When I Don’t Practice What I Preach About Credentialism

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m an idealist. I’m an idealist with a propensity to do and act, but I’m still an idealist. As such, there are plenty of times where the ideal in my mind doesn’t necessarily line up with where I am in practice. I’m in pursuit of that ideal, but I still live in the world of the present reality. Sometimes I work hard to recreate that reality through some new personal habit, innovation, or effort. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. Yet, a simple recent event reminded me about the inconsistency between at least one thing that I’ve been preaching and reality.

I started working on a new writing project recently and, unlike my rough draft (typos and all) candor on this blog, it was important for me to produce more polished final pieces. In such instances I often seek out an editor / proofreader to help me out. In fact, I have a few excellent editors that I’ve used in the past. Yet, for this new project, I decided to post in an online service to see if I might connect with some new talent as well (I find it good to have a few options for when timing or the nature of the task isn’t the right fit for someone).

I posted the job and watched the dozens or more applications come into my inbox. Now it was time to start reviewing these applications to decide who to reach out to for further discussion. If I’m hiring an illustrator or graphic designer, I usually turn right to their portfolio followed by reading their reviews and ratings from past clients. Then I look at their rate of completion (What percentage of client projects did they follow through to completion?). I rarely even glance at their formal education. If they can do the job well as shown by past performance and the quality of their work that I can view for myself, then I hire them.

I pride myself on reviewing talent for jobs. I’m certainly not perfect, but I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years and reviewed thousands of applications. I’ve learned to read resumes from the bottom up, to notice nuances in language, to ask questions that get to the heart of the matter, to notice patterns, to identify core convictions and character traits that are likely to help something struggle or thrive in a given job, and much more. In fact, I love this part of my full-time job, and I enjoy it just as much when I’m hiring part-time people to contribute their passion and talent to a project.

Then there is my work around credentials, access, and opportunity. If you frequent my blog (or my book on What Really Matters in Education), you know that I am a concerned critic of what some call credentialism. I wrote about this in a 2016 Chronicle of Higher Education article. I’ve written about it in my blog. I spoke about it in front of hundreds and rooms of thousands. A degree is not the only pathway to competence, but too many employers today just use the degree as shorthand for competence. That is at least part of my criticism.

So, when I post for an editor / proofreader and start reviewing applications, what did I do? The first thing that I did was read their cover letters to get a sense of whether they understood the job and might be a potential fit. There are subtleties in their writing that also hint at (but don’t definitively indicate) whether they might be a good match for the task at hand. Then where did I look? Unlike my search for an illustrator or graphic designer, I didn’t go straight to the portfolio of work. I didn’t do that because it would take me too much time to read their editing, and most portfolios didn’t really show me what they edited and what they didn’t. It was just a polished article or piece of writing. I did glance at their reviews from past projects and their completion rate.

Yet, I also found myself doing something else. I scrolled down to see where they went to college (yes, I paid special attention to those with a college degree) and their major in college. When I saw English, technical writing, or journalism; I paid special attention to that application. When I saw a degree in an unrelated field, I lost at least part of my interest in that application. Do you see what I just did? I used the name of the school and the major as a shortcut for sifting through a large number of applicants. Yet, who knows if they were actually the best fit and talent in the pool of applicants?

I caught myself doing this and, while school name and major still influenced me, I turned back to the portfolio and reviews for more information. I looked for past employers who seemed to have the same level of commitment to excellence that I had for this project, paying special attention to their reviews of the candidate. Yet, this job site didn’t always list the name of the employer in the reviews. As such, even when I tried not to pay attention, the name of the school attended and the major kept coming to mind for me. A well-ranked liberal arts school made a difference in my opinion of them because I knew the caliber of writing expected in those schools. When they went to certain other schools, I had far less trust because I was aware that standards for writing were not as high.

Endorsements from others mattered to me, but I just didn’t have enough to go on so I reverted to the credential and reputation of the school. This might seem mundane to some readers, but this was a humbling moment for me. I believe in working to overcome credentialism. I believe that a vision for access and opportunity in education calls for us to embrace multiple pathways to competence. I believe in promoting systems that allow people to build candid and useful online reputations, allowing them to connect with others (including employers). Yet, we are not there yet. We still have plenty of work to do before we get there.

Reality check confirmed. Now it is time for me to get back to work trying to change that reality.

Why I Signed the Bologna Open Recognition Declaration

Just returning from the EPIC Conference in Bologna Italy, we finished this year with a revealing of the Open Recognition Declaration, a document that I proudly signed and endorse. In Bologna, Italy, where the Bologna Declaration was released in 1999, a new group of scholars and practitioners gathered to explore the role of recognition in a connected age. We discussed open badges, e-portfolios, blockchain, identity, trust, the future of education, and much more. We examined these topics across contexts, from higher education to supporting refugees to turning entire cities into ecosystems of learning and the recognition of that learning. Yet, the culminating moment of our three days together occurred on that final morning with the unveiling of a document that outlines the critical role of recognition in a contemporary world. As noted in the declaration, this is, “a call for a universal open architecture for the recognition of lifelong and lifewide learning achievements.”

This is about the recognition of learning across organizations and contexts. Open badges are a current expression of this effort, something that I’ve written dozens of articles about over the years, but we’ve only started to see the promise of such efforts. I write about this so much because it is increasingly apparent to me that our dominant approaches to the recognition of learning are not adequate for life in a connected world, and because our current systems limit and restrict too much and too many. In reality, these current approaches were probably not adequate for past ages either.

Yet, we are at a crossroads. We must decide whether we are willing to re-imagine a learning ecosystem that is founded upon principles of openness and transparency, one that respects the fact that there is usually more than one valid way to learning something. We must recognize that this may or may not happen within the confines of a traditional school.

We have a learning ecosystem today that is arguably more about establishing gateways for people than providing and honoring multiple pathways to learning. While I appreciate the appropriate use of gateways for some credentials, I contend that this has become such a focus that we have unintentionally dis-empowered too many people. As I wrote in my article about the Lincoln Test, there are more ways to mastery, learning, and competence than what is often presented to us in a given schooling context. When the provided pathways is not adequate, we’ve too often remained unmoved and inflexible, even if it is not best for that learner.

If we are going to value the inherent ability of each person to learn, grow, and contribute to society; we are wise to create a learning ecosystem and recognition system that reflects as much. Among other things, it means schools willfully giving up their claim to a monopoly of recognition for learning. This is not to diminish the value of schools, it is just a declaration that it is no longer morally defensible for schools to claim some sort of inherent right to decide what learning should or should not be recognized. There will still be gateways in some contexts, but it need not be the case for most. We much celebrate schools, but do so in a way that does not diminish other pathways to learning and ways of recognizing learning beyond what is currently in place within schools.

A great start is to move toward a more open form of recognition for learning and growth. This can be used in and out of schooling contexts. It can extend across the lifespan and the many contexts of life and learning. Many argue that education is a critical human right of our age. As such, they argue for tuition-free or debt-free educational options. They argue for sending as many people as possible through schools. Yet, we often fail to recognize that schools themselves can be barriers to education. Our vision is one of education and opportunity, and schooling is only one piece of that. Now is the time for us to expand our collective commitment to education and the recognition of learning, not just schooling; and we see that at work in the open recognition movement.

In fact, the Open Recognition Declaration points out that this is even more significant when we recognize that learning is not just within the confines of school, even for those who choose that pathway. Learning is lifelong, lifewide…across the many contexts in our lives. Recognition for that broader learning is often absent. Yet, the open badge and open recognition movement is about creating a means by which the breadth of one’s learning and growth can be recognized, displayed, celebrated and shared. In doing so, we empower people to have greater agency, to better represent their identity in the connected age, to build meaningful connections with people and organizations (even employers) on the basis of this recognition.

I contend that we are wise to invest even greater energy in a recognition system for learning that empowers individuals, increases access and opportunity for the recognition of learning regardless of one’s means, and one that does not depend upon formal credentialing  organizations to manage this effort.

This is about creating a more open currency for the recognition of learning and it is why I signed and support the Bologna Open Recognition Declaration. I encourage you to read it and consider whether you can join me in supporting this good and important work.

If Only We Had a More Credentialed World

If only we had a more credentialed world. Perhaps we could credential our way to a more orderly, safe, clean, and efficient society. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. Consider the possibilities.

Orchestra Credentials

I was at a performance the other day and had a chance to speak to someone in the orchestra. I asked him about how he ended up here and I was quite troubled by the fact that he is allowed to play in a respected city orchestra as a grown man, and he has absolutely no formal credentials. He didn’t even earn a college degree in music. If only we limited access to the orchestra by formal credentials. Perhaps we could set up a national (even better, international) entity that would devise formal standards and create a universal set of assessments that people had to pass to get their orchestra license. Only then would they be eligible to apply for a position in a local orchestra. There is little doubt that our music would be better, but even if that were not true, at least we would have more order than we do with this embarrassingly open concept of letting anyone try out. Who knows, they might even have some entirely self-taught people in there.

Professional Basketball Players

Then I went to an NBA game recently. Did you know that some NBA players do not even have their college degree? These guys can be incredibly credential-less people. We have this absurd system right now where any young boy with a dream can start playing in the local park, community league, or wherever. He can develop his skills apart from any true expert, any official or nationally norm-referenced set of agreed upon standards, and work his way into the NBA. Unless we want to fall head first into anarchy, we are wise to put an end to such disorder.

Startup Founders

On top of that, in my line of work, I interact with quite a few founders of startup companies, especially those in the education sector. This is a serious problem. We have people starting businesses who have never taken a business course, let alone earned at least a bachelor’s of business administration. Shouldn’t we at least set up an entity like the place where you go to get a driver’s license, but do it for a startup founder’s license? We can make it illegal to start a business unless you’ve passed the founder test. Then maybe we wouldn’t have so many abysmal failures in the startup space.

Parenting License

Let me finish with the most appalling of them all. Did you know that people do not have to take a single parenting course before they become parents in the United States? They don’t even need to prove that they are up on the most current peer-reviewed literature on parenting. We let literally anyone who is physically able have children! It is about time that we change the world by establishing a mandatory parenting license. If you can’t verify that you have the knowledge and skill, then we can make it illegal to have children. Imagine how we could improve the state of society with such a much-needed credential.

I can’t say it any better than Jack Westman in this article from the 1990s:

Licensing parents would lay the foundation for dramatically reducing the need for costly and ineffective governmental welfare and correctional programs. It would affirm parental responsibility for child-rearing and reduce the need for governmental involvement in families. It would increase the general level of competent parenting and positively affect generations to come.

Everything Else

While I just chose these four examples, credentials could improve most any aspect of life today. Consider the workplace. Before you can apply to work at a fast food restaurant, what if we set up certifications in each of the tasks involved with the job. The higher the score on the tests, the better your job prospects. We could add licenses, certifications and related credentials for lawn care, road work, and much more. Then maybe we could also finally establish some licenses for voting in elections as well. Do we really want uninformed people picking our next community, state, and national leaders? Credentials can fix these problem and many others.

Reality Check

I’m hoping that you’ve continued reading long enough to get here, where I want to make it abundantly clear that I was not serious about any of the items above. In fact, I’m increasingly concerned about the credentialization and over-standardization of the world. Credentials are certainly not the solution to every societal issue and, even if we had the data to support improved benefits of adding more credentials and licenses in an area, there are important (even critical) values and ethical considerations for us. Life is not just about efficiency, outcomes and optimal performance. Those must be kept in check as servants to a greater set of missions, visions, and values. This is true in society as a whole, government, the workplace and our schools. Credentials have a valuable role and place, but if we are not careful, they can draw us away from the things that matter most to us.

Can Badges Help Education (and Society) Recover from Credentialism?

I continue to wonder if open badges can help education and society recover from credentialism. When I first started writing about badges, it was because I saw possible futures where open badges could de-monopolize current credential issuing organizations. I saw the potential to increase access and opportunity for self-directed learners, those who took alternative learning pathways, and those who sought to design a personal learning pathway that mixed learning experiences across contexts and organizations. I saw it as a way to force the hand of more formal learning organizations to invest in the quality of their communities, learning experiences and their benefit to learners (not just employers). I looked at the education landscape and lamented instances where education institutions expected to keep their doors open by trusting that people would come to them with the promise of a quick-to-degree route or the hope of some sacred piece of paper that only these institutions had authorization to dispense.

With the growth of open badges as I saw it, these organizations could no longer depend upon people enduring archaic, subpar, and disempowering practices simply because the institution held the keys to the credential that the learner must have for her/his desired future. This was and is not prompted by a personal desire to hurt formal education. I wanted to help it find its way back to what has always been best about higher education; being a rich, immersive, intellectual, curious, transformational learning community and not a diploma-issuing factory. The best institutions today get that, but many do not believe it enough to have a financial model built around such a vision.

I saw badges as a means of helping to create a future where the increased percentage of college graduates was modest but the education “level” of communities was, nonetheless, greater than past eras. I looked to the example of open professions and intellectual communities in society and saw that many of the thriving communities are among the least enamored with credentialism (with the major exception of the health care industry that I will address momentarily). I saw this in entrepreneurial endeavors, many tech industries, sales and marketing, service industries, as well the tech-meets-social sector that continues to grow. In open professions, the high school diploma or college degree is still a common and respected pathway, but not at the exclusion of other, admittedly less traveled routes. I saw badges as a way to validate and expand these alternatives.

The same is true for those seeing the benefit in a broad and liberal arts education. As long as academia touts its pathway to the liberal arts as the only or superior one, we are hurting the expansion of the liberal arts in society. I’ve long contended that advocates of the liberal arts should be the first to promote informal learning, continuing education, and liberal arts learning beyond the classroom. The liberal arts is in full bloom when people value their books and music, they use their library cards, congregate for book clubs, participate in public lectures and gatherings to explore topics of personal and social import. It happens when museums and galleries are well-funded (due to the desire of the people and not just the lobbying of a small élite); these museums and galleries are valued and frequented places in communities; coffee shops, diners and pubs are robust places of idea exchange; when individuals self-organize groups for growth and learning; and when people value the intellectual life as an important part of their home and communities.

I worry that pushing the liberal arts credential as the only way to becoming a cultured and informed citizen limits the potential of the liberal arts. Yet, in a world of more open learning, the liberal arts college or curriculum doesn’t diminish. It plays a more valued role as one of many important institutions contributing to the humanities and the liberal arts in society. If the only noble place to study or experience Shakespeare is in the college classroom, Shakespeare is on life support and his prognosis does not look good.

As I’ve mused about the role of badges in shaping the future of learning and education (not just schooling), I’ve long recognized that training for healthcare is a major exception in that future. The regulation and oversight of training and credentials associated with these careers likely means that the monopoly on credentials leading to these healthcare jobs is secure well into the future. It is also possible that the model set forth in these programs is part of what is spreading to entire Universities and accrediting bodies, but I still see the open badge movement as a way to help prevent such a future.

My hope for these more open futures is fueled by the connected learning revolution. The digital age opened access to content, communities, open courses, human networks, personal learning tools and resources, and educational software. More people are using these elements to build learning communities, enhance their lives, and achieve personal learning goals. As connected learning expands, I have no doubt that value for this broader world of learning with expand with it. As that happens, open badges have a role in amplifying the effect of the connected learning revolution and de-monopolizing the issuing of valued credentials.

We are not there yet, and there is no certainty that such a possibly future will become reality. There are corporate influences at work that could either help or hijack the potential of open badges. Government and regulatory agencies have the power to create policies that limit or expand the influence of open badges. Lobbyists (many of whom would never see themselves as such) within formal education continue to have a strong voice in these matters (as I think they should), and an unwillingness to objectively assess the affordances and limitations of such a future is also a potential barrier. In addition, decisions about which direction to take with the future of the open badge infrastructure has the potential to speed or halt progress toward this future. As much as any of these, there is also the momentum of the existing system and framework in society that continues to be in favor of giving up power (even if unknowingly) to existing academic monopolies.

This does not need to be adversarial, but I am enough of a realist to know that it will be so. Such a broad change is painful. It creates new winners and losers. It challenges the agenda of desired future of influential people in government, business, and the education sector. It risks devaluing some existing credentials. It challenges people to a higher standard and level of learning. As it empowers more people, that means others will potentially lose some of their existing influence, and they are unlikely to do that without resistance. With such considerations involved, the future that first captured my interest in badges is less than certain, but I continue to see it as an interesting, if not promising possibility and path to recover from credentialism in society.