Lenin famously bragged that “Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” It would surely gall him to learn that the art of destroying capitalists with their own products has been mastered not by a militant, vanguard-led proletariat but by entrepreneurial capitalists. It appears that even universities, finally, are getting the hang of it and learning to sow the seeds of their own destruction. As an earlier post detailed, universities rarely go out of business. This is thanks to the magic of a three part lock that secures their position and protects them from institutional challenge. For centuries, universities have enjoyed the exclusive right to allocate valuable social capital.
- Select talent. There is no evidence at all that Stanford, Harvard, or Berkeley do a better job of training undergraduates than Ohio State, Texas A&M, or the University of Florida. But they select far stronger students. If colleges were assigned students randomly, the value of “elite” degrees would plummet overnight. Harvard delivers 90% of its value the day it admits a student, although the market recognizes the value only when the student graduates. In a previous post, I described an experiment I once proposed to compare students admitted to Harvard Business School who attended with those admitted who did not attend. Others have since confirmed what we all know: Berkeley selects strong students, it does not create them. You aren’t smart because you went to Berkeley; you went to Berkeley because you were a certain kind of smart.
- Credential talent. College degrees confer professional access and mobility. Since mobility is “path dependent” (your current options are constrained by past decisions, even if past circumstances are no longer relevant), it matters enormously what choices a credential opens up for you. Take it from a factory worker who went to Harvard Business School.
- Signal social standing. Signaling is a cousin of credentialing. A credential is a specific signal to the labor market that a person completed a course of study and mastered a body of knowledge. But it is relevant mainly early in a career. The broader social and economic signal conferred by a university degree extends well beyond the time when the details of the course work are forgotten. An honors degree from the University of Maryland confers standing, especially in Baltimore, that extends well beyond the knowledge gained from a degree in European History. There are very few signals of social standing as powerful as a college degree, even though very little evidence suggests that this should be the case. Powerful alumni affiliations reinforce this effect.
It takes decades for universities to establish these privileged positions, which is why, with rare exception, the top decile universities of fifty years ago are the top decile universities today. This is partly due to the place university degrees have come to hold in our culture. It is an unquestioned (but economically threatened) article of faith among middle class families, including mine, that providing children access to higher education is an essential to giving them a full range of life choices. Most people are disinclined to risk their kid’s future on education institutions with highly plausible training programs but unproven power to select, credential, and signal. (Yeah, I’m looking at you Minerva Project). The paradox is that universities clearly add value (after all, college degree holders earn a million dollars more over their lifetimes than non degree holders and many economists declare it our single most competitive industry) but much of this “value” has nothing to do with learning, which is what employers presumably value. And if the credential cannot communicate what you know, then its signaling effects diminish. More accurate and effective approaches to credentialing and signaling become plausible. As detailed earlier, there are dozens of startups ramping up high quality educational programs that are either free or very low cost. But without credentials accepted by employers, all of the free online courses in the world will not translate into increased economic opportunity for graduates. To make these programs viable, they need a portable credential that is widely accepted by employers but not controlled by universities. Who would devise such a thing? Universities, of course. As Kevin Carey describes in the current Journal of Higher Education, the future is full of badges, not unlike the ones you earned as a scout. UC Davis, together with The Mozilla Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation is prototyping the development of digital “open badges” that validate “skill, quality, or interest”. Badges would be online and would allow a potential employer to access details of a student’s written work, test results, videos, etc. Open badges would communicate a great deal more than “BA in Economics from Sonoma State”, which is what employers get today. The article failed to record any sense of irony among the rope makers at the University of California. Under the Mozilla Open Badge framework, a badge “is a symbol or indicator of an accomplishment, skill, quality or interest” used to represent skill or achievement. Badges support a wide variety of learning beyond traditional classrooms including online courses, after-school programs, as well as work and life experiences. Badges not only signal achievement to peers, potential employers, educational institutions and others, but they are a way to recognize and document informal learning as well. Fully developed, badges should help people transfer learning across jobs, industries, and places and portray a richer, more complete profile of an individual’s professionals strengths. Mozilla expects there to be many types of badges. Some capture specific skills, something traditional degrees do quite poorly. Badges can support specialized and emerging fields that do not yet credential learners. They can document a much larger diversity of skills, social habits, motivations, etc. Badges potentially represent an alternative to traditional degrees as a way to enhance identity and reputation among peers, find peers and mentors with similar interest, formalize camaraderie, teams, and communities of practice that today often form around universities or professional associations. Open digital badges, unlike the scouting ones, are valuable because of their metadata. They link to videos, documents, or testimonials demonstrating the work that lead to earning the badge. They link to the issuing authority, which can be a school, a professional body, an international credentialing agency, a community of professional practice, a course, or a company. The supporting metadata reduces the risk of gaming and builds in a system of formal or implicit validation. In this system, a digital badge is backed by metadata that explain the badge, the issuer, the issue date, criteria for earning the badge, the earner’s work or evidence behind the badge, and the current validity of the badge, which, unlike a college degree, can be set to expire. Mozilla is creating an Open Badge Infrastructure to serve as the core technical scaffolding for a badge ecosystem that supports a multitude of issuers, badge earners, and badge displayers. This infrastructure includes the core repositories and management interfaces (each user’s Badge Backpack), as well as specifications required to issue or display badges. Users can build a “Badge Backpack”, which serves as a repository for their digital badge data, accessible only to them, where they can view badges, set privacy controls, create groups, and share badges. Startups like BadgeStack, which gamifies badges, can build OBI compliant sites and award apps. Open badges are a promising idea and one deserving of investigation by companies, entrepreneurs, universities, and investors. They threaten traditional university credentials because they are:
- Granular. Employers care what you can do; they care relatively little about what you study, except as an indicator of what you can probably do. Badges are likely to reflect specific skills (“architecting social media databases” or “PHP”). Some may complement licensure (“palliative care nursing”) others may document skills in areas where little certification is available today (“Thai cooking” or “cloud-based SQL database administration”).
- Open. To work, badges need an approval process and an ontology that reflects a hierarchy of skills. An licensed vocational nurse may be able to earn a badge in discontinuing intravenous drips, but I’d prefer that the Thai cook obtain his or her LVN certification before tackling this skill. Once these structures and privacy controls are established, the technology for making badges machine readable, searchable, embeddable, and portable is relatively trivial.
- Able to evolve. The structure of badges itself needs to be open. Today “Thai Cooking” may be a sensible badge. Tomorrow it may be “Kitchen safety and peppers” (I worked with a cook who accidentally sent 50 diners choking and gasping out the door, hospitalizing two of them for lack of this knowledge). Badges that are ten years old will frequently fade in value as others rise. Badges create a market in skill certification — precisely what should replace university degrees.
- Cumulative. A single badge may or may not signal a great deal, but a sash full of badges accumulated over many years of effort makes you an Eagle Scout. Employers are very likely to value particular combinations of badges for specific jobs. Today, resumes or transcripts do a notoriously poor job of communicating these capabilities.
- Essential to reputation markets. Badges form core elements of emerging reputation marketplaces, where professionals collect, curate, and disseminate information that reflects their professional skills and achievements much as Fair-Isaac today distributes information about your credit history. For some positions (VP Marketing for a startup, for example), leadership history may matter more than a documented set of specific skills, but badges will still contribute to the overall picture.
Badges are not a sure thing. At first they will complement university degrees, not substitute for them. Badges face nontrivial privacy and trust issues — many which Mozilla is addressing quite well. They are an essential foundation for a portfolio that documents a range of professional skills, achievements, experiences, and relationships. One of the largest challenges facing open badges are cold start problems: early adopters will not have very few badges and employers will be unfamiliar with them. These are the sort of market development problems that entrepreneurs are good at conquering, although this makes them no less formidable. Mozilla may crack this market wide open.
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