In Chapter 5, Kamenetz addresses a scenario in which technology is disruptive to current higher ed models.  She borrows from Wiley’s guild model, addressing “monks” (open learning advocates) and “merchants” (technology driven education startups and the VC’s who love them).  Over many pages, Kamenetz reiterates the idea that one doesn’t need school to learn.  I want to be polite, but all I can think to reply is , “Duh.”

OK, so that wasn’t polite, but I have now gotten far enough that I can’t escape the following conclusion:  Kamenetz has missed a very important point.  Yes, the Internet has made it much easier for people to learn outside formal structures, but that possibility has always been there for the motivated. Most of the examples Kamenetz cites in chapter 5  (College Unbound, Grand Canyon U, Straighterline) tie back to a traditionally accredited college or university. Colleges and universities are among the institutions least willing to change their modus operandi. For transformation to take place , something bigger has to happen.

I’ll now state an educational heresy.  Colleges and universities are not important to our society first and foremost because of the learning which occurs there.  If universities were just about learning, they’d still be at the edge of society as they were in 1250.  They became important because others (institutions and eventually employers)  began to accept the degrees they conferred as evidence of learning and skills, which gave the sheepskin value outside the college gates.  Kamenetz acknowledges this back in Chapter 2 (college as sorting device) .  Transformative change in higher ed will require radical reshaping of the degree or its replacement.  Can this happen?  I think so.

For a shining example , look at IT.  Companies like Google are legendary for not caring whether applicants have degrees, much less where they’re from.  Many IT positions list industry standard certifications (MSC*, A+, etc.) rather than degrees as requirements.  It doesn’t matter to the certification testing entity whether you completed a degree, read books, or learned at the knee of a guru.  What matters is whether you have the skills.

A number of other fields have chosen a hybrid approach, where one must both complete a degree and pass an exam to be professionally credentialed.  For example, would be paramedics must take NREMT exams for licensure, while aspiring K-12 teachers have to pass one or more Praxis exams. Jobs for which there is a professional licensure requirement are much more likely to develop certification tests  distinct from the university, since in other fields there’s a chicken and egg problem.  No one will complete the certification until employers care, and employers won’t care until enough people  take the certification to validate it as a screening device.  It happened in IT, why couldn’t it happen in all sorts of other fields?

If it happens, then open education will really take off, as credentialing and learning separate.  Universities, rather than being where everyone has to go to get a credential that matters, could become one of several paths learners use  to prepare for external certifications (as happens in IT now). Kamenetz references Brian Lamb’s vision of Google as credentialer. (133) Could something like CloudCourse be a first step in this direction?

If it happens, it might kill off the liberal arts as we know them.  Would an employer outside the arts require a certification in theatre appreciation if such a thing existed? I doubt it. I realize I’m going off on a tangent here, since serious questioning of the liberal arts model of general education is older than the Internet. Nevertheless, I think that colleges and universities have worked hard to defend traditional ideas of what being educated means and thus kept things like foreign languages and philosophy in their degree programs that few students would take on their own.  I suspect that the existence of a meaningful alternative to traditional degrees would cause learning without short term economic benefit to plummet in societal importance. I’m enough of a “humanities person” to think this is a bad thing, but sometimes feel like I’m fighting a holding action in this regard.