Book Review: The End of College, Part 3: A Look At The Future

This blog is the third segment of an extensive review of Kevin Cary’s book, The End of College, which proposes a new credentialing system that will upend traditional college credits and degrees.

Coming soon:  A new college credentialing system

In the next five years, students around the world will have a choice of over 5000 online courses featuring some of the best professors from our nation’s leading universities that they can take without cost.

These online courses are the same courses, using the same materials, problem sets, tests, and discussion groups that other students are paying thousands of dollars for in the classroom.  Studies have also shown that Massive Open Online Courseware (MOOCs) can deliver course material to our students just as effectively as it can be delivered in a traditional classroom.

What’s more, technology is now available that can monitor student progress and make adjustments, as needed, to fit each student’s individual learning style. This technology-assisted personalized learning will allow some students to master their course material in less than half the normal time. There is only one final element that needs to be put in place before the current higher education model can be upended—a credentialing system that will replace college credits and degrees.

Why we don’t really need college credits

College credit is the official currency of higher education and, with few exceptions*, a student can earn it only by paying for it, and by spending time in the classroom.

Even if students had a way to prove their mastery of course material, unless they have paid for the course and spent a specified amount of time in a classroom, they can’t earn college credit.

Cary calls this a monopoly:

     “For more than a century, the university has had a government-

     backed, culturally reinforced monopoly on the sale of

     increasingly valuable credentials. That, more than anything else,

     is the reason that colleges and universities have been able to

   continue raising their prices year after year.”

There is also a public consensus that the college diploma is a valuable commodity that people will beg, borrow, and steal to get.

The big question, however, is this:  Do college credits and a diploma really tell a prospective employer that a student has all of the necessary knowledge and skills to do the job?

The uncomfortable truth is—No!

The new digital badges will offer something much better than college credit.

The Lumina Foundation recently announced that it has assembled a group of 40 business, labor and education groups to develop a new, more meaningful way for job seekers to identify their skills and knowledge to a prospective employer.

What is needed, according to the Lumina Foundation, is a standardized credentialing system that is predictive about what the job seeker can actually contribute to a new employer. The group’s task is to create a framework that defines the meaning of various credentials so that the value of each credential is clear to both employers and students.

A person’s knowledge and skills will be communicated via digital badges which can be posted on LinkedIn or other appropriate social media. The idea is to create a system that will support an efficient means of communicating everyone’s knowledge and skills across our economy.

When the protocols for a standardized credentialing system are finally in place, higher education’s monopoly will finally come to an end because our universities will no longer be holding all the cards. No longer will credentials be based on time spent in a classroom.

The college degree also doesn’t add anything to a student’s value to an employer except to say that the student showed up for his classes, performed his studies, and passed his courses. In the not-too-distant future, degrees, college credit, and college transcripts may be seen as archaic and obscure—something of the past. The new Digital Badges, however, will be based on the acquisition of a student’s actual knowledge and skills allowing employers to make more informed decisions about who to hire.

Here’s how Cary envisions the Digital Badges:

These badges will allow students to display information about themselves in new and powerful ways… Educational identities will become deep, discoverable, mobile, and secure.  The badges will provide real evidence of the student’s knowledge and skills gained in a variety of contexts, in college, in the workforce, and in life.”

Having education identities that are relevant, credible and useful will also provide incentives for students to get involved in life-long learning.

Once this new credentialing system in finally in place, Cary’s vision of the University of Everywhere could then become a reality.

What will become of our universities when college credits no longer matter?

Though Cary seems To think that change will come suddenly, I think we are more likely to see an incremental but steady change over time.

Students who still want to be educated on campus will still have that option. Because of the MOOCs, personalized adaptive learning, and other technologies, however, there will also be a significant reduction in cost for on-campus education.  Higher education will no longer be locked away from the vast majority of people.

Whatever happens, and whatever higher education will look like in the next two decades, it will certainly represent what Cary calls “the birth of a better and higher learning.”

In the near future, we will explore some of the new models of higher education currently being tested.

Stay tuned.

*Though students can sometimes receive college credit from AP, CLEP, and DSST tests, these opportunities are becoming more limited over time because they reduce the college’s revenue.



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