Alternative Certification – A Good Idea?

I have read three articles in the last three days about alternatives to earning a college degree, primarily through certification of one kind or another.

The first article, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, discusses the concept of “badges” that are awarded by various websites, training companies, individuals, etc. The concept is that the badge is relatively easy to earn (to keep the learner motivated and engaged) and indicates that they have achieved a certain skill level or learning competency.  At the Khan Academy, students receive a “Great Listener” badge for sitting through 30 minutes of video lectures and can earn an “Awesome Listener” badge after completing a full hour of video lectures.  In addition, visitors and users of that site can earn badges indicating “Master of Algebra” or “Challenge Patches.”  Similarly, MITx is a newly announced venture by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), slotted to be released in an experimental prototype version in the spring of 2012 and designed to recognize people who complete MIT’s online courses and successfully pass the tests and quizzes.  MIT has an arrangement with OpenStudy to offer badges to students who are helpful in course discussions.  The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has a $2 million grant to test the badge platform in education.  With the Foundation’s support, The Mozilla Foundation (best known for the Firefox browser) is “building an Open Badge Infrastructure to enable the interoperability and collection of badges” which will “support badges from any issuer across the Internet.”

Both The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education wrote about the tenured Stanford professor who has left to form a startup, Know Labs.  Sebastian Thrun and a colleague taught an artificial intelligence MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) this summer to more than 160,000 students and he plans to commercialize that type of course through the Udacity portal owned by his startup, Know Labs. Thrun’s venture will not only offer courses developed and taught by him but also by others.  One of the first courses that Udacity will offer is “Building a Search Engine” which will be seven weeks in length and which will be taught by David Evans, Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia.  Thrun is betting that the word (grades/recommendation) of a highly regarded professor will win over prospective employers or current employers of students taking courses.

Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University, wrote an article for the Chronicle’s Innovations blog entitled “Beware: Alternative Certification is Coming.”  Most of the article talks about Straighterline’s lower priced college course offerings and the announcement last week that Straighterline is offering students the opportunity to take the Educational Testing Service (ETS) iSkills test and the Council on Aid to Education’s (CAE) Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) test (the one made famous by New York University Professor of Sociology and Education, Richard Arum and University of Virginia Assistant Professor of Sociology, Josipa Roksa in their book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses).  Vedder also discusses the Khan Academy and MIT certification offerings.  My favorite paragraph from his article relates to his discussion of the first week of beginning economics courses when professors explain the point that:  “If the price of something rises a lot, people look for substitutes.  Resources are scarce and they [people] maximize their utility by shifting away from high priced goods or services to the lower priced good or service.”

The comments sections in the online postings of these articles range the gamut from commending the idea to ridiculing it.  I happen to think that these alternatives to traditional higher education are to be expected as part of the continuing onslaught of alternatives for a service that many can either not afford or believe is overpriced.  As Christensen states in his books about innovation (specifically Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out), it’s not always the disrupter that succeeds, but sometimes the incumbent who adopts the disruptive technology and deploys it successfully.

One of the issues that I see with badges is the issue of identity verification and assuring that the person who earned the badge is actually the person who did the work.  Just like the recent SAT test taking scandal on Long Island, if I have a talent at taking a certification course and there are no checks and balances in the system, I may be able to take the course/test for others using their identity.  That problem can be solved, but some solutions are more expensive than others and the expensive solutions may overweigh the cost of the badge or the alternative certification.

As soon as employers start accepting the badges, the value equation for higher education will lower, putting additional stress on a system that is already stressed by its high prices.  If employers value the training of a superstar professor over a university, that will be another disruptive force to the sector.  The situation reminds me of the scenarios described by Nicholas Carr in his book, The Big Switch (which I wrote about in my blog in July 2008).  Carr’s premise is that the lower cost of technology switches the power from institutions with lots of capital to the individual entrepreneur who is able to “rent” powerful servers and technology from vast farms owned by Google, Microsoft, etc.  Having accreditation and a fancy campus with many faculty and staff may not overwhelm a solo professor/instructor able to convey valuable knowledge to students and to “certify” them by awarding a badge.

The fact that “badges” and other forms of alternative certifications are surfacing daily is another example of the evidence that traditional higher education is overpriced and under siege.  According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, the primary reason that students don’t attend or complete college is financial.  In fact, 57% of adults responding in the survey said that the higher education system does not provide good value for the investment and 75% said that it is not affordable.  The trend is for U.S. employers to seek workers with at least some post-secondary education.  If our colleges and universities are unable to provide employers with graduates with these credentials, it opens opportunities to corporations, organizations, or even individuals offering the alternative credentialing.  Colleges and universities should look to some of these alternatives as viable means to providing a lower cost education as well as a way to preserve or grow their existing enrollments.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence