Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

Degreed, a startup that promises to “jailbreak the transcript” launched into beta this week. Degreed asks users about their formal and informal education — what college did you attend, what major did you pursue, what badges have you earned — and calculates an equivalency score of sorts for certain subject areas. That means that even if you never completed your bachelor’s or associate’s degree, Degreed will vouch for both your credit hours (ish) and your mastery skills (ish).

I write “ish” because Degreed isn’t fully baked yet. It’s in beta after all. And I think there’s a lot of reason to be excited about this startup, even if all the pieces aren’t yet in place.

Degreed’s founding team is a strong one, with a lot of experience in education and entrepreneurship. CEO David Blake worked for Zinch, an education startup acquired by Chegg last year, and BYU education professor, and open education evangelist David Wiley sits on the startup’s board.

But more importantly to the “who” of Degreed is the “what.” The startup is addressing a particularly important issue at a particularly important time: the cost of obtaining a college degree is skyrocketing just as having a college degree become more important. And even though the Internet has helped enable an explosion of learning opportunities, higher education retains a monopoly over accreditation. More precisely even, it’s not the credits that matter; it’s the degree awarded.

Degreed wants to offer a different way to get “credit” for what you’ve learned. I’m not sure it’s there yet. (I'm not sure we're there yet -- institutions, employers, and the like.)

In a lot of ways, I’m a good candidate for just this sort of effort. I attended a prestigious university for a couple of years, but then dropped out, got pregnant, and through a variety of then distance-learning, correspondence, and extension classes, pieced together a four-year degree. To make things more complicated, I have a master’s degree in an obscure field. I am a PhD dropout (ABD for life, man). And I worked in a field unrelated to any of these disciplines.

Of course, I recognize that might make me an edge case in terms of college graduates — and you might not want to build a system around those of us who have cobbled together credits for a degree. And yet if you want to serve a population for whom the current diploma-oriented system doesn’t work, here we are... I recognize too that I don't have a commonly-awarded degree from a well-known university. When you list your schools and your major, Degreed automatically populates a transcript for you and gives you points based on the classes that it’s assumed you’ve taken. (And it’s easy enough to rough that out based on course catalogs and graduation requirements.) But for my undergraduate and graduate and even Coursera-related studies, I couldn’t find the right degrees or classes on Degreed's rather standardized list of majors and classes.

Somewhere, buried in a file folder somewhere in my apartment, I do have copies (unofficial) of all my transcripts. And I could go through and adjust my Degreed records so as to recalibrate a better score for me. But that’s a lot of data entry.

More troubling for me is whether or not I should really get “mastery points” for any of the courses I took back in 1990. Heck, even the 228 points I was awarded for mastery in Comp Lit (my doctoral field), feel a little weird. Yes, I have a BS. But is “mastery” how I’d frame it? (I say this, of course, recognizing that despite their gradations, “mastery” could be closely aligned with “competency” — a new model for awarding credits used by Western Governors University, as well as New Charter University, a for-profit for which Degreed founder Blake has worked.)

And what do I do with these mastery points? (228 mastery points in Comp Lit and $1.75 will buy me a coffee at Starbucks.) Is this a metric that employers are interested in? Can mastery points compete with degrees?

I don’t think the answers to all these questions are just Degreed’s to answer. As the startup moves through its beta process — particularly alongside all the Coursera, Udacity, and Skillshare classes and the Khan Academy and Codecademy badges — it will be interesting to see whether this startup can help do what it promises: help learners to jailbreak the transcript, wrest accreditation out of the hands of institutions and into their own, where the interface and data is more open and more hackable.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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