We live in a world of unprecedented access, not simply through projects and compiled content like Open Education Resources (OER), but also things as diverse as Twitter gatherings, online strategy and role playing games and communities built around sharing questions and answers (like Quora or StudentShowcase). As Jon Bishke, a veteran entrepreneur in the Ed-Tech space, said on an interview with TechCrunch TV: "sites like GitHub and StackOverflow are the new Computer Science Departments in many ways. They're where people go to learn. And they're increasingly where people go to see and learn more about a person."
Yet while sources of learning are diversifying at rates that evoke an Amazonian rainforest, the goal of this education remains the same as it always has: preparing the next generation of the workforce to survive, and perhaps thrive, in the real world.
The Department of Labor estimates that 65% of today's grade school students will end up at jobs that have not been invented yet. If we are to have any hope of preparing our children for a world that does not yet exist, we have to allow them to explore every possible route to discovery. To give these alternative routes true legitimacy to an aspiring learner and let our students push the limits of their creativity, we must first have a fundamental way of capturing their accomplishments and showcasing their abilities. Otherwise, these newfound paths to enlightenment will simply remain hobbies.
We must provide the proper mechanisms for credentialing talent if we are ever to maximize the technological opportunity that increases by the day.
Access to alternative routes in today's educational landscape mostly reside in Higher Ed, where choices are placed firmly in the hands of the student, and do not come as prebaked as K-12 -- but this should serve as a model for changes to come for the younger demographic as well. The costs of documenting accomplishments at a university level have approached and surpassed epidemic proportions, so it only makes sense that drastic measures are pushing change.
In his public policy report titled "Disaggregating the Components of a College Degree," Michael Staton explores the unbundling of the higher education experience into a format more palatable for today's economy. He surmises:
"The value proposition of education that seems to matter most to most students (and to policy) is Access to Opportunities. Our higher education system, in theory, fills the job market with prepared knowledge workers. Aligning the output of graduates with immediate openings in the job market is an ideal, and this kind of supply-demand match does not often influence institutions as much as it should. In order to provide students with access to opportunities after graduation, postsecondary institutions have three tools at their disposal: a Signal of Achievement Velocity, a Credential of Accepted Value, and an Affiliate Network."
One of the fundamental value propositions offered by institutes of higher learning is their ability to "credential" you. It may sound redundant, but if a student graduates from Harvard, for the rest of his life moving forward, he is a Harvard graduate -- and our old system of education promoted this tool as being of the utmost importance, perhaps more valuable even than the education itself.
Yet just as the places we go to learn are adapting in real time, so too are the methods we use to capture achievement.
One of the pioneering movements in the evolving world of online credentialing is the Mozilla Open Badges initiative. Using Mozilla's Open Badge Infrastructure, any organization or community can issue badges backed by their own seal of approval. Learners and badge earners can then collect badges from different sources and display them across the web -- on their resume, website, social networking profiles or elsewhere.
Websites like Smarterer and Identified are taking credentialing to a new level, one perhaps more palatable to the social media / Xbox generation -- gamifying the process of showcasing what you know. Both sites crowdsource data in order to provide their users a score based on where their skills and experiences rank against the world at large. Smarterer offers multi-choice tests, with questions produced and vetted by users, on subjects ranging from "Ruby on Rails" and "HTML5" to "Corporate Finance" and even the "English Language." If a company or school wants a quick way of determining whether the student claiming to be an "expert in Microsoft Excel" on her resume is truly an expert, it can simply link that student to a Smarterer exam and potentially save money and energy by unearthing the truth (good or bad).
While Smarterer attempts to summarize a student's grasp of specific subjects in a single score, Identified is trying to do the same but with a student's entire experience -- essentially providing a grade for one's whole network and body of work. Credentialing one's credentials, you could say, based on where they've worked, where they've studied and who they know. As credentialing bodies in general begin to expand and solidify, Identified and others like it will gain enhanced granularity.
Perhaps the most elemental of credentialing bodies is the e-portfolio -- a term you may not be familiar with, but one that is likely to dominate the learning experience as we enter a more digital age. Companies like Desire2Learn and Pathbrite are providing students with the tools to capture and showcase the most elemental proof of knowledge: a student's direct work product. Even the top dog of the Education market, Pearson, has entered the realm of credentialing with its Integral7 Credentialing Management platform.
With an e-portfolio, students can share media demonstrating leadership (perhaps film of the league championship game where they captained the team to victory) or teamwork (like video of their A.P. European History final presentation) in an easily digestible format. E-portfolios can also be used to showcase improvement, as students can post multiple drafts of a term paper and show how they used their teacher's feedback to develop previous versions. Students can even share news items detailing accomplishments, much like a Pinterest for their educational pursuits. E-portfolios have been proven to provide students a clearer path to success, as they help students reflect on past achievement and understand what they next need to accomplish in order to reach their goals.
This issue of credentialing at a granular level is not simply for the benefit of the students trying to get hired or accepted; it is also extremely valuable for those actually doing the hiring and accepting. A 2011 Careerbuilder survey found that 41% of employers reported that a bad hire cost them more than $25,000, and 69% of employers reported that bad hires lowered their company's productivity, affected worker morale and even resulted in legal issues. Companies, schools, and organizations burn through untold sums of time, money, and energy interviewing perspective candidates, and in many cases the interviewer knows within thirty seconds of sitting down that the candidate is unfit for the position.
The challenge is clear, and the path to success is obvious. Our old system of credentialing assumed, for efficiency's sake, that the places you've been validated your skills and talents. With modern technology, this system is now glaringly inefficient. We no longer need someone else to validate a candidate's skills--we can do it ourselves. The future of the credential will not just be a piece of paper that roughly conveys the sum of one's abilities; instead, the credential will more and more come to be one's abilities.
For an explanation of "The Credentialing Stack" as imagined by my partner at Rethink Education, Matt Greenfield, please see the following video.
Tom Segal is an analyst at Rethink Education, a company which invests in educational technology. Disclosure: two of the companies mentioned in this article (Smarterer and Pathbrite) are portfolio companies of Rethink Education.