The education revolution – Part II: The Qualification Conundrum

Stamp of approval

This is the third in a series of posts about the pillars of the revolution in education. The previous post examined the impact that technology is having on learning, and now we turn to the thorny issue of qualification.

As discussed previously, for learning to be valuable to employers and society, we need to assess competency, which means metrics, evaluation and ultimately qualification of a person’s knowledge. Traditional qualifications come in a few flavors, for example:

Unfortunately, these methods of qualification are having a tough time making a straight transition into a world with lots of online learning providers (e.g., accredited universities, for-profit schools, and MOOC providers); there are no universally accepted ways to qualify the outcomes of online learning. Here are the important things happening at the moment as I see them:

  • Evolution of qualification approaches is under way
  • Equivalency is being hammered out
  • Accreditation will be an uphill battle
  • Credibility of online degrees poses a chicken-and-egg problem
  • Verification standards are needed
  • Economic changes will take time

Evolution is under way

The traditional methods of qualification aren’t going away any time soon, but new forms might start to creep in that move away from the "generalized degree model" to one that is much more granular. The craze around gamification and badge systems is one area that’s currently being explored. Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation have recently sponsored a competition to develop open digital badges that can serve as "a validated indicator of accomplishment, skill, quality or interest." Constellations of badges could be more useful to employers seeking people with a specific set of skills, rather than a more generalized degree.

In addition to these more radical ideas about qualification, companies like Coursera and others are offering students who complete their courses the ability get some form of verifiable certification (but not actual transferrable college credit). Coursera’s Signature Track program is an example of this approach: students pay Coursera $30-100 per course, and they get a verified (digital) certificate and a secure URL that potential employers can access. It remains to be seen whether anyone is actually going to pay for this type of certification, or whether employers will find it useful. Regardless, many companies will likely explore incremental changes to qualification, with most of them falling flat, but some succeeding.

Equivalency is being hammered out

Numerous companies are working with Universities and others to establish some level of credit equivalency between their online courses (e.g., MOOCs) and those of their partners. Companies like StraighterLine actually offer straight transfer of credits to any one of their partner Universities or to any of 1800 universities that follow ACE CREDIT. Coursera has been working towards credit equivalency, and others are doing the same. Udacity recently made a splash when they made a joint announcement with California Governor Jerry Brown that they would be offering a small set of online courses for credit at San Jose State University.

These kinds of equivalency efforts are all still in their early days, and it’s going to be interesting to see how they play out. A few big questions still remain:

  • Will standards evolve around how equivalency is established, or will it have to be done on a case-by-case basis (per provider and per University)?
  • These initial efforts all focus on individual course equivalency; will we ever move towards degree equivalency on some level?
  • What about equivalency between MOOC providers? It’s not hard to imagine scenarios where students take courses from many different MOOC providers, and need to establish pre-requisites to determine whether or not they can take a course and succeed. If MOOCs get to the point of being accredited to give degrees, then this kind of equivalency is even more important.

Accreditation is an uphill battle

Kevin Carey wrote a terrific piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about moving Into the Future with MOOCs. He sums up the problem of college credits well:

Someone scoring in the top 1 percent of students in a course taught by a world-famous scholar and endorsed by a world-famous university deserves no credit, while some slacker freshman who ekes out a C deserves four credits? The most obscure, perpetually-on-probation, nobody-ever-heard-of-it college can grant credits, but not edX, backed by MIT, Harvard, and now Berkeley? Students can get credits from for-profit higher-education corporations that buy up failing accredited colleges and turn them into giant online student-loan-processing machines, but not from Coursera, where online courses are designed by hand-picked professors from universities including Princeton, Duke, Caltech, and Penn?

That kind of crazy cognitive dissonance can’t last forever.

The accreditation system for higher education in the US is complicated to say the least. The move to online learning has only made it worse; accrediting agencies are facing serious challenges. People have started to re-examine how this system works, and what needs to change to accommodate online learning, but it’s going to take time. A big problem will be the glacial pace of legal and institutional change, as compared to the hyperkinetic rate of change that happens in online learning startups. Gears will grind.

One interesting road around these challenges would be the rise of a parallel system of business-oriented accreditation, one that lies outside current legal strictures. As an example, consider Cisco’s CCNA certification. For computer network engineering jobs, the CCNA as a form of validation is probably more useful to many employers than a college degree. And yet, the accrediting body is Cisco itself, not one of the regional or federal accrediting agencies tied to higher education. Will MOOCs, or other online learning companies we haven’t yet seen, develop such clout that they can accredit their own programs and then stand by them? Are employers the ultimate arbiter of this kind of company-based accreditation? What are the risks we face in terms of malfeasance, fraud or incompetency if for-profit businesses gain the power to accredit their own students? These are the questions on everyone’s minds.

Credibility poses a chicken-and-egg problem

At the recent Davos economic forum, Bill Gates put forward the basic question: "Who is going to jump first into granting a degree that doesn’t have the seat time requirement that we do today that employers will see as credible? Where does the credibility come from?" Credibility is going to probably come down to a combination of brand perception for the online course provider and any accreditation or certification they’ve received. This poses a significant problem in the short term if online providers can’t get accreditation from one of the recognized agencies. At this point, it’s totally unclear how difficult that’s going to be, if it’s even possible. If we assume that doesn’t happen, then it’s just going to boil down to adoption. Ultimately, companies will be lemmings: they will follow each other’s lead. If several reputable companies start recognizing degrees from online providers, then others will jump on board. Smaller startups with less aversion to risk may be the first players to dive in this pool; technology-oriented companies like Facebook are also likely entrants, given that programming degrees will probably be some of the first granted online. If accreditation proves hard to come by, then this chicken-and-egg problem could limit how viable online degrees are in the job market, unless alternative forms of accreditation arise. If they can get standard accreditation, then credibility may follow.

Verification standards are needed

Coursera’s Signature Track is a perfect illustration of one of the key challenges with validation: identity management. Signature Track is their proprietary way to "create a special profile to link [student] coursework to [student] identity using [a] photo ID and unique typing pattern;" the coupling of student certification with identity can then be used by employers to verify that someone completed the course they said they did. This type of verification will need to be available for any online learning provider, but right now it’s a Wild West without standards, which is going to create a nightmare for employers. Basically, a lack of interoperable verification technologies means that right now employers will have to verify completion manually on a provider-by-provider basis, multiplied by however many students they need to verify. This inconvenience will likely drive the creation of standards for verification (e.g., a digital version of a transcript), including how that people access that information (e.g., via standardized APIs offered by course providers).

Economic changes will be slow

One of the key issues is the current credit-hour-based financial aid system, wherein students only qualify for financial aid based on whether or not they have spent a certain amount of time sitting in class. People are pushing for the Department of Education to move towards a "competency-based" approach to financial aid; if this change is going to come, it’s probably going to be slowly. Indeed, this coupling of the intrinsic economics of education with traditional systems of qualification illustrates just how difficult it’s going to be to evolve how we validate students. Interestingly enough, accreditation agencies are currently completely entangled with the financial aid system, and some people are saying this needs to change.

Bottom line: Qualification in online learning is a Gordian Knot

Qualification of online learning strikes at the heart of a monopoly held by accredited educational institutions. There are gatekeepers and rules upon rules about who gets to hand out mythical college credits, the only things that can be "assembled into credentials with wide acceptance in the labor market." This system of accreditation, often tied inextricably with economics, was created for a society different from the one we have today, and it is ripe for change. Incremental changes like credit equivalency will happen, and people will dabble with alternative forms of certification like badging, but who can say what real disruptive change and innovation will slash this Gordian Knot.