Higher Education: Are We Ready For Alternative Credentials?

While everyone agrees that Higher Education needs new thinking, there is one sacred cow: Degrees! All the private capital flooding into the field with the battle cry to change the world meekly surrender themselves to the alter of the Degrees. To follow the rhetoric, the search is for a better way, not a better credential. The degrees, an early modern invention, look safe and sound, despite the world being claimed to be turned upside down.

Or, is it?

The recent Udacity Nanodegree Plus, which is an employer-backed credential that comes with a job guarantee (which, in effect, is a guarantee of full refund of fees if the learner does not get a job after graduating), opens up an interesting possibility. After a somewhat faltering start, Udacity, among the various MOOC providers, is now finding its mojo through nanodegrees, which, despite the allusion, are not degrees. In a plain vanilla world, this would be called a Certificate. But this, and other similar credentials like Micro-degrees, is more ambitious than mere certificates, and it is worth looking at it closely.

But, before that, the question: What's wrong with Degrees? It is simply that degrees do what they are meant to do, but we have come to expect too much of it. Designed to reflect scholarly excellence, which is needed to advance knowledge and was used in the service of pre-modern, patriarchal state, degrees reflect a high level of rhetorical abilities and persistence and commitment in pursuit of complex idea. But they were not, given the context, designed to represent a high level of practical awareness or abilities, or how to build and sustain collaborative enterprises, particularly with a diverse, socially, economically and ethnically, group of people. But, over time, we have come to demand precisely these abilities from the degree-holder, because we thought of the latter as 'lower' abilities which can be easily achieved by a highly educated person. Degrees, with economic and social change, became a proxy - we sought credential rather than its content! Whether we acknowledge or not - as such acknowledgement may offend our democratic instincts - degrees became different depending on who granted them. 

That degree is the way to unlock the middle class life was a powerful myth, particularly in the newly industrialised countries, which sought to emulate the path taken by the developed nations, as if living in a time-wrap. Universities and enrolments multiplied there, and the myth of the new middle class, who pursued an American dream, drove private investment in proliferation of the degrees. But it was - past tense - as we encountered a shape-shifting event, the global recession of 2008, which is now getting into its second act by spreading the malaise to the emerging economies and crushing those middle class illusions. While the cost of the degrees climbed, the opportunities that the degrees brought, by proxy, shrank precipitously.

So, it may have been the best of the times - because there was an expansion of global demand for degrees on the back of the emerging economies - and worst of the times - because its impact dwindled - for the degree education in the last decade, now it is decisively becoming the latter. Even in India, the young country where everyone wanted to be a government servant and hence wanted a degree, the illusion is now giving away. The degree as proxy is coming up short in a world where the demand for real things, practical knowledge and human abilities, wrongly labelled 'soft skills' (because, there is nothing 'soft' about it - it can be both empirically observed and has very tangible impact on performance), is altogether real. 

The latest great challenge to degrees came in the 1990s, with the unprecedented expansion of the demand for IT skills, particularly in terms of infrastructure and networking skills. A new model of education arose, which proudly calls itself the Certification industry. Backed by technology providers of various kinds, these were gold standards of practical abilities. But the ambition of the Certification providers was not to transform Higher Education, but to sell their software. Closely tied to respective platforms, the fortunes of certification training waxed and waned with that of the platforms, spawning a sizeable industry of tests, content and training, but stopping short of the ambitions to create the complete employee. It was, and remained, a supply-side enterprise, just like the rest of the Higher Education.

Udacity Nano-degree goes a step further. It actively seeks to replace Higher Education. It is not platform-independent, but multiplatform, and being a third party provider, it can set the agenda for education without being subservient to the commercial objectives of selling software. But it goes further in Employer Engagement, involving real and big name employers, and contextualising the skills within real work. Being 12-months long, these are neither 'nano' nor degrees, but tied to high demand technology areas, these intensive, long immersions (as opposed to short bootcamps), are targetting people who would traditionally go for a degree (or, yet another degree) rather than pursuing a certification by burning midnight oil. It may be challenging the Postgraduate rather than the Undergraduate degree, but it has finally made the leap on the other side.

Contrast this with the attempts by some MOOCs to offer College Credits, or, for that matter, my own earlier attempts to create globally delivered pathway qualifications. The problem with those innovations is the umbilical cord that tie them to the regulatory structures and more importantly, values that a degree represent. At the frontier of innovation, that all degrees are not the same are perhaps a clear and present fact, more apparent than the more traditional world of admission tests and offers. Often, the mere presence of a degree, as an outcome or even as an option, obscure the innovator's intent, attracting learners who are looking for a degree (and, hence, sensitive to what sort of a degree or pathway is on offer) and constricting pedagogy with mistaken imperatives of course sequence, unnecessary essays and assessments, and irrelevant pursuit of theoretical skills. 

Udacity nano-degrees is only a nascent experiment, and not the final word in education innovation. It may focus on the practical skills, and take a bold position of challenging the degrees, but may fall short of addressing the human abilities imperative. But this shows both the opportunities and dangers of alternative credentials. For these, as no one would treat them as a proxy of broader abilities except those explicitly covered, they must deliver what they promise. But, the opportunity is the ability to create models focused on practical work and human abilities, rather than being constricted by bureaucratic dictats that come bundled in degrees. In summary, the business of Alternative Credentials is not for the faint-hearted, but they represent the best chance to bring Higher Ed in sync with real world.


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