When I Don’t Practice What I Preach About Credentialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Only We Had a More Credentialed World

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

Orchestra Credentials

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

Professional Basketball Players

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

Startup Founders

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

Parenting License

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

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

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

Everything Else

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

Reality Check

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the Higher Learning Commission Has the Wrong Measure for “Qualified Faculty”?

If you are a higher education institution seeking to gain or keep up regional accreditation, one of the many expectations is that you have “qualified faculty.” What do people mean by that? I’m fascinated with this question because US regional accrediting agencies seem to be stuck in a past age and are answering that question in a way that risks undermining the goal of Universities as places with the “best” faculty (especially for more applied fields) while also adding a challenges in the competition higher education institutions get from education providers beyond traditional academia. Just as we start reading about news like the University of Microsoft, LinkedIn meets Lynda.com and alternative paths to expertise, regional accreditors are perhaps unknowingly making sure Universities are at a disadvantage.

Answers to the question give us insight into fundamental beliefs and values related to higher education. They help us understand whether certain stakeholders, like regional accreditors, are more interested in maintaining things as they are, or true educational innovation and determining the extent to which a person has adequate expertise to teach a given course on the college level.

Consider the follow excerpts from a 2014 Higher Learning Commission document on guidelines for determining qualified faculty:

Faculty teaching in higher education institutions should have completed a program of study in the discipline or subfield in which they will teach, and/or for which they will develop curricula, with coursework at least one level above that of the courses being taught or developed. Successful completion of a coherent degree better prepares a person than an unstructured collection of credit courses.

Qualified faculty are identified primarily by credentials, but other factors may be considered in addition to the degrees earned.

Elsewhere, they mention that alternatives to credentials should be the exception, not the norm. What does this mean? The document goes on to further explain that the largely non-negotiable or standard measure for faculty qualification comes down to credentials. If you teach a MBA finance course, then you should have substantive coursework completed in finance on the doctoral level. If you are teaching an undergraduate course in entrepreneurship, it is nice that you started a dozen successful businesses, but the standard should normally focus instead of whether you have a graduate degree or substantive graduate coursework completed in entrepreneurship. If you are teaching creative writing on the master’s level, show me your doctoral work in creative writing. Yes, maybe you’ve published several award-winning pieces of fiction or served as senior editor at one of the top publishing houses in the world, but the credentials are the non-negotiable part. This makes complete sense for many who live in academia and depend upon it for their livelihood. It doesn’t make nearly as much sense beyond the walls of higher education. Maybe doctoral work in finance is valuable for a CFO, but what we really want is hard evidence that a prospective CFO knows her stuff and can do the job. As Google started to publicize in 2013 after conducting a study, GPA and credentials don’t cut it when trying to find the best people.

A standard like this sets up Universities to maintain accreditation by having wonderfully credentialed people who may or may not provide evidence that they can use or apply their knowledge and skill in contexts beyond the ivory tower. This doesn’t do much when it comes to showing society the deep value and relevance of higher education. We do that partly by filling it with faculty/mentors who are deeply knowledgable and skilled in their various disciplines (and in teaching/mentoring), not by lifting up the value of credentialism, the notion of protecting a profession by having strict requirements for certain credentials…perhaps even over the value of having the most truly qualified people. Even as I interact with more employers who are realizing that the credential is less valuable than demonstrable knowledge and skill, higher education accreditors are pushing back, insisting that faculty not simply be deeply qualified, but that faculty prove their qualifications in a very narrow way (show me that piece of paper). Yes, even as paths to expertise widen and vary, accreditors narrow the path to professor.

While some argue this maintains a high academic standard and protects the students, it seems far more focused on protecting the beloved traditional role of the professorate from sometimes more qualified people. “If I had to jump through certain academic hoops to become a professor, then the next generation should have to do the same.” Yet, we are in a new generation, a connected world where there are more options for ongoing learning and professional development than ever before. And like past generations, it remains true that some of the most skilled and knowledgable people in many disciplines and areas of study do not have significant credentials.

We only need to look at the exceptions to see why the enforcement of a credential approach to faculty qualifications is inadequate in some fields of study. Consider people like Joseph Blatt, who is the Faculty Director of the Technology, Innovation and Education graduate program at Harvard Graduate School of Education, but only lists a master’s degree on his vitae. I have no doubt that he is superbly qualified for the job, but the regional accrediting guidelines say that the Jo Blatt’s should only be the exceptions. Why? Would graduates of Harvard Graduate School walk away with a sub-par degree if most or nearly all the faculty with whom they took courses demonstrated their competence in ways like Blatt? Of course not. Beyond this one instance, history and modern times are full of faculty who are remarkably qualified apart from meeting the credential standard set out above, and the connected world will continue to make these “exceptions” more commonplace. If we really want higher education institutions to be beacons of high-impact learning and the pinnacle of excellence in various ares of study, why would we limit the pool of potential faculty by credentials…unless our interest has more to do with protecting the status of credentials?

Answers to this question about how to decide if faculty are qualified also give us a glimpse into the extent to which higher education institutions are given a disadvantage in competition with the growing number of educational offerings outside of higher education, companies and organizations that are not bound by standards from regional accreditors or the U.S. Department of Education (at least in the United States). Consider open courses, online tutorials, online live tutors and mentors, training resources, education workshops and conferences, webinars, professional certifications, conferences, and similar learning opportunities. Few of these pay as much attention to the formal credentials of the teacher as they do to the quality of the learning experiences and the outcomes of the learner. While some of these, like MOOCs, do still often rely on traditionally credentialed people, many of the others do not. Their value and the demand for what they offer depends upon whether they deliver on what they offer. Do people get what they need and want out of it. Does the education work or truly help people learn what they need to learn? That is a far more direct measure than whether the person who designed the webinar or learning experience has certain letters behind her name. Especially when it comes to lifelong learning and graduate programming, these other forms of education have the upper hand. They have full access to the larger pool of deeply qualified content designers and facilitators, where higher education institutions are only limited to the highest credentialed people.

In fact, even academia doesn’t look at credentials when it comes to judging the quality of research in peer-reviewed publications and conferences. If a person produced great research, it is possible for a high school drop out to beat out a PhD for a presentation spot at a place like the American of Education Research Association conference. The measure is the quality of your work, not your collection of credentials.

Look ahead a decade. Which one do you think will win out in the competition for the time, investment and attention of 21st century lifelong learners, the unregulated education providers or the highly regulated higher education institutions? Even with new experiments and innovations like competency-based education programs, accreditors seem focused on the legacy approach to measuring faculty qualifications. It appears that higher education institutions are free to innovate as long as they do so in the nicely prescribed box outlined by aging standards and processes that put them at a disadvantage in the larger education landscape. My concern is that restrictions like this might leave more higher education institutions watching much of the education action on the sidelines, staring longingly behind unnecessary fences set by outside agencies and organizations.