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 is the purpose of a credential, diploma, license, or certificate?

What is the purpose of a credential, diploma, license, or certificate? There are obviously many answers to this question. There is not a single answer. However, I’m increasingly convinced that this a question worth asking, helping us to better understand the perceptions, value, and limitations of credentials as a social currency. Perhaps it will help us navigate the growing conversations around alternative credentials, micro-credentialing and debates about the value of a college degree.

I have a stack of credentials, but what do they say about my current competence? I have a 6th grade diploma, 8th grade diploma, high school diploma, undergraduate diploma, and three graduate diplomas. Then I have a fair share of certificates, not to mention transcripts with coursework in well over a dozen disciplines from many Universities. I don’t write this to boast. In fact, I am doing the opposite, illustrating how little they say about my current competence.

So, what do each of these credentials say about me today? Can I still recall the facts required to pass the classes that led to my 6th grade diploma? Check out “Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader” and you have your answer.Do I still have the knowledge to easily reference Spinoza or Descartes based on my philosophy of perception class ten years ago? What about the computer information system courses that I took in the 1990s? I was once skilled at repairing 1990s computers or building them from scratch, but you do not want me tinkering with your 2014 laptop. And I was also good with network management of anything using Novell NetWare 4.0 or earlier, which doesn’t do me much good navigating any modern network. Or how about my certificate in online teaching and learning from eight years ago? Has anything changed with online learning in the last eight years?

Without persistent practice, time has a way of eroding knowledge and skill in many of these areas. Yet, that original credential is what goes on the résumé. I could have permanent memory loss and I still get to own those credentials, post them on my wall (or store them in my closet…my location of choice at the moment), and use them as evidence of my competence for current and future work.

But some credentials expire. You have to keep doing something to show that you still “have it.” That is true, and the rigor of re-certification varies significantly from one credential to another. Some do require a person to prove that they are still current. Most have simple professional development requirements: design a professional development plan and show your progress, or complete a certain number of CEUs or graduate credits in an accepted area. To keep up my teaching license, all I need to do is complete a background check, write a check to the state, and take 6 graduate credits in education or history. Or, more recent graduates have to design a professional development plan with goals and a demonstration what they learned. Either option can be a nice learning experience, but neither verifies current knowledge and skill. They simply show that you are doing something in an area relevant to your certification. This same thing is true in many professions, including a number of health fields.

Time does make a difference in how credentials are viewed. If you had a counseling degree from 1965 but had not practiced as a counselor since that time, it would have less perceived value…at least for those who cared to investigate. But that is part of my concern. How many people look at credentials with that measure of scrutiny? Employers do, but credentials tend to serve as signals that a person belongs to a class of educated, qualified, competent, or maybe even just intelligent. Depending upon the nature of the credential, they offer prestige and an entry ticket into certain groups.

Some credentials, like a medical license or even a driver’s license can’t be maintained in the presence of some factor that results in a person being unable to perform the tasks required of that license. For example, if I can’t pass the vision test, I get a limited license (requiring corrective eyewear) or I can’t get a license. Certain conditions might even exclude me from being eligible to drive. The same it true for other certifications and licenses, but it is not true for other credentials like diplomas. One reason is simply that driving when not able is far more dangerous than keeping a diploma posted on one’s wall. So, we see that we have different types of credentials, each with different standards.

If all credentials were really about verifying competence (a shorthand way of telling society that, “This person is qualified or educated.”), why isn’t it standard for us to have to conduct re-assessments every 3-5 years to maintain a credential? Considering this question and the potential answers is an important part of understanding and addressing the affordances and limitations of credentials in contemporary society. It helps us recognize how they are being used, abused, misrepresented, and leveraged for good.

  • How much of the answer to such questions is financial?
  • How much of it reveals that credentials are often fundamentally about something different from current capabilities and competence?
  • How might the answer help us make progress toward a culture that values competence above credentials, and that avoids unhelpful practices verging on credentialism?
  • How might the concept of micro-credentials help, hinder, or perpetuate the current limitations of credentials in society?

Digital Badges & Academic Credentials for Homeschoolers

Homeschooling is one of the faster growing sectors in K-12 education today. As I’ve argued in the past, one of the reasons for this growth is the increased access to free and inexpensive communities and resources. We are no longer talking about a handful of curriculum providers. Open education resources, free learning resources and tools, and the constantly growing number of high-quality online learning communities are available at the click of a mouse (or the tap of a screen). For example, if you were homeschooling your sixteen year old son or daughter today in math, in less than a few hours of searching, you could find a dozen quality adaptive math software solutions, free online homeschool courses in math, MOOCs designed for high school students, several personalized learning math resources, along with access to affordable remote math tutors (some with impressive credentials in math, education, and/or real world accomplishments). As many homeschool families have discovered, there is no reason why a young person needs to be limited by the knowledge or expertise of the teacher…any teachers. There are resources available to help anyone from the struggling math student to the prodigy.

There is still a challenge (although far from an insurmountable barrier) for some who are considering homeschooling or currently engaged in it. I’m referring to obtaining credentials that are understandable and widely recognized evidence of homeschool student achievements. Homeschooling families address this challenge in several ways: using scores on standardized tests, issuing report cards from the home, creating transcripts or using a transcript service, creating portfolios that represent achievements, through a GED, through diplomas provided by a homeschool co-op, through partnerships with local independent schools that help with credentialing, and by enrolling students in some traditional or online courses that provide transcripts and credentials.

As with all things, each of these have their benefits and limitations; but I still stee gaps. What if there was a highly customizable, low-cost solution that provided grade reports, transcripts, diplomas and widely accepted academic credentials for homeschoolers (and others who wanted to provide evidence of student learning)? Now consider some of the things that I’ve been writing about with the potential of digital badges. Imagine a a largely open and democratic communities that specialized in creating and issuing digital badges based upon widely diverse academic programming, serving everyone from the unschooler to the classical education homeschool student. It could provide (but not require) benchmarks for progress and, when students demonstrate that they meet the benchmarks, the credentials are issued. I see the open badge infrastructure as being a useful framework for such a project, and we can expect to see this in the near future.

I realize that some homeschool families would not like this option, as they prefer full control within the home. Yet, there are many others who would see this as a relief and a solution to a an area that is still a struggle. Most homeschool families recognize the value of the learning in their homes/schools. Yet, there is some nervousness about how to provide evidence of that learning in a way that colleges, employers and others will easily understand it and recognize it. I think that digital badges (attached to more traditional formats like transcripts and diplomas) can help.

I’m considering launching an initiative to explore such a solution. What do you think?