Credentials, Gatekeepers, & Openness in Education

I’m a product and proponent of formal education, at least in part. I serve as an academic administrator and a professor of educational design and technology. I am also one of academia’s strongest critics because I believe that we can do better, that we can benefit society by reconsidering our role and resisting the temptation to hoard our power. As much as I treasure rich and vibrant academic communities, I also struggle with the way that our academic institutions wield power and control access and opportunity for people. We are gatekeepers, and while some can say that with pride, I write it with concern.

I recently posted a suggested reading list on Twitter, 25 Must-Read Books for the Educational Hacktivist or Contrarian. In reply, Charles Bingham, a education professor of Simon Fraser University, Tweeted:

Like myself, Bingham is a part of academia. He is a professor at a well-respected research institution, but he is also a critic, one who is deconstructing modern building blocks of academia…at least to the extent that college becomes about earning credentials. For many, college is about more than that. It is also about community, connections, growing levels of competence and confidence, character formation, and creative expression. At least, that is what happens for some amid their participation in higher education communities. For others, it is about getting…

a piece of paper, so you can

get an interview, so you can

get a job that you like or want, so you can

get money, so you can…

I watched Bingham’s short TED talk on Why We Should Shred our Diplomas, and so many of his ideas resonated with my own work and thought over the past couple of years, whether it be my investigation of credentialism, alternative education, unschooling, self-directed learning, personal learning networks, social entrepreneurship, or alternate credentials and open badges. The more I’ve come to study and understand the history and nature of academic credentials, the more I see that they are not the solution to our greatest social needs (nor are the educational institutions that offer them).

Good things happen in schools…plenty of good things. I’m just not convinced that the evolution of academic credentials to their current state is one of them. I write this as one who has four diplomas from higher education institutions, and who still find himself drawn to pursuing two or three more. When I look at my diplomas (which is not often, they sit in a box in my office closet), it isn’t hard for me to think that they mean that I’m somehow a little bit more special or valuable, but it isn’t true. Nonetheless, they give me access that I didn’t have before. They open doors to jobs and opportunities that never arose before getting that “terminal” degree. The title “Dr.” breeds respect from no small number of people. I’m certain that I sometimes get the benefit of the doubt because of these credentials. I’m a little embarrassed about this, and the truth is that I’ve read, written, and studied 50 times more apart from my pursuit of those degrees. Most of what I write, say and do come from what I’ve learned through reading, doing independent research, networking, participating in various learning communities, experimenting, and trying things out in the real world. I learned things along the way toward getting those degrees that equipped me for doing these things, but I am certain that others could learn the same things without ever getting a single college diploma, let alone four.

This is my other struggle with how we’ve shaped modern education. We’ve made it exclusive. In many aspects of society, we’ve minimized the value of learning that is not credentialed. We’ve excluded the self-taught. We’ve allowed credential-bearing institutions to be gatekeepers for entry into no small number of professions or disciplines. What social good comes from this exclusive approach? Who are the winners? Who are the losers? Isn’t it possible to imagine alternate models that are more open and welcoming of multiple routes toward competence?

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In his video, Bingham says,

“South Africa was a very credentialed society. People had to carry what was called an apartheid passbook. In this passbook, it said your race. It said if you were an African, or an Indian, or a white person, or a colored person. And if, for example, you were an African person, a black person, and you decided to go into a whites only area after dark, a policeman could stop you and ask to see your apartheid passbook. If that passbook did not give you the privilege to be in the white area after dark, then you’d be put in jail.

I’m convinced that these days we have our own version of the apartheid passbook, and it’s called the diploma. These days its not legal to discriminate against a person based upon race. It is, however, perfectly legal to discriminate against a person based upon educational attainment, based upon a diploma that a person does or doesn’t have, that was or was not received from this or that school.”

“…And please don’t take as many years as I did to realize that people don’t need teachers like me.” – Charles Bingham in “Why We Should Shred Our Diplomas.

It may seem like too a strong statement to juxtapose South African passbooks and academic credentials. Nonetheless, the comparison invites us to consider whether modern academic credentials help or hinder our aspiration towards increased access and opportunity for people. It challenges us to consider whether there are alternatives that better respect learning, achievement, and competence regardless of how it was acquired. It challenges us to ask whether leaders in formal schooling values learning and intellectual achievement enough to honor it wherever it is found, whether it is present in the credentialed or the “un-credentialed.”

I’m okay with having academic degrees and credentials. They can serve as a symbol of achievement, even indirect evidence that competence. It is when we mistake the credential for being inseparable from what it represents that I get concerned. To have a credential is not equal to being competent or a person of character. Most of society accepts these academic credentials as a sign that you must have certain traits and capabilities that make you worthy of certain opportunities withheld from others. As such, we exclude people from access to jobs and opportunities that would allow the un-credentialed to make wonderful and positive contributions.

Isn’t it interesting that degrees don’t have expiration dates or don’t require ongoing demonstration of competence? Part of what draws me to startups and entrepreneurship is that credentials don’t cut it. The startup community is a place where you can find high school dropouts mentoring PhDs, graduates of unknown liberal arts colleges or state schools going head to head with Ivy league grads, and what they produce often trumps the prestige of their alma mater. Of course, there are startups, VC firms, and incubators that probably give more attention to a person with Stanford or MIT on the résumé; but the startup world is a place where they are not the only ticket to the show. 

When I first got out of college, I was so interested in whether people saw me as a good teacher. At some point, that was not enough. I wanted to actually be a good teacher (although having the respect of others was a nice thing to have too). I love the parts of the startup world where people place so much value on what you’ve done and what you can do…more than your credentials. 

Consider how some of the “best” students in classes get more passionate about getting an A than doing things of substance. Think about how we have a National Honor Society, and the baseline criteria has to do with GPA. The students who are staying up late nights, devouring books, experimenting, exploring, applying ideas that they learned, but doing so at the cost of an A are not at the NHS banquets. They don’t get celebrated in schools nearly as often as the people who focus their performance on earning the credential. As such, many learning organizations celebrate credential-earning more than deep learning. 

This is why I’ve become an advocate for open badges. I hold out hope that they can provide alternatives (not necessarily replacements) for more traditional credentials. More routes reach more people. We add new academic currency that may not be well-known or understood by most today, but still have the promise of lessening the stronghold of credentialing gatekeeper institutions. In doing so, they also open our eyes to possibilities for a more open and accessible ways to recognize learning, competence and achievement.

For decades, academic institutions serving “non-traditional” students gave opportunities to earn what is called prior learning credit. It is a way of translating learning from life and work to college credit, allowing you to skip a few steps along the way to an academic credential. This plays an important role because academic institutions are still the credential gatekeepers in many areas. Yet, it is not difficult to imagine skipping the gatekeeper, devising open credentials that are used to recognize prior learning without the review of a traditional academic institution.

People already do this with their online presence. You can show your competence through your blog and/or digital portfolio, even more broadly through your online activity (candidly, I get enough consulting requests to replace and close to double my University salary simply through contacts via my blog). This is especially true in more emerging professions, ones that are not closely lined up with University majors or curricula. It is also the nature of some fields like programming or graphic design, especially when looking for consultants and contracted workers. If I want to hire someone to develop a high-quality video, I don’t care about your credentials. I want to see your portfolio and your references. Show me that you can do it well (and for a reasonable price) and you are hired.

I’m less comfortable with that approach when it comes to picking a surgeon. I want assurance that I have a highly competent person, and I seem to trust that their going through medical school and remaining board certified is good enough. Even then, I might also want to check patient reviews. For such professions, I understand the value of more carefully controlled pathways to the credentials. However, I an open to lessening the gatekeeping even in these professions as long as there is some sort of robust criteria for demonstrating competence. Besides, the number of professions that fit into such a category are relatively small.

The relationship between credentials and increased access and opportunity is a complicated one, and academic institutions offer a way to simplify things. The problem is that simplifying a complex problem may create other problems. I contend that the problems we’ve created are ones related to access and opportunity; ones related to unnecessary exclusion of competent people; ones related to monopolized credentials. I don’t expect things to change quickly. I’m not even sure if they will broadly change. Regardless, I see alternatives that seem to offer the promise a social good around openness, access and opportunity; and I believe that we will see this demonstrated on the micro level as people experiment with and apply open badges as a form of social/educational entrepreneurship.

As an odd conclusion to this article, I will offer an alternate proposal inDavid Labaree’s How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning.

In this book, however, I argue that it is time to consider whether the connection between schooling and social mobility is doing more hard than good. I show that the process of getting ahead often interferes with getting an education, and that the process of getting an education frequently makes it harder to get ahead. My aim is not to make the familiar – and generally valid – point that education grants its benefits disproportionately to those who are socially privileged. That argument naturally leads to the conclusion that we need to remake the educational system around a purer model of individual competitive achievement. My approach leads in quite a different direction. Instead of arguing that we need to make education into a more equitable mechanism for getting ahead, I argue that we need to back away from the whole idea that getting ahead should be the central goal of education” (p. I).

What Gives a Credential Value?

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.