An Academic Who Cheers for Badges & the Demonopolization of Higher Education

The 4-year college experience is far from the norm in the United States. It has never been the norm.

A minority of people in the United States and around the world go to a traditional residential undergraduate higher education institution, persist for 4-5 years, graduate, and then move into full-time work.  Less than 65% of high school graduates in the United States attend college. Less than 60% of those students will graduate. 80+% of full-time college students are working, with an average at 19 hours a week. Many of those in college are doing so part-time, juggling school with family and full-time work. Quite a few college students today are veterans, recent immigrants, and single parents. Many in college are people who once held the label “at-risk” and they are trying to change that. Furthermore, a significant percentage of undergraduate students are 25 or older.

Nonetheless, many conversations about the state of higher education today focus on the traditional 4-year residential college experience as the gold standard for higher education. Perhaps it is because those writing about higher education and reporting on it are not a representative sample. Could it be that they are writing from their own experiences as if those are the norm. Being one in higher education, it is easy to mistakenly think and act as if the 4-year residential college experience holds some secret to the future success of a nation or a thriving person. History and a broad view of life around the world suggests otherwise.

Some who recognize this reality focus instead upon the concept of workforce development, a phrase that I sometimes use to describe my own interests around developments like progressive credentialing. However, this is a phrase that quite often places the attention upon addressing an economic crisis or a broader social problem. The traditional college is frequently seen as an opportunity for people to explore and grow as thoughtful, educated people; while other efforts are about getting people jobs or addressing unemployment.

I’m concerned about those issues, but my writing largely focuses upon education as a force for empowering the individual. I do not see education as a servant of the state or national agenda as much as empowering people to become self-directed, self-regulated individuals and citizens. This is a building block of a free and healthy society. It is from this perspective that I write about workforce development…not as a means of winning some global competition, but instead as a way to help people reach their goals, gain independence, make progress toward their dreams and aspirations, and discover their unique contributions to their neighbors in this world. As such, much of my work comes from an interest in personal development by embracing the broader spectrum of learning experiences, those that extend beyond traditional higher education or even formal academic study.

I write as an advocate for the democratization of education and alternative credentials like open badges partly in response to the exclusivity connected with existing education. While I see the aims of education as a form of empowerment, the current systems sometimes creates losers as much as they create winners. Credentials often serve as a form of status and exclusion for those without them. I recognize and respect that they can play a meaningful role in society, but my concern resides with the current state of academic credentials.

  • You don’t need a bachelor’s degree in social media to be a social media guru.
  • You don’t need a BA in English to write the great American novel.
  • You don’t need an MBA to be the next Steve Jobs.
  • You don’t need a M.S. in Educational Design & Technology (yes, a program that I started) to be an amazing educational innovator, instructional designer, or technology coach.
  • You don’t need a Washington State teaching license to be a competent, ethical and effective middle school social studies teacher.
  • You don’t need a degree in leadership studies to master the art and science of effective leadership.

Please note that I am a champion for higher education. I serve in a leadership capacity at a University and proudly promote our programs, even some of the ones that I just listed. It is just that I believe that what higher education provides should stand on its own, appreciated because of the actual value it creates for people, not by holding the keys to credentials not available elsewhere. I stand for higher education as a learning community and valued means of personal growth and development, not as an organization that lives or dies on its role as a credentialing service. My point is that there are many pathways to competence, confidence, and effectiveness in various careers and positions; and I oppose closing doors to people who take the road less traveled to competence in those areas. Yet, too many jobs and opportunities are restricted to those without the standard academic credentialing pedigree. There is why we need a demonopolization of academic credentials.

As it stands, American higher education leans too much on credentials to claim a monopoly on pathways to certain careers and aspirations. This is done in conjunctions with countless regulatory and accrediting agencies. Again, while I understand the need for such agencies to some extent, the gatekeeping mentality of issuing higher education credentials seems to be about protecting the well-being and financial status of the learning organization and the jobs of those in the organizations as much as anything else.

This is part of why I cheer for alternative credentials like digital badges. They work alongside a larger set of movements like self-directed learning, unschooling, the DIY movement, peeragogy, heutagogy, the maker movement, entrepreneurship efforts, and even contemporary definitions of blended learning. They do so as a means of giving students more control of time, pace, place, and pathway of the learning. Badges can also be twisted to sustain higher education’s pursuit of a monopoly, but the larger democratization of learning and information in the digital age is, I suspect, too strong to be monopolized for much longer, at least in many fields and disciplines. We may soon see this through trojan horses like competency-based education, the charter school movement on the K-12 level, and the growth of a need breed of education companies that bypass schools and aim straight for the learner. I’m not even convinced that a formal movement is necessary for the forthcoming demonopolization of higher education. It may well be the unavoidable result of life in a world of democratized knowledge. Either way, I’m a cheering for it even as I’m working hard to prove and maintain the deep and persistent value of higher education. I want you to study at my University because it is a great place to learn and grow, not because you have no other choice.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.