An apprentice plumber learning some techniques of the trade

Open Badges and Online Learning

We are (slowly) moving away from the traditional “sheepskin” diploma model of four years of formal education and towards a new, portable and self-driven model. This will be a robust, rapidly changing environment filled with apprenticeships and ad-hoc teams of makers and managers, fueled by countless networking opportunities. Phrases like mash up, meetup, startup, MOOC, codefest, hack-a-thon, and gamification of learning, will rule the lexicon.

Open Badges are a foundational piece – they will allow learners to proclaim their skills from a validated third party source. And they will allow educators to supplement and legitimize their curriculum.

This change is driven by the demands of the economy and lack of flexibility on the parts of universities. Big businesses no longer offer lifetime employment. Legally binding pension plans are no longer legally binding – we are seeing them changed decades into the agreements, leaving pensioners on the hook for lost income. Universities – and the insurmountable debts they blithely hand students – are not offering a competitive edge in the cost ratio analysis. The four-year diploma is simply the current “badge” the system looks to for verification of credentials.

But what if the economy started looking to other sources of verification, sources that cost less or have a more immediate rate of return, are more current in leading technologies or practices, or meet the hyper-local demands of a person’s geographic needs? What if individuals forsook the four-year process and started their own ventures – and they themselves hired others from this new verification pool?

Learning is no longer the big ticket outcome students seek from universities. Jobs are – and by extension, financial stability. The current system is failing graduates on the latter, and the former is slowly but overtly being provided by the innovation economy. That economy offers a much more nimble and risk-taking set of parameters, but it is highly available to those with the aptitude and flexibility to participate. There is already uptake by those on the cutting edge.

Those cutting edge learners see the (financial) value of online digital badging systems and self-directed, learn-as-you-go systems. It is a practical system for today’s innovators. The middle masses, those who understandably “play it safe”, will gradually catch on and potentially move to this new method.

Meanwhile, lingering issues – such as the burden of investment into residence halls and first-tier sports complexes – will continue to be a drag on the universities, and may become particularly poignant if enrollment begins to fall. They may enter into a downward spiral caused by too much expansion (fueled by an effort to attract more, higher-quality students). Their prices will rise, and services will shrink.

I want all learners to have the walled garden experience of a formalized, long term academic education. But the costs no longer make that practical. If a strong competing validation system does emerge that meets the needs of the new economy, such as digital Open Badges, it will be the crack in the dam that precipitates a wholesale movement away from that formalized model. Universities will persist, but perhaps as more esoteric institutions of thinking, or perhaps as research incubators for spin off companies.

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