Eight Challenges for the Future of Education, Credentials and Recognition

The 2016 EPIC conference just ended last week, and I walked away with:

  • forty pages of notes,
  • new friends and colleagues,
  • and swirling thoughts about the role and possibility of open recognition systems.

I might even have a new book project coming out of this experience, but I’ll share more about that later.

It was an honor to be one of the early keynotes for the event. I was given the topic of “the future of education,” so I worked from that to come up with the title, “Exploring Futures of Credentials & Education: A Case for Missional Innovation.” Drawing from some of my work on innovation in education, I juxtaposed a series of sometimes competing concepts for our consideration.

When I write and talk about the future, I don’t do it as the sort of futurist who claims to be able to predict what will happen with certainty. Instead, I look at past trends, highlight potential futures, and give those of us in the present opportunity to consider how each of us will contribute to creating one of those futures.

What is clear to me is what Blaschke and Hase wrote in 2016, that “We are in an age of knowledge and skill emancipation” (p. 25). The Internet and way in which it helped us imagine the possibly for life and learning in a connected age, frees and extends knowledge, learning, skill acquisition and much more. This doesn’t make existing learning organizations obsolete, but it does challenge their claim to have a “corner on the education market.”

Instead, and as I’ve written about before, we are at a time in which there are multiple roads that one might travel on a learning journey. There is still the stable degree drive, completing a series of courses and requirements at a formal school, leaving with a valued credential, and hopefully some learning as well. Yet, there is also continuing education court, a road that is widening as more organizations and groups are creating free, inexpensive, open or alternative ways of learning (as evidenced by the popular example of the emerging coding bootcamps, MOOCs, open education resources, and more). Along with that, thanks to the digital world, we have self-directed street. The person with competence and confidence to learn independently has ample resources to do so. Now we are also seeing greater interest in and effort to connect these three roads, allowing one’s learning journey to shift from one road to the next. Yet, we’ve not historically had ways to recognize the learning that happens across these three streets. Our recognition and credentials remain stuck to one of the streets in most case. All of this begins to change as we embrace the power and possibility of open badges and, more broadly, strategies for open recognition.

And so, in such a context, we have some decisions to make. There are tensions that we are wise to consider, eight of which I shared in my keynote, and I will briefly revisit here. I don’t contend that one must win or defeat the other. Sometimes, even often, the tension is good. Paradox and tension is something to be understood, not always something to be eradicated. Of course, as you will see in my forthcoming comments, I do see wisdom in giving greater emphasis to one over the other in a given time and context.

Pathways Versus Gateways

Gateways are about checks, balances, control, accountability, and quality. They are part of what formal learning organizations promise to the public. If a University issues a medical degree to a person who is completely unqualified to practice medicine, then that credential and the issuing entity will eventually lose the trust of the public. It will cease to benefit anyone. This is the perspective that defends the importance of gateways in the modern education ecosystem. At the same time, gateways are not always just about this public trust. Sometimes policies, rules, and systems become gateways that limit or restrict people who are indeed qualified. We create rules that restrict and inhibit. We even take pride in this, noting that we are weeding out the unqualified. Yet, there is no question that there are usually multiple pathways to learning something or achieving mastery in a given domain. The question is whether we are willing to help create a modern learning ecosystem where we can recognize learning from multiple pathways, maintaining a commitment to a public trust without unnecessarily restricting the aspiring learner.

Protecting Corporate, Educational and Government Control Versus Protecting Public Interest and Individual Rights

Ideally, corporations, educational institutions and government agencies are protecting the public interest and individual rights. Yet, we would be naive to assume that this is always the case. In fact, the nature of organizational operations is that they sometimes go against such ends unintentionally. Or, there are personal and organizational interests that compete with other interests for people outside of those organizations. It is no surprise that these formal organizations and the people within them will often have self-preservation as one among other priorities.

Yet, some of the potential challenges and opportunities of this age, especially when it comes to open learning and open recognition, will clash with the interest of these organizations and institutions. If corporate interest dominates, there is a good chance that the next generation of open badges will be about securing financial benefits for these corporate stakeholders. If educational institution’s interest dominate, then there is a good chance that these institutions will be set up and defended as the sole or preferred means by which learning is properly recognized, even though there are countless individuals whose access and opportunity may be diminished by such an effort. If government control dominates, there are likely to be policies that restrict promising innovations in open learning and open recognition, not intentionally, but simply because these entities have narrower priorities and measures by which they are making their decisions. As an example, consider the incredible restrictions to innovation in the modern United States higher education system because of policies intended to protect the government’s massive investment in the financial aid program.

A balance, in my view, is not acceptable. This tension should lean toward public interest and individual rights while acknowledging the needs and interest of these organizations. Yet, this calls for a visionary and missional approach to the matter. We must collectively remain committed to the larger view and greater purpose, namely increased access and opportunity.

Competency as Static Versus Competency as Dynamic

When it comes to both credentials and recognition, this is an interesting contrast. When you graduate with a degree, and many perceive that degree as evidence of your competence in a given area, you maintain that degree for life, even if your competence diminishes or disappears altogether. You can put it on a resume. You can use it to open doors of opportunity. Yet, not all credentials or forms of recognition work that way. Some credentials expire or require ongoing verification that you do indeed have the knowledge and skills that you once had.

We are working from a flawed view of learning if we think that competency is something that you earn and own for life as if it were a tangible object. Competency grows and shrinks. It strengthens and weakens. This is an important tension for us to remember as we think about the role of recognition and credentials today.

Summative Credentialing Versus Formative Credentialing

We don’t typically use the terms “formative” and “summative” in reference to credentialing, but I contend that they allow us to look at recognition and credentials in important ways. As I so often say, formative is the check up at the doctor, and summative is the autopsy. The former is about checks and progress while the latter is about a final judgement or assessment. Yet, who is to say that credentials and recognition must always be summative? As with the static versus dynamic contrast, we can also begin to think about what it would look like to create and use forms of recognition and credentials that represent where you are at the moment, but adapting and changing as you grow and develop. Innovations around learning analytics and big data have potential to help us bring such musings into reality.

Credentialism Versus Matchmaking

Credentialsim is credentials at their worst. It is when credentials are used to restrict access and opportunity, intentionally or unintentionally. A credential is required for access to some opportunity in society when, in actuality, it may not be necessary. We are wise to remain vigilant in avoiding this persistent risk with our use of credentials. Yet, and again drawing from the developments around learning analytics and big data, we may be entering a future where credentialism can be reduced as more of a matchmaking understanding can gain traction.

Imagine an online reputation system that includes a collection of credentials and various forms of recognition (including endorsement and artifacts that provide evidence of your accomplishments and expertise). Now imagine systems that can mine that data, mine the data of other people and organizations, and help you connect with those people and organizations that might be a good fit. Such an innovation could transform the way that we think about talent searches and connecting with people and groups. It certainly has its risks and limitations too, but I offer this as a possible future, one that could also increase access and opportunity while diminishing credentialism.

Portfolio as a Collection of Credentials & Artifacts Versus Portfolio as a Dynamic Personal Narrative

When I learn about how learning organizations today are using portfolios, they are quite often attached to standards in a program. Or, they might be used as a place for personal reflection about one’s learning. Yet, there is that other outward facing side of portfolios, using them to show your work to the world and hopefully connecting with people and organizations. Imagine a portfolio system where your lifelong and lifewide learning story is being told and updated persistently. Tied to the matchmaking idea that I just explained, this would establish rich data by which we can do some impressive matchmaking, both technologically and serendipitously.

Standardize or Personalize

I used the well-known cartoon to point out this tension. There is a lineup of animals. There is a bird, monkey, penguin, elephant, goldfish, seal, and a dog. Then there is a man sitting behind a desk saying, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.” The question is whether the future of learning and recognition will reflect or challenge that cartoon. Standardization plays an important role in society and certain contexts, but it is not without its limitations. Personalization is the same. Yet, this is where the vision and mission comes into play. What drives the extent to which we go toward one or the other has to do with how we answer the question about what is best for the public interest and individual rights? Our answers will differ, but any promising future of education, credentials, and recognition will remember these tensions.

Learner as Pupil/Patient/Customer Versus Learning as Co-creator

As I explain in my book, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, Kathryn Church is an inspiration to me. She was a mental health professional who found herself a patient in a mental health facility. She had the truly unique perspective of looking at the experience through both of these lenses and published an incredible piece of scholarship about it called Forbidden Narratives: Critical Autobiography as Social Science. Her work challenged the clean separation of researcher and subject as she was both.

In a similar way, we are in an era that has growing interest in student voice and student agency as a way of nurturing voice and agency throughout life. We see significant attention to movements like user-centered design and empathetic design, approaches that are rooted in a deep understanding of the users. Alongside both of these, we know that collaboration is an increasingly critical skill in the 21st century landscape. These are finding their way into education as well, challenging us to consider how we might adjust from education as something done to students to education as something that is done with students. This extends from the learning to the credentials, recognition and representation of that learning.

As I mentioned in my keynote, technology and innovation always brings with it affordances and limitations, benefits and downsides. All of these potential futures of education and recognition are the same. There will always be winners and losers, different ones depending upon the context and technology. Yet, if we are committed to creating a learning and recognition ecosystem that increases access and opportunity, I contend that these are the types of considerations that warrant our time and attention.

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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.