This is the fourth article in my series Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015

When I wrote about “Competencies and Certificates” as one of the major ed-tech trends of 2014, I noted that “Neither competency-based education nor alternative certification efforts have reached the frenzied hype of MOOCs. (Not much in education technology has, with the possible exception of Khan Academy.)” And while there was no frenzy, I did think that these could be poised to become such. So to be honest, I thought we’d actually see more happen this year with competencies and credentialing. This still feels to me like a trend that only certain folks are really pushing for. (Then again, you can probably say that about every trend I examine in this series.)

There was, no surprise, plenty of hype as publications continued to trumpet alternative credentials as hastening the end of the college degree. “If B.A.’s Can’t Lead Graduates to Jobs, Can Badges Do the Trick?” The Chronicle of Higher Education asked in March. “Corporations are turning to digital credentials instead of higher ed to train and educate,” Fast Company asserted this summer. Also from this summer, "“How Nanodegrees Are Disrupting Higher Education.” “Can a coding bootcamp replace a four-year degree?” Education Dive asked earlier this month. In an op-ed in Techcrunch, the CEO of skills training company Pluralsight argued that “Edtech’s Next Big Disruption Is The College Degree.”

As I wrote in the previous article in this series, it’s not clear that the college degree is actually in trouble, despite the increasing cost of obtaining one. It’s something that employers continue to value very highly, even for positions that have not traditionally required a Bachelor’s. Indeed, what we might be seeing instead of the end of the college degree is its spread – that is, a “credential creep,” the demand not just for more post-secondary education but for more certification. We can see this happening among the graduates from coding bootcamps and MOOCs, for example, many who are also college graduates; and while we can talk about these two trends in terms of “skills training,” the value of these programs certainly lies in the certification they offer as well.

What’s always striking to me is that alternate forms of credentialing are posited as a new thing, as a brilliant innovation (of course!) devised recently by tech and ed-tech companies. Here’s an excerpt from the aforementioned Fast Company article about Pearson’s badging platform, Acclaim:

Acclaim arrives at a time when traditional academic degrees are falling out of favor, in part due to their staggering cost, and online learning options are on the rise. Back when badges emerged on the scene in 2012, education pundits were optimistic that these new digital credentials could be a “fantastic bargain” by allowing students to bypass the expense of college tuition. “If digital badges infiltrate the credential market, they could shake the economic foundations of a higher-education industry that over the last 30 years has consistently increased prices much higher than inflation and family income, resulting in over $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt,” Kevin Carey wrote in The New York Times. But so far, it’s been private employers, not universities, that have taken the lead.

The article, titled “Say Hello to the University of Microsoft,” notes that Microsoft was one of Pearson’s first clients for its Acclaim program. It does not mention that Microsoft has been offering a certification program since 1992. So remind me again: what’s new here?

Perhaps what’s important is not so much the (supposed) newness of alternative credentialing – I’ve written stories this year on the long history of “learn to draw” correspondence courses and of career colleges, for example – but in the political and economic power behind this latest push. That is, the repetition of narratives about education that run through this and many of the other trends I’m exploring in this year-end series: that education is “broken,” that it’s not sufficiently preparing students for “skilled” work, that private companies will do this better than public education, and so on.

One more excerpt from that Fast Company article:

“We’re going to see private companies creating their own education systems,” CEB executive Jean Martin, a human resources expert, told an audience of education insiders at a recent conference. Human-resources departments are increasingly borrowing from supply chain management practices, she said, as they look to custom-engineer their “suppliers” of people.

The Economist gives this trend a nod as well, so that’s something to look forward to.

The Promise of the Microcredential

As Fast Company observes, some education pundits were optimistic about badges’ potential for “disruption.” Well, mostly the pundits who are always giddy about such a thing. (A correction: Mozilla announced its Open Badges Infrastructure Project in 2011, not 2012 as the article suggests.)

But as 2015 comes to an end, there might not be much to cheer about when it comes to Mozilla’s work on that project. Or at least, that’s the argument Kerri Lemoie made in November: “Mozilla is Doing a Hack Job on Open Badges.” Lemoie observes that the team working on Open Badges has been disbanded, and she argues that the project lacks financial and technical resources, as well as leadership. Doug Belshaw, who left Mozilla earlier this year, responded to Lemoie’s article, contending that despite the “inflated expectations,” the “future remains bright” for Open Badges, in part because of the open source nature of the project.

Pearson’s badging platform is built using Mozilla’s framework, for what it’s worth, although it doesn't make "open badges" available to all its users. There are also several competing badging and certification platforms – proprietary platforms. (One of these, Achievery, stopped issuing badges this spring.) I don’t think it’s actually self-evident that open source will triumph here, in part because credentialing remains part of a powerful prestige market.

That prestige might be something working in the favor of some new credentialing programs, particularly within the tech sector. Or least, I think it could work for Udacity, whose founder Sebastian Thrun has the imprimatur of both Stanford and Google (along with some $160 million in venture funding). Udacity launched its “nanodegrees” last year and has continued to expand its offerings via partnerships with Google and other companies. Thrun says that 1000 students have graduated from Udacity and 150 have used the nanodegree to get a new job or move up in their current one.

“We can’t turn you into a Nobel laureate,” Thrun told The New York Times in September. “But what we can do is something like upskilling – you’re a smart person, but the skills you have are inadequate for the current job market, or don’t let you get the job you aspire to have. We can help you get those skills.” It might be “upskilling,” but it’s also “upcredentialing,” as many of these nanodegree holders are also holders of Bachelor’s and beyond.

(Never fear, I plan to write more about what’s become of MOOCs in an upcoming article in this series.)

So this “upcredentialing” begins to get at the heart of some of the problems of badges and nanodegrees and microcredentials and the like. We might pay lip service to the notion that we want a better way “support deeper learning” or to signal specific “skills,” but credentialing – particularly the college degree – is a signal for much more than that. We can see this in the relationship between Stanford grads and the tech industry, for starters, or between Wharton and Wall Street.

So when I hear people say “In a technical role in Silicon Valley, nobody cares about your degree if your GitHub account is solid,” I call bullshit. This attitude tries to obscure the privilege and power in tech culture – “exclusion and exceptionality in the pipeline,” in traditional and yes in alternative education programs, in hiring practices, and in management.

While the ed-tech industry has been touting the promise of microcredentialing and alternate certifications for quite a while now, a drumbeat that’s been echoed in the press, I noticed a significant uptick this year in stories about fake degrees. Priceonomics reported this year that a fake Harvard degree will run you $650 (and you needn’t sit through any MOOCs). In May the New York Times investigated the digital diploma mill Axact, which makes tens of millions of dollars a year selling fake degrees. Federal investigators in the US announced they would crack down on fake schools that are selling documents to foreigners trying to obtain student visas, and the British government also indicated that it planned to investigate websites offering fake degrees.

What “counts” as a “real” credential? Who decides?

Competency-Based Education

And what “counts” as a credit?

At the beginning of the year, the US Department of Education said it would let more schools experiment with competency-based programs.

Wait, what’s “competency-based education,” other than another education reform buzzword? Michael Feldstein wrote a helpful explainer last year if you still need clarification. But in a nutshell, competency-based programs enable students to progress through courses if they can show, via assessment, that they’ve sufficiently grasped a topic. This differs from how progression traditionally happens in schools, whereby students stay in a class for a set length of time – a semester, for example.

In related news, the Carnegie Foundation released a report this year on the Carnegie Unit (that’s what we call the contact time between student and instructor), “A Century-Old Standard in a Changing Education Landscape.” Among its findings, “our research suggests that the Carnegie Unit is less of an obstacle to change than it might seem.”

Recommended reading: “Asynchronous course hour – systemic impacts of the digital on higher education” by Dave Cormier.

Despite a push from the Department of Education at the beginning of the year for more schools to explore competency-based education, by mid-year, op-eds were being penned like this one from the New America Foundation: “Whatever Happened to the Department’s Competency-Based Education Experiments?” The problem, according to that op-ed’s author Amy Laitinen, “the Department of Education has been dragging its feet,” failing to offer guidelines for the schools interested in experimenting with CBE. “We’re flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time,” “Dean Dad” Matt Reed observed in response.

In March, Southern New Hampshire University, one of the schools involved in the federal CBE experiment, announced that its president Paul LeBlanc had been hired by the Department of Education for a short-term appointment in order to focus on competency-based education and “developing new accreditation pathways for innovative programs in higher education.” And in September, the department (finally) released a CBE Experiment Reference Guide, announcing a few months later it would expand the very experiment.

While several accrediting agencies did say that they would work on a common framework for assessing and approving competency-based education programs, it appeared by the end of the year that accreditation would be a sticking point in these initiatives moving forward. In October, “The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General has pumped the brakes on competency-based education, partially due to concerns about the level of interaction between instructors and students in some of those programs,” Inside Higher Ed reported.

With or without the support of the Office of Inspector General, education technology companies, particularly learning management systems, have been working on various products that they can sell to cash in on what they hope will become a big trend. In April, for example, Ellucian, maker of the much reviled Banner system, acquired Helix Education’s competency-based LMS. Phil Hill looked at the deal with pragmatism; Michael Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute was more dogmatic, pronouncing this the “new LMS wars.”

Also poised to benefit from competency-based education are testing companies, as CBE is assessment-heavy. Related: the recent revisions to the GED, one of the earliest examples of competency-based assessment, continue to prove problematic, “failing a large number of people who need a second chance to get ahead.” The number of people who are passing the new GED test, now administered by Pearson, continues to fall. Preliminary standardized test results from SNHU’s competency program, on the other hand, have been called “promising.”

But what “counts” as a “competency”?

Do Employers Care about Competencies and Credentials?

As I suggested in the previous article in this series on “The Employability Narrative,” the purpose of education is increasingly posited as “to prepare students for work.” We can debate whether or not the content and curriculum of traditional education does that, but we should also examine whether or not alternative paths do that as well. And the question here isn’t simply “what do students know” but it’s “what do employers believe job applicants can do.”

According to a report released by the American Enterprise Institute, very, very few employers are even aware of competency-based education programs. (I imagine one could say the same for nanodegrees and other microcredentials. But I’m only guessing.) And even though Education Week suggested this fall that “Competency-Based Education Gets Employers’ Attention,” it’s not really clear that’s the case at all, in part because many employers admit they haven’t really identified specifically what skills or competencies they’re interested in hiring for. It’s so much easier instead just to snarl and make vague assertions that schools aren’t adequately preparing students for the future. It’s so much easier to hire based on the signal of the college degree (and the prestige associated with certain colleges).

To echo what I wrote in “The Employability Narrative,” I do think that LinkedIn might be the lynchpin in any efforts to rethink credentialing. LinkedIn has continued to push for its users to include more formal and informal education information in their profiles. So while it probably cannot bust the prestige market of the college degree, it can offer more data to prospective employees and employers alike. (I say this recognizing that “more data” is often confused with better decision-making.)

Accreditation Issues

The next post in this series will turn in more detail to for-profit higher education, which has had its share of run-ins with accreditors and federal and state agencies this year. No doubt, the interrelationship among the trends in this series – the politics of ed-tech, standardized testing, job skills, credentialing, and for-profit higher ed – is really on display here. These all involve issues of power and policy, of who decides “what counts,” of how we measure what we purport to value in education, and of who profits.

Last year, one of the biggest accreditation stories involved the City College of San Francisco which was threatened with closure. In January, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges voted to grant City College “restoration” status, giving it two more years to address its issues (which involved administrative failings and financial woes). As several other California community colleges faced sanction from the ACCJC – among them, Berkeley City College, College of Alameda, Merritt College, and Laney College – a taskforce convened by state’s community college system said that it would look for a new accreditor, releasing a report that “concluded that the structure of accreditation in this region no longer meets the current and anticipated needs of the California Community Colleges. Furthermore, the task force concluded that several past attempts to engage with the ACCJC to make the accreditation process more effective and collegial have yielded very little in the way of progress.” As Buzzfeed’s Molly Hensley Clancey pointed out,

The drama playing out in California is an example of the risks of relying on accreditors as the sole gatekeepers of federal funding – and of trusting that they will take action against failing schools. Accreditors are membership organizations made up of the colleges they are tasked with overseeing; this means they are funded with membership fees from the very schools whose credentials they have the power, at least theoretically, to revoke.

For its part, the Department of Education urged accreditors to be more than “watchdogs that don’t bark” and to be more transparent with data about student outcomes (typically code for “graduates’ wages”). But the department noted too that it has very little statutory authority in actually holding accreditors accountable (and let’s be honest, the chance that Congress gives the Department of Education more power are slim-to-none.) One change: accrediting agencies will have to submit “decision letters – which the department will then publish online – when they put institutions on probation.”

Almost in the same breath that it demanded more accountability for accrediting agencies, the Department of Education has also launched an experiment that would loosen financial aid restrictions for unaccredited education providers like MOOCs and coding bootcamps.

I’ll have a lot more to say in the next post in this series about that. But I’ll close with this: one of the applicants to become an “outside quality-assurance entity” as part of that experiment is Paul Freedman and his new company Entangled Solutions. Freedman’s last startup, Altius Education, ran into problems when, in 2013, accreditors shut down the Ivy Bridge College program that it had developed at Tiffin University. This year, Freedman filed a lawsuit against the accreditor that put Altius Education out of business, “alleging that the accreditor illegally ‘strong-armed’ the closure of Ivy Bridge College as part of a ‘witch hunt’ against nontraditional higher education.” Freedman also launched Entangled Ventures this year – described in a profile in the The Chronicle of Higher Education as “part incubator, part investment fund, part consultant, and part reseller of services.”

“It would be better to have more of an open marketplace,” Freedman told Inside Higher Ed about his plans to offer quality assurance for bootcamps. But even in a so-called “open marketplace,” let's be honest, there are powerful forces vying to accept whose credits and whose credentials will “count.”

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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