find a solution.

#MOOCs, Premature Obituaries & Celine Dion

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.

6 Competency-based Education Risks

Note: This article 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. While being a firm advocate, I am also 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 applying my skills to social entrepreneurship if I were to pursue that program.

As with all these critiques, it doesn’t have to be this 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 is 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, months or years. 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 risks, 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 and recognizing that CBE is not always the best fit for every situation or learner.