4 Reasons Why Credits & Credentials are Killing College

“Killing” is too strong of a word, but credits and credentials are not, nor have they have ever been, the greatest value of a higher education. That  comes from the community, mentors, and time to invest in serious and prolonged study. You don’t need credits or credentials for that to happen.

I’ve been exploring the affordances and limitations of credentials for several years, and while I remain an advocate for emerging credentials like digital badges, the exploration of this topic is also leading me to have a growing concern that a focus on credentials and credits is blinding us to the more important topic of learning. The more college becomes about earning credentials and credits, the more it risks losing a focus upon learning, study and hard work, rich experiences, deep intellectual engagement, the power of a learning community, exploration, and experimentation. Even as more people write about, think about, and even choose alternatives to traditional higher education, there seems to be a a heightened emphasis upon the college degree and diploma.

Here are four reasons why credentials and credits are holding colleges back.

1. People are mistaking credits and credentials with actual learning. 

Imagine that you need to take someone to the emergency room. Just as you are nearing the ER, you see a large sign pointing to the ER. So, you pull over, lean the person against the sign, and breath a sign of relief. Yes, that is an absurd narrative because we all know there is a huge difference between the essence of something and a sign or a symbol for that thing. The same thing is true when it comes to learning, credits and credentials.

Some schools think that the value of their offering resides mainly with their credential. Consider the news about the University of Illinois offering a MOOC pathway toward an MBA. You can actually go through the course experiences for little to no money, but if you want to get the degree, you need to pay about $20,000. In other words, the University of Illinois suggests that the primary offering worthy of payment is not the education itself, but the credential that you get if you hand over the $20,000. And how much extra did it cost them to issue that diploma? Was that really a $20,000 transaction?

Perhaps they don’t realize how wonderfully they’ve set themselves up for a brilliant disruption. They are helping accelerate not only the democratization of higher education, but also the demonetization (both of which I support in various forms). Consider the implications if there really is no difference between two people’s learning and accomplishments other than the fact that one paid $20,000 and got a diploma, and the other didn’t pay the money or get the piece of paper. They both learned the same amount. The public is smart enough to follow this to its logical conclusion.

At the same time, we have some advocates of competency-based education championing this new model because it can decrease the cost of a degree and speed the time to completion. Those are admirable in many instances. Yet, the real power behind CBE is an education that leads to true (and real-world tested) competency. It doesn’t have to do with the credential.

2. Organizations outside of formal education, free from credentials and regionally accredited credentials, have more freedom to innovative.

In other words, the regulations tied to being a credit and credential issuing organization prevent many higher education organizations from keeping up with some of the most democratizing (and sometimes demonetizing) innovations in higher education. Yes, I am referring to organizations like Udemy, Lynda.com, and General Assembly. I’m also thinking of brilliant but simple innovations like Experience Institute, an organization focused upon providing people with a series of rich apprenticeship experiences as “core courses” in program that is completely separate from college credits or credentials. Where is the value? It is in the experiences and expertise nurtured amid these apprenticeships. They also introduce people to the power of a much more self-directed learning experience.

As much as some regional accreditors shout that they are pro-innovation, they continue to come up with new regulations that put regionally accredited institutions at a huge disadvantage in this increasingly connected world. As an example, look at the confusion and struggle between the US Department of Education and regional accrediting bodies as they try to create policies and regulations around developments like competency-based education, blended learning, adaptive learning, self-directed learning and experiential education. They consistently make up policies based upon constructs that are sometimes decades old. Without realizing it, their regulations sometimes restrict best and promising practices more than amplify or ensure them.

3. People are beginning to have a Wizard of Oz discovery that there is nothing inherently magical about regionally accredited higher education institutions. They are not full of wizards with secret skills and knowledge only accessible through those institutions.

Give me 10-20 really gifted teacher/facilitators/experts in various areas, put them in a space with a group of willing learners, add the necessary fund and resources, and you can have just as impactful of a learning experience as what happens for many in the pursuit of their college degrees. In other words, there is nothing magical about the formal credentials of the instructors, whether it is a regionally accredited institution, or whether they issue credentials and credentials. You can design alternate learning communities with comparable or better results and for less money. Much of the startup world knows this and I have no doubt that future startups will amplify this point in powerful and disruptive ways.

4. We are on the verge of a self-directed learning revolution.

Browse my blog and you’ll find plenty of predictions. At one point or another, I’ve argued that digital badges, open education, and competency-based education are each going to change education as we know it. I stand by those. However, the greatest disruption to institutions that believe credits and credentials are their prime offering is an increasingly informed population. We’ve experienced the democratization of much knowledge and information over the past decades. Now some of the greatest innovations are coming around finding ways to help people help themselves by tapping into all the knowledge and people in a connected world. This is the brilliance behind Sugata Mitra’s work on self-organized learning environments and the school in the cloud, not to mention the world of social media. I contend that this is also why we are seeing such an increase in the number of K-12 schools experimenting with more self-directed learning contexts. Self-directed learning is the differentiating literacy of the late 21st cent 22nd centuries. Put increasingly self-directed learners together and you get a powerful grassroots community of learners. The learning happening in such communities is already equaling or surpassing what happens in some credit-based programs leading to regionally accredited credentials. Once these eduhackers figure out how to truly democratize the credential or establish and equally valued alternative, they will be a true force in the modern educational landscape.

Credits and credentials are widely recognized and trusted, and there is something to be said for trust. Yet, if we allow ourselves to notice the different strands of innovation today, and if we follow them into the future; it is not difficult to see that traditional notions of these two conventions are a potential deterrent to a wise, competent, and confident populace.  Any organization that makes credits and credentials their primary sources of nourishment will eventually find itself struggling for survival.

Will #OpenBadges Remain Open? That is up to us.

Reviewing a critique presented by Dr. Michael Olneck at the pre-conference event on Open Badges at the Learning Analytics 2015 Conference, I was reminded of a 2012 quote from Tim O’Reilly, something that haunts me because I know it to be true with technology after technology over the past 200 years. Before I share the quote, I’ll set it up with a short introduction.

There is democratizing technology and authoritarian technology. I’ve written about that in the past. However, there is more than one way to approach this. You can look at the technology itself, its inherent features and how they are likely to lead one toward more authoritarian or democratizing structures. That, for example, is present in debates about gun control. Some argue that guns, by their nature, are designed to shoot things, including people. As such, people might push for more regulation and control around them, resulting in a more authoritarian ecosystem within which guns reside. Others look at the social landscape and argue that there are plenty of examples where guns are present, but violence with guns is low or absent. They are not necessarily looking at the affordances and limitations of the technology directly, but they are instead examining how it developed in a give context. As a result of their approach, they may argue for maintaining a larger democratizing ecosystem for the technology of guns. In reality, both of these factors are constantly at work with the assimilation of a technology in a new context. There are inherent affordances and limitations to the technology that make some things possible and other things more likely. At the same time, there are complex individual and societal forces that impact how it develops, especially the power structures that develop alongside a given technology.

As such, what happens if we shift the conversation, not looking at the technology, but examining the technologists themselves and the organizations that offer or benefit from the technologies? With this question in mind, consider the previously mentioned quote from Tim O’Reilly.

So many technologies start out with a burst of idealism, democratization, and opportunity, and over time they close down and become less friendly to entrepreneurship, to innovation, to new ideas. Over time the companies that become dominant take more out of the ecosystem than they put back in. – http://www.wired.com/2012/12/mf-tim-oreilly-qa/2/

As we commoditize technologies, there is a competitive lever that starts to shape the ecosystem around that technology. As there become winners in the marketplace, companies that maintain control over a technology’s development and implementation begin to shape it in ways that amplify the company’s control and benefits. In the extreme, this is what we get with a monopoly, but there are less radical examples as well. Consider that there are largely two dominant operating systems in the computer ecosystem today. In the same article cited above, O’ Reilly stated,

We saw this happen with Microsoft. It started out with a big vision: How do we get a PC on every desk and in every home? It was profoundly democratizing. But when Microsoft got on top, it slowly started choking off the pathways to success for everybody else. It stopped creating more value than it captured.

Is or was Microsoft a monopoly? That has certainly been debated in and out of the courtroom. It started with a grand democratization of access to computers and eventually the Internet. Over time, it turned into two main companies controlling the system used on those devices. There remain democratizing affordances of these devices and the associated connectivity, but now people are largely compelled to comply with the standards and interface established by a couple of key players.

In his introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote about two possible futures. One grew out of Orwell’s 1984, where we become oppressed due to our fears. The other came from Huxley’s Brave New World, a future where we are oppressed by our pleasures. Either can lead to similar ends, more authoritarian control with the promise of some other value: safety, pleasure, efficiency, etc.

How do we resist such a future on a smaller level as we see the development of new and potentially disruptive concepts like micro-credentials? O’ Reilly continues by arguing for ecosystems of innovation where participants “create more value than [they] capture.” He explained,

Everybody wants to foster entrepreneurship, but we have to think about the preconditions for entrepreneurship. You grow great crops in great soil. And the soil is the commons. Increasingly, we have monopolistic companies that try to take as much as they can for themselves. And we have a patent and copyright regime that makes sure that nothing goes back into the commons unless by an extraordinary act of generosity. This is not fertile soil for innovation.

This is easier said than done. Open Badges are open and that feeds the commons. However, maintaining a commons requires commitments from those in the commons. It seems to me that as badges expand, there are a growing number of emergent and maturing business models that will either feed this openness and spirit of innovation or will seek to control it for market share and financial gain. Business models obviously need to include consideration about such things, but for this openness to continue, ROI has to be about more than financial, especially in the education sector. It is an interesting challenge to navigate because we likely need scalable and robust solution to grow the badge ecosystem, but we also need the leads of those scalable solutions to commit to a spirit of openness and cooperation as much as competition. One thing seems clear to me at this point in the development. There will be winners and losers, and the losers may not even recognize when or what they have lost until later.

This does not mean that I lack hope about the open badge and micro-credential movement. I see great promise, possibility and opportunity. Yet, these are not certain, and the future of the ecosystem as I hope to shape it depends upon a growing core of influencers who are genuinely committed to and uncompromising about the value of the commons.

7 Exciting Possibilities for Post-Industrial Democratized Open Badges

We are starting to see an uptick in talk about the possibilities of badges. Browse education conferences and the word badge is showing up in more presentation titles (except, of course, for slow-moving groups like AERA). Scan the headlines and we read about education companies, K-12 districts, and higher education organizations exploring or implementing badges. We are also seeing some of the joys and pitfalls from badge efforts of the recent past. Amid the buzz, I’d like to offer seven uses (current or potential) that capture my interest as a way to share power and influence with learners and build badge systems that democratize credentials in fun, interesting, and maybe even impactful ways.


Gather a group of 5-10 people in a room to talk about badges, and someone almost always brings up the need to have more universal or centralized standards and oversight for badges to grow. Of course, that seems to ignore the fact that higher education grew long before standards were a large part of the discussion. K-12 schools did fine as well. As such, I’d like to celebrate the possibility of badges as a was to further non-standardize even in the most standardized sectors. Consider the UC Davis Sustainable Agriculture badge system. As I understand it, this was less about standardizing the curriculum, and more about giving choice and power for learners to differentiate themselves through real world experiences and novel accomplishments. Let’s use badges to keep from getting too drawn into the “standardize everything” movement.


Others (including me) are talking about the need for a broad trust network and badge ecosystems. That is fine, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with a hyper-local badge system that has meaning and value among a small group (maybe a neighborhood). In fact, it is a way to empower local and grass-roots efforts in fun and interesting ways. So, even as we dream of inter-galactic trust networks, how about some healthy conversation about how we can lift up, support, and encourage local badge networks (which could become the largest sector of badges at some point).


I love hearing the stories about how learners are invited to design their own badges. How does this work? Simple. Students create the challenge-based learning badge. Students accept the challenge. And when students complete it, they earn the badge for the challenge. It is a wonderful way to help people learn how to self-credential (a new aspect of the self-directed learning movement?), and it is easy enough to add some level of outside verification if people are worried about credibility of the badge. I’ve not seen many of these efforts to date, but I am hopeful that we will get a few exemplars in 2015 (or maybe they’re out there, and I’ve not seen them).

After-the-Fact Badge Design

First you create the badge. Then you tell people about it. Then people strive to earn the badge. At least that is how many think of it, but there is no reason why it has to be done that way. It is just as possible to accomplish something planned or serendipitously and then create a badge to recognize it after the fact. These post-accomplishment badge efforts give is an interesting way to think about credentialing self-directed and passion-based learning.

Clan-Based Badges

The web is full of communities of practice, clubs, organizations, and networks. I look forward to seeing more of those groups embracing the use of badges to recognize accomplishments, milestones and unique contributions in the communities. I can see this as a powerful form of credentialing on a résumé, especially that end of the résumé section that is so telling about who a person is and what they really have to offer.

Disposable Badges

We’ve only begun to think about the possibilities of expiration dates for badges. As such, I see some interesting ways to use this feature to create highly disposable badges for novel purposes. What are the possibilities of badges that expire in a day, week, month, or year? How might they amplify certain activities in a group or serve as a means of sustaining engagement?

Credentialing Credentials

I suppose Badges for Vets already does this. I see even more possibilities. What would it look like to use badges as a way for a given group to serve as a credential that adds value to existing credentials that are lesser known or understood? Or, what if we used badges as form of consumer rating of other credential-issuing organizations (like schools, perhaps)?

Who knows if any of these will gain real traction, but the possibilities intrigue me. I see no reason why we should shape badges into something that simply reinforces our past practices. Why not add even more playfulness, creativity and experimentation to our efforts? Let’s lead with our core values and shape the badges into something that will help amplify those values. For me, one of those values is empowering human agency. What about you?



5 Impending Badge Battlegrounds

Are we beginning to see evidence of impending battles about digital badges? Some of them are quietly but already underway. Others are on the horizon. All of them seem to be about power and control. These are admittedly speculative and editorial, and I welcome comments, but I see the following five emerging battlegrounds.

1. Badge Authorities

We are starting to see people identified as authorities in the badge world. Notice that I am saying “authorities”, not “experts.” There is indeed plenty with growing expertise, which is valued. That alone is not a sign of a potential battle, but I do see evidence in the use of words (even in my word choice). I am starting to see “should” and “ought” language dominate conversations that start previously focused upon “could” and “possibility.” It is as if there is a desire to prescribe and  control the use of badges according to the standards and desired outcomes of the growing authorities. In some ways, this is a natural part of wanting to standardize things for sake of growth and expansion. Yet, with this comes more prescriptions and warnings, overshadowing the language of tips and suggestions.  This is in line with the professionalization that we’ve experienced in much of the western world over the last century. In Disabling Professions, Illich, Zola and McKnight write the following about the legal system: “…instead of creating a ‘self-service cafeteria; it has been the mistake of every legal system to insist upon ‘waiter service'” (Disabling Professions, p. 102). This quote is about professionalization that leads to new gatekeepers and ruling authorities. I am seeing such language start to appear more often within the badge world as well. There is this caution that if you don’t heed the warnings of the authorities then your badge design is doomed, or worse yet, just plain bad. I support expertise, but I hope for expertise with humility and a value for openness and democratization.

2. Badge Power Plays

The growing conversation about trust networks is an important one, but expect to see more efforts to monopolize through the use of a new credential system. In fact, I wonder if we will see praise from some of the emerging “authorities” when certain companies and/or organizations succeed in establishing trust networks through what is essentially a monopolization of a new credentialing system within a community. I would not be surprised to see badges moved forward through full monopolies and authoritative mandates within a given sector.

As an alternate to the monopoly concept, I wonder about the role of competition. I value the largely collaborative nature of many interested in badges, but I do wonder if some of the most expansive badge “success” stories will come through competitive forces more than collaborative ones. In Kaihan Krippendorff’s Out Think the Competition, he argues that a key in the competitive advantage around innovation is to slow the competitive efforts of others (p. 13). That leads me to #3.

3. Challenges to the Open Badge Infrastructure / Proprietary Supplements

Because of the power plays and monopolies, there is the possibility of these “winners” largely disregarding OBI, establishing their own infrastructure. However, I expect that much of this will be hybrid infrastructures, taking OBI and building beyond it. There are badging system offering features not built into OBI that are in high demand by target audiences. This makes room for more differentiators among badge issuing platforms. I contend that these enhancements and expansion have an important role in the increased adoption of badge systems. This will probably help push badge adoption forward, especially when done by organizations with the financial and human resources necessary to manage badges on a global scale.

4. The Credential Conspiracy

I’ve become increasingly troubled by the often wide gap between the perceived value of a credential and the extent to which that credential consistently represents true skill, expertise, competence, and the like. We’ve all witnessed this: people with high school diplomas who are functionally illiterate, medical practitioners who keep their license even after experiencing literally mind-altering health issues, people with degrees in disciplines where they can no longer demonstrate competence (and this is far beyond the so-called diploma mills), etc. At the same time, I often experience limited interest in scrutinizing our current credentialing systems, even as we use those systems as justification to disregard or devalue emerging and alternate credentialing systems.

The  most consistent credentials are those that make no claim at actual skill or competence. Instead, the credentials are only issued when certain objective criteria are met: hours clocked, age verified, access granted, attendance verified, etc. Yet, even with these credentials, the trust networks and perceived public value around them seem to grow separately from what they represent. As such, the success of building new trust networks can become more about PR, marketing or even propaganda than building trust based upon what the badge more objectively represents.

Allow me to give an example from teacher education. I hold a 6-12 history license from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. I have not taught high school history for 15 years, but all I need to keep up my license is to write a check every 5 years and take 6 relevant credit hours of coursework (This process has changed now in Wisconsin, but the model still exists all over the place, in many different fields.). How does taking 6 credit hours prove that I still meet the criteria established for being a licensed teacher in the state? It does not. I contend that I do meet or exceed those criteria, but renewing the license does not indicate as much. The ongoing teaching license only shows that I have complied with the regulations. Yet, this credential makes me a viable candidate for some jobs that are closed to others who are probably far more competent. Such limitations of the many current credentials gain little attention.

I expect this to change. In fact, many of my predictions about the impact of digital badges in education depend upon such a change. I expect it to change under the pressure and influence of:

  • the standards movement;
  • competency-based education;
  • increased advocacy for personalized and adaptive learning which also pushes forward mastery learning;
  • demands from some employers for pre-requisite skills not guaranteed by existing credentials;
  • the expansion of malpractice lawsuits;
  • the growth in big data, data-driven decision-making in education, and learning analytics;
  • the do-it-yourself movement’s emphasis upon competence over formal credentials; and
  • the influence of the Internet of Things upon lifelong learning.

The technology of open badges is not enough to result in the potential impact touted by myself and others. For our predictions (and sometimes hopes) to become reality, it depends upon growing scrutiny of existing credentials that leads to dissatisfaction and a willingness to invest in advocacy for an alternate. In a way, open badges are the alternative energy of the credentialing world. We don’t see gas-run cars as retaining dominance because they are the best of all options. The same can be said for the dominant credentialing systems.

5. Agility of Alternatives to Formal Education Institutions

Many promising educational experiments are happening outside of academia. While some educational institutions are using badges, they already have a long history of an established credentialing system. These emerging providers of education do not. These groups need to establish some way to communicate the accomplishments and document the evidence of learning among their users. This is fertile soil to grow new trust networks around alternate credentials. Their financial success and social impact partly depends upon the ability to build trust and gain credibility, and they will innovate their way to a working solution. Their investors expect as much, and they do not have the scrutiny of accrediting bodies and government oversight (because they don’t take part in federal funding of education) to slow them down.

As I stated at the beginning, these are speculative musings, and maybe even more rough draft than my typical writings on this blog. At the same time, I am interested in a broader conversation about these topics, and I hope that this post will help spark such dialogue.