Micro-degrees and All That
Are we ready for Micro-degrees or not?
The jury is still out.
On one hand, the combination of open courses taught by some of the best professors in the world and employer led Capstone project, all organised around a certain area of knowledge, looks irresistible. For a start, it bypasses the regulatory structures, which is the source of most problems in Higher Ed. It also addresses the problem of cost of education, and present a scalable solution. With right employers and projects, these can make education relevant in a way it is not in its current form.
On the other, however, degrees are part of our furniture and it is difficult to get away from its allure. To become a global solution for the problems of Higher Ed, this new idea should be workable in developing countries. However, the employers in developing countries, where societies are organised around a certain division of power, mostly inherited from colonial days or pre-modern cultures (such as tribal hierarchies), degrees serve as the modern instruments to legitmise the structures. Employers, as much they are driven by modern economic considerations, are very much part of this system of power and privilege, not least because they themselves are products of the same, and it is difficult to see them participating willingly in disrupting this structure. Apart from the fact that online education is kept under leash for the lack of Internet bandwidth, the unwillingness of employers to participate in education innovation may keep the incidence of micro-degrees limited to the margins rather than at the centre-stage of global Higher Ed.
In this would-it, wont-it kind of speculation, the force that matters is the success of globalisation. Since the reverses of 2007/8, pervasive globalisation of the kind seen in the first few years of the new millennium has disappeared. Its place has been taken up by a number of rather confusing and contradictory trends - an unified global rhetoric of business-friendliness and development, a consensus around education as a tool for productivity improvement, assertion of national cultures and traditions, advent of modern religions which expropriate traditionalism into soundbites and to create an unified doctrine for statism and against innovation - and how Higher Ed evolves depends a lot on what happens to globalisation. Micro-degrees, with the kind of disruptive influence they may have on not just education but on the society at large, work in the context of globalisation, but not if statism is ascendant, as it is now.
In the end, perhaps, it is best to judge the potential of micro-degrees within the context of my favourite theory of globalisation, advanced by Dani Rodrik, currently at Princeton. His point simply is that one can not have Globalisation, Democracy and Nation State together. One has to choose two out of three, any two. Microdegree and similar disruptive educational innovations work if the trend was towards global democracies, the utopian kind underpinned by global governance, but, as things stand, we are moving towards a kind of economic globalisation sustained by autocratic nation states. At this time, it is degrees, nationally regulated, however inefficient and even corrupt and mind-destroying they may be, have the upper-hand.