Credentials, Good Will Hunting & MITx (2012)

It’s no secret that the authority to bestow credentials is a core source of value for higher education institutions; it’s also a key means by which the institution protects itself from unwanted competition from non-sanctioned education providers.

The importance of credentials to traditional higher education is what makes the recent announcement regarding MITx particularly interesting.

MIT has received a great deal of positive attention in response to the MITx announcement - a "game changer", argued Forbes. It may well turn out to be just that, but I think it's useful to see this initiative as part of a broader trend that began in earnest six or seven years ago: the creation and (slow) legitimization of new types of learning providers, ways of learning, and credentials.

As soon as access to the Net became commonplace, innovators saw the potential to offer learners educational opportunities outside of established educational institutions. (You might recall oft-repeated quote from John Chambers, CEO of Cisco: "the next killer app is education over the internet" (New York Times, Nov 17, 1999).

These innovations took a number of forms, but for those of us in higher education, possibly the most interesting of the bunch were those that were presented as direct challenges to higher education. Here are a few of the more interesting examples:

  • “UnCollege" was started by college dropout, Dale Stephens, who declared there are better ways to learn than what is being offered by US colleges and universities.

  • The "Personal MBA" argued that spending 80k (plus lost wages) on an MBA was unnecessary, and then went about setting up a community for students to learn collectively.

  • Peter Thiel offered $100,000 per year to 20 students that would drop out of college to launch a business.

  • And possibly most significant was the launch of "badges" that allows people to demonstrate mastery of subjects in a variety of ways.

These initiatives have a fascinating anti-institutional quality. I think they tap into our culture's attraction to the "outsider"; those resourceful, independent pioneers who have no need or time to for our established institutions. I'm reminded of the scene in the film "Goodwill Hunting" in which the lead character, Will Hunting, tells a pretentious Harvard grad student: "You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library."

However, the MITx initiative differs from these other initiatives in one very important way: it is an alternative to traditional credentials offered by an otherwise "official" and highly prestigious institution of higher education.

The impact of the MITx initiative on credentials? Hard to know for sure, but I suspect that the MIT initiative (as well as the more narrowly defined effort at Stanford U, AI course) will serve to spur on creation of new types of credentials from new types of education providers - both "official" and not. Then again, this move by MIT may be another case of a powerful institution incorporating - and thus eliminating - the innovative efforts of upstarts; the “centre” incorporating elements of the “margins”. Conventional medicine, for example, fought hard to discredit alternative medical treatments, before eventually incorporating it into the mainstream. Maybe this is part of the dynamic in higher ed, as well.

In either case, an expansion of the types of credentials and education providers will create a more competitive, market-like environment for education. I anticipate that this scenario, to the degree it occurs, will be initially limited to continuing education divisions and other segments of higher education that focus on adult students who already have a college degree and are less concerned with the source of their credentials. We shall see.