Eight Challenges for the Future of Education, Credentials and Recognition

The 2016 EPIC conference just ended last week, and I walked away with:

  • forty pages of notes,
  • new friends and colleagues,
  • and swirling thoughts about the role and possibility of open recognition systems.

I might even have a new book project coming out of this experience, but I’ll share more about that later.

It was an honor to be one of the early keynotes for the event. I was given the topic of “the future of education,” so I worked from that to come up with the title, “Exploring Futures of Credentials & Education: A Case for Missional Innovation.” Drawing from some of my work on innovation in education, I juxtaposed a series of sometimes competing concepts for our consideration.

When I write and talk about the future, I don’t do it as the sort of futurist who claims to be able to predict what will happen with certainty. Instead, I look at past trends, highlight potential futures, and give those of us in the present opportunity to consider how each of us will contribute to creating one of those futures.

What is clear to me is what Blaschke and Hase wrote in 2016, that “We are in an age of knowledge and skill emancipation” (p. 25). The Internet and way in which it helped us imagine the possibly for life and learning in a connected age, frees and extends knowledge, learning, skill acquisition and much more. This doesn’t make existing learning organizations obsolete, but it does challenge their claim to have a “corner on the education market.”

Instead, and as I’ve written about before, we are at a time in which there are multiple roads that one might travel on a learning journey. There is still the stable degree drive, completing a series of courses and requirements at a formal school, leaving with a valued credential, and hopefully some learning as well. Yet, there is also continuing education court, a road that is widening as more organizations and groups are creating free, inexpensive, open or alternative ways of learning (as evidenced by the popular example of the emerging coding bootcamps, MOOCs, open education resources, and more). Along with that, thanks to the digital world, we have self-directed street. The person with competence and confidence to learn independently has ample resources to do so. Now we are also seeing greater interest in and effort to connect these three roads, allowing one’s learning journey to shift from one road to the next. Yet, we’ve not historically had ways to recognize the learning that happens across these three streets. Our recognition and credentials remain stuck to one of the streets in most case. All of this begins to change as we embrace the power and possibility of open badges and, more broadly, strategies for open recognition.

And so, in such a context, we have some decisions to make. There are tensions that we are wise to consider, eight of which I shared in my keynote, and I will briefly revisit here. I don’t contend that one must win or defeat the other. Sometimes, even often, the tension is good. Paradox and tension is something to be understood, not always something to be eradicated. Of course, as you will see in my forthcoming comments, I do see wisdom in giving greater emphasis to one over the other in a given time and context.

Pathways Versus Gateways

Gateways are about checks, balances, control, accountability, and quality. They are part of what formal learning organizations promise to the public. If a University issues a medical degree to a person who is completely unqualified to practice medicine, then that credential and the issuing entity will eventually lose the trust of the public. It will cease to benefit anyone. This is the perspective that defends the importance of gateways in the modern education ecosystem. At the same time, gateways are not always just about this public trust. Sometimes policies, rules, and systems become gateways that limit or restrict people who are indeed qualified. We create rules that restrict and inhibit. We even take pride in this, noting that we are weeding out the unqualified. Yet, there is no question that there are usually multiple pathways to learning something or achieving mastery in a given domain. The question is whether we are willing to help create a modern learning ecosystem where we can recognize learning from multiple pathways, maintaining a commitment to a public trust without unnecessarily restricting the aspiring learner.

Protecting Corporate, Educational and Government Control Versus Protecting Public Interest and Individual Rights

Ideally, corporations, educational institutions and government agencies are protecting the public interest and individual rights. Yet, we would be naive to assume that this is always the case. In fact, the nature of organizational operations is that they sometimes go against such ends unintentionally. Or, there are personal and organizational interests that compete with other interests for people outside of those organizations. It is no surprise that these formal organizations and the people within them will often have self-preservation as one among other priorities.

Yet, some of the potential challenges and opportunities of this age, especially when it comes to open learning and open recognition, will clash with the interest of these organizations and institutions. If corporate interest dominates, there is a good chance that the next generation of open badges will be about securing financial benefits for these corporate stakeholders. If educational institution’s interest dominate, then there is a good chance that these institutions will be set up and defended as the sole or preferred means by which learning is properly recognized, even though there are countless individuals whose access and opportunity may be diminished by such an effort. If government control dominates, there are likely to be policies that restrict promising innovations in open learning and open recognition, not intentionally, but simply because these entities have narrower priorities and measures by which they are making their decisions. As an example, consider the incredible restrictions to innovation in the modern United States higher education system because of policies intended to protect the government’s massive investment in the financial aid program.

A balance, in my view, is not acceptable. This tension should lean toward public interest and individual rights while acknowledging the needs and interest of these organizations. Yet, this calls for a visionary and missional approach to the matter. We must collectively remain committed to the larger view and greater purpose, namely increased access and opportunity.

Competency as Static Versus Competency as Dynamic

When it comes to both credentials and recognition, this is an interesting contrast. When you graduate with a degree, and many perceive that degree as evidence of your competence in a given area, you maintain that degree for life, even if your competence diminishes or disappears altogether. You can put it on a resume. You can use it to open doors of opportunity. Yet, not all credentials or forms of recognition work that way. Some credentials expire or require ongoing verification that you do indeed have the knowledge and skills that you once had.

We are working from a flawed view of learning if we think that competency is something that you earn and own for life as if it were a tangible object. Competency grows and shrinks. It strengthens and weakens. This is an important tension for us to remember as we think about the role of recognition and credentials today.

Summative Credentialing Versus Formative Credentialing

We don’t typically use the terms “formative” and “summative” in reference to credentialing, but I contend that they allow us to look at recognition and credentials in important ways. As I so often say, formative is the check up at the doctor, and summative is the autopsy. The former is about checks and progress while the latter is about a final judgement or assessment. Yet, who is to say that credentials and recognition must always be summative? As with the static versus dynamic contrast, we can also begin to think about what it would look like to create and use forms of recognition and credentials that represent where you are at the moment, but adapting and changing as you grow and develop. Innovations around learning analytics and big data have potential to help us bring such musings into reality.

Credentialism Versus Matchmaking

Credentialsim is credentials at their worst. It is when credentials are used to restrict access and opportunity, intentionally or unintentionally. A credential is required for access to some opportunity in society when, in actuality, it may not be necessary. We are wise to remain vigilant in avoiding this persistent risk with our use of credentials. Yet, and again drawing from the developments around learning analytics and big data, we may be entering a future where credentialism can be reduced as more of a matchmaking understanding can gain traction.

Imagine an online reputation system that includes a collection of credentials and various forms of recognition (including endorsement and artifacts that provide evidence of your accomplishments and expertise). Now imagine systems that can mine that data, mine the data of other people and organizations, and help you connect with those people and organizations that might be a good fit. Such an innovation could transform the way that we think about talent searches and connecting with people and groups. It certainly has its risks and limitations too, but I offer this as a possible future, one that could also increase access and opportunity while diminishing credentialism.

Portfolio as a Collection of Credentials & Artifacts Versus Portfolio as a Dynamic Personal Narrative

When I learn about how learning organizations today are using portfolios, they are quite often attached to standards in a program. Or, they might be used as a place for personal reflection about one’s learning. Yet, there is that other outward facing side of portfolios, using them to show your work to the world and hopefully connecting with people and organizations. Imagine a portfolio system where your lifelong and lifewide learning story is being told and updated persistently. Tied to the matchmaking idea that I just explained, this would establish rich data by which we can do some impressive matchmaking, both technologically and serendipitously.

Standardize or Personalize

I used the well-known cartoon to point out this tension. There is a lineup of animals. There is a bird, monkey, penguin, elephant, goldfish, seal, and a dog. Then there is a man sitting behind a desk saying, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.” The question is whether the future of learning and recognition will reflect or challenge that cartoon. Standardization plays an important role in society and certain contexts, but it is not without its limitations. Personalization is the same. Yet, this is where the vision and mission comes into play. What drives the extent to which we go toward one or the other has to do with how we answer the question about what is best for the public interest and individual rights? Our answers will differ, but any promising future of education, credentials, and recognition will remember these tensions.

Learner as Pupil/Patient/Customer Versus Learning as Co-creator

As I explain in my book, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, Kathryn Church is an inspiration to me. She was a mental health professional who found herself a patient in a mental health facility. She had the truly unique perspective of looking at the experience through both of these lenses and published an incredible piece of scholarship about it called Forbidden Narratives: Critical Autobiography as Social Science. Her work challenged the clean separation of researcher and subject as she was both.

In a similar way, we are in an era that has growing interest in student voice and student agency as a way of nurturing voice and agency throughout life. We see significant attention to movements like user-centered design and empathetic design, approaches that are rooted in a deep understanding of the users. Alongside both of these, we know that collaboration is an increasingly critical skill in the 21st century landscape. These are finding their way into education as well, challenging us to consider how we might adjust from education as something done to students to education as something that is done with students. This extends from the learning to the credentials, recognition and representation of that learning.

As I mentioned in my keynote, technology and innovation always brings with it affordances and limitations, benefits and downsides. All of these potential futures of education and recognition are the same. There will always be winners and losers, different ones depending upon the context and technology. Yet, if we are committed to creating a learning and recognition ecosystem that increases access and opportunity, I contend that these are the types of considerations that warrant our time and attention.

Five Possibilities for the Future of Online Learning

Where is the future of online learning? Which providers will grow and which will diminish? In a regulated industry like education, it is often hard to predict. Yet, there are certain potentials futures that are far more likely than others. As I review the landscape and the developments over the last twenty years, I suspect that there are four especially strong potential futures. There may well be a blend of these four, but each represents a strong trend that is likely to traction.

Also, before I get started, I should explain that referencing these five is not necessarily a claim that all other forms of online learning will cease to exist in the future. Rather, I’m referring to futures where certain forms dominate over others. This is a matter of emphasis more than existence. You might even find it helpful to think in terms of market share. With that important caveat, here are for strong potential futures for online learning.

Regional Influencers

One possibility that seems to have gained significant attention in the last few years is the idea of the online learning regional influencer. In contrast to the national and international brands in online learning, many regional non-profit state Universities and private higher education institutions have captured market share. People resonate with and trust these schools, and that is extending to online learning. These may be online programs of hundreds or thousands, but they are often not the massive populations that we see with some of the past online programs. Some of these schools are also marketing their online programs nationally and internationally, but they get the majority of students in their own backyard and through a robust alumni network that extends beyond the region.

This is a promising future because regional online programs can find far less expensive ways to recruit students. They don’t necessarily need to spend the countless millions on digital campaigns across the country to get traction. More people already know them in the region, so a small but focused mixed channel marketing effort can be all that is needed to connect degree seeking student with their online programs.

A Few Massive Providers

At the same time, there are some for-profit and non-profit providers who might have started with a regional focus, but they have definitely extended their influence nationally and internationally. These programs have awareness, large marketing budgets, impressive and sizable teams (on the recruitment/marketing and academic side), and they are striving to set the bar for innovative programming.

There is the possibility that these will continue to grow and gain market share, pushing out many of the others who dabble with online learning. This could happen with some of the known and established online Universities today. It could also happen with elite Universities that choose to leverage their brand to establish a low-cost portfolio of online programs. While distinguishing these programs from their face-to-face counterparts, these schools could potentially pass by existing groups, using their longstanding brand reputation to become online program providers of choice. Granted that such schools establish cutting edge research to inform their design and practice, this would be a powerful force in the online space, allowing them to recruit large numbers with a limited marketing budget, simply because of the strong brand awareness.

Storefront & Partnerships

Then we have the large MOOC providers like Coursera and EdX. While they are not moving quickly into offering degree programs, the way in which they are set up could be preparing them to eventually becoming providers for small and massive online courses and programs. Universities could partner to offer courses that contribute to a shared degree, or one could take individual courses with a single University.

The MOOC providers have a compelling storefront model that has interesting possibilities. Instead of people simply conducting broad searches to find the right online degree, imagine a future where there are a few massive storefronts. Now imagine corporate and other partners playing some sort of role in this, providing pathways to certain jobs, aligning professional programs more closely with the needs of specific employers, and much more.

This approach is a strong possibility amid the unbundling experiments that we are seeing in education. Challenges with accreditation and inconsistency across organizations prevents a more such shared programs today, not to mention competitive element. Yet, if a storefront provider were to establish some sort of cross-organization standard, it is not hard to imagine a situation where there is greater transferability from one organization to the next. We could see programs created out of courses or even smaller curricular units from a few or even a dozen organizations. This future downplays the differentiation and distinctions from one organization to the next. It is a stronger possibility in ares of study where there is already a great deal of standardization due to external regulatory bodies. For example, this could work in a healthcare field where you have pretty much the same outcomes and courses regardless of where you study.

This future requires a type of partnership that is less common today in the degree-seeking world, but if an organization is successful in creating a well-known storefront, we could see a future of online learning that is not unlike the grocery store experience, only with courses and degrees. This leads me to a distinct but related idea, the competitive marketplace approach.

Competitive Marketplace

Another potential future is the Amazon model of online higher education. Imagine a future where you could go to a marketplace not unlike Amazon.com to search for online programs. We certainly see sites that collect and present many online options today, but those are largely simple sites with inquiry forms. These companies make money by charging schools to advertise their programs on the site. It is a basic business model.

We’ve not yet seen the growth of more advanced versions of this concept in education, truly bringing to reality a marketplace approach to searching for degree and non-degree training. Yet, there are some influential voices and organizations interested in creating something like this. It could begin with a regional partnership among 5-10 large state Universities, for example. Unlike the last example, where it might include more collaboration among course providers, this is mainly a storefront. It certainly could include collaboration, but it doesn’t need to. People can shop for courses and degrees across organizations.

The Free & Open Online University

We see open universities outside of the United States, but there are emerging financial innovations and political moves that may well drive a new type of online degree program, namely a free and open one. This could be government funded, but there are other possibilities for funding a completely or almost free online degree provider. Given the growth of the open learning movement combined with some political interests pushing for tuition-free college, this type of massive and online degree option has a possibility of coming into existing in the next decade.

Again, futures in education are influenced by a myriad of factors, and regulatory changes make it a challenge to see too far ahead. Yet, these four possible futures are rooted in some clear, persistent, and growing trends in the online learning space. I am confident that we will see one or more of them gain significant traction in the upcoming decade and beyond.

The Future of Education: Ignore, Prepare, Predict, or Create?

When it comes to thinking about the future of education, there are four basic approaches. Some ignore thoughts about the future, arguing that it is out of reach and that there is plenty to focus on in the present. Others take the approach of preparing for the future. While it might be unknown, we can prepare ourselves by being agile, alert, responsive to subtle and significant changes and trends, and by doing what it takes to position yourself for the unknown. Then there are those who work to predict the future. While this is not a certain science, there are ways to notice trends and develop a nuanced ability to track that which is likely to stick and shape the future of education. Yet, there are those who go beyond all of these, aspiring to create the future.

Of course, there is no rule against embracing more than one of these, In fact, I suggest that there is much wisdom in takings lessons from all four emphases. Let’s look at them more closely.

Ignore

Maybe “ignore” is not the right word, but there is something to be said for not obsessing about the future. There are instances where people are so worried about or focused on what might happen in the future, that it prevents them from investing in the present. In that sense, there is a time to set aside our thinking about the future, instead dealing with the important tasks of today. By investing in creating something great today, we might be better preparing ourselves for the future anyway. As Mother Theresa is quoted as saying, ““Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” There is plenty of work in the present. Yet, there is a limit to this. Completely ignoring signs of change in the near future can be detrimental.

Prepare

The “prepare” camp is sometimes skeptical that you can actually predict the future. At the same time, those in this camp also see it as unwise to ignore the future. Instead, the goal is to figure out how to best prepare for it. In fact, this sort of mindset is arguably essential in education. We are preparing people for a future that doesn’t yet exist. As such, we have to find ways to prepare for the unknown. As Malcolm X wrote, ““Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” Or, FDR said it this way, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

Predict

As I wrote in a recent article, the future might seem to sneak up on us in unexpected ways, but it rarely happens in an instant. With attention and study, we can notice the signs of change. A good place to start is with the past. The past might not repeat itself, but studying the past can give us a better sense of the changes to come, which is the spirit of what Marquis of Halifax meant when he wrote, “The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory.” In addition, there is ample wisdom in this quote from an unknown source, “A good forecaster is not smarter than everyone else, he merely has his ignorance better organized.” If we can see patterns in what seems like randomness to others, we can sometimes make sense of it.

Create

Others realize that we all play a role in creating the future. Abraham Lincoln allegedly said, ““The best way to predict your future is to create it.” It isn’t just some distant, disconnected and abstract thing. Each of us has a role in making it happen. Even small actions can have a ripple effect on future lives, organizations, communities and more. I’m especially fond of how Buckminster Fuller put it when he wrote, ““You never change things by fighting the existing reality.To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” The models, metaphors, and ideas that we create or promote help shape the future. Having been involved with tracking trends in education for over twenty years, I am confident that we can do this to a degree that is helpful, but we must also do it with a healthy dose of both humility and skepticism of our own predictions. That is why I appreciate the wisdom in Stephen Hawkings way of thinking about the topic, “One can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance.”

A Combined View

Yet, instead of sticking with any one of these, I am both an idealist and a realist. I choose to learn from each of these approaches, seeing them as complementary more than competitive or discrete approaches. There are times when it is best to focus on the present and not let thoughts of the future distract us. Then there is wisdom in doing what we can to prepare ourselves for the future, even if it is unknown. At the same time, we can do the hard work of studying the past and present trends so that we are more informed about possible futures. Yet, we don’t have to be fatalistic about it. We have a role to play in shaping what is to come, and recognizing this fact is an important starting point.

There is Not One Future of Higher Education: Toward a More Nuanced Conversation

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.