15 Organizations That Model & Inspire Educational Innovation

We live in exciting times. There is unprecedented educational experimentation and exploration. Even more exciting, people and organizations are exploring new and creative ways to address important social problems and challenges by rethinking how we go about education in an increasingly connected world.

There are hundreds, even thousands of organizations that are doing good and important work in education. While there are plenty of organizations in the education sector that continue to be driven by the yearning for as much market share as possible or for what seems like the primary goal of self-preservation, there are plenty of others that have clear and compelling visions, that embrace their responsibility and calling to promote social good through work in education, and that are helping us explore and imagine new and promising possibilities for education in a connected world. While far from an exhaustive list, here are fifteen such organizations, ranging from private to public, non-profit to for-profit, education providers to facilitators of educational movements. If you want a glimpse into some of the more promising things happening in education today, take a look at what these organizations are doing. In fact, if you want to be part of  some of the most promising movements in education, find a way to get involved with one or more of these groups. 

1. Digital Promise – The mission of this organization is to, “Improve the opportunity to learn for all Americans through technology and research.” This mission has led them into any number of initiatives: efforts to bridge the skills gap for adult learners, the league of innovative schools (a coalition of K-12 schools working together to address important challenges through a blend of educational research and learning technologies), and their new micro-credential / digital badge project focused upon reimagining ongoing professional development for educators.

2. Jobs for the Future – This is one of the more exciting organizations to me right now. They are “working to expand the college, career, and life prospects of low-income youth and adults across 25 states.” This includes projects like Credentials that Work (“aligning career training with employer demand”), efforts to increase college readiness, as well as impressive work around early college designs (“reinventing high schools for post-secondary success”). 

3. Badge Alliance – Started this year (2014), this alliance of key organizations like the Mozilla and MacArthur Foundation, “is a network of organizations and people working together to build and support an open badging ecosystem, with a focus on shared values including openness, learner agency and innovation.” They are leading the way and providing important connections among those who are interested in exploring the possibilities of micro-credentials for everything from out-of-school learning to increasing job opportunities for veterans, creating citywide networks of learning around digital badges, or even a growing number of K-12 and higher education institutions experimenting the role of these new credentials. This is a new group and much of the work is just getting started, but I am already seeing some exciting developments from the early working groups organized by the Badge Alliance. 

4. Western Governor’s University – WGU has been around for over 15 years, and it currently serves over 40,000 students throughout the United Sates with quality competency-based online degrees. There are parts to their model that I would like to tweak (like leaving more room for self-directed learning within a competency-based model), but what they have done has created a model for others. They have been groundbreakers in the developing world of competency-based education, challenging the odd historic practice of measuring student progress by seat time instead of what students know and can do.

Arizona State University – What Michael Crow has promoted during his time as President of ASU is nothing short of impressive: casting a vision for an entrepreneurial state University, building a high-quality online program through ASU Online, creating “trandsciplinary schools”, efforts to increase access and opportunity to higher education, corporate partnerships like the recent ASU / Starbucks program, and nurturing a startup culture. ASU is, without question, one of the most innovative higher education institutions in the world.

5. P2PU – Their tag line reads, “learning by everyone for everyone about almost anything. completely free.” P2PU is a brilliant social experiment in open education, leveraging the power of life and learning in a connected world, and peer-to-peer learning. Their MOOCs and other open courses are not just replications of authoritarian educational institutions and frameworks put into an online format. They have re-envisioned and redefined the word “University” with an unswerving commitment to openness and peeragogy.

6. Udacity – This one gets mixed reviews in the media (as to almost all innovative organizations), but Udacity is helping us to rethink credentials and education leading to employable skills through their new nano-degrees and courses designed around project-based learning. Unlike other online learning provides, both Udacity and P2PU are making their work about more than just digitizing old school courses and programs. They are giving us new and promising models. In fact, Udacity’s most recent is potentially a direct challenge to traditional Universities that dismiss workforce development as beneath them (which, by the way, is just what happens to companies and organizations that are just about to experience a disruptive innovation).

7. EdSurge – This is my single favorite news source for educational innovation and educational technology. If you have not done so, sign up for their newsletter today. From their website, “EdSurge is an independent information resource and community for everyone involved in education technology.” It is more than a news and resource center. Leaders at EdSurge are pulling up their sleeves and helping to build important networks, communities, gatherings, and even helping to recognize and highlight high-impact people and organizations through their Digital innovation and learning awards. Organizations like EdSurge help build bridges and networks among educational innovators that help great ideas spread, and help people find their place in this exciting world of educational entrepreneurship and innovation.

8. Maker Faire – The Maker Faire movement is helping to elevate a culture of creation in a world of consumption. They are doing it one maker faire at a time: providing a forum for makers to share their amazing creations, giving people a glimpse and invitation into the maker world, and promoting a vision for learning by doing and creating.

9. Thomas Fordham Institute – Here is their stated mission, “The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is the nation’s leader in advancing educational excellence for every child through quality research, analysis, and commentary, as well as on-the-ground action and advocacy in Ohio.” Even if I do not agree with all the commentary, I find this to be one of the more researched and enlightening sources of information about current and emerging research focused on educational innovation. They are leading voices in places like Ohio around a vision of ample choices for diverse students; whether it be charters, magnet schools, school choice programs, blended and online learning options, and dual credit. 

10. Khan Academy – If you haven’t check it out lately, take a few minutes. Their mission is, to change, “education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” It is an instigator for a world-wide conversation about the flipped classroom (although there are certainly many other major voices). Along the way, they have grow into some fascinating work that ventures into mastery-based learning, personalized learning, self-directed learning, adaptive learning, and learning analytics. As such, Khan Academy is a great example of a how an education startup can help people imagine new ways of going about teaching and learning, even impacting traditional schooling environments from the outside…but then seeing it find its way into many of those very traditional schools.

11. North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens – I remember talking to one of the founders about three or four years ago on the phone, just learning more about the work they do. They are not a school. Instead, students sign up with the state as a homeschooler, but they come to this place of self-directed learning, get coaching and guidance as needed, and take responsibility for their own learning. Check out their site and videos for a better understanding of their work. Since my initial conversation several years ago, they have gained national attention and become a model for other self-directed centers around the United States. As such, they have essentially created a new model of schooling, neither traditional homeschooling or a teacher-led traditional school. They are an example of

12. Kidnected World – “kids create social good by doing what they love to do” – I learned about this group at the 2014 ISTE conference, more specifically as part of the the startup pitchfest (Have I mentioned that I am addicted to education startup pitches…what I consider the poetry slams of the education startup world?). This nonprofit exists to provide the tools that kids need to change the world. The goal is to connect kids to one another and provide them with tools to be agents of change by using their imagination and playing with others (what they already do well). That is where their “wonderment” comes in. It is a community. Kids enter, pick a path, participate in a challenge, see other kids joining in, the “wonder meter” rises, and they see the impact of a social good project. This is one of many exciting efforts to blend education and having a social impact. Is it more effective to tell kids about the good they can do once they finish twelve or sixteen years of formal school, or to actually provide them with the tools and means to impact the world right now? Organizations like Kidnected World are showing us the wisdom and possibility of the latter.

13. The Learning Revolution Project – Developed by Steve Hargadon, the Learning Revolution Project includes opportunities to learn about and from leaders and innovators across the field of education. The project has an impressive list of partners ranging from higher education institutions to professional organizations and companies in the education sector. This project includes opportunities to learn from and network through various communities, a growing number of free online conferences (with a refreshing spirit of openness), tour events with a special theme, as well as the beloved ISTE unplugged event hosted before the official start of the ISTE conference each year. Education is a field that thrives on openness, sharing, and networking; and The Learning Revolution Project is a champion and model for all three.

14. Alternative Education Resource Organization – The stated goal of AERO is to, “advance student-driven, learner-centered approaches to education.” As such, this is a single organization where you can learn about everything from Waldorf education to Sudbury schools, Montessori to Reggio Emilia, educational co-ops to unschooling. Even if you don’t embrace any of these models or visions, it is an organization that provides a collection of alternative voices to the dominance of talk about testing and national standards that seem to drive so many other contemporary K-12 efforts. This is an organization to follow if you want to learn from diverse models and perspectives.

15. Duolingo – At first glance, this is just a company if a fun and user-friendly app for learning a new language. Look closer and you see a company serious about figuring out how to best help people learn a new language, promsing work around the gamification of learning, and a willingness to also step into the realm of credentialing and certification of learning. It is probably this last part that ensured a spot on my list of fifteen, as they are providing a distruptive innovation in the world if English language certification for students seeking to study in the United States. They are offering a free (soon to be $20) test that is comparable ot TOEFL! This is a trend to watch, education companies that don’t just stop at offering educational opportunities, but are also willing to establish new forms of certification and credentialing that challenge traditional systems.

Micro-credentials & Alternate Routes to Skilled Employment

If you don’t have a ticket, you don’t get in. That is how it works at the movie theater and it is a reality for many seeking skilled employment. Whether you stole it, bought it, earned it, or it was offered to you as a gift; you need to have it in your possession if you want to get through the door. That ticket is often a formal credential like a college degree. Yet, there are simultaneous developments coming together to give us a glimpse of another way. Self-blended learning, connected learning, the unbundling of formal education and micro-credentials are starting to combine in a way that we might soon see an alternative to the diploma, what we can think of as the bitcoins of the credentialing world (look for another article playing with that comparison in the near future).

Defining Blended Learning

In Classifying K-12 Blended Learning,” Heather Staker and Michael Horn define blended learning as, “a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace” and “at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.”

There are several important observations in this definition. First, note that it is defined as a “formal education program.” As such, they are choosing a definition for blended learning that does not include the rapidly expanding world of informal, self-directed learning, and what I often refer to as self-blended learning (This is in contrast Staker and Horn’s reference to a type of self-blended learning that is still largely teacher-directed.). By noting that part of the learning takes place online and part takes place “at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home,” this seems to rule out homeschooling and unschooling, despite the fact that many in such settings consistently embrace and leverage the rest of the this definition of blended learning (a blend of face-to-face and online; and increased learner control over time, place, pace, and path). At the same time, the definition is broad enough to leave ample room for emerging and alternate learning contexts. For example, there is no explicit mention of a teacher in this definition. While a teacher may fill the role of shaping the “formal education program”, “instruction”, partial “control”, and supervision; the definition would also fit in a context where many people (or resources) played one or more of these roles.

One of the more fascinating parts of this definition compared to other definitions of blended learning is the part about increased student control over time, place, pace and pathway. It is certainly possible to create instruction that blends online and face-to-face but does not give learners more control over time, place, pace and/or path. As a result, this is not only a descriptive definition, but one that promotes a certain approach to the blending of face-to-face and online.

Self Blended Learning

Looking at the essay from Staker and Horn, one can see reference to self-blended learning. However, there are at least two working definitions for this term. In fact, compare the visual representation of the four types of blended learning in the previously mentioned article with the similar image here. You will notice that “self-blended” is replaced with “a-la-carte”, which is used to refer to a situation where learners choose a combination of face-to-face courses and online course to make up their overall formal schooling experience.

There is a different working definition for self-blended learning that I favor, one that seems more directly connected to the words “self” and “blended.” For more detail, see my articles on Beyond Blended Teaching to Self-Blended Learning and 5 Example of Self-blended Learning. Here and elsewhere I define self-blended learning as the combination of self-directed learning and blended learning. As such, self-blended learning is where a learner takes the initiative to blend face-to-face and online experiences to enhance learning in a traditional course, or to design an altogether new learning experience that is self-organized.

With this second definition in mind, self-blended learning encompasses the power of personal learning networks and the massive growth of formal and informal self-directed learning through online communities, social media, open courses, educational apps, and other aspects of a networked world.

Self-Directed Learning Limitations

With the growth of this movement toward self-blended and self-directed learning in the digital world, there is a growing clash between the people with increased knowledge and skill developed through self-blending that is often un-credentialed, and those who study in formal learning organizations and conclude with a credentials like a certification or diploma. Given that many skilled jobs list formal credentials as requirements for unemployment, we are beginning to see a growing number of people who likely have the knowledge, skills, and disposition to thrive in a given job, but they are excluded from consideration because they lack the credential. At the same time, due to the fact that these traditional credentials are often not trustworthy evidence of one’s qualifications for a given job, some credentialed but unqualified people make it further in the application process than the highly qualified but un-credentialed. This is not a new phenomena, as many scholars from the 1970s have rich insights into the stratification of society through education credentials (For a brilliant read on the subject, see Randall Collins’s 1979 book, The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. I plan to write more about this and related texts in the near future). What is different today is that the Internet has rapidly opened and democratized learning resources, communities, and opportunities; but frequently without formal credentials. Credentials remain the least open and democratized part of contemporary education, even as we see many other aspects of education beginning to unbundle.

We certainly have ample examples of self-taught and self-directed people without formal credentials who found their way into significant positions, ones that are often limited to people with formal credentials. Many of them did so in new, emerging and less regulated jobs (startups, programming and other computer-related work, social media, sales and marketing, etc.). However, there are also a few like Joi Ito, who serves as Director of the MIT Media Lab. While not having a college degree, his record of accomplishments was significant enough for people to make an exception. Joi is clearly brilliant, but there are likely hundreds of thousands, even millions of people who are equally qualified for various jobs, but they lack the credential and are never considered for them. Consider a local sales job that requires a minimum of a college degree, but a self-taught person lives blocks away and may well be far more skilled at sales than any nearby college applicants.

The Credentialed or the Competent? 

Many point to schooling as the remedy to social ills and issues, as a rescue from poverty, unemployment and incarceration, but part of that is generated by how we value credentials more than competence. Is it getting the credential that keeps one out of jail and poverty, or is it something else that society just happens to attach to a degree? When people talk about the importance of getting an education, is it really focused on getting educated, acquiring important knowledge and skills? Or is it instead about earning a credential that serves as a ticket into more exclusive aspects of society? Is it the knowledge and skill that opens the door or the credential?

While school is one way to gain new knowledge and skill, it is not the only way. Yet, much of society is set up as if the credential itself was critical. Why, for example, don’t more job postings simply list the required competencies for consideration, regardless of one’s credentials? Is it because many in society have come to trust that the credential truly does further qualify one person over another? Or is there something else going on under the surface of our collective consciousness? Why do we trust the abstraction of a credential over more concrete measures of competence for many employment purposes?

The Role of Micro-Credentials and Competency-based Education

Over the last few years, we’ve seen growing interest and development in both alternate credentials and competency-based education. Much competency-based education is still closely tied to traditional schooling and credentialing structures, but this movement has begun to help us recognize the weakness or limitations in many of our models. Competency-based education (CBE) challenges us to question the validity of forcing the marriage of learner progress or accomplishment with required seat time in a class, the number of days or hours in a school building, or the number of credits earned. Instead, competency-based education focuses on outcomes. The concept of CBE leaves room to recognize the significance of part of the earlier definition of blended learning, that of giving learner at least some control over time (how long it takes), pace (when to go quickly and when to go slowly), place and learning pathway (how to achieve a given learning goal or demonstrate a given competency). At its essence, CBE is agnostic to the length and how of learning as long as one demonstrates the competency at the end. Of course, all formal CBE programs that I’ve reviewed so far do place some restrictions on learner control of these four features.

Add this essential aspect of competency-based education to one potential use of open badges. A badge is a digital symbol plus associated meta-data that can be issued and received as a result of some skill or achievement. Consider the possibility of establishing online collections of competency-based badges or micro-credentials that parallel the knowledge and skill acquired as one progresses toward getting a traditional credential or diploma.

Imagine that these badges have clearly stated criteria and a careful review process, one that ensures competence of the learner as well or better than what is done in traditional schooling. What would it look like to establish collections of these badges in the open, allowing people to suggest or provide both free and fee-based resources to help one reach the necessary competence to earn a given badge. Such a model has the possibility of creating a credentialing system that could potentially give an alternate route to skilled employment for the growing number of self-directed learners, especially those who do not elect to go through the sometimes bureaucratic hoops of a more traditional degree program.

This would challenge traditional schooling, but it would not replace it. What it would do is decrease the credential as the primary and culminating benefit of school. Instead, to justify the expense, a school would need to place even more attention on helping learners become increasingly competent and confident (and the social and extracurricular aspect of schools would maintain value among many). Of course, most schools would continue to issue traditional diplomas, but what if these micro-credentials gained enough social trust and recognition that they genuinely were accepted along with a college degree or separate from one? Some would still go to college. Others might piece together their own self-directed route to the same or a comparable credential.

Many opportunities would be made possible for such a model. It would create even more opportunities for new education startups and open source communities. And it would give learners even more choice and access to personalized and customized pathways to desired professional and life goals. One could freely blended learning resources from multiple schools, organizations, on the job training, online communities, life experiences and personal study to help gain the competencies desired or required for one or more career aspirations. It would even allow for easier retooling and retraining as a person aspires to move from one career track to another.

There is a massive “what if” in what I am writing. I am casting a potential vision for what could be more than what will be. Yet, the possibility for such a model exists now, and we are already seeing small version of it with the development of Udacity’s nanodegrees, people exploring open badges for employment, systems that promote and offer badges as a form of high-stakes credentialing, and companies like DuoLingo challenging trusted credentials like TOEFL by providing their own free or very low-cost (as in $20) certification program. Badges are gaining more traction for professional development purposes, as supplements to formal schooling, and in community education efforts. Yet, each of these efforts are increasing awareness and acceptance of badges. I am beginning to see increased promise for this proposed vision as I continue to watch more badge efforts develop, as public awareness continues to grow, and as people begin to recognize the possibilities for badges as a tool for further democratizing education. This may help to create a more open and authentic route to skilled employment, just as it appears to be speeding the unbundling of the education system.

This alternate form of credentials is not needed by everyone who chooses a less conventional educational route. See my article on Uncollege for another possibility. Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work is yet another option, where people learn to manage their online identity and build connections around their work and interests. These connections might even lead to jobs for which they do not even need to directly apply. The self-employed, freelance, and entrepreneurial options are often less restricted by the required entry tickets of traditional credentials. For other forms of skilled employment, the lack a formal credential is a barrier. Without that socially trusted abstract representation of one’s ability, options are limited. It is for these self-directed learners that micro-credentialing seems to offer new possibilities and increased opportunity.

There is a dark side to this. There is the possibility that micro-credentials will amplify or at least perpetuate the already significant problem of credentialism in contemporary society (look for a couple of posts on this topic as well). That is why the “open” part of the open badge movement is so significant. What I am writing here has both a realist and idealist side to it. The realist in me recognizes that credentialism is deeply rooted in much of contemporary society. However, I also see that is excludes when it does not need to do so. Concern about this issue is what drives the idealist in me, the part that resonates with the open education movement, and that sees the possibility of blending open education with a credential mindset that can open employment opportunities by further democratizing credentials, and challenge what some refer to as the current monopolization of skilled employment. That is my hope for micro-credentials.

Reflections on Tinkering-Based Learning & the Power of Play

In a recent blog post, Peter Skillen offers a fresh take on project-based learning. With most frameworks for using project-based learning, it is suggested that the teacher or learners start be devising a compelling, deep, thought-provoking, driving question. The project emerges from one’s pursuit of an answer to that question. Or instead of a question, some projects start with a real-world problem (sometimes called problem-based learning) or a challenge (challenge-based learning). Focusing on a contrast to question-driven projects, Skillen points out the value of what he refers to as tinerking-based learning, projects that naturally emerge from tinkering and play.

Looking at Peter’s background, I see that he spent many years in a school context, but also has a persistent interest in learning beyond formal schooling. There is something about spending time in more informal learning communities that helps us to appreciate new ways of thinking about learning, what I sometimes to refer as “learning in the wild.” I have started to ask more people about what drew them to pursue their passions as part of their life’s work or an important knowledge-base in their work. More often than not, it seems to come down to informal and often playful or experiential formative moments. As an example, I rarely find an engineer who didn’t tinker with something in their youth. They were rarely tested, standardized, or questioned into work that aligns with their gifts, talents, abilities and passions. Instead, that seems to come from playing, experiencing, or tinkering.

Especially in this age, much of schooling is driven by standards, outcomes, goals, and assessment of student progress according to some common measure. At a time like this, comments like Skillen’s are an important balance. We have several schools of thought that help us with this.

  • Mimi Ito draws our attention to the powerful learning that happens as young people hang out, mess around and geek out; things that that tend to occur beyond the confines of the traditional school day.
  • In 2007, Jim Gee opened our eyes to the learning and new literacies that people cultivate amid the playing, experimentation and negotiated meaning-making in video games.
  • People like Jay Cross, Paul Matthews, and Saul Carliner have written about the importance of value of informal learning.
  • Authors like Stuart Brown and David Elkind remind us about the power of play.
  • Then we have Mark Hatch, David Lang, Curt Gabrielson, Karen Wilkinsen, Sylvia Martinez, and others inviting us to consider the power and possibility of creating maker spaces, places to tinker, experiment and explore apart from the drivers of standards and high stakes assessments.

All of these remind that there are limitations to the structure of a traditional curriculum, the battles over state and national standards, and the push for increased testing. They remind us that there is so more to a rich life of learning.

What Happens When External Regulation Holds Back #HigherEd Innovation?

Regulation makes disruption difficult to predict, which is why I offer no certain predictions for the future of higher education. Any number of recent news events remind us about these regulations and the sometimes unexpected results.  And yet, I can’t help but wonder if the amount of regulation is not pushing the disruption further beyond the reach of many accrediting bodies, to a place where it can grow by providing what the establishment perceives to be a sub par experience to a population that is by very definition largely ignored by most higher education establishments. Before I explain and expand upon that claim, allow me to back up and comment a bit more on the role and impact of external regulations.

There is shortage of oversight in the online higher education world today. Higher education is an increasingly regulated industry, not simply from a single source, but from hundreds of distinct entities. A University may need to comply with discipline/program-specific outside agencies, state government agencies, federal regulations, as well as regional accrediting bodies. For online Universities, it is also necessary that they get authorization to serve students in each state in which a student resides. Consider that states have different processes and requirements for authorization, some that require significant time and money. It is becoming increasingly necessary to have full-time people dedicated entirely to state authorizations and related tasks. For a small college that seeks to serve a tiny niche population around the country through online learning, that is enough to prevent the college from even attempting to fulfill the mission across time and space.

What makes this even more challenging is the fact that there are moving targets, not just one, but multiple moving targets as government agencies and various accrediting bodies continue to review and revise their standards, regulations, and guidelines.  If a University is not diligent about remaining focused upon the primary mission, it can become easy for a multitude of decisions and efforts to be focused upon little more than external compliance. Significant time and financial resources that might otherwise be devoted to improving student learning, engagement, retention, and persistence go toward these tasks.  This is the reality of higher education today.

I am not writing this to argue against the importance of some measure of external accountability. Universities (public, private, non-profit, or for-profit) are social enterprises that exist for the public good, and as such, it is important that they be held accountable.  Furthermore, regional accrediting bodies cast a vision for a peer-review process where similar peer institutions review and offer (in many cases) excellent constructive feedback. In this way, they serve a valuable role in contemporary higher education.  I have personally experienced several site visits from accrediting bodies, and the preparation, visits and subsequent reports all helped in any number of ways, providing encouragement, guidance, and useful suggestions.

Now allow me to draw our attention to an instance where these regulations clash with online higher education innovations. Wade Roush put together an excellent article on the recent accreditation issues faced by Altius Education and Ivy Bridge University, an innovative model for offering online education to undergraduate students. The result is that Ivy Bridge will close and all of those students need to transfer mid-year or look for alternative plans. In the article, Roush quotes the CEO of Altius, Paul Freedman, stating that, “entrepreneurs building new for-profit online degree or certificate program have three choices”:

  1. start from scratch, but he further indicated that the last tier 1 University to do that was 100 years ago;
  2. acquire a University that already has accreditation; or
  3. partner with an accredited University (the Altius strategy).

These are not the only choices.  I can think of several and I am certain that there are dozens of others.  Allow me to start with one alternative, intrapreneuship. This is an online entrepreneurial initiative that is planted, grown, and nurtured by the faculty and administration within a given University. This can certainly involve investments in new talent that help to shape and lead such efforts, but it can be done well within an existing University, working with the intimate involvement of the board, administration, faculty, students, and any number of other valuable stakeholders. This allows careful attention to the University mission, vision, values, goals and strategic planning process. It can be done in a way that mixes tradition and innovation, both benefitting from one another.  It can be done in a way that honors the existing policies and procedures in the University while also allowing the necessary freedom needed for any innovation to flourish. This is a workable option for many schools today, ranging from smaller liberal arts institutions to massive state schools.

I will offer a fifth option as well, and this brings me back to the closing statement in my first paragraph.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder if the amount of regulation is not pushing the disruption further beyond the reach of many accrediting bodies, to a place where it can grow by providing what the establishment perceives to be a sub par experience to a population that is by very definition largely ignored by most higher education establishments.

This fifth option for online higher education innovation is to engage in efforts that do not seek or need accreditation or the offering of government supported financial aid. This is happening now, and it is flourishing, some forms gaining massive media attention.  The most recognizable example is the Massive Open Online Course. There is usually no credit, no transcript, no tuition, and no accreditation. In many instances, Universities are offering them, but most are not doing it as part of a formal degree of any sort. While some studies suggest that most who are taking advantage of them are people with a college degree already in hand, I see no evidence that it will stay that way. Even if it does, I suspect that such offerings are replacing what would have otherwise been pursuit of graduate degrees or coursework.  At the same time, there initiatives like the one that I wrote about recently, the Black Mountain Self-organized Learning Environment, provide mentoring & coaching, a social and intellectual community, a great location, and resources…but no formal degree, nothing that requires oversight from the same entities that watch traditional higher education. Instead, these are places where learners prove what they know by showing what they have done, the sort of thing that gets you a job when you have it on your transcript. In fact, what they do may actually be a job, a startup that reaches hundreds, tens of thousands, or even millions.

Alongside this, we have experiments like Degreed: The Digital Lifelong Diploma, an online resource that allows you to document what you have learned through traditional education, but also through life experiences and accomplishments. While these options will not work for someone aspiring to being a medical doctor (back to the regulatory influence), they still offer a “higher education” alternative to the regulated efforts of accredited colleges and Universities.

Following dozens of initiatives that fit into this fifth group, if I had to guess, this is where the disruption will start (has started, I mean).  This is off the radar of many within the higher education ecosystem and, as noted before, serving a population that is, by definition, not a priority for colleges and University. I say “by definition”, because these efforts are serving people who are not going to college. They might choose this self-directed path right out of high school (or home school), or they might get a first college degree and then skip any graduate study, instead embracing the hackademic approach to life and learning. I add to this the broad open source movement that that is impacting everything from software development to publishing to education. These are largely outside of the standard higher education world so much that most academics reading these last paragraphs will dismiss them as improbable, even foolish speculation. The fact that such responses dominate seems to only further support my suspicion that this is where we will see the greatest disruptive innovation.

I started by explaining that I make no certain predictions about higher education.  This is not a prediction, but I am willing to call it a viable possibility. And just as many see the protestant reformation as leading to the counter-reformation, I will not be surprised if this fifth way does not lead to a reformation within more traditional forms of higher education as well.