Monday, February 11, 2013

It's the credential, not the education

Great discussion on whether MOOCs will disrupt higher ed.

Comparing MOOCs to MP3s is a big miss, I think. Why? Downloading and consuming an MP3 is a lot like downloading and consuming a book, right? But reading a book on your own is different than studying it in an English class. Oh, sure, you can go out and also read up on literary criticism and whatnot. But at the end of the day, in an English class the professor gives you a grade and the school (and the accreditor) approves it. No one checks up on the autodidact's reading, even if she blogs about it.

The crucial function of higher education institutions has never been learning - it's credentialing. That's what a lot of the new-model boosters miss.

(It's not that colleges don't provide learning, and typically learning superior to what the autodidact picks up - autodidacts tend to have knowledge gaps and pet theories because they have no one to challenge their thinking. But, frankly, for most workaday applications, dedicated autodidacy is enough.)

In the tech world, the badge system is beginning to have an impact. But it's very different to credential one skill than it is to credential the multifarious outcomes that comprise a baccalaureate degree. Employers aren't going to sort through a long list of MOOCs and non-traditional experiences to decide if they are "enough," not when another candidate has a traditional degree from a known institution.

Traditional colleges aren't going to take on the task of credentialling these students - it would cannibalize one of their core revenue sources. Potentially, a new organization(s) could arise to do so, of course. If MOOCs end up changing higher ed, it would be in this way.

Learning and credentialling don't have to be tied together, but it's important to consider both acts. Discussing traditional education as if its role is only to offer learning strikes me as naive.

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