Will MOOCs disrupt higher education? What about online learning or competency-based education? Or, what about alternate credentials like the open badge movement? The more I engage in such questions, the more important it is for me to add adequate detail to better frame the conversation. Higher education is a broad term. It includes community colleges, technical colleges, trade schools, research intensive schools, liberal arts schools, faith-based institutions, for-profit institutions, schools that focus on serving non-traditional or post-traditional adults, etc. It also includes seminaries, graduate schools, distance learning schools, alternative colleges, and dozens of other types of institutions. Then there are many higher education institutions that include several of these under the same name.

Programmatic Distinctions

After looking at these distinctions, we also need to look at the different programs, professions and disciplines. The impact of online learning is different for a performing arts program than a history program. The potential benefits of alternate credentials will have different levels of perceived value for English majors and those in information technology. Similarly, the impact of MOOCs is unlikely to have the same influence on those pursuing college for the social experience as much (or more) than the academics.

Student Goals and Motivations

This is described from another perspective in the 2014 Differentiated University Pantheon Group report by Haven Ladd, Seth Reynolds, and Jeffreny Selingo. They surveyed 3200 American prospective or current college students. Instead of focusing upon traditional demographic data, they examined the reasons for a student’s interest in college. They were able to describe six distinct profiles of students: aspiring academics, coming of age, career starter, career accelerator, industry switcher, and academic wanderer. Each of these represent different motivations, goals and aspirations; leading to varied values about what constitutes their ideal higher education experience. Looking at current and prospective students from this perspective offers a clearer understanding why something like a MOOC, competency-based program, digital badge or online course might have higher or lower value to a given student.

Government, Community, and Business

While the desires and profiles of learners have an enormous impact on the future of higher education, there is also the influence of external stakeholders: government, communities, business. If we look more closely at these influences, we recognize that they do not share a single value in higher education either. Government influences might have a bias toward economic development. Business might be primarily interested in the development of a workforce that meets their varied needs. Community might have a heavy interest in the way that a higher education institution impacts the quality of life. These are too general, but they illustrate the fact that a single future model of higher education is no more likely than it was in the past. There is a reason why we have so many different types of higher education institutions today.

New Education Options

As we look to external influences on higher education, we must also look at the rapid growth of a new education industry. We look at CodeAcademy, General Assembly, Khan Academy, Udemy, new corporate training programs, and the overall increased access to free and open learning experiences online. This goes back to the different profiles of prospective learners, but the development of this new education industry gives each of us more options that ever before. They may not be quick to disrupt medical schools, but they have already established alternate routes into some of the top high-demand jobs of the next decade, jobs like software developers and system administrators.

Financial Models

There are also important financial factors. That which disrupts an expensive but non-exclusive college depending heavily upon tuition will be different from what disrupts a partly state-funded public community college, or an élite school with a massive endowment. There are schools with multiple sources of revenue and others that are almost entirely tuition-dependent. Some schools will struggle to keep their doors open without federal financial aid. Others have already opted out so they have the freedom to pursue different models of education. Such factors, combined with the others listed above, will decide the time it takes for an innovation to impact a school, and whether the school finds it necessary to respond with any urgency. And this is largely focused upon the state of funding in American higher education. If we look at if from a global perspective, we also see models where most or all of the entire enterprise is government funded. Such distinctions are too important to miss when we are looking at the consequence of educational innovations.

The Need for Nuance

None of this is to suggest that higher education as a whole will not be influenced by educational innovations. There is a long and clear history of innovation’s impact on education. At the same time, I suspect that our conversations about the future of higher education will benefit from a  more nuanced word choice. I have been as guilty as many other media outlets in making broad and general comments about the future of higher education in light of emerging innovations. While my comments are often coming from an analysis of a specific type of higher education, I have not always been clear about that fact. The same is true for many articles that we read at Inside Higher Education, The Chronicle, and elsewhere. Such articles make for interesting conversation, but without adding depth and nuance, they fail to give us tools for truly thinking about how to prepare for the future.

We have diplomas, badges, certificates, endorsements, licenses, IDs, awards, and titles. Each of these communicate something to others. What gives credentials value? What makes them sought after or admired? Amid my exploration of past, present and emerging credentials, I’m still learning the answers to these questions. When I think I understand it, I find yet another type of credential or a new way of understanding how or why different stakeholders attach value to them. As it stands, however, I see three commons reasons why a credential is valued.

1. Social Currency

This is the dominant answer to what gives a credential value. Some credentials make you look good, but the extent to which you look good depends upon the value assigned to the credential by an audience. My first degree is from a Lutheran (faith-based) liberal arts college. That has significant social currency with some audiences, but it is seen as a lesser degree to others. My terminal degree is from a state University, which leads some to assign it high value while others see it as a second-rate credential.  Similarly, there are some companies and firms that clearly value degrees from certain institutions more than others.

The social currency even trumps the competence of a person in some (perhaps most) cases. The assigned value is not necessarily based upon any objective facts about the diploma. It is perceived value and sometimes socially negotiated meaning around the credential. Nobel prizes are largely respected, but even such an award does not hold universal value. With some groups it is largely unknown and therefore a less valued social currency.

Social currency is complex, more complex that I first expected. I know an employer who is hesitant to consider hiring a person who graduated from the flagship state Universities or the liberal arts colleges. He explains that these schools train good generalists who know theory, but they can’t do the daily work that he needs completed. As a result, he is much more interested in people with more focused associates degrees who learned practical skills in the field. He is willing to pay top dollar to hire people who can do the work well, but is less interested in a generalist who will be dissatisfied with some of the more mundane tasks and will quite in 1-2 years. So, the person with an associate’s degree from a technical school has the more valued credential in such a context.

2. Mandate & Monopoly

Some credentials are established by authoritative individuals or institutions as mandatory for certain purposes. Without a driver’s license, it is illegal to drive a car. Without a medical license, you can’t legally practice medicine. As such, the license has value because it is established as the only means to a desired outcome, whether it is driving a car, practicing law or medicine, or checking out a library book. The credential is meant to represent that you met the established criteria established by the authoritative entity. If you lack the credential, you are denied access.

3. Practical Value / Perceived Competence or Quality

Still other credentials have value because they are closely connected to certain knowledge, skills or abilities. For example, a certified CPR credential is highly valued when someone needs CPR. Health care professions seek employees with very specific credentials because they represents readiness for a particular task. Even in less high-stakes situations, we see credentials as symbols of practical quality. We might want a certified massage therapist, even if there are no mandates by a community or state that practicing therapists have certifications. We assume that being certified means that you must be good (or qualified by some standard) at what you do. In fact, we even like our meat, eggs, and milk to have such credentials. The credential represents a quality standard that we value.

Sometimes the value of the credential is not as much for what other people think about it, but what it means for the person who holds the credential or very small group of people. My children went through swimming lessons where they earned certificates. Each certificate represented a level of skill from one to six. Level six is mean you are ready to swim independently, with less adult supervision. My children valued the credentials because each one represented their accomplishments and progress toward water independence. My wife and I valued them because they represented the readiness of our children to safely enjoy the water. We didn’t value them because of social currency or a mandate, but because that were closely connected to specific swimming skills.

There are plenty of other answers to the question about what gives a credential value, but these seem to be the three dominant ones. They become critical as we think about the growing discussions around alternate credentials, but they are also important as we look at changing views among different groups about existing credentials.

My family and I ate a continental breakfast at a hotel the other day. I grabbed an English muffin, put it in the toaster and pressed down on the lever. Nothing happened so I tried again. When that didn’t work, I checked to make sure it was plugged into the outlet. It was, so I tried a different outlet. Still nothing. Oh well, I didn’t really need to toast my English muffin. I sat down and enjoyed the rest of my breakfast. A few minutes later I overheard a person talking to someone at the front desk, asking if there is a breaker that needs reset. That was the problem. In fact, the person at the desk explained that this happens all the time. As I listened to the conversation, I looked over at the toaster, broadened my view and noticed that the refrigerator, waffle iron, coffee maker and several other appliances were all powerless and in the dark. I was a bit embarrassed given that much of my work has to do with big picture thinking, strategic planning, educational innovation, ideation, etc. I spent the next twenty or thirty minutes playing with this experience as a way to think about how we address problems and issues in education. Here are four lessons that I gleaned from this little thought experiment.

2. Broaden Your View

Sometimes we get confused by a problem. It is often based upon a current want or need. Focusing on that problem alone, we miss that it is part of a larger or systemic issue. Until we broaden our view, we are not going to see the that larger issue. Anything we do to address it based upon our narrow viewpoint will fall short, So, when you experience a problem, find a way to step back and look at the bigger picture. Even if you can’t fix that larger problem, this perspective can help you manage your own work. Too often we just jump to the educational equivalent of buying a new toaster when the problem is in the wiring.

2. Think of the Next Person

When the toaster didn’t work, I tried a couple of things, but then decided that it wasn’t a big deal, so I let it be. The front desk was ten feet away, requiring minimal effort to tell someone about the problem. Instead, I ignored it, resulting in the next person still having a problem. In fact, since it turns out that the issue was a breaker and not the toaster, my decision not to let someone know delayed a solution. When you run into problems, at least tell people about it. You are helping everyone by doing that. You may prefer to just do without or ignore it, but it isn’t just about you. Think of the next person, and the twenty people after that. Great organizations want to know what is working and what is not so they can improve. Help them out (especially when you are one of them).

3. If There is a Persistent Problem, Do Something About It

The words of the person behind the desk keep coming back to me. “Oh, yes. This happens all the time.” If it happens all the time, why not do something about it. Too often, we get used to living with the problems in our organizations. Sometimes it is because we tried to solve it and it was too expensive or time consuming. Sometimes we convince ourselves that it is someone else’s issue. Other times we just don’t get around to it. Regardless, this has a way of building a culture of mediocrity. Even if you don’t have the resources for your luxury solution, help build a culture that identifies and promptly addresses educational problems.

4. Make it a Team Effort

We all get tunnel vision sometimes. Even if you consider yourself the best systems thinker or problem solver, there will still be moments when you miss the obvious. That is why we want to get different people involved in exploring the problems in our learning organizations. When possible, get the perspective of diverse stakeholders. Don’t just lean on the experts because expert bias can prevent you from some of the most exciting, innovative, or even obvious solutions. This is not just about getting different perspectives at the table, however. It is also about having the ears to hear, and the humility to accept that another person’s perspective is sometimes more helpful.

What are the “broken toasters” in the education sector today? What about in your organization or your personal approach to teaching and/or learning? Maybe one of these four tips will help find a solution.

After reading a blog post claiming that MOOCs are dead, dying or on the downturn, I sighed and typed “premature obituary” into Google. It brought me to the Wikipedia entry, which explains nine different types of premature obituaries ranging from a faked death to accidental publications, misidentified bodies to imposters, name confusion to brushes with death. For the next hour, I scanned the list of names and curious circumstances that led to premature obituaries about George W. Bush, Fidel Castro, Arthur Clark, Celine Dion, Madonna, Pele, Bertrand Russell and Neil Young. So don’t feel badly my dear MOOCs. You are in good company. I don’t know if it was the mystery, novelty or the joy of seeing major media outlets getting it wrong, but I relished in this short diversion only to remember why I just spent an hour reading about this obscure topic. MOOCs are not dead.

Austin Kleon wrote, “If your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.” Similarly, if you are an educational trend and you don’t make it in the headlines for a few weeks, people think you’re dead or dying. They suspect that you were a passing fad, one more educational trend to come and go with little impact, proof that we shouldn’t be so quick to jump on the educational innovation bandwagon.

When I defended my first master’s thesis in the 1990s on the promise and possibilities of online learning for high school students, one of the committee members asked me about this educational fad called e-learning. He asked, “How do you know this isn’t just one more trend that is soon to pass?” I didn’t know. I suggested that it didn’t matter. I explained the potential benefits of online learning for specific student populations. If you are wearing a sweater because it is good at keeping you warm, you don’t always have to worry about whether it is in style. It is getting the job done, so you use it until something better comes along. That seemed like a good enough answer to me. It worked for him too, so I passed. We also decided that we would just need to touch base again in ten or twenty years and see how it turned out. That one turned out pretty well, especially give that some are now predicting that half of all high school courses may be online by 2019.

MOOCs are not dead. They are not dying. They not even on the decline. They may not seem to be as flashy in the headlines, but maybe that is because headlines are about trends. Headlines are probably not the best measure of  what will stick. There was that small minority of MOOC evangelists who claimed that MOOCs were a sign that the University as we know it was dying, so maybe a few recent articles about the decline of MOOCs is a way for University evangelists to get back at them. Ignore the extreme claims about MOOCs and just look at what is happening.

Fan or skeptic, the MOOC movement is alive and well, with ongoing signs of innovation, experimentation, new methods and markets. Expect to see even more over the upcoming years. After all, MOOCs are really just a blend of two educational development that have a long history and evidence of a solid future: online learning and open learning.

Note: This article a assumes a basic understanding of CBE. For a primer, read this article.

Competency-based education is a promising practice in education, but it is not without risks. While being a firm advocate, I am also not one to argue that all good education should go the way of CBE. It is not the perfect fit for every educational purpose or learner. Even within CBE, there are different ways to approach it. With that in mind, here are six limitations (or at least risks) that I see with some current approaches.

Juggling One Ball

Have you ever seen someone juggle one ball. Stop reading for a moment, find an unbreakable item and try it. Or maybe you want to imagine it. It doesn’t take much to notice that there is something underwhelming about juggling a single item. The magic happens when you have three items. Pay close attention to a person juggling three and you will discover a secret. There is only one item in the air at a time, but it is far more interesting than juggling a single item. It takes multiple items being juggled at the same time before we see the magic.

This is sometimes true for learning something new. Some approaches to competency-based education focus upon breaking everything down into discrete elements. In doing so, the learning experience can feel like juggling one ball. It loses the magic. Mixing metaphors, it sometimes misses out on the chance to harmonize several ideas or new concepts. Sometimes it is best to master one discrete skill or idea at a time. At other times, putting them together in a learning experience is the better option.

CBE doesn’t have to be about juggling one ball. Thoughtful and creative instructional design can keep the magic.

 Academic Dictatorship / Limited Room for Self-Direction

CBE is usually about pre-established competencies upon which everything else is built. It is powerful in that there is space to personalize learning pathways. However, most CBE approaches have prescribed competencies and assessments. This has benefits, but there is a downside.

The best way I can think to explain it is through a recent experience. I was thinking about pursuing a MBA. I requested information from eight or nine schools. I contacted three schools about their executive MBA. I looked at a couple of the top ranked programs in the country. I also looked at a few online and low residency programs, including an MBA at one of the most well-known CBE online Universities in the United States. I read about the different schools and focused my interest on three of them, requesting a chance to talk to an admissions counselor. I explained that I wanted to pursue a MBA with the goal if deepening my knowledge and skill around social entrepreneurship. None of these top three programs has a specialization in that topic, but contacts from two of the three programs said there is flexibility within the courses that allow students to choose papers and projects to match their goals and interests. That wasn’t the case with the CBE school. They explained that all the assessments are pre-developed to align closely with the competencies. You don’t get flexibility with these assessments. In other words, I couldn’t focus on applyin my skills to social entrepreneurship if I were to pursue that program.

As with all these critiques, it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to design assessments in a competency model where students have choice on the context and focus of their work, especially when you blend competency-based education with student-directed project-based learning.

Culture of Earning

CBE programs are carefully planed and the pathway to learning something new is often flexible. Yet, there tends to be an emphasis upon proving that you met the competency. Without careful planning, students can feel like the program is about jumping through academic hoops. Complete the assessment at an adequate level and move on. This can help with clarity and motivation for students. It can also promote a culture of earning over a culture of learning, making the program almost exclusively about meeting targets and going on tot the next task. CBE doesn’t have to be this way, but watch out for it.

The Measurable Matters More

Humanities teachers are sometimes the first to point out this limitation. Some of the most important things learned are not easily measured. Yet, CBE has a way of dwelling on that which can be documented and measured. This takes away from messy learning, from unexpected “aha” moments, from the immeasurable, unexpected and serendipitous learning that takes place in some lessons that are less focused on competencies and assessments.

No Time for Critical Sinking

The first time I used the phrase “critical sinking” it was a typo. I meant to write thinking, but sinking showed up on the screen. Staring at that typo, I decided to leave it because it represents and important part of learning. Critical sinking is about reflection, meditating on an idea, letting it “sink” in, grappling with the same thing for days, weeks, or months. CBE can help with this because many programs allow for variable timeframes. One student spends a week before completing the assessment for a competency and another spends a month. There is also a limitation. First, showing your competence after a week doesn’t mean that you will remember it in a month or six months. Time, depth, even over-learning helps with that, and these can be bypassed in a “pass it and move on” approach to CBE. Second, some CBE programs charge by time. You can progress as quickly as you want, but you pay a subscription for three or six months at a time. That motivates you to move through the program as quickly as possible. There is a financial incentive to get done quickly. That means that it costs more to take your time, reflect on things for a few weeks, or to dig deeper into a topic of personal interest. CBE approaches can, if we are not careful, discourage the powerful practice of critical sinking.

As I said at the beginning, these are not true and universal limitations of CBE. They are just risk, risks that can be avoided with careful planning. Or maybe they don’t always have to be avoided. Maybe it is about acknowledging the limits, recognizing that CBE is not always the best fit for every situation or learner.

Is college worth the money? There is no shortage of opinions about that question. The blogosphere and corporate media outlets provide a long list of posts and columns about the subject. In the end, the answer will not come from a persuasive essay. It comes every day in the form of people’s decision about whether or not to pursue a traditional 4-year college degree, and we already know that it is not that traditional. The 4-year residential degree is already not the norm in the United States.

While the traditional degree plays a valued role in society, I contend that it is important to recognize the broader spectrum of paths that people take. For some, the traditional residential 4-year degree was never a strong consideration. However, the variety of options has never been greater for such people.

When I was in high school, I only remember hearing about three options: go to college, join the military, or get a full-time job that is open to people with a high school diploma. Those options remain, but there are plenty of others, some of which are relatively new while others have been around for decades…even centuries. As we look at the current landscape, who are the competitors to the traditional 4-year college degree? Or, put another way, what are the other alternatives available to people? Here are ten of them.

1. Self-Study and the Uncollege Experience – People like Dale Stephens (Hacking Your Education), Charles Hayes (Proving You’re Qualified), Blake Boles (Better Than College), Professor X (In the Basement of the Ivory Tower), and James Altucher (40 Alternatives to College) each give ideas about alternatives to the traditional college experience. While there are some professional tracks that don’t leave you much of an option but the 4-hour degree, self-study still works for certain people.

2. Trade School / Vocational School / Technical School – This is a long-standing option for those wanting a faster route into a specific career as well as those who want an inexpensive way to earn college credit before transferring to a 4-year program. In the end, it means fewer “credits sold” for schools that focus on the 4-year college degree.

3. Dual Credit and AP Courses – This is a fast growing area. For many, college starts in high school, and this also means that even those students planning on going to most 4-year colleges will need to take fewer classes while there.

4. The Nano Degree and Other Similar Models – These are inexpensive shorter certificate programs that lead to a potential opening at specific companies. Expect to see more such program appear, programs where companies can create an entirely new pool of potential employees, and the companies are active in establishing part of all the curriculum, evening being involved in the teaching and assessment. The difference with these new models is that the education is focused more upon what a specific company wants in an employee. I don’t expect this to replace the 4-year degree for most, but we may see at least a small number of people trying this track out first. We should see if it gains traction over the next 3-5 years.

5. The 3-Year Degree – This includes programs like Southern New Hampshire’s largely promoted route to a bachelor’s degree. It is still bachelor’s degree, but in a condensed format.

6. Competency-based Programs – At Western Governor’s and other emerging competency-based programs, students don’t progress by years or credits. Some might even be able to finish a bachelor’s degree in half the regular time. Keep in mind that 85% of those seeking college degree are already not traditional residency-based students, so this option might appeal to some of this 85%. In fact, based upon the enrollments in some of the early competency-based programs, we know that there is interest.

7. Online Degrees – Of course, some of the programs already mentioned are online, but online learning has a decade of consistent growth in enrollment. Add that to predictions that half of high school courses will be online by 2019 and we get a coming generation that is increasingly comfortable with blended and online learning. How might that impact their choices regarding higher education?

8. Professional Certifications – There are many certifications that are in high demand in the workplace. Getting those, even without a college degree, provides increased opportunity for new jobs or promotions in existing ones. Cisco and Microsoft certifications, for example, are largely well-regarded credentials.

9. Apprenticeships – While some sources suggest that they are in decline, there are still quite a few options available to industrious people. This article outlines some of the resources available.

10. Entrepreneurs and Artists – This is certainly not for most, but some set aside traditional college to feed their creative side, whether it is in music, acting, other performing arts, or a new business venture. These are not always mutually exclusive to the 4-year degree, but it remains a viable option for some. Browsing the web, there are a growing number of articles offering advice on how to start your first business in high school (or earlier). That means that some young people get a chance to try it out, while maintaining the option of heading off to college if things don’t work out (or if they do).

I don’t teach much these days, not since I moved into administration a number of years ago. However, I do still advise students for their thesis or capstone projects and I teach 2-3 courses a year, including a graduate research course. I run it as an applied course. They learn some basics about educational research, but they also get to put together simple drafts of a typical chapter 1, 2, and 3 in a thesis.

bryantAs we get started thinking about a chapter 1, I challenge them to also think about the “why” behind a potential research project. What is the question that you seek to answer/explore? What is the problem that you want to address (for those choosing a more applied project instead of a traditional thesis)? I find this to be a wonderful time to think about the reason for research and applied projects in education. In doing so, I agree with James Conant Bryant, past president of Harvard, when he stated that, “A scholar’s activities should have relevance to the immediate future of our civilization.” I resonate with the The Wisconsin Idea, which casts a vision of research that is useful, “to the the citizens in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities” (although I would prefer the focus on problems that are important to the citizens instead of the state, when there is difference between the two). I am intrigued by the vision of academic leaders like Frederick Terman, who was partly behind the Stanford Industrial Park, and he is sometimes referred to as a father of Silicon Valley, encouraging faculty to start businesses.

Since I am at a faith-based University, I take this a step further. I briefly introduce the graduate students to a historic teaching in the Lutheran tradition known as the doctrine of vocation (calling). I contend that our work can be understood as a calling to love our neighbors. Here is how I explain it to my educational research students:

I was only a boy scout for a short time, but one simple boy scout message stuck with me.  On our first camping trip, the scout master noted that we always want to leave the campground looking better than when we came.  In a sense, that is what this course is about.  Research in Educational  is really about leaving the field of education (and the educational organizations that we serve) better than when we first arrived.  In other words, we are looking for problems to solve, questions to answer, and needs to fill.  This is what we are going to explore during this course.  We are looking for problems, questions, and needs that we can help address, and we will be using the tools of research and/or scholarship to address them.

 Have you ever heard about people in the ivory tower publishing doctoral dissertations on esoteric topics?  You hear about it and possibility wonder, “What is the point?!” or “Did my tax dollars go to support that?!”  That can happen.  And there are certainly times when research that seems petty actually turns out to have a positive benefit for the world.  Whatever the case, I would like to take a moment to share or remind you of Concordia University Wisconsin’s mission statement. There is much involved in that statement, but one thing that is embedded in it is the Lutheran understanding of vocation…or calling.  Lutherans work from an understanding that we have a number of callings in our lives.  This includes things like mother, father, son, student, teacher, accountant, doctor, street sweeper, educator, researcher, scholar, etc.  And our mission is to serve our neighbors by serving faithfully within each calling.  Each calling gives us opportunity to engage in loving our neighbor.  While I’ve never found the original source, many claim that Martin Luther once said it this way: “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” So, how do we love our neighbors by doing educational research an applied projects? You will be challenged to answer that question as you identify a potential thesis or project at the end of your program, and you will get practice doing it in this class.”

 Are you an educational researcher? How do/can you love your neighbor through your work? Do you work in the more applied realm of education? I contend that the same question applies. Are you running an educational startup or exploring some new educational innovation? Are you a graduate student nearing the end of your program and looking ahead to that thesis or culminating project? What would happen if we framed all such efforts around a simple question about love for neighbor?