Accreditation – for Learning Accomplishment or for Presence and Persistence?

Offering degrees and certificates is the currency of higher education. Degree and certificates are very highly valued by students, parents, employers and postsecondary institutions. Despite occasional challenges to the authenticity of this form of learning recognition, attaining this final parchment is seen by both institutions and students as the culminating and arguably the only important manifestation of accomplishment, after years of study in higher education.  The problem is that learning itself, much less wisdom, is not measured very well by these large scale certificates of generalized accomplishment.

One concern is that the degree as a unit of accreditation is much too large- does a four year BA in economics reflect the same amount of learning as a three year BA in classics? Does a BA obtained at a distance equate to the same learning as a BA delivered on a campus? These are very challenging questions to answer. Institutions are clear to set the number of courses required, the degree of specialization and the minimal grade scores for a degree, but these are, at best, very rough indicators of learning.

Efforts by the Mozilla Foundation to support institutional awarding of much smaller credentials (known as badges) certainly addresses part of the problem. The creation of a badge-full portfolio that details a student’s individual skills and knowledge accomplishments potentially provides a much more articulate and public record of accomplishment than a degree. However, these have (to date) been only sporadically adopted by higher education institutions despite student interest (see Santos, C., Almeida, S., Pedro, L., Aresta, M., & Koch-Grunberg, T. (2013).

The credential crisis has been exacerbated by the arrival of vast numbers of open educational resources (OERs) and more recently by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which provide a host of opportunities for learning- but to date only very limited opportunity for credentialing and public acknowledgement of that learning.  MOOCs and OERs allow learners to participate in learning, either alone or in groups, from teachers and institutions around the globe.  After watching an excellent Ted Talk, brushing up on your statistics skills by reviewing a Khan Academy video or enrolling in a 10 week MOOC, there is little doubt that learning can occur. But measuring and accrediting that learning is today, all but impossible. A few pioneering institutions are developing “challenge for credit” or credentialing examinations, but for most institutions this alternate (and potentially competitive) form of accreditation strikes too near to the heart of the current business model for comfortable adoption.

The OERu (http://wikieducator.org/OER_university/), a non profit collaboration of over 35 public universities, colleges and networks from around the globe is attempting to develop a better or at least an alternative model for teaching and credentialing.  Each of the collaborating partners commits to providing a small number of courses, for free and independent study on the open net. Students are free to select and study any of these courses and if they choose to do so, they may apply to the delivering institution to write an examination or to do other work demonstrating accomplishment and in return they receive full course credit for that accomplishment. The content is available free of charge and efforts are made to allow for and encourage students to work cooperatively to locate and help each learn.  The credential process requires examiner time and institutional effort to assess and to register this learning- thus the OERu partners can charge whatever fee for this service that they require. To date, the Open University of Catalonia is the only Spanish institution to join the OERu.

It is yet too early to measure how well this free learning opportunity, but paid for accreditation will be accepted- by students and employers and likely the most challenging, by postsecondary institutions themselves. But it is clear that we need credentials that are meaningful, that reflect real learning accomplishments, and that can be obtained at affordable cost by all students and life-long learners on our globe.