An Open Letter to President Obama On Free & Open Education

Dear Mr. President,

I’m writing regarding your recent announcement about a forthcoming proposed plan for making the first two years of college free in the United States. I realize that this is a startling concept for some, troubling for others, and that it will face many challenges from opponents. I understand that it may be unlikely to get the necessary support to move forward on a national level. It has only been days since the announcement and I’ve already ready dozens of critiques, some with good and important insights that might help to strengthen the proposal and assist us in making progress toward free and universal education. I also realize that making a public statement like this from the President of the United States has power and influence, even if the idea makes no progress on a national level. Your statement brought an important issue and opportunity to the public square. Even by giving attention to the idea and a comparable state-level program like the Tennessee Promise, you have challenged us as a nation to consider how we can be bold and committed to making progress toward increased access and opportunity to higher education and the jobs that require training beyond high school. I also recognize that, while your statements were about a specific idea, the spirit of such a proposal goes well beyond two free years of college. Thank you for the challenge. I would like help, and here are five ways that I will do so.

1. I will champion open education.

Open education is about removing barriers to education and learning. The digital revolution has thrust us into a world where such a vision is possible and scalable on a global level.  Current funding models in American higher education often make it difficult to imagine free and open educational opportunities, and yet widely supported movements like massive open online courses, open badges, open courseware and open education resources prove the power of shared vision and action in this area. Educational opportunities are more available than any time in history, and much of this has come from a spirit of social entrepreneurship, a concept that can serve us well as we dream of a more open, equitable and humane approaches to education.

2. I will champion making a greater distinction between evidence of what is learned and how it is learned.

As much as I believe that two free years of college is a move in the right direction (despite the fact that it challenges the existing model of higher institutions like the one where I work), I aspire to help un-chain evidence of learning from the academy. Today it is hard for many of us to imagine this possibility, but there is a movement underway that is making important progress in this area. We are a group of people involved with something called open badges, visual and digital symbols of achievements and accomplishments. While the concept of a digital badge is simple, it has tremendous possibilities, some of which we are seeing through hundreds of early applications and innovations, projects in after-school programs to competency-based graduate school, workforce development to support for veterans, professional continuing education to turning entire cities into inter-connected learning networks with a common and shared means of verifying and documenting accomplishments.

I am convinced that it is possible to take a set of standards, like what we see established for given professions, and to design competency-based digital badges that can be issued when people demonstrate that they met each of these standards. How they learn it should not matter. It might come from self-study, participation in open courses, through a local study group, through two free years of college, or through some fee-based course or program. By unbundling the “how” of learning from the credential we open doors to employment for people regardless of the learning pathway. I believe that this fits very will with your vision for two free years of college, but it takes it to a level where we are not just concerned with attendance at an institution. This makes sure that what we are doing is resulting in actual learning that translates into new opportunity in life and qualified candidates for many important jobs.

3. I will champion education that is open and accessible to people regardless of socioeconomic status.

While schooling has yet to prove itself to be a complete equalizer among people, true education has shown itself to crease access and opportunity to people regardless of socioeconomic status. It does not solve all problems of inequity, but it gives people a fighting chance. As such, I am committed to supporting, championing, even helping create programs and models that extend educational opportunity to all people, and doing it in a way that doesn’t give the “good stuff” to the élite and offer a more general or watered-down education to the rest.

4. I will champion education that empowers human agency, the capacity for self-direction, purpose-driven living, and service to others.

I believe in a liberal education for all, liberal in the classical sense, which is about education of a free person. It is the education that treats each person as free, inherently valuable, and capable of agency and self-direction. Such a conviction calls for something greater than more education. It calls for a type of learning that equips, empowers, and nurtures people who do more than follow and comply. It invites people to lives of courage, creativity, personal conviction, and personal responsibility.

Too many people are limited by not having a sense of the possibilities, and I will work to promote education that helps people grow into a sense of purpose and possibility. This comes from people who live and think with agency, but who have the opportunity to benefit from learning experiences that invite them reflect  upon their life’s purpose and calling. As such, I will champion education that invites people into the life of the hero’s journey, one that embraces the opportunity to use one’s distinct gifts, talents and abilities in service to others; and that embraces life as a gift and grand adventure.

5. I will advocate for educational innovation and entrepreneurship that furthers the pursuit of the above four goals.

I commend the vision for two free years of college, and this is a good and important step in the right direction. However, if I understand the spirit of such a proposal, I am convinced that this calls for a reform and re-imagining of education that goes beyond removing the cost of tuition. As such, I am excited about the good and important innovation and entrepreneurship work being done in the public and private sector. I will continue to write and work for a vision of innovation in the education sector that is rooted in a desire for social good and accountability for the impact of one’s products and services. At the same time, I will support and bolster responsible experimentation, thoughtful educational entrepreneurship, and purpose-driven innovation.

I support your proposal, Mr. President…not necessarily every letter of it (I have not yet seen it). Perhaps it is best done by supporting and empowering states to do it. Maybe there is another way. In the end, I am open to many ways of getting at the same thing whether it happens nationally or locally. We can almost always find a workable “how” if only we allow ourselves to be immersed and inspired by a compelling “why.” We have a wonderfully compelling “why” for increased access and opportunity to education. As such, I support and seek to build upon the spirit of your proposal. Thank you for giving such attention to this important topic in education.


Dr. Bernard Bull

Educational Innovation, Media Coverage & The Example of MOOCs

I’ve run into a number of educators recently who were critiquing the trendy-ness of modern education. “There is always something new,” they explain, “but they never last.” In fact, I’ve heard that dozens of times over the years when it came to online learning. It was even a question asked at my thesis defense for my master’s on online learning in the 1990s. Isn’t this just yet another passing educational fad? Almost twenty years later I can say with confidence that it is not a passing trend.

Nonetheless, many seem to be even quicker to judge something new in education as a passing or fading trend. Now it often seems to depend upon how long the concept makes frequent headlines in the news and blogosphere. The assumption is that it must be a passing trend if people are not writing articles about it.

MOOCs are a good example of this. In 2013 and early 2014, MOOC headlines where all over the place. There were bold claims that they would disruptive higher education and just as bold rebuttals that they would never replace what we do in traditional education. There were debates about their uses and other musing about how they might supplement middle and high school curricula, provide new employable skills, serve as a low-cost and high-impact form of professional development for teachers, and just serve as a way for more people to gain access to useful learning experiences apart from enrollment in a University or expensive tuition expenses.

Of course, there were also no shortage of critiques as first hints of data analysis came out about retention rates. People wrote about low “retention rates” as if it was proof that MOOCs are a failure. At the same time, others challenges this critique, noting that the intent of the learner is more important than some traditional measure of success used in formal schooling.

Then things slowed down over the last few months of 2014. There were fewer (but still plenty) of headlines. As such, I’ve had multiple conversations and listened to speakers use this decrease in media coverage as evidence that MOOCs are on the decline, that this was more hype than substance.

The problem is that this is not accurate. I reached out the people at EdX in November, inquiring about their enrollment. Following is their response.

Hi Bernard,

Thank you for your edX question. Please find our enrollment stats below.

October 2013: 2.31 million enrollments

October 2014: 6.26 million enrollments

Thank you.



From 2.31 million to 6.26 million in one year! That sure doesn’t seem like a decline to me. If a sector of formal education saw that much of an increase in a twelve month period, it would certainly be in the headlines. The same is true for growth in almost any sector. My point is that there is a difference between the facts and the frequency or nature of media coverage. An innovation exists apart from its media coverage, and we are wise to not judge things too quickly based upon what we are seeing in our favorite education news sources.

In the case of MOOCs, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the articles and blog posts. I suspect that there will be an ebb and flow to the coverage, but beneath all that we continue to see steady growth, new experiments, new successes, new challenges, new opportunities, and yet another educational technology initiative (like online learning) is likely to become a persistent and impactful part of 21st century education.

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?

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).

6 Elements of Democratizing Education


to make (a country or organization) more democratic

: to make (something) available to all people : to make it possible for all people to understand (something)

Follow my blog long enough and you will see a few phrase that show up often. “Democratize” is one of them. When I use the term, I am referring to increasing access and opportunity to education in the broadest sense. It is a concept that has a long and rich history, but it has more recently been amplified by the affordances of an increasingly connected world. As I see it, there are five areas of education that are becoming increasingly democratized in the digital world, with a sixth one on the way, one that truly does have the potential to hold its own alongside traditional forms of education.

Democratizing Information & Knowledge

This one doesn’t require much explanation or evidence. Just look at GoogleWikipediaPinterestGoogle BooksProject Gutenberg, or a site like Forgotton Books (an online library that gives access to over 480,000 free books). If you have a device with Internet access today, then you information and knowledge about an immense number of topics. This democratizes education by providing the self-directed learner with content to study and from which to learn.

Democratizing Learning Resources

Sites like OER CommonsMIT Open CourseWareiTunes UYouTube, and Academic Earth, have gone a step further. They have democratized access to organized learning resources in the form of lectures, course content, and learning activities. This garnered significant attention starting in first ten years of the second millennium.

Democratizing Learning Networks

Then we have the increases in access to learning networks, people leveraging the power of the web to connect with other people and communities around the world. In fact, this goes back to the earliest days of the web. We have communities like Cafe Mocha, free language instruction by interacting with people around the world. More recently, we’ve seen the development of Google Helpouts, further democratizing access to experts and learning coaches from around the globe. Of course, we also have a three-decade history of largely accessible online groups, communities and networks that people use to learn about everything from cooking to computer programming, home repair to getting a job. As such, we have access to not only content and resources, but connections with people from whom we learn. Today we see this thriving in social media outlets like Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Democratizing Feedback for Learning

Within those communities, people have free access to interactive learning…gaining feedback, one of the most critical aspects of high-impact learning experiences. In addition to the communities, we also see the democratizing of learning feedback through initiatives like Khan AcademyCodeAcademy, and language apps like DuoLingo. It isn’t just content, but it is also detailed feedback on one’s learning progress.

Democratizing Courses

From all these, it is natural that we would see people blending these democratizing features into full courses. That is where we see the emergence of open courses, with the most recognizable ones being the many MOOCs on the web today (See the list of providers at the bottom of this post.).

Democratizing Credentials

These all contribute to the growing democratization of education. We have access to high quality content, learning communities, feedback on learning, even organized and facilitated online courses…free to anyone with a device, Internet access, and the skill to leverage them for one’s personal learning goals. Yet, there is another part to education that remains largely closed and controlled by more traditional learning and professional organizations, the credentialing of one’s learning. The democratization of learning credentials may well be a tipping point. As it stands, much of contemporary society uses diplomas, transcripts, and certifications as evidence of one’s learning. It is not a perfect system, and while there remains widespread social trust in these credentials, there are plenty of critics as well.

Now consider the emergence of democratizing credentials. Consider the possibility of open badges becoming increasingly accepted evidence of one’s learning through the other democratized elements above. Think about efforts like, resources that allow you to provide evidence of your learning and share it with others. Consider the tracking and documentation of learning in some of the resources already mentioned like Khan Academy and Code Academy.

We do not live in a time when the public widely recognizes credentials from Code Academy, Coursera, or self-study through Academy Earth as having the same value as a degree from an accredited University, but we do see alternative credentials gaining recognition. People are earning new jobs, gaining access to Universities, even procuring social recognition and influence by using alternate evidence of learning from democratized resources. And as the number of such people grows, so will the perceived value of alternates to traditional credentials. I do not expect to see these alternates as necessarily replacing traditional credentials, but I do envision a time in the near future where democratized credentials become a from of academic currency that holds significant value in society. I see a day when democratized credentials will allow more people to gain admission to careers and social groups that are currently only open to those with an A.A., B.A., or M.A. Or, we are likely to see a growing number of alternative credentialing system that can lead to obtaining a degree (as we already see in competency-base education and prior learning assessments).